If people here are wary of the Army, they have a reason to be. In Irian Jaya, Indonesia's easternmost province, thousands have died during three decades of a small but persistent antigovernment guerrilla war.
So when Army troops last week chased away the pedicab drivers and took up positions, a tremor moved across Wamena's marketplace.
But on this day, much to the amusement of the salespeople and their customers, the soldiers set to work with brooms and shovels, cleaning up the market.
This public relations effort has so far been the military's only answer to the challenge put to them by Irian Jaya, the western half of the huge island of New Guinea. Delegates to a dialogue earlier this year surprised President B.J. Habibie by demanding independence and threatening to boycott upcoming elections if he failed to agree by April 1.
And the people here know the soldiers could shoot again.
Last year, dozens of Papuans were killed in several towns after they raised the West Papua flag in place of the Indonesian red-and-white flag. Many are still in jail on sedition charges that could carry the death penalty.
But Mr. Habibie and his military commander, General Wiranto, have so far been careful not to spark another spate of violence in a country already torn by communal fighting.
The clean up in the Wamena bazzar also shows, however, that Indonesia's government hasn't grasped that it will take more than a broom to sweep away the resentment it created with its military brutality, heavily centralized rule, and exploitation of natural resources that left little wealth for the local population.
The Papua people, who are mostly Christian and ethnically distinct from the Muslim Malays who dominate in Indonesia, feel particularly discriminated against. In Wamena, for instance, ethnic Malays and Chinese run the shops, hotels, market, and the taxis. This has left hundreds of young Irian Jayans, educated in Indonesian schools and no longer content to stay on the farm, unemployed and frustrated.
"We got poor and they got rich," is the simple summary of Tom Beanal, a tribal leader who gained fame for lobbying against Freeport McMoRan, a controversial mining company from New Orleans that exploits the giant Grasberg gold and copper mine. "We were never happy inside Indonesia," Mr. Beanal adds.
Across the archipelago, ethnic groups are raising demands for more autonomy for their provinces or even secession. Failure to respond quickly and adequately to such challenges could cost Jakarta control over much of Indonesia's territory, leading to a breakup much like that of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia.
So far Habibie has only inspired more calls for secession by offering to grant independence to East Timor, although he has tried to treat that province as a separate case since it has been occupied only since 1975 and never belonged to the Dutch colony that became Indonesia. Last week the president visited Aceh, an oil-rich province, to apologize for human rights abuses by the military and mitigate demands for independence. But his visit only rallied protesters.
"After East Timor it will be Irian's turn to be freed," says Zainudin Fenetiruma, an Irian student. "And then Aceh, and then the rest."
That is by no means assured. While East Timor may be allowed to secede, Irian Jaya may well be the test case for the limits of Indonesia's new flexibility. If East Timor is an impoverished half of an arid little island that the country can do without, Irian Jaya is 22 percent of Indonesia's territory and home to valuable oil and gold resources.
Clear preference for independence
Interviews in the provincial capital of Jayapura and across the Baliem Valley failed to yield one ethnic Papuan who wanted to stay an Indonesian citizen.
"Everybody here wants independence," says Yunus Boerdam, a school administrator. "We just wait for President Habibie's answer."
Mr. Boerdam may be waiting in vain. Habibie, overwhelmed by nearly a year of ethnic and religious violence, economic crisis, and upcoming elections, has ignored the deadline set by the Papuans. The centrally appointed governor has refused to meet pro-independence activists, promising instead to get a larger share of the region's revenues into the provincial coffers. And Jakarta is considering more power-sharing with its far-flung regions.
For many Papuans that's far from enough. But few of the pro-independence leaders have a clear idea of what to do if they are ignored. A June election boycott would be embarrassing but not fatal for Jakarta, as the ethnic Papuans only number about 1.5 million in a country of 210 million. The Papuans have appealed to the United Nations to mediate, but the UN recognizes Indonesia's claim on the territory.
Many in Irian Jaya fear that activists could turn violent if their demands are left unanswered, providing the military with an excuse to crack down.
"The ball has been kicked and now you need a strategy to make sure you make the goal," says Willie Mandowen, a linguistics professor at Cendrawasih University in Jayapura, who has tried to mediate between pro-independence activists and the government. "Otherwise the audience may come down to the field and start fighting."
Agus Rumansara, the local director for the World Wildlife Fund, says his people stand a better chance of improving their lot by participating in the elections and supporting parties that favor turning Indonesia's unitary state into a federation. Many Papua intellectuals interviewed by the Monitor believe a federation would be an acceptable compromise. But others object, saying that there is too little public support.
"This year our task is to campaign for international recognition," says Isak Windesi, one of 10 activists who were jailed and now stand trial for raising the West Papua flag last July. "We also need to unite our people first. Otherwise it will be too easy for the Indonesians to divide and rule again."
Boerdam, sitting in his office in the town of Korima, is more optimistic, pointing at the weakness of the current Indonesian government. "It may take a long time," he concedes. "But a German who passed by the other day told us that the Berlin Wall looked very strong too. Yet it collapsed in a matter of hours."