At a distance of almost 2,000 miles from Surabaya, and with a human development index among the lowest of Indonesia’s 33 provinces, the faraway island of Papua would seem to be a strange place for an aspiring sex worker to go and do business. Yet following the mass eviction of over 1,449 prostitutes from Gang Dolly and Jalan Jarak, it would appear that Papua has become a destination of choice among a small number of the evictees.
Embroiled in an ongoing struggle for independence from Indonesia, Papua remains deeply impoverished, war-torn, and still suffering from chronic underdevelopment. But that is not to say that there is little wealth — or sex work opportunity — to be found in Indonesia’s easternmost enclave. On the contrary, in fact, Papua is by far the richest province in Indonesia in terms of natural resources, boasting some of the largest gold, silver, copper and timber reserves on earth.
As is often the case in Indonesia’s outlying regions, much of Papua’s wealth is siphoned off by unscrupulous businessmen and corrupt bureaucrats, many of whom are not indigenous to Papua. However, following a Special Autonomy agreement brokered with Jakarta in 2002, a much larger share of Papua’s wealth has been made to stay within the province, supposedly for the purpose of economic development.
In reality, however, Special Autonomy has done little to raise the standard of living for ordinary, indigenous Papuans — around 30% of whom still live below the poverty line — but it has encouraged the development of a thriving local sex trade, where nouveau riche mining capital has ensured that sex workers in Papua are among the highest paid in Indonesia.
The Papuan connection
On June 18, when Surabaya police moved in to occupy Dolly and throw out its sex workers, politicians across Indonesia rejoiced at the long-awaited demise of Southeast Asia’s largest red light district. Images of derelict brothels and forlorn prostitutes filled the media in the following days, and Surabaya’s popular female mayor, Ibu Tri Rismaharini, was lauded almost unanimously as a saintly figure committed to the “lift[ing] of our people from oppression.” However, amid the hysteria of Dolly’s closure and the widespread hero worship of ‘Mother Risma,’ there lurked clear signs of an inevitable blowback. Reports of an expected “exodus” of Dolly sex workers began to appear alongside celebrations of Risma’s crackdown, and police forces in cities as far away as Depok, Bandung, Kupang and Makassar each vowed to hunt down any new arrivals fleeing from Surabaya.
This feeling of post-Dolly foreboding has found no stronger expression than in the province of Papua, where a combination of soaring HIV rates (the highest in Indonesia) and widespread poverty (the worst in Indonesia) has resulted in earnest calls for an unprecedented blockade of the island’s entry ports — just to keep the sex workers at bay.
The saga began on June 19, perhaps less than 24 hours after the eviction at Dolly, when Risma received “a letter from Papua” alleging an arrival of “Surabaya sex workers.” Speaking to reporters from Tempo at her office the next day, Risma did not reveal the source of the letter or the nature of the evidence therein, but she assured her guests from the media that Papua’s newly arrived prostitutes — if that’s what they were — had nothing to do with Dolly: “We checked [our data],” she is quoted as saying, “and it didn’t match up with the data [in the letter].” Risma did, however, admit that the women in question had flown from Surabaya to Papua, but she insisted that they were not originally from Surabaya; they were, in fact, from “other regions.” This appears to be a smokescreen. (“Ternyata bukan dari Surabaya. Dia dari daerah lain dan berangkat dari Surabaya.”)
The dearth of detail in Tempo’s reporting of the letter would surely baffle even the most incurious of readers, having left so many important questions completely unanswered: Who in Papua alleged that sex workers had arrived from Surabaya? How did that person know that the women were indeed sex workers? How many sex workers supposedly landed? And most intriguingly of all, perhaps: how did our phantom detective manage to get hold of a list of names against which Risma was able to cross check her own data?
In the days following the arrival of Risma’s mysterious memo, a consternation like no other began to take hold among officials in Papua. Substantial evidence of an “exodus” to Papua was yet to emerge, but that did not stop local Papuan leaders from dreaming up innovative ways to keep the imaginary sex workers at bay.
