The Road by John Martinkus

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It was a simple road. A winding, twisting road through high country, an engineering marvel in parts. But the road was to pass through West Papua. It was to stir a war between the West Papuan Independence Movement on the one hand, who saw West Papua as part of Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia on the other. In the Indonesian view, this province was Irian Jaya, and therefore, Indonesian territory.

John Martinkus is a full time, award-nominated, investigative reporter on the Asia and Middle East regions. His eyewitness account of East Timor’s struggle for independence, published in A dirty little war was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s literary awards. The Road is of similar quality.

Martinkus prepares his readers for an understanding of the conflict in an introduction that occupies a mere three pages. He claims that an attempted takeover of the western parts of Dutch New Guinea was attempted in 1961 – 62 and that the Indonesians tried to suppress the West Papuans and depopulate the areas where they lived under the brand name of economic degeneracy. He gives the world cold hard facts, and with no emotion in his writing, describes ground troops coming in under cover of the planes and the helicopters that bombed and burned down villages. He tells of soldiers who shot and raped and stole anything there was of value. This was something the West Papuans had never experienced before.

The coup failed, and the survivors were starved and beaten by their captors. The diplomats at the UN gave the disputed territory to Indonesia. Among those Indonesian captives, who lived through rough treatment in the early sixties were young officers who, today, are generals, dreaming of a road the length of the country end to end. Standing in their way are tribesmen, who have followed a traditional life for hundreds of years, and will brook no interference.

Martinkus has long established his credentials as a knowledgeable person, capable of commenting on situations in parts of the world most of us would avoid. He obtains proof that four men found guilty of murdering an outspoken West Papuan but freed after a show trial, are lauded by high level Indonesian army personnel. There is danger in his way of living, as the incident with an Indonesian soldier on a country road (4 – 5) indicates. He writes,

I left Merauke the next day, flying to Timika then on to Jakarta, and the Indonesian authorities haven’t allowed me to return to West Papua since (5).

Power politics are on show in this report. A nation is grabbing both land and the people on Australia’s doorstep, but Australian leaders ignore the fact and the implication. The aggressor is a powerful, highly populous nation; it is heavily armed and no friend of Australia. The nearby victim has only the iron will of its people to withstand aggression. Australia stands aloof from such shenanigans.

The cosy relationship between Australia and Indonesia was tested in January 2006, however, when asylum seekers turned up on Australian shores. They claimed they were fleeing from government violence. This claim upset the Indonesians because they considered no human-rights  abuses had occurred in West Papua. Clearly, that was not true. Martinkus, in his dry, but acerbic style, describes this situation in unemotional terms, making his extremely believable information.

One of the things we need to watch when reading John Martinkus’s work is the fact that his view is very one-sided. He appears to be reporting without bias but in every situation, it is the West Papuans that his writing portrays in the best possible terms. There are many, many examples of Indonesian actions which the western world would not consider favourably. Martinkus includes several in his book. The traumatised faces of the West Papuan people on the cover stand witness to the atrocities and the war itself.

A grim book, one that makes one feel, as an Aussie, ashamed.

The Road


By John Martinkus

Black Inc

ISBN: 978-1-76064-242-6

$24.99; 208 pp

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