Jakarta — To travel from Indonesia to Papua New Guinea, its easterly neighbor, is to travel across a cultural divide. On one side is Asia, its crowds of people, its vitality, its pollution. On the other side is the quiet, almost languid atmosphere of the Pacific, where even the clock in the center of the capital, Port Moresby, is two hours slow.
Down in the Papua Hotel, which served as one of MacArthur's command centers during the Pacific campaign of World War II, a Filipino violinist plays Strauss while an Australian fundamentalist and an Irish priest argue about religion.
Out in the countryside, people live as they have lived for centuries. There is no television and many parts of the land are only now being discovered.
The island of New Guinea was divided up by Dutch, German, and British colonialists in the middle of the last century. Like many such divisions, it showed little regard for ethnic or religious groupings.
The Western half of the island, formerly Dutch New Guinea, became a province of Indonesia in the 1960s. Now called Irian Jaya, it is regarded by Jakarta as an integral part of this Asian nation of 160 million people.
The eastern half, Papua New Guinea, became independent only in 1975 and describes itself as a Pacific nation.
Relations between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have rarely been harmonious. There are frequent arguments over border infringements in the remote highlands. Papua New Guinea claims Indonesia mistreats fellow Melanesians on the other side of the border, while Jakarta has responded by accusing the Port Moresby government of meddling in its internal affairs.
Recently, relations seem to a have taken a turn for the worse. In the past few weeks, hundreds of tribespeople living in isolated villages in Irian Jaya have been crossing into Papua New Guinea. Officials in Jakarta say about 2,500 people are involved. In Papua New Guinea, officials say at least 6,000 have crossed since mid-February and hundreds more are following each week.
The immediate cause of the influx seems to be the activities of a group calling itself the ''Free Papua Movement,'' or OPM, which has been fighting Indonesian rule since the '60s. The group, by all accounts a small and disorganized band, claims Indonesia has no right to be in Irian Jaya and that it plans to destroy the territory's Melanesian culture and colonize the people.
Though the OPM has few actual activists, it does have many supporters, and these have been worrying the province's predominantly Javanese officials over the last few months.
In early February, a fight broke out between OPM supporters and Indonesian troops in the provincial capital, Sukarnapura. Subsequently, a number of OPM sympathizers, described as Irianese intellectuals, crossed the border into Papua New Guinea and are now being looked after by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
The Irianese say that if they are returned they will be killed. Since February, the Indonesian military has held two big military maneuvers in the border area. Papua New Guinea has accused Indonesia of violating its territory, and its officials privately say the military is forcing thousands of villagers to flee because of heavy-handed tactics.
Indonesia has, meanwhile, accused Papua New Guinea of giving sanctuary to rebels. Relations between the two countries reached such a low ebb recently that a meeting in Jakarta between the Indonesian foreign minister, Dr. Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, and the Papua New Guinea foreign minister, Rabbie Namaliu, produced a communique that managed to disagree on almost every point raised.
In Papua New Guinea, there is even talk of bringing the whole matter to the United Nations. This move would be most unwelcome in Indonesia, which is still waging an intense diplomatic campaign for international recognition of its move into the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. With wounds still smarting over UN condemnation of its entry into East Timor in 1975, the last thing Indonesia wants now is yet another public debate about what it considers a purely internal problem.
Officials in Papua New Guinea say that the number of people crossing the border in recent weeks is unprecedented and cannot be explained away by talking about the wanderings of tribal people or intertribal fighting.
Many missionaries in the area say that a combination of Indonesian military activity, rumor, and fear is causing people to flee. Neither side seems willing to divulge exactly what is going on. Admittedly, the border region is an extremely remote and inhospitable area. Mountain peaks rise to nearly 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) and sharp frosts are not uncommon, while dense tropical rain forest covers much of the lowland.
One of the reasons for the border crossing, say some in Papua New Guinea, is Indonesia's plans to resettle some 750,000 people in Irian Jaya over the next five years, most of them from Java. At present the province has a population of only just over 1 million. The new settlers threaten to swamp the indigenous Melanesian people.
Officials in Jakarta say that Irian Jaya is an integral part of Indonesia, constituting 20 percent of the republic's total land area. The province is an unexploited region which needs to be settled not only to relieve population pressures in other parts of the country, but also to develop massive mineral and timber resources.
Both Indonesia and Papua New Guinea agree that eventually the border crossers must be repatriated. But the government in Port Moresby is very sensitive to opposition calls to help fellow Melanesians. It is also worried about the possibility of Indonesian incursions into its territory.
Fundamentally, relations between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia seem to be plagued by each country's very different way of doing things. Politics in Papua New Guinea is active and open, with leadership and opposition exchanging frequent insults unthinkable in the courtly political environment of Indonesia.
Thus when the Papua New Guinea foreign minister arrived in Jakarta for talks and handed out a statement strongly critical of recent Indonesian actions, particular offense was caused. Back in Port Moresby, the statement was considered mild in comparison with the usual slinging-match language used among politicians.
At an official level, both sides are trying desperately to reach some kind of understanding. But as the number of border crossers grows daily, a solution to their border problem becomes increasingly difficult.