Prague’s West Bank: The “Royal Way” up to Pražsky Hrad


Nerudova Ul
Nerudova Ul
The historic street of Nerudova in the Lesser Quarter used to be part of the “Royal Way” (Královská cesta), the traditional route taken by Bohemian kings to their palace coronations. Today, this is the hilly route taken by countless tourists from the Charles Bridge to reach Prague Castle. It’s a steep walk for sure up Nerudova ulice, a winding cobblestone street, but it wasn’t as taxing a walk as we had been forewarned it would be, especially as you can stop at regular intervals to look at the many points of interest on the way.

Nerudova contains many impressive historic buildings, grand houses, hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and foreign embassies to see. A unique feature of the street is that all of the historic buildings have a distinguishing name and symbol attached to their facade (this feature predates the actual numbering of houses in the street).

Pražsky Castle
Pražsky Castle
Pražsky Hrad (Prague Castle) is no miniature palace, the whole site stretches out for a distance of some 570m or so in length. In fact the Guinness Book of Records ranks it as the world’s largest palace. The castle’s lofty location is undoubtedly its prime asset. The castle offers great views of Malá Strana and particularly of the eastern part of Hradčany. The whole complex, surrounded by extensive gardens, contains in addition to the 9th century castle, two cathedrals (St Vitus and St George), a riding school, Queen’s Summer Palace and a Treasury holding King Wenceslas’ Crown Jewels and other treasures (Prague’s equivalent to the Tower of London).

The large palace forecourt is the place to be if you want to catch the changing of the guard with its bright greyish-blue uniforms (during the summer months on the hour: 0700-2000). Currently the castle/palace is the presidential residence of the Czech Republic.

Hrad steps
Hrad steps
The whole area around Castle Hill, Pražsky Hrad and the other historic buildings like Lobkowiczky Palác on the hill is known as Hradčany. The core of this district is the Castle complex and its series of courtyards and gardens. The elevated location of Hradčany affords views back across the Vltava River to the Old and New Towns of Prague. There are two sets of old stairways leading to and from Castle Hill … coming down via old Zámecke schody, even though there are over 200 large steps to descend is much easier than the cobblestoned walk up!

Prague’s Karlüv Most: a Bridge Wrapped in Bohemian Sandstone


imageThe Gothic style Charles Bridge over the Vltava River connects the Old Town (Stare Mêsto) with the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) and Hradčany (Prague Castle). It’s construction, the Stone Bridge, was begun by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1357. It’s a wide bridge (nearly 10 metres wide from wall-to-wall) but it needs to be considering the ongoing pedestrian congestion on it.

During the day a constant phalanx of sightseers can be observed moving over it at snail pace – or not moving at all which it seems at times! Strewn all along the balustrade on either side at regular intervals are statues of saints (30 in all). So liberally adorned with statues is the bridge that you’d think they’d have found room to include the patron saint of bridge traffic himself! The locals’ favourite statue is St John of Nepomuk – the done thing if you are Czech is to rub the figure’s limbs as you pass it for good luck (just like the Moscovites religiously do in the underground metro stations in the Russian capital).

imageThe old cobbled road bridge is full of street vendors selling food or more commonly souvenirs (small paintings and drawings of Prague city scenes are popular items but also other crafty trinkets). The bridge is also a favourite haunt for various musicians who ply their trade in the hope of attracting the generosity of appreciative tourists. As we crossed one particular lively folk band caught our eye, they were an eclectic, motley crew – dressed like gypsies doubling as extras from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, complete with bongo drums and Scottish bagpipes.

Old Town Bridge Tower
Old Town Bridge Tower
Ancient looking towers bookend either end of Karlüv most … on the Lesser Town side the tower has the sole remaining remnant of the original Romanesque (Judith’s) bridge. On the Stare Mêsto side stands by far the most famous of Prague towers – the Old Town Bridge Tower is a magnificent Gothic structure although it looks its age, blackened by damage by 17th century Swedish marauders.

Medical advice for anyone suffering badly from ochlophobia: to avoid the “football stadium” crowds on the Charles Bridge you need to visit early AM or after nightfall.

