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By Vaudine England in Irian Jaya

JAYAPURA, Irian Jaya (August 13, 2000 – South China Morning Post/Kabar Irian)---"You can't call the Papuan tribes out to war and then tell them the fight is off." This is a succinct warning from one who grew up with the highland tribes of central Irian Jaya about the possibility of a battle on Indonesia's eastern-most territory.

The residents of Irian Jaya - called that by Indonesia, but referred to as Papua or West Papua by the residents, who call themselves Papuans - are trying to negotiate a long-held dream of independence. But after a year in which expectations have been raised dramatically around a dream of freedom, the danger now lies in the disappointment which will follow when Papuans finally realize how little anyone beyond their shores cares.

Almost daily incidents of aggression - from flag-raising ceremonies, neighborhood fights escalating into political conflicts, growing antipathy between Irianese and the savvy business migrants from Sulawesi or Java, the dramatic assertiveness of the pro- and anti-independence militia, vicious reactions by police or troops - provide an increasingly explosive backdrop to the overt struggle of almost two million people on a vast, rich land mass of 421,981 square kilometers (168,792.4 square miles) in pursuit of their dream of independence.

That dream predates the era of free expression ushered in by the fall of former president Suharto in May 1998. Under Dutch rule until 1962, United States-led pressure against any continued colonialism forced them to cede control to a United Nations administration, which would turn it over to Indonesia by May 1963. By 1969, the UN oversaw the so-called Act of Free Choice which formally made Irian Jaya Indonesia's 26th province.

Since then the dream has become more fevered, sparked into open defiance of Indonesian rule by the erosion of central authority and a palpable sense of native pride.

Whereas the march to independence in neighboring Papua New Guinea succeeded in 1975, the linguistically and culturally diverse hundreds of tribes in Irian Jaya were subjected to brutal repression in incidents which village elders recall to this day.

Add this to economic marginalization, lack of education and the patronizing tone of Javanese bureaucrats - and the huge distance between Irian Jaya and the rest of Indonesia which allows other citizens of the country to ignore them - and all the ingredients of a major mess are here.

"Yes there is a lot of military around here," says an Irianese driver at Sentani airport, near the capital, Jayapura. "For us Papuans, we have no problem with them. But they make problems with us, many problems. Of course we want independence. Not immediately, in two or three years maybe."

His words are typical. Any visitor to Irian Jaya will hear the deep-seated belief that the people of Irian Jaya demand and deserve freedom.

This belief - more than even the endless vistas of raw resource wealth and uninterrupted green seen on the seven-hour journey from Jakarta - marks out the vast chasm between Irian Jaya and Java, regarded as the center of Indonesia and the province housing Jakarta. This gap is reinforced by daunting geography and the cultural differences between the smaller Malay peoples of central Indonesia, and the dark, curly-haired Melanesians of Irian Jaya.

Of critical importance to the future cohesion of the Indonesian state is the question of whether that gap can be bridged. And at the back of everyone's mind is the frightening precedent set in East Timor last year, when a UN-run ballot demanded and achieved independence, but at the cost of thousands of lives.

"We are leading up to an East Timor-type situation now," said John Rumbiak, of the Institute for the Study and Advocacy of Human Rights, in Abepura, Irian Jaya. "There seems to be a deliberate process of tension development. Each incident raises many questions - who is paying people? Who is buying the uniforms for the [militia]? Why are the police allowing such an increase in unlawful acts?"

Just as frightening is the precedent being set in the nearby Maluku Islands, where Jakarta has knowingly allowed a seething communal war to claim at least 4,000 Muslim and Christian lives over 1.5 years of mutual slaughter.

"Psychologically, the way things are happening, there is a massive potential for conflicts spreading [to Irian Jaya], and there's a feeling of a common enemy - that's why Papuans are uniting," Mr. Rumbiak said.

"That's also why it is so very, very important to have international troops sent to the Malukus, to stop the conflict and stop it spreading. It could be another East Timor, or another Ambon."

