Indonesia backs Irian Jaya separatists into a corner

The 39th anniversary of a declaration of independence is marked today by Papuans.

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Through the phone from Jayapura, John Rumbiak's voice comes through tired and small. After two weeks of urging the Indonesian government and the people of Irian Jaya province to choose peace, the human rights campaigner is admitting defeat.

"Jakarta has created an arena of confrontation," says Mr. Rumbiak. "I think it's too late now to stop them from getting one." Today is the highly anticipated anniversary of a 1961 independence declaration that has been the source of major confrontations in the past over Irian Jaya's right to secede.

Two days ago, flamboyant Irian Jayan pro-independence leader Theys Eluay was jailed. Yesterday, Indonesia's military paraded tanks and bivouacked troops near the public fields where independence flags are traditionally raised. In Jayapura, the provincial capital, local police chief Daud Sihombing held a public briefing for 2,000 riot police, soldiers, and marines. "Your guns aren't toys or decorations," he said. "They must be used to defend the unity of the Republic of Indonesia."

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It is no surprise the government is determined to hold on. Irian Jaya is Indonesia's wildest and richest possession, representing 20 percent of the nation's land. Timber conglomerates have only begun to exploit its untracked jungles. Its glacier-capped mountains have already yielded the world's richest gold and copper deposits, mined by Freeport-McMoRan of Louisiana. The world's largest gas field is being developed offshore by Atlantic Richfield Co., a subsidiary of BP Amoco PLC. Home to just 3 million people, Irian ranks sixth in contribution to the national economy among the country's 27 provinces, but last by measures such as infant mortality.

As Irian Jaya, which is called West Papua by its native inhabitants, tenses in the wake of the tough talk, activists like Rumbiak allege the Indonesian military has been secretly arming "pro-independence" fighters in order to provide the pretext for a crackdown.

They say voices of peace are being deliberately frozen out so that violence, which is easier for the military to deal with in the eyes of the international community than a peaceful struggle, rules the day. Young pro-independence supporters in coastal towns like Biak, Sorong, and Fak-Fak are now spoiling for a fight.

An incident a month ago provides a blueprint of what may lie ahead. Police lowered an independence flag by force in the highland town of Wamena. Independence supporters rampaged, turning on economically successful migrants from distant islands. As many as 30 were killed.

"You take away people's symbols of independence, and all they're left with is anger and frustration. They try to turn on the military, but they can't win that fight, so they turn against the migrants," says Rumbiak. "That's what the military is looking for, because then they can strike." Indeed, thousands of migrants have been pouring out of Irian in the past week, afraid of getting caught in the middle.

The arrest of civilian independence leaders, the muscle flexing, and increasingly belligerent rhetoric are reminiscent of Jakarta's actions in the province of Aceh, at the far west end of the archipelago, and its former province of East Timor. President Abdurrahman Wahid has warned his patience is running thin.

In the town of Timika, the operational base for Freeport's mine here, Mama Yosepa Alomang is known as a victim of military torture and a moral voice of the independence movement. She promised to forgo the usual independence-day flag raising, instead holding a mass prayer to declare the area a "zone of peace." The military's response was to park four tanks on the field were she planned to hold the prayer and encamp a few hundred soldiers there.

"If people there want to talk about independence as some sort of intellectual exercise, they may," says Ermaya Suradinata, director general for national unity at the Home Affairs Ministry in Jakarta. "But it will never be considered."

But taking back the freedom to speak out, granted only since the fall of former President Suharto in 1998, could have disastrous consequences. The freedom to talk had served to defuse the Papuan voices that wanted to fight for freedom rather than negotiate, and provided a platform for peaceful pro-independence activists. The more open environment, and relatively fewer military abuses were creating an avenue by which Irian's people just might be won back into the fold.

While virtually all of Irian's native people support independence, merdeka in Indonesian, the practical definition of that word has remained an open question. The politically unsophisticated Papuans feel exploited by the center and for many, merdeka means nothing so much as a better deal.

"The irony is that Indonesia's policy is going to preclude the chance that merdeka can mean law, justice, peace, and a world without discrimination," says Brigham Golden, a doctoral candidate in Columbia University's anthropology department who is studying the independence movement. "Instead Indonesia is going to ensure that it must mean independence."

Indonesia at large seems to view Irian - where a generation ago some still participated in cannibalism - through a racist lens. A fairly typical article in a Jakarta daily last month dismissed Papuan independence leaders as "ornery natives."

"The cry for merdeka is a moral crusade. You ask people what does freedom really mean to you? And most of the time they say it means peace," says Mr. Golden.

Mr. Wahid's plan to win back the Papuans revolves around an offer of special autonomy. Suradinata says Papua will be given control of its revenues and special additional rights by May. He also promises intensive efforts to "develop the economy for the poor."

But the government has been slow in delivering on its pledges in the past. As in Aceh, where a separatist war has claimed 225 lives since June, autonomy of one sort or another has been promised for more than a decade, without being delivered.

Indonesia was given sovereignty over Irian, which was then called West Irian, in 1969 in a classic piece of cold war realpolitik. The Dutch government wanted to pull out and Indonesia wanted to move in, warning it might do so by force. The United Nations allowed Indonesia to hold an integration referendum with a public show of hands by a few hundred hand-picked tribal leaders.

The people of the province say they're still waiting for the chance to make their choice.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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