If it’s Tuesday it must be Brno!


Masarykova tramlines
Masarykova tramlines
After our coach deposited us at the central railway station we followed the tramlines from it by foot along Masarykova which took us through the middle of historic Brno. Masarykova connected with a very big square called Zelny trh, which was pretty threadbare with people the day that we visited. There was just a few stall-holders set up in the middle, selling flowers and some fruit and veg, far from the hive of activity we encountered in Prague and Bratislava. The market, known in English as the Cabbage (or Green) Market, seemed to be undergoing some kind of refurbishment as there were metal fences erected cordoning off part of Zelny trh.

imageLooking around the wide open square I noticed there were lots of these cute little three-wheel yellow ‘taxis’ darting all over the place … they looked like cramped smart cars on bicycle wheels. There was a number of fine historic buildings to see, especially the Dietrichstein Palace, the Hotel Grandeeza & some churches. I understand that under the square though, there is much more of interest, a big underground labyrinth with cellars which historically Moravians have stored food and aged wine (Brno’s favourite alcoholic beverage). I would have liked to explore this subterranean realm but unfortunately this ‘whirlwind’ tour of Brno didn’t allow for it.

One of the star attractions in the square is Stará Radnice (Old Town Hall), one of if not the most historic of Brno structures (dating from c. 1240). The Town Hall is famous for its structural deformity, a distinctly bent middle pinnacle on the Gothic portal of the facade (a city legend has it that the designer of the building deliberately added this skew-whiff feature because the town officials reneged on the fee for the work). Another associated legend with the Town Hall is the legend of the Brno ‘Dragon’ – which is actually a crocodile attached to the ceiling! (Cz: Krokodyl).

We ventured into the Moravian Museum (Moravské zemské muzeum) but didn’t feel the urge to look at yet more paleontological and archaeological exhibits (BTDT), so we found a little offshoot section the Dietrichstein Palace where we could have morning tea refreshments. This place, called the Air Café and Bar, was good for coffee and brunch (it was 10:30-ish and although the cafe had a good selection of cocktails we thought it was too early to ask for the “breakfast wines” menu!).

WWII nostalgia?
WWII nostalgia?
Aside from the cocktails, what got my attention in the cafe was its World War II theme. The walls were adorned with a colourful display of Czech WWII pilot paraphernalia. There were war propaganda posters, old b&w photos of aircraft and crew, with the RAF and Churchill also prominently displayed … I was reminded to some extent of the interior of the Eagle pub in Cambridge which is redolent of the British and American pilots who frequented it during the War, however the Air Café was much more chock full of WWII and more specifically Battle of Britain memorabilia – in a way the Café is a Czechoslovakian homage, not just to Czech WWII fighter pilots, but to the whole Battle of Britain. Well worth a visit.

Mênín Town Gate
Mêniń Town Gate
We spent our remaining brief time in Brno wandering around the streets and lanes off Masarykova. To the east of the wide Freedom Square is the Mênín Gate (Mênínska Brána), another equally historic remnant, the only surviving gate of the Old City. It’s also the only fragment of the system of historic city walls that remains. The Gate is now an archaeological museum.

All in all the thing that struck me about Brno was that it was a pretty low impact town, tourist wise … or maybe it was just because it was Tuesday.

Wieliczka: ‘Sodium City’ – more than a Grain of Salt


Before coming to Wieliczka in Southern Poland, my idea of what it might be like in a salt mine was informed largely by Hollywood and the Cold War. Hollywood – didn’t Ben-Hur (AKA Chuck Heston) start his working life in the service of the Roman Emperor as a lowly salt miner on starvation wages? I remember it was about the dreariest part of the whole film! Cold War – all those Western jokes inspired by Gulag life in the Soviet Union about political prisoners being sent to a Siberian salt mine by the Bolsheviks, real gallows humour but with a distinctively sobering edge to it when you realise it really happened. So, taking a tour down a salt mine didn’t sound like fun – cold, dark, dank, claustrophobically tight for space, suffocatingly discomforting. But Wieliczka turned out to be a fascinating place to visit!