For a positive outcome which forsakes armed conflict for a negotiated settlement with Jakarta, some Irianese and observers point to President Abdurrahman Wahid's private meetings with Papuan leaders, and those leaders' efforts on the diplomatic stage.

In June, about 3,000 Irianese, some wearing no more than a penis gourd, descended on Jayapura for the first Papuan Congress. It was a bold and stirring event.

Mr. Wahid backed out of appearing when the mood of the Irianese became clear. The delegates supported a statement of independence, howls of "treason!" were heard back in Jakarta, and desultory efforts made to question and arrest the "trouble-makers."

But the pro-independence group has worked harder than that. A congress in June formed a leadership council called the Papua Presidium to represent the aspirations of the independence movement to Jakarta and the rest of the world.

"We have a strategy," said Reverend Herman Awom, a Protestant church leader and moderator of the Presidium. "At the congress we established our principles, coming from the people of Papua, and we established a leadership which everyone can now deal with.

"Our next stage, which you are seeing just now, is the peaceful diplomacy. We want to have good relations with Indonesia, Holland and the United States. We are talking with them all about the New York Agreement of 1962 [which saw Holland transfer the territory to interim UN rule]."

This strategy is a far cry from the earlier decades of armed resistance, including hostage-takings, conducted by the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement, or OPM). OPM guerillas continue to wage low-level warfare from bases near the border with Papua New Guinea, but the new politics lie elsewhere.

"We want to point out that we want true self determination. We want a referendum in which one man has one vote. We want dialogue and consensus," said Mr. Awom. The backdrop is the deeply flawed Act of Free Choice. UN sources admit the act was a sham, but say there is no precedent for the international body to go back on something already signed and sealed.

Rights activists also worry about the composition of the Presidium, and wonder who is representing whom. The leader, Theys Eluay, was part of the former ruling Golkar party, and his right-hand man Yorris Raweyai, is a famous thug and leader of Golkar's Pemuda Pancasila operation.

"That's why I'm so critical of the Presidium," Mr. Rumbiak said. "What do they mean by a people's struggle? This is so dangerous."

So far the government has given little official response to the demands from Irian Jaya, which is also the site of one of the world's largest gold and copper mines, Freeport.

"It's the same old head in the sand technique," a development worker said. "They'll ignore it all until it's totally out of control and then cobble together the usual ineffectual compromise which will satisfy no one."

Mr. Wahid's private talks have been with key men in the Papuan leadership: Mr. Eluay, Willie Mandowen and Thomas Beanal. Insiders say the goal is to find a "middle way" between outright independence and direct Jakarta rule.

Versions of autonomy are being tossed about, while Mr. Wahid juggles the one-state nationalism of his armed forces and government, with his presumed personal desire for a peaceful compromise.

"We trust him; he understands us," Mr. Awom said. "But he's not strong enough in government. He is up against the military and we know about their techniques. They have the same strategy, the same mindset, as always. You can see it in Aceh, in Ambon, in East Timor and Irian Jaya. The [Indonesian Defense Forces] are still strong.

"But in Irian Jaya we hope it could be made to happen differently. Our people are united. [Jakarta] will try to divide us but it won't manage. The main thing is that all Papuans want independence and this feeling is very strong, the aspiration is very strong," he said.

"The time is past for one Indonesian state."

However, lined up against the passionate ideals of some independence leaders, is the harsh logic of that Indonesian state. The wealth and geopolitical significance of the state, and Mr. Wahid's active diplomacy of his own while abroad, means no large nation will support the Papuan struggle.

"We tell them there's no way," a Western diplomat said. "We say they should bargain hard for a good deal, not independence."

Of more immediate significance is the intensifying aggression from both sides of the divide - between the pro-independence militia Satgas Papua, and the pro-integration groups led by undercover security officials and another militia group, the Satgas Merah Putih, after the red and white of the Indonesian flag.

Could there be a rerun of the East Timor situation in which the shadowy military and old Suharto forces are stoking both sides of a conflict to justify a vicious crackdown?

The answer from activists, politicians and many Papuans is a resounding yes. The only question is when.

Vaudine England ( is the Post's Jakarta correspondent.

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