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By Markus Mardius

MIMIKA, Papua, (April 27, 2002 - The Jakarta Post/Kabar-Irian)---A number of intellectuals and experts have called on the Papuan people to accept the special autonomy arrangement, which they argue is a starting point for Papua's future advancement.

Speaking during a day-long seminar on Papuan development here on Thursday, the experts were unanimous in their view that Papua, rich in natural and human resources potential, was a sleeping tiger imbued with the energy not only to catch up with other provinces but also to play a dominant role in the national economy under the special autonomy plan.

August Kafiar said the Papuan people, especially the local elite, should not spend too much time dwelling over the problems that had put them into a corner over the last four decades but should rather accept special autonomy status as a golden opportunity to develop a better future.

"You will remain stranded in a beautiful dream, surrounded by illusions about the province's richness and potential, but end up doing nothing to cope with the current problems or to achieve any advancement.

"The prolonged debate on whether to accept the autonomy package or to fight for the province's independence will certainly not bring any positive results as regards improving the local people's well-being because besides consuming time and energy, you will remain apart," he told the more than 150 Papuan government officials, activists, tribal leaders and religious figures participating in the seminar.

According to August, the province would certainly be subjected to economic exploitation by neighboring and developed countries should it secede from Indonesia.

Law No 21/2001 on special autonomy for Irian Jaya gives more autonomy to the country's easternmost province to manage its own affairs in the socio-cultural, political and economic fields.

"Under the special autonomy scheme, the province will gain a greater portion of the revenue from natural resources in the province. This is a huge, new income source to help develop human resources and improve the Papuan people's economic livelihood," he said.

He was referring to income form the copper and gold mining operation run by the giant American company PT Freeport Indonesia, gas production by British Petroleum, oil production by various foreign oil companies, and the exploitation of the province's vast forests.

Kafiar said the provincial administration should issue the necessary regulations to implement the autonomy law so as to allow the province to benefit from the special autonomy scheme as early as possible.

Meanwhile, Eko Budihardjo, rector of Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java, concurred and said that the Papuan people should forget about the central government's faults and accept the special autonomy package as a starting point for bringing about progress in the province.

"We can understand how long you have been ignored ... But, let's forget it. Please do your best and work hand-in-hand to implement the special autonomy package so as to develop this huge province. You have now the authority under the autonomy law to rekindle your spirit, redefine and rearrange your development priorities and unify all your energies," he said.

Budihardjo suggested that the development program in the province should be oriented toward the Papuan people.

"The Papuan people, partly still living in backwardness, should be simultaneously made the subjects and objects of development. And education should be a priority of your development program to allow the local people to benefit from development," he said.

He warned that the local elite, including non-governmental organizations, should not manipulate the special autonomy scheme so as to enrich themselves, instead of working for local people.

Ichlasul Amal, outgoing rector of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, said that the Papuan people should accept the presence of other ethnic and religious groups in the predominantly Christian province.

"Religion and ethnic pluralism should be accepted as a strong point of the unitary state," he said.

He added, however, that the central government should also be receptive to the province's uniqueness in terms of culture, religion and other fields.

"The central government should not force Papua to accept what it wants the province to do but rather should listen to the Papuan people's aspirations as to how they want to develop themselves as part of the unitary state," he said.

Irian Jaya Deputy Governor Constant Karma, who led the local government delegation at the seminar, said that besides giving priority to education in its development program, the province was developing a bottom-up democracy as was stipulated in the autonomy law.

"Besides the provincial legislative council, we will also have an assembly called the Papuan People's Assembly whose members will be elected from among local tribal leaders, religious figures, activists and technocrats so as to absorb the people's aspirations and design the province's development policy," he said.

Asked about the priorities under the education program, he said the provincial government would allocate a bigger portion of its annual budget to education and give preference to indigenous people to progress in the educational field, as 70 percent of 1.5 million locals were still illiterate.

"But, we need more time and money to do this," he said.

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