IRIAN JAYA LEADERS WANT CONTROL OF THEIR LAND

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JAKARTA, Indonesia (February 27, 1999 - Jakarta Post/Kabar-Irian)--- Irian Jaya leaders told President B.J. Habibie on Friday they wanted to be the masters of their own land, while at least one tribal chief declared his wish outright for the province to become an independent state.

During the three-hour, closed-door meeting at the Merdeka Palace, Irian Jaya Governor Freddy Numbery cited the growing demands for wide-ranging autonomy, and for strategic bureaucratic positions to be given to Irianese. He argued there was a sufficiency of educated local people.

"For 35 years Irianese people felt they were ignored. We witnessed how positions for regents and heads of government agencies were given to outsiders. Why did these not go to the native Irianese?" Numbery asked after the meeting.

Before the meeting Habibie hosted a luncheon for his 100 guests, including chairman of the Pemuda Pancasila youth organization Yorris Raweyal, at the State Guest House.

The President was accompanied by several, ministers including Minister/State Secretary Akbar Tandjung and Minister of Defense/Armed Forces Commander Gen. Wiranto.

Tom Beanal, chief of the Amungme tribe, repeated his long-standing position that the Irianese wanted to establish their own state. He said they had received nothing but had instead become targets of government exploitation.

"I told Habibie straight that the Papua people's demand is separation from this republic," Beanal said in a short press briefing organized by Yorris at the palace compound.

Beanal has accused gold and copper mining giant PT Freeport Indonesia of causing local environmental and cultural destruction in Irian Jaya. He lost the first part of a legal battle against Freeport when a U.S. district court rejected his US$ 6 billion lawsuit in April last year.

Yorris, whose father, Jacob, hails from Irian, introduced Beanal to journalists as a representative of the meeting's participants.

"I do not think that Beanal's opinion reflects the totality of Irianese aspirations," Akbar hinted.

Habibie is reported not to have given a direct response to the demands. Rather, he told the delegation to reconsider and think about the consequences, saying abundant natural resources alone were not a sufficient guarantee for their future.

"The President was very relaxed during the meeting and he responded directly to questions," Akbar noted.

On the basis of a United Nations-sponsored New York agreement between Holland, the former Dutch colonial power, and Indonesia, West Irian became part of Indonesia in May 1963. Ten years later, then president Soeharto renamed the province Irian Jaya (Glorious Irian). The 421,981 kilometers square province is three and a half times the size of Java. Statistics indicated the population was only about two million in 1995.

The government has sent transmigrants, many of them from Java, in a bid to accelerate economic growth there.

Their presence has often created friction as the locals are unable to compete on an equal footing with the more experienced outsiders.

The armed Free Papua Movement (OPM) has often disturbed security in the province.

"I underline the importance of empowering the Irianese to become masters of their own land," said the governor.

The palace was tightly guarded as many Irianese youths had gathered in the National Monument Park (Monas) across the road. Presidential security guards patiently accompanied some of the guests to the toilet and escorted them back to the meeting hall.

The Irianese delegation complained that the air conditioning in the palace was too cold for them. "Or maybe we ate too much. How often can one have lunch with the President, anyway?" said Martin, one of the guests.

Habibie later invited his guests to pose for photographers and cameramen on the terrace of the Palace.

Irian Jaya Military Commander Maj. Gen. Amir Sembiring and provincial police chief Brig. Gen. Hotman Siagian were standing next to Habibie before the photo session began. Habibie then asked more of the visitors to stand alongside him.

"This has been a very good and useful meeting," said Numbery.

KABAR IRIAN ("Irian News") For assistance, please e-mail: help-bi@irja.org (auto-responder) or admin@irja.org World Wide Web: http://www.irja.org

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