Indonesia backs Irian Jaya separatists into a corner
The 39th anniversary of a declaration of independence is marked today by Papuans.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."
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.