imageFrom the top we had to descend down a narrow wooden staircase over 35 flights of stairs (fortunately you don’t have to return via this route as there are lifts that take you up). Once at the operational level you discover that part of the erstwhile salt mine is actually a huge sculpture palace/museum … the older pieces were carved out of the natural rock by miners, the newer ones by contemporary artists. Many of the salt sculptures have a religious theme (the Last Supper, Pope John-Paul II).

imageThe underground tour, 327m below the surface, goes for three kilometres and it looks like there a lot of space down there, not as cramped as I imagined it would be. Whilst doing the tour though it is hard to appreciate just how big the mine is (287m long in fact!). The tourist route (there is also a pilgrims’ route and a miners’ route) takes us a tiny fraction of the mine’s entirety. At various points of the mine passageway there are dozens of sculptures of historical and mythological figures and an underground lake too.

imageThe mine’s highlight is its four magnificent salt chapels (Wieliczka has been characterised as a vast underground salt cathedral!). Even the impressive chandeliers in the chapels are made from salt. It’s amazing to reflect that Kopalnia soli Wieliczka yielded the everyday commodity of table salt from the 13th century continuously till 2007 when it ceased production. Whilst you are undertaking the tour you might want to hold off on buying any of the salt mine souvenirs at the underground kiosk. The stalls outside sell most of the same momentos for less than half the price (even the shop at the exit at ground level is cheaper than the kiosk).

Graduation Tower
Graduation Tower
Outside the salt mine is an attractive park setting, and across from the park is the Graduation Tower, a fortress like structure which is a pointer to the fact that Wieliczka was a spa town in the 19th century. People visit the Tower separately (apparently) to inhale brine for relief from respiratory ailments. The salt mine is a UNESCO Heritage Site and is reachable by bus or car from the city of Kraków.

Accommodating Indonesia by Sacrificing West Papua: Australia and the West’s Regional Realpolitiks

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

From the first, inchoate Papuan calls for independence (Merkeda) and separation from Indonesia, the West has conveniently chosen to ignore the justness of the West Papuans’ right to self-determination and a post-colonial future. There has been a mixture of motives for these omissions – revolving largely around an insurance policy of political self-interest and opportunities for economic self-gain. Over the past half century Australia, the US and the UN have at different times ably served the Indonesian cause in Western New Guinea (WNG).

imageThe US manipulated the 1962 negotiations between the Netherlands and Indonesia (the New York Agreement) and undercut the Dutch position essentially for ideological self-interest. After overtures and military hardware from the USSR to Sukarno were warmly received in Jakarta, the need to keep Indonesia in the anti-communist camp became critical to Washington’s thinking of the day. The support for Indonesia’s designs on West Irian later lucratively opened the door for US mining companies (I have already outlined how Freeport Copper and Gold, in conjunction with the Suharto regime, richly profited from the mineral-saturated province).

At the time of the so-called “Act of Free Choice” in 1969, Ortiz Sanz, the UN’s official observer at the plebiscite, allowed Indonesia free rein to determine how the poll would be conducted. Jakarta chose a form of consultation with community elders known as Musyawarah, rather than the “one man, one vote” principle. The Musyawarah system (allowing less than 0.2 per cent of the population to vote) flagrantly breached the 1962 New York Agreement. Jakarta then employed its military muscle on the ground to intimidate (and in some cases bribe) a select sample of Papuan voters into allowing integration of the WNG territory into Indonesia. The UN effectively sold the Papuan majority “down the river” by rubber-stamping the manifestly fraudulent result. As John Saltford noted, “U Thant and the UN Secretariat allowed the UN to involve itself in a dishonest process which deliberately denied the Papuans political and human rights”.

In the lead-up to the West Irian vote Washington again endorsed the Indonesian position as the correct one. US national security adviser Henry Kissinger echoing the earlier, dismissive tone uttered by President Kennedy on Papuan self-determination, advised Nixon that “independence was meaningless to the Stone Age cultures of New Guinea”. Interestingly Kissinger later became a member of the board of Freeport and a key lobbyist of the Indonesian government on behalf of the New Orleans-based multinational!

