THE flag fluttering atop the massive light house at Wutung on the border of PNG and Indonesia is the red and white of Indonesia.
Our bird of paradise is nowhere to be seen on that lofty height but flutters proudly outside the humble check point much
lower on the ground at the border.
Almost hidden by vegetation is PNG’s light house. No flag flutters atop of this light house.
Here, where PNG meets Indonesia on the politically drawn boundary, is a scene of tremendous contrasts. Like the flags, you see this difference at a glance and from a distance.
Closer still the contrast is striking.
The tall light house, representing a huge nation with its over 200 million people dwarfs the PNG light house, representing the smaller PNG and its five million people.
Facing Indonesia several kilometers inside PNG territory on a hill are two white crosses – not quite as tall as the Indonesian light house or as elaborately constructed but visible for miles around on a clear day.
This is the symbol of Christian PNG facing off the determined advance of the predominantly Muslim neighbour.
On the Indonesian side of the border, a hurriedly constructed building provides sanctuary for gatherings for the faithful of the Muslim faith.
All around this prayer house is the hustle and bustle of the most popular faith of modern times – the tools, wares and pliers of consumerism.
And it is this latter faith which seems to have more following and holds sway at this border outpost in the middle of dense tropical jungle.
Papua New Guineans, day after day walk into this outpost with full pockets but empty handed and march back across the border with wheel barrows full of shopping and change enough for the truck fare into Vanimo.
The Indonesian side of the border has an elaborate cement pillar several meters high which welcomes visitors into Indonesia or farewells them in two languages – Bahasa and English.
The road is far better constructed on the Indonesian side, although far too narrow.
There are far more buildings on this side of the border and a fully pledged police contingent, a riot squad and a military detachment.
A helipad has been constructed, people claim here, for the Indonesian president to officiate at the opening of the border at some indeterminate time in the not too distant future. Mid-2006 has been suggested but that appears not to be confirmed now.
On PNG’s side, there is a single migrations building. The one new generator purchased for officers operating out of the PNG immigration and quarantine building is not operational. There is no power for the officers’ quarters a little distance from the border at Wutung village.
Other than that, there is no police presence. No military presence. For all intent and purpose, this outpost on the only common land border PNG has with another nation appears abandoned and certainly forgotten.
In this little border, stand off can be deduced the grander scheme of things. PNG stands little chance of withstanding a full fledged commercial assault by Indonesia.
The advance party is here and PNG has no defence for it. Indeed, it has capitulated.
All around the border, in makeshift buildings, are well over 20 shops filled to bursting with merchandise from electronic goods to clothing, kitchen and hardware goods.
On our side, there is a typical PNG trade store with half its shelves empty.
It is easy to see which way our money is flowing and their goods are flowing.
A small town is in the making here and it is as Asian in approach, culture and mannerism as you would expect to find if you were in Jakarta or Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
It is busier here, in the middle of nowhere, than in Vanimo, the provincial headquarters of West Sepik province.
The shoppers are almost exclusively Papua New Guineans, the shop owners are exclusively Indonesians of Javanese or Malay stock – not Melanesians.
The goods flow from Jayapura to this bustling outpost and then on across the border into PNG is one way only.
The wheel barrows are all moving empty from PNG to Indonesia and returning filled to the brim. The contents of pockets or wallets, one suspects, undergo the exact reverse.
Both kina and rupiah are exchanged and accepted here. The exchange rate, according to the locals, fluctuates between 2,800 to 3,000 rupiah to the kina. You enter Indonesia with K500 and become an instant millionaire – not bad for the ego at all.
A packet of 10 packets of cigarettes fetch K14 and retail in Vanimo at K2 per packet of 20 cigarettes or 10 toea per cigarette. Where else in this fair land would you come across that kind of a price?
Should somebody take up the cross border trade seriously, British American Tobacco would be in serious trouble in PNG, that is if the multi-national conglomerate is not already producing the cigarettes coming out of Indonesia.
On a recent trip across the border, I wanted to change K100 into rupiah at Jayapura and the money changer pulled out a wad of notes several centimeters thick comprising entirely of 50 and 100 kina notes.
There would very easily have been K200,000 in cash there. I was flabbergasted. That would have been the third money changer I visited within a 24-hour period who received our money with such obvious enthusiasm and who had bags full of PNG cash.
Does the Bank of PNG take note of this and what effects does this flight of cash have on our economic and financial system if at all?
A bag of 20kg white rice grown and processed in Indonesia can be bought for only K20 at the border. What havoc such pricing would wreak upon Trukai Industries were such rice to be imported from Indonesia is a very scary scenario. The taste and quality is no different at all.
Mind you, there are PNG products which are in demand on the other side.
From PNG, Ox & Palm corned beef and twistees cheese pop are outright favourites and the clients cannot get enough of them but there are no shops on the PNG side of the border offering these wares.
For these goods the Indonesian, if he gets past our immigration, has to travel all the way to Vanimo.
It is a sham really. The word here is that the border will be opened to vehicular traffic in the middle of this year. The Indonesians are very clearly working very hard to meet this important occasion.
They say the president of Indonesia himself is coming to the opening and a helipad has already been constructed for his helicopter in case he comes by air.
All the way over the near 90km stretch of road into Jayapura there are construction teams at work on the highway in preparation for the opening.
There is hardly any activity or excitement on the PNG side of the border to suggest any big day is approaching.
The road between Vanimo and Wutung has been upgraded – with graders and tipper trucks hired from a Indonesian company resident in Vanimo but the many rivers have taken out half of the ford crossings.
Meanwhile, an unknown amount in PNG kina if flowing undetected across the border in one direction.
One high official in Vanimo reckons a good K30 million is doing the rounds in Jayapura since the vanilla trade.
That too would be difficult to tell for certain but were that to be half the truth, that is a hell lot of cash out of circulation from the PNG market.
PNG officials at the border are bitter.
They ask for basic services such as fuel to get their generator working and they do deserve better.
The local councilor here told Treasurer Bart Philemon on March 26 that this is an international border – PNG’s only land border with another state.
Yet for all the amount of attention given, one would think this is a mere provincial boundary in some forgotten disadvantaged province.
The treasurer visited the border unofficially and got a guided tour of both sides of the border when he was recently in West Sepik to open district treasuries in that province.
This is one tour he is unlikely to forget.
It is hoped he acts promptly on what needs to be done there – if he lasts long enough in Government.