Indonesia military suspected in Papuan leader's death

Members of Indonesia's military go on trial this summer in the death of a Papuan independence leader.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When a tall, stocky Army officer came to his home last October with a dinner invitation, Willy Mandowen was reluctant to accept.

As a campaigner for independence from Indonesian rule, Mr. Mandowen knew he had little in common with Maj. Donny Hutabarat, the special-forces officer that sat smiling on his sofa. Indonesia's special forces, known as Kopassus, are trained to quash dissent and rebellions in far-flung territories such as Papua, also called Irian Jaya.

"He was trying to be friendly, but he was hiding something," Mandowen recalls. "He said that he wanted a [political] dialogue, so we talked, but he didn't really say much."

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Mandowen told his guest he would consider the invitation.

On Nov. 10, the night of the dinner, Mandowen stayed home. His friend and fellow Papuan independence leader, Theys Eluay, however, accepted an invitation to the same dinner, and was later seen leaving the Kopassus barracks about 9:30 p.m.

On his way home, Mr. Eluay's car was hijacked by a group of men. He was later found dead from asphyxiation near the Papua New Guinea border.

Now, six months after his death, a government investigation committee has confirmed what many in Papua say they knew from the start: Eluay was the victim of an Army assassination. So far, six suspects have been detained, including Major Hutabarat and his commander, Colonel Hartomo, who both attended the memorial dinner.

Army investigators have said the accused soldiers could be charged with murder and insubordination, and that they acted alone without orders from their superiors. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsuddin says the full picture will be revealed in the military court that will try the men. "The investigators are still looking for the real motivation [for the killing]," he says.

But the success in tracking down the alleged killers has won few plaudits in this rugged and under-populated territory, which was only incorporated into Indonesia in 1963 under a US-brokered deal with the Netherlands, the colonial ruler. Instead, Papuans are demanding to know the motive for the murder and, crucially, who gave the order.

For Indonesia, which has been trying to win over Papuans disgruntled with its rule, the Army's role in the killing undercuts its promise that the repression of the past is over. It also raises the stakes for the independence movement, which has so far campaigned peacefully for a referendum on self-rule, but has little to show for it.

"After 40 years of military occupation, we still have no human rights," says Thaha Al-Hamid, secretary-general of the pro-independence Papuan Presidium that Eluay chaired until his death. Mr. Al-Hamid says he also received an invitation in person from Major Hutabarat to the Nov. 10 dinner, but declined to attend.

The case is proving a stiff test for Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has pledged to bring the killers to justice but faces the difficult task of overturning decades of military immunity from prosecution. Few expect her to win any concessions from the Army, which has refused to take any responsibility for the East Timor violence in 1999.

Although the trial of the alleged killers of Eluay has yet to start (it's expected to begin within two months), some investigators have broken ranks to attack its findings. Rev. Phil Erari, one of two ethnic Papuan members of the 11-man committee, accuses the Army and its political allies of engineering a coverup that lets the real masterminds off the hook.

"There are certain people in high-ranking positions in related agencies in the military that are involved in organizing this execution," he claims, without elaborating.

Even before the suspects are brought to trial, some witnesses in the case have been threatened or even attacked. Last Friday, a local who attended the dinner narrowly escaped from a gunman who was later identified by Elsham, a human-rights group, as a Kopassus Sergeant Yani.

Despite his popularity as a pro-independence firebrand, Eluay cultivated close ties with Army and police officers in Papua, including his alleged killers. He was on good terms with Colonel Hartomo, the Kopassus commander.

Using his influence as a tribal statesman, he also did favors for Army-linked timber companies, who are logging Papua's rain forest.

Such moves alienated some rights groups, who point out that Eluay was once a firm supporter of Indonesian rule. Some believe his dabbling in business may give a motive to his killers or their paymasters, though others dispute this account, saying it was clearly a political murder.

And, if this is how the Army treats its allies, they ask, what does it have in store for its enemies? "He thought that [the Kopassus officers] were his good friends, but they were making a trap," says Mandowen.

Whatever the cause, the effect in Papua has been to agitate pro-independence supporters and cool already lukewarm enthusiasm for Indonesia's offer of autonomy. This may have been the intention: Papua is a profitable fiefdom for Army officers who stand to lose out on legal and illegal business dealings if civilian politicians, and particularly ethnic Papuans, get the upper hand.

Since Jan. 1, the province has been allocated a bigger chunk of revenues from industries operating there. These include the world's richest gold mine – owned by Freeport-McMoran, based in New Orleans – and extensive forestry, gas, and fishing operations.

This revenue-sharing should almost double this year's receipts to $650 million, for a population of only 3 million.

But many community leaders grumble about how much of this money will reach ethnic Papuans compared with Indonesian migrants who dominate private business.

"Money is not the main issue here. What is the use of prosperity if we still have military threats and intimidation?" asks Rev. Willem Rumsarwir, a church leader.

Some civil-society activists say Papuans should concentrate on their own development for now, and keep up pressure for democratic reforms in Indonesia. That includes bringing the Army to heel and ending racial discrimination against Papuans, who are ethnically and culturally distinct from other Indonesians, as well as being mostly Christian. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation.

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