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By Vaudine England

JAKARTA, Indonesia (December 26, 2001 – South China Morning Post/Joyo Indonesian News/TAPOL)---President Megawati Sukarnoputri tried to put a brave face on her failure to celebrate Christmas with the indigenous Papuans of Irian Jaya province by sending a letter of apology to Governor Jaap Salossa.

While aides said her absence was due to a cold, analysts said it had more to do with the realization she might be unwelcome.

The unresolved murder of pro-independence leader Theys Eluay is aggravating already difficult relations between the province and the central Government.

Ms. Megawati's letter assured the predominantly Christian population of Irian Jaya that her soul would always be with them, even though she could not be with them physically.

Student demonstrations continued in the province, calling for a referendum on independence and for action against human rights abuses.

Instead of addressing those concerns, Ms. Megawati urged Papuans to join Indonesians of other religions.

"Living in peace is what everyone wants. But what we have been seeing lately really disturbs our feelings," she said.

"I believe that if the special autonomy is implemented seriously and wholeheartedly, we can achieve what this nation expects to be."

The letter is unlikely to ease Irian Jaya's distress. But neither will the special autonomy law, according to Papuans and foreigners close to Irian Jaya.

They said autonomy could work if it was implemented fairly and honestly, but that without justice for rights abuses and punishment for Theys' murderers, the Government is wasting its time.

The law comes into force on Tuesday, despite Ms. Megawati's failure to visit the province to inaugurate it.

It redresses economic imbalances, leaving 70-80 percent of natural resource revenues in Irian Jaya, and allows the province to be renamed Papua.

As with the special autonomy offered to Aceh, the law hopes to dampen aspirations for independence by increasing wealth and opportunities for inhabitants.

But as with the law nominally already in effect in Aceh, implementation is the problem. Aceh is in a near-permanent state of armed conflict, with daily casualties.

Delivery of central Government services to large parts of Aceh stopped more than a year ago amid the conflict.

In many areas, the Free Aceh Movement validates marriages and property transfers. Many look to the movement for protection.

When it comes to choosing between Jakarta's police or soldiers and homegrown thugs, many Acehnese prefer the latter, regardless of the movement's ideology.

The movement has brought a degree of autonomy to Aceh, but not the sort the Government intended.

"All we see on the ground so far is just more troops always coming from Jakarta, and less security," said a non-governmental organization worker who recently fled Aceh for his own safety.

"We don't get anything from Jakarta but trouble."

Ms. Megawati was supposed to be the leader capable of reuniting her country along the lines her father introduced in 1945. Few people doubt her desire for peace and unity, but equally few are convinced she has much idea how to go about it.

The message from the regions is that relations between them and Jakarta disappeared long ago, and that it is up to Jakarta to restore trust.

The best way Jakarta could do so would be to rein in senior generals for the torture, rape and murder of locals. But that would require confrontation with the armed forces institution -- something no national leader can afford.

"We have already seen Megawati's tears many times. She visits places, meets the refugees [internally displaced persons], then she cries and thinks that helps. It doesn't," the non-governmental worker said.

"Until she realizes that, she can forget about national peace and unity."

Paul Barber TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign 25 Plovers Way, Alton Hampshire GU34 2JJ Tel/Fax: 01420 80153 Email: plovers@gn.apc.org  Internet: www.gn.apc.org/tapol 

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