Australia right through the fifties to the early sixties backed the Dutch plan to facilitate self-determination for WNG, slowing bring the colony to a state of readiness for self-determination, and presumably self-rule. Australia was far more conservative about how long this would take for both parts of New Guinea to achieve. The Netherlands however went ahead, from the 1950s on it started building indigenous political structures, trade unions, etc, with a view to possible self-rule for WNG sometime around 1970.

imageCanberra’s support for this option was more about blocking Indonesia’s designs on the territory than about advancing the interests of the Papuans. Australia’s strategic focus in the (still) Eurocentric fifties was on the avoidance of having an Asian power (especially one with a leader showing leftist tendencies) sharing a land border with any territory administered by it. At this time Australia was responsible for the Territory of Papua New Guinea in the eastern half of the island (later granted independence in 1975), and there had even been some discussion of a pan-Papuan Melanesian Union – although it is debatable how seriously this was ever mooted [R Chauvel, ‘Australia’s strategic environment: the problem of Papua’; JR Verrier, ‘Origin of the Border Problem’].

The US’s involvement in Indo-China in the cause of anti-communism steered the Liberal government in Canberra in a different direction. To counter Soviet influence on Indonesia the Kennedy and Johnson administrations put their support first behind the Sukarno regime, and after it fell, the Suharto regime as “a bulwark against the spread of communism” in south-east Asia. Australia, in what was increasingly becoming its default position, followed the US line … accommodating Indonesia’s wishes on West Irian would uphold the status quo and maintain the regional balance.

Aust & Indonesia discuss mutual interests
Aust & Indonesia discuss mutual interests
In addition to being a supporting pillar in Washington’s Cold War ‘army’, Canberra had its own, more immediate, regional geo-strategic considerations concerning WNG. In 1962 the Menzies government changed tact on the issue. This happened because external affairs minister Garfield Barwick persuaded the cabinet to switch sides. Australia’s immediate defence concerns were still focused on the dangers inherent in “an arc of instability” existing to the north, but Barwick argued, that the creation of an independent micro-state (that would probably not be viable) within the orbit of a large, emerging Asian powerhouse with an axe to grind, was the worst result for Australia [R Chauvel, ‘Australia’s strategic environment: the problem of Papua’].

The Menzies government rationalised that letting Jakarta have the former Dutch New Guinea colony would satisfy the Indonesians’ territorial ambitions*. And already there were signs in Canberra’s thinking that the integration of Dutch New Guinea into Indonesia was a done deal waiting to happen. As Barwick’s successor as EA minister Paul Hasluck revealing put it in 1965, the process of self-determination need not amount to a plebiscite but can merely be “an act of ascertainment” [cited in W Henderson, West New Guinea: The dispute and its settlement].

The Government of Australia raised no objections to Indonesia’s reliance on a grotesque, wilfully skewed plebiscite in 1969 to meet its desired ends. In fact the new Liberal-Country Party external affairs minister Gordon Freeth endorsed Jakarta’s symbolic consultative process. Without blinking the Gorton government in Canberra subsequently and routinely endorsed the Indonesian takeover of the territory.

The laissez-faire Australian policy towards Indonesia’s oppressive neo-colonial treatment of its Papuan province and people continues to the present. In fact recent Australian governments have been frantically trying to curry favour with Indonesia, making pronouncements on the West Papua issue that at times sound uncomfortably close to appeasement. In late 2013 the then Australian PM, Tony Abbott, obsequiously reassured the Indonesian president at the time (Yudhoyono) that his government would do everything in its power to stop protestors using Australia to criticise Indonesian treatment of Papuans in the province (“as a platform for grandstanding against Indonesia” as he phrased it) [S Rollo, ‘Ending our pragmatic complicity in West Papua’].

For Indonesia’s part it too has a new president, ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, who has expressed a greater interest in the troubled province than his predecessors, and has made some limited concessions. In 2015 he released five Papuan political detainees and lifted restrictions on foreign correspondents within the provinces** (although this has been put in doubt by later contradictory statements).

