Even before the Indonesian ambassador took up the position, an interview with him was inevitable.
Tantowi Yahya declared last December that it was his mission to educate New Zealanders about Indonesia’s Papua region, or West Papua.
Now, two short months into his posting as Jakarta’s man in Wellington, there has been a spike in local activity around West Papua.
The exiled West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda came to town last month to lobby support for West Papuan self-determination.
As a result, eleven New Zealand MPs from four political parties signed an international declaration calling for an internationally supervised self-determination vote in Papua.
It coincided with another protest to the Indonesian embassy where demonstrators gathered to call for West Papuan freedom.
A parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Trade Select Committee has also been considering a petition urging New Zealand’s government to address reported ongoing human rights abuses by security forces in West Papua.
“We understand the perception that hangs around in connection with Papua,” the ambassador explained to me across the table in RNZ Pacific’s Wellington studio.
“For that reason our police and military have been doing their job very carefully. So they have been informed and very well trained not to do anything that can abuse human rights… But then the news that spreads to the world is the other way around.”
Tantowi is a smooth talker. It’s only when you hear his accomplished grasp of English and polished tone on the mic that it makes sense that this diplomat is a former country music singer.
Not only that, he was a television presenter of some renown who hosted the Indonesian edition of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?.
He then had a stint in Indonesia’s House of Representatives during which time he expressed concern about the move by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to ease restrictions on access to Papua for foreign journalists.
But now, Tantowi explained, he is on board with the President’s opening up of Papua.
Development in Papua, he said, was “running in high speed”, a mark of President Jokowi’s commitment to empowering grassroots communities and building infrastructure.
“So that in a very short time, our brothers and sisters who live in Papua can enjoy what is enjoyed by their brothers and sisters living in other provinces.”
In his first diplomatic role, Tantowi said the relationship between Indonesia and New Zealand was good, but he’s seeking a better level of awareness of each other.
Given the growing interest about Papua in New Zealand, this is an area requiring clarity, he said.
According to him, it was not accurate to suggest that the powerful Indonesian military and police forces were in control of Papua, rather than government.
Furthermore, he pointed to the fact that the provinces of Papua and West Papua, and their regencies, were these days governed by ethnic Papuans.
The Governor of Papua province, Lukas Enembe, has warned that the indigenous population face extinction as a people if rampant migration of non-Papuans into their region continued.
The ambassador said government could not stop people migrating to Papua.
“Indonesians are free to live and work anywhere they want, and because Papua is part of Indonesia, they can go there,” he said.
While non-Papuans tended to dominate business in Papua, the ambassador did not see it as an area of concern.
“Well, business is something new for Papua people, so they need to learn. This is a kind of transfer of knowledge from the migrants to the ethnic Papuans.”
Benny Wenda’s United Liberation Movement for West Papua has been spearheading a growing internationalisation of the independence struggle.
But Ambassador Tantowi said the indigenous population of Papua region was not pushing for independence.
The push for a referendum, he claimed, was coming from overseas-based elements who did not represent the local populace.
“The people of Papua majority, they love being with Indonesia,” he said, “they are happy with what we have been doing so far.”
The ambassador concluded the interview with a heads-up about upcoming celebrations to mark the anniversary of Indonesia’s independence.
Jakarta sees various cultural installations as a way to help grow New Zealanders’ understanding of Indonesian people, while the governments of the two countries also forge closer ties.
As the relationship develops, the narrative on West Papua continues to grow.