The Next Headache: Timor Plan Stirs Irian Jaya Separatists

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FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW April 29, 1999

By Dan Murphy in Timika and Jayapura

The women from the church brought traffic to a halt on the dusty streets of Timika, chanting hymns against the demon rum, breaking into warehouses and confiscating cases of beer and homemade liquor. They then turned their attention to the mostly military-run saloons and brothels of the Irian Jaya frontier town near the world's largest copper and gold mine, breaking down their doors and ordering the establishments closed. Soldiers, mostly from Java, stood by and watched.

This was more than just a temperance or anti-vice movement. It was a measure of the newfound political freedom that the indigenous people of Irian Jaya -- a Melanesian ethnic group -- have won since the fall of President Suharto. The military, which has killed hundreds during Indonesia's 37-year rule, has been reined in and the two local newspapers have enjoyed greater freedom.

Weeks later, Yosepha Alomang-Kwalik, who helped lead the march, was still glowing from her triumph over the armed forces. "The military has treated us like dogs for years but now they will have to go," she shouts. Yosepha, who was once detained and tortured for her separatist leanings, gestures to 240 cases of confiscated Anker beer stacked in a side room of her home. "The weapons of Abri," she says with a laugh, using the acronym for the armed forces.

Activists such as the temperance marchers believe small freedoms can lead to progress on a broader front: eventual independence for Irian Jaya. The more liberal political atmosphere and Jakarta's willingness to negotiate on East Timor has created a sense of new possibilities. In February, a meeting between President B.J. Habibie and 100 Irian Jaya tribal leaders raised independence hopes to new heights. Independence activists felt the central government had taken them seriously for the first time.

"There's an almost millenarian sense that the salad days are finally here," says an anthropologist who studies political change in Irian Jaya. "They're being allowed to say what they want and that feels like freedom."

But few believe that Irian Jaya has a shot at self-determination in the foreseeable future. Indonesia is simply unlikely ever to let the resource-rich province go its own way. Worse, analysts fear a military crackdown and a rise in tensions between native Irianese and settlers from elsewhere in Indonesia. "Conditions for a huge backlash are being created," says a Western diplomat in Jakarta.

"This is all a dream," says Herman Saud, the Secretary-General of the Evangelical Christian Church in Irian Jaya, one of the province's two largest religious organizations. "Indonesia is not willing to let Irian go."

The province, analysts say, is vital to Indonesia's struggling economy. The mountains are studded with huge mineral deposits and clad in millions of acres of harvestable timber. Oil and gas are abundant beneath its waters. Timika itself is the operational base for the Grasberg mine -- a $50 billion chunk of limestone, gold and copper atop Indonesia's highest mountain -- owned by U.S.-based Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold. The independence movement says it intends to target Freeport with protests in an attempt to focus international attention on their demands.

Nevertheless, the East Timor negotiations have galvanized the separatist movement. Political organizations are springing up all over the mountainous province, which forms the western half of the island of New Guinea. In the capital, Jayapura, banners proclaiming independence hang in the middle of town. Local leaders, many of whom work for the Indonesian government, gather in the back rooms of restaurants to plot the composition of an independence government and tackle the challenges of building political networks in a land of 250 languages and deep tribal divisions.

"I really feel that God is with us now and that the international community, especially the United States, will have to take notice," says Don Flassy, an independence activist and official at the government's regional-development office.

The political renaissance, though has been met with worrying signs that it will not continue peacefully. Outside settlers -- mostly Bugis and Javanese -- who now account for about 800,000 of the province's 2 million people have grown afraid in the aftermath of race riots in Kalimantan and Ambon. "Rumors and tension are rising," says Rustam Madubun, an editor of Jayapura's Cenderawasih Pos newspaper.

In the past month, anonymous flyers have been circulated in Jayapura threatening attacks on Bugis settlers. In March, crowds gathered outside the homes of independence and rights campaigners in the middle of the night. They shouted abuse and threw rocks through the windows, with notes stuck to them telling them to shut their mouths "or else." "It must be Abri," says Flassy, who received one of the menacing warnings. The military blames independence activists for any incidents.

It's not hard to envision what form a backlash against the separatists would take. On July 2, 1998, hundreds of tribesmen gathered on Biak, an island at the province's northwestern tip, to raise the "Free Papua" independence flag. After a four-day stand-off, the local military opened fire, killing at least 11 people and wounding more than 50 others, according to witnesses.

Irian Jaya and East Timor are the only provinces added to Indonesia since its independence in 1945. Irian Jaya, as West Papua, was a Dutch possession until 1962 when control over the area was transferred to Indonesia as part of the decolonization process. Indonesia had promised to give the people a vote on independence by 1969. Instead, Jakarta assembled 1,000 traditional leaders and, under the gaze of armed soldiers, asked for a show of hands on whether they wanted to join Indonesia. The result was a unanimous vote for integration.

The government defended the unusual vote, saying full public consultation was impossible in a land where the only access to most villages was by foot over arduous mountain passes. Jakarta also said Irian Jaya's inhabitants weren't sophisticated enough to grasp the intricacies of a referendum.

Since then, the ragtag Free Papua Movement, or OPM, has fought a low-level campaign against Abri. Indeed, Irian Jaya's independence movement doesn't have the funding, the network of international lobbyists, or the support of Western governments that East Timor's activists enjoy.

Indonesia's management of Irian Jaya, with the vast majority of bureaucrats and soldiers brought in from outside, has done little to win the people over. Most of the natural wealth has flowed to Jakarta and settlers from the rest of Indonesia have flooded in, dominating the markets and economies of the province's coastal cities. Though the government is promising that a regional autonomy plan will reverse the flow of money out of the province, many Irianese are skeptical. There is also an enormous racial and cultural divide between the province's indigenous people -- many now Christian -- who measure their wealth in pigs, and Indonesia's dominant Muslim and Javanese cultures.

For now, Irian seems to be a picture of racial and political harmony when held up against some of Indonesia's other troubled provinces. But that's just on the surface. The sound and fury of its mounting political activity, observers say, might well signify the beginning of a long-running challenge to the government.

Provided by KABAR IRIAN ("Irian News").

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