It is too early to say if Jokowi’s ascension will signify real improvements in the Papuan community’s situation. Both Wahid and Habibie in the Papuan Spring interlude committed themselves to reforms but these did not really materialise. Even with genuine goodwill and intent on the part of the president, it has been shown in Indonesia that the political and military elites can block the way to meaningful changes occurring.

The Indonesia/West Papua conflict has reached a kind of impasse. Indonesia believes that Western New Guinea belongs to it. It sees itself as the rightful heir and successor to the Dutch East Indies empire. It is in possession of that last piece of the East Indies jigsaw and it has the title deeds (albeit tainted) to it in the shape of the 1969 UN-sanctioned plebiscite! Jakarta fought hard diplomatically and by other means in the 1950s and 60s to get West Papua and it is not prepared to relinquish this prize, as far as it is concerned it is non-negotiable! External criticism and talk of “human rights” in West Papua is sternly viewed as interference with Indonesia’s internal affairs.

Melanesian world
Melanesian world
The Papuans, through different lens, see it otherwise. They view the Indonesian identity as an external impost on their Melanesianness, they see themselves as ethnically and culturally distinct from the many other parts of the archipelago. The separatist rebels know that they can never defeat the Indonesian Army militarily, but so barbaric and oppressive is the war Indonesia is waging against militia and civilians alike, that OPM and other pro-independence elements would never give up the struggle whilst they still have any means to resist. The Papuans also have right on their side, they know that the 1969 vote that was supposed to demonstrate the population’s will was an undemocratic, tokenistic process with a transparently contrived result.

Whilst Indonesia persists with its discriminatory practices, behaving as an occupational power with its terror and torture tactics against the Papuans, it can never hope to win the hearts and minds of the population. The great majority of Papuans, from their everyday experiences with Indonesian authority, live with the realisation that, without any say in the matter, they have gone from one form of colonialism (Dutch) to another, more oppressive, colonialism (Indonesian).

imageLike other intractable conflicts around the world it cries out for mediation by a third-party. Comparisons are often made with the Timor/Indonesia conflict which dragged on for decades and at times seemed a pretty hopeless cause for the East Timorese before they finally achieved their freedom. One vital difference between the two though is that the UN supported Timorese independence, but with West Papua the UN has has never given diplomatic recognition to the Papuans’ cause***.

Jakarta refuses to even contemplate granting the West Papuans sovereignty. On a pragmatic level, unlike Timor, they’ve got too much invested in the provinces. Moreover the government has a profound belief in its right to the western Papuan land, based on the ideological underpinning that it sees itself as the natural and therefore rightful heir to the Dutch East Indies – which the western portion of New Guinea was part of (another key difference to Timor-Leste which was a Portuguese colony before the Indonesian invasion).

Indonesia is doing all it can to isolate the Papuan independence movement in the region, applying pressure to dissuade other nearby Pacific states from accepting West Papua into the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). However, someone needs to encourage Jakarta to enter into a dialogue on autonomy for Papua with OPM/pro-independence representatives and to convince it that it is in its interest to do so – otherwise the situation will just perpetuate as a stalemate with further bad PR for Jakarta and a very costly exercise of never-ending military occupation draining the Indonesian coffers … and the issue will continue to cast a shadow over the Indonesian Republic’s human rights credentials.

Australia is the obvious candidate as mediator, but this prospect is problematic on several levels. Australia is hamstrung by the 2006 Lombok Treaty which commits it to support Indonesia’s hold on West Papua, and relations with Indonesia are as sensitive as they probably have ever been. But more germane, both the current Australian government – and the opposition – lack the will to intervene on behalf of the Papuans. A long-delayed justice and a fair deal for the Melanesian population of Papua is just not on Canberra’s radar, rather its priorities lie more in shoring up its bilateral relationship with Indonesia to safeguard its trade and security interests and in heading off the possibility of new influxes of asylum seekers coming to Australian shores.


* in fact soon after Indonesia had secured its temporary mandate over WNG in 1962 it provoked a confrontation (Konfrontasi) over Borneo with the newly formed Federation of Malaysia, a conflict leading to military involvement from Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

** characteristic of a regime trying to keep its unsavoury authoritarian practices under wraps Indonesia has consistently maintained a media blackout for decades, restricting information on Western New Guinea reaching the outside world (intended to keep the rest of Indonesia in the dark as much as the wider world).

