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JAKARTA, Indonesia (January 3, 2002 – AFP/Joyo Indonesian News/TAPOL)---The governor of Indonesia's newly autonomous province of Papua on Thursday greeted the remote region's new freedoms as a chance to change the disadvantaged lives of its people.

"It's an opportunity," a cautiously optimistic governor Yacobus Salossa said in a telephone interview from the capital of Jayapura.

"If it is enacted well, it will change the life of the people in terms of education, health care, government services, the economy and law enforcement."

Generous autonomy laws took effect in Indonesia's neglected easternmost province, on the western half of New Guinea Island, on January 1.

Jakarta granted the special autonomy last year in an effort to appease widespread agitation for independence, after more than three decades of harsh military-enforced rule.

New laws allow Papua to keep up to 80 percent of revenue from the exploitation of rich local resources, authorize changing its name from Irian Jaya to Papua, and allow the adoption of a provincial flag in addition to the national flag.

Salossa dismissed claims by independence advocates that the majority of indigenous Papuans -- mostly Christian Melanesians who make up some 58 percent of the 2.1 million inhabitants -- reject autonomy in favour of full independence.

"The majority of people are rational thinkers so they can see that the 'special autonomy' law is an opportunity, to develop the region. If we can explain it effectively to the people, many will agree," the governor told AFP.

"It is slowly crystallizing in the minds of the people. They will see first and they will judge."

Salossa said the new autonomy was also an opportunity for Jakarta to win back the "hearts and minds" of the people.

"People everywhere are waiting to see how it will operate. In the churches, they're offering prayers that it will work," he said.

"They want to see proof of its effectiveness, so if it works well, if the results are good, people will be more sympathetic towards the central government."

Independence demands have been fanned by Jakarta's perceived exploitation of Papua's rich resources and decades of unaddressed abuses against indigenous Papuans by the security forces, in the form of arbitrary killings, detention and torture.

Pro-independence leader Theys Hiyo Eluay was murdered in November after leaving a military-hosted ceremony.

The governor has promised Eluay's killers would be found this year.

"All the data points to the involvement of Kopassus (the army's special forces)," Salossa said.

"An army team is here conducting their own inquiry. They are investigating the seven Kopassus agents who've already been questioned by police," he said.

"If they find enough evidence the Kopassus agents will be brought to a military court."

Rage over Eluay's killing prompted President Megawati Sukarnoputri to cancel a scheduled visit to Papua on December 22 to symbolically hand over the new autonomy provisions.

Salossa said Megawati was still planning to visit.

"Her visit is definitely still scheduled. It's just the date we're not certain of. We're still waiting for indications from Jakarta."

The former Dutch colonizers had begun preparing Papua, then known as the Dutch East Indies, for independence ahead of their departure in 1961, but in 1963 Indonesian troops moved in.

Jakarta's sovereignty was affirmed in a UN-sponsored plebiscite in 1969, which was disputed by pro-independence advocates.

Each year independence sympathizers commemorate an unrecognized 1961 declaration of independence on December 1. Authorities have stepped up crackdowns such celebrations and last month they were extremely muted.

Paul Barber TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign 25 Plovers Way, Alton Hampshire GU34 2JJ Tel/Fax: 01420 80153 Email:  Internet: 

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