On June 25, Ruben B. Edowai, chairman of the Meepago Regional Indigenous Council, suggested that the entire province of Papua should enforce a total ban on the building of hotels, bars and karaoke joints, lest the island become an unrivalled haven for absconding sex workers:
I request that the governor, regional heads and local mayors all across Papua stop granting building permits [to these establishments]. . . If not, then Papua will surely fall to pieces. Right now Papua is already filthy because of prostitutes, crime, corruption and other types of fraud; let’s not make things worse. . . (25/06 Majalah Selengka)
Two days later, another Papuan media outlet reported similarly alarmist comments made by Nur Alam, chairman of the Jayapura AIDS Commission, who echoed Risma’s call for the forced relocation of Dolly’s evictees. From a rather crude public health perspective, and clearly with no regard for the basic rights of Indonesian citizens, Alam argued that newly arrived sex workers from Dolly should be sent back to their home villages if they fail to pass a mandatory sexual health screening. In an article spookily entitled ‘Beware, Dolly sex workers enter Jayapura,’ Alam explained his position:
Yes, if the results of their examination show that they are infected – with any STI, particularly HIV or AIDS – [then] yes, [they] should be sent home to avoid an increase in the number of cases of STIs, HIV and AIDS in Jayapura. (Suluh Papu 27/06)
The hysteria hit fever pitch on July 4, when an ethnic Kamoro community leader, Marianus Maknaipeku, called on the regional government to establish a special investigative team to monitor new arrivals of suspected sex workers at Papua’s air and sea ports, apparently due to economic and HIV concerns:
We will not accept the presence of former Dolly sex workers who come to Timika [capital of Mimika regency]. They are not teachers, medics, nurses or lecturers, but they are destroyers of our youth and the future of our land. . . Why should the people of Papua accept Surabaya’s prostitutes coming to Papua?. . They don’t want to help build [our country], but for sure they will bring HIV/AIDS to Papua. (Papua Pos Nabire 04/07)
For several months, this sort of rhetoric raged on unabated, as if it were an established fact that scores of ex-Dolly sex workers had already set up shop in Papua (and had proceeded to destroy everything they touched). But it wasn’t until mid-September when we were finally offered some semblance of evidence to suggest that the expected new arrivals from Dolly had actually arrived.
Speaking at a well-attended press conference on September 15, Papuan member of parliament Sinup Busup boasted first-hand knowledge of the newcomers from Surabaya. “I’ve already met them in Lingkaran Abepura,” Busup was quoted by VIVA News, “and they admitted to being ex-Dolly sex workers. In fact, there’s already dozens of them in Papua spread across several regencies.” Busup later revealed that he had only met two teenage girls claiming to be ex-Dolly, but they told him that they had “dozens of friends” also working in different areas of Papua.
Whilst we have no reason to dispute the testimony of the two teenagers in question, I find it difficult to comprehend Busup’s extraordinary response to the revelation that Papua’s total number of sex workers has probably increased by no more than a two-digit figure: “If necessary,” Busup explained elsewhere in his press conference speech, “every single bar in Jayapura City and several other regencies will have to be shutdown, so that HIV/AIDS doesn’t spread to the people of Papua.” Continuing in the same apocalyptic tone, Busup ended his tirade by echoing Maknaipeku’s calls for a witch hunt of Dolly’s escapees, only this time on a national scale:
Sex workers from Dolly have already spread across all of Indonesia, so we request for the government to check the ID cards of new arrivals in every city. [The sex workers] must be dealt with immediately, because if we don’t [act now], diseases will spread among the people, especially HIV/AIDS. . . (Wiyai News 17/09)
A more reasonable solution
As I have mentioned previously on Asian Correspondent, HIV prevalence in Papua is the highest in Indonesia by a clear margin, particularly among sex workers. And whilst I do not wish to belittle this epidemic or overlook the immense suffering it has undoubtedly caused for many Papuans, I think it is necessary — urgent, even — to talk some sense about the spread of HIV.
In reality, there is little possibility that an expansion of Papua’s local sex trade could precipitate a HIV epidemic among the general population, even if new arrivals from Dolly were to double overnight. In the very worst case scenario, (and this is assuming that condoms do not figure in the following calculus), new HIV transmissions would spread among sex workers, their clients and finally clients’ wives back at home, but then the virus would likely go no further. Of course, this is not an ideal situation: we would rather have zero new HIV transmissions, rather than a thriving epidemic among certain high-risk individuals. And the best way to achieve this is simply for sex workers’ clients to put on a condom during the act. It ought to be a truism by now that sex work, in itself, does not cause HIV to proliferate, but lack of protection does.
I await the day when Sinup Busup calls on the government to invest more money in condom provision. Surely it would be a more cost-effective solution than a nationwide witch hunt?