*** in a previous post on West Papua I outlined the negative role played by the UN in hampering the indigenous New Guineans’ free expression of their wishes in the 1969 Referendum on the territory’s future.


R Chauvel, ‘Fifty years on, Australia’s Papua policy is still failing’, Inside Story, 27 Sept 2012
R Chauvel, ‘Australia’s strategic environment: the problem of Papua’, Agenda, 11(1), 2004
G Harvey, ‘The Human Tragedy of West Papua’, The Diplomat,
S Rollo, ‘Ending our pragmatic complicity in West Papua’, The Drum, ABC-TV, 28 Oct 2013,
J Saltford, ‘Act of Free Choice’, Independent Parliamentarians for West Papua,
JR Verrier ‘Origin of the Border Problem … to 1969’ in RJ May (Ed.), Between two nations: the Indonesian-PNG border and West Papuan nationalism.
‘Is West Papua another Timor?’, Parliament of Australia (Current Issues Brief 1 2000-01), Dr JR Verrier, 27 Jul 2000

Melanesia’s Militarised Zone … Risking Conflict across the 141st Meridian

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

Since at least the mid to late 1970s West Irian (AKA West Papua) has been a militarised zone. The Indonesian Army (known as ABRI to 1999, TNI after 1999) has been stationed in the province in increasing numbers to protect extremely valuable US mining interests from sabotage (especially the Grasberg gold and copper mines), and to quell indigenous opposition to Jakarta’s Inkorporasi of West Irian. In the mid 1980s investigative journalist Robin Osborne exposed a “secret war” in Western New Guinea conducted by ABRI since around 1962/63 against a small and poorly armed Papuan militia (known as OPM – Free West Papua Movement) trying to resist the Indonesian takeover [R Osborne, Indonesia’s Secret War … Irian Jaya, (1985)].

imageOPM has been active if sporadic since the 1960s against the occupying Indonesian forces, its hostile actions however limited to guerrilla style attacks on army and police posts (on occasions including assaults on the Freeport mine) and kidnappings of security personnel and transmigrants. The sheer persistence of the low-level insurgency and the resistance of Papuans generally to Indonesian rule has ensured a continuing heavy army and police presence in the province. Up to the time of Suharto’s fall from power, West Irian was declared a militarised zone (DOM – Daerah Operasi Militir) by Jakarta. The ongoing OPM resistance and other provocations such as the raising of the banned West Papuan “Morning Star” flag have met with disproportionate retribution from the security forces.

Amnesty International and other humanitarian NGOs have drawn attention to systematic human rights violations perpetrated by the security forces against Papuan civilians and militia alike, including the widespread use of terror, torture and brutalisation, and rape [‘Indonesia 2015/16 – Annual Report’, AI,]. Richard Chauvel has characterised its prevalence as “a deeply ingrained institutional cult of violence in the way members of the security forces interact with Papuans” [R Chauvel, Policy Failure & Political Impasse’ in P King et al (Eds), Comprehending West Papua].

Military actions by ABRI in 1977-78 (code name “Operasi Kikis”) launched aerial bombardments of villages in the Central and Eastern Highlands (using US and Australian helicopters and aircraft to strafe villages) resulting in an estimated 11,000 casualties among tribesmen and villagers [‘Neglected Genocide: Human Rights Abuses against Papuans’,].

imageThe security forces, whilst intended to pacify opposition in implementation of government policy, have at times appeared to get right out of hand, provoking riots (eg, Wamena 2000 and Timika 2003) and massacres of civilians (Biak 1998). Kopassus, the Indonesian military special forces unit, has been responsible for assassinating OPM and other Melanesian independence leaders.

Aside from its repressive role against indigenous Papuans, the occupying military has pursued other ‘maverick’ activities in the name of its self-interest. An US Embassy cable in 2007 quoted an Indonesian foreign affairs official as saying that TNI was operating in the province “as a virtual autonomous government entity” and also admitting that troop numbers in Papua were understated, and that they were there to protect the military’s illegal logging interests and other corrupt practices such as controlling prostitution, trafficking in stolen goods and endangered species [Chauvel].

After the fall of Suharto in 1998 Indonesian policy in West Irian entered a new period known as the Papuan Spring … under the new president (Habibie) tight military controls were relaxed right across the Indonesian archipelago and a spirit of democratic reforms (Reformasi) was entered into. This led to greater autonomy for the troubled province of Aceh and eventually to full independence for Timor-Leste. In Papua the outcome was a heightening of nationalistic feeling among the indigenous population (described as “Pan-Papuan nationalism”), but unfortunately there was only a brief interlude before there was a backlash from the Indonesian elites in 2000 and the authoritarian approach was restored. Army reform was supposed to be part of the new deal but successive governments have stalled on the process and ultimately not delivered on the promises [AMT Supriatma, ‘How Security Reforms work in the Conflict Region’, Indonesia, #95 (Apr 2013].

A disturbing consequence of the army’s reprisals against the OPM rebels has led to Papuan fighters fleeing over the border into Papuan New Guinea with ABRI forces regularly crossing the 141st meridian in hot pursuit. The larger scale military operations of the military have resulted in West Papuan villagers also fleeing east into PNG for their safety, eg, in 1983-84 11 to 12 thousand refugees crossed into PNG causing a refugee problem for the country (a logistics problem as well as a political one as PNG was ill-equipped to handle the influx in the hastily set up camps).

The 141st meridian
The 141st meridian
Despite a 1986 border treaty between the two countries incidents continued to strain diplomatic relations – Indonesia was accused of violating PNG air space and thus its sovereignty (an accusation it initially denied but later admitted), and Jakarta in turn was enraged by OPM rebels using the cover of PNG territory to launch the raids across the border into West Irian [‘Indonesia to apologise for PNG border incursions: report’, ABC News 21 Jul 2008,; ‘Border incursions a sign that West Papua also a PNG issue’, RNZ, 3 Mar 2014,]

The position of the PNG government vis-à-vis the border tensions with Indonesia is a very difficult balancing act – it has to safeguard its own sovereignty (and to be seen doing it), but it also has to tread carefully to avoid offending its powerful and volatile, much larger neighbour. At the same time the porousness of the long (760 km) border has maintained “grass-roots” contacts between Papuans on each side (eg, tribal ties unite Papuans across the border). Another common concern for both is the damage illegal logging is doing to the of New Guinea as a whole. Many Papuans living east of the PNG border regions are aware of the atrocities and denials of freedoms suffered by their brethren on the Indonesian side. All who reside on both sides of the New Guinea border are aware of the anomalies of the situation, one people, one island, yet politically divided. [‘Line between PNG and Indonesia increasingly blurred’, RNZ, 21 Dec 2015,]

In the 15 or so years since the Papuan Spring dissipated, Indonesian security forces have behaved with immunity in the Papuan provinces, terrorising village communities at will whilst hunting down rebels and independence activists. They have continued to engage in human rights abuses unabated, especially the extensive use of torture and rape of civilians.

An element of racism resides in the Indonesian forces’ violent treatment of Papuans. This is often overt, eg, the tendency of Indonesian troops to have their photo taken with rebels or tribesmen that they have just killed on patrol – in the fashion of “big game” hunters proudly posing with their wild animal trophy! References to Papuans as ‘monkeys’, ‘primitives’ and ‘cannibals’ are rife amongst the security forces and non-Papuan Indonesians generally [M Bachelard, ‘Papuans face ignorance, corruption and racism from Jakarta’, The Interpreter, (26 Jun 2015),].

Densus 88 "Ghost Owls"
Densus 88 “Ghost Owls”
In recent years there have disturbing allegations that Indonesia’s counter-terrorism unit, Densus 88 (Detachment 88) is operating within West Papua. This special branch of the national security forces, funded, trained and equipped by the Australian government, is suspected of carrying out a targeted assassination of a pro-independence Papuan leader in Jayapura in 2012 [‘Is Australia funding Indonesian Death Squads? Densus 88 in West Papua’,].