From the coastal swamps to the glacier-capped highlands, many in Irian Jaya speak with the same combination of elation and anger about the topic of the moment: independence from Indonesia.
Irian, a former Dutch territory ceded to Indonesia in the 1960s, is one of the wildest places left on earth. Many of its people - Melanesians with no ethnic similarities to Java, Indonesia's dominant island - still lead near stone-age lives, subsisting as hunter-gatherers in barter economies. Though they are Indonesia's poorest people, the province itself is Indonesia's greatest store of wealth, in the form of timber, gas, and oil.
Independence hopes in this easternmost province of the country have been ratcheted up by East Timor gaining independence last year and the fall of longtime ruler Suharto in 1998. Where dissent was once brutally suppressed, space is being allowed for demands to be made.
This week thousands of independence leaders have gathered in the provincial capital of Jayapura in a congress to show the depth of independence support. The mood in the province is triumphant.
Yet most analysts believe Irian Jaya - the government plans to change the name to the locally preferred West Papua soon - is decades away, at least, from achieving the clear aspiration of the majority of its people. Many now fear the gap between wild optimism and grim political reality will be filled with the type of violence that has become all too common in Indonesia.
Edi Suebu is furious about the string of foreign powers that have marked his life. One of his first memories is of his Dutch schoolteacher in the Sentani district in the 1920s. He watched as Japanese paratroopers drove the Dutch out in 1942. Then in 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur arrived with 250,000 Allied soldiers, and Mr. Suebu did manual labor around their camp. In the 1960s the Indonesians moved in, taking control of the territory by force.
"We've been exploited for my entire life - look at the conditions we live in. This land is practically made of gold," Suebu says, gesturing at a rickety shack on stilts. "The Indonesians have too much blood on their hands - if they don't go soon, we'll rise up and kill them all.''
It's that sort of attitude that has Irian watchers so worried. The Indonesian military, with its well-documented record of brutality, has been known to use small incidents to justify large crackdowns. In 1998, troops shot and killed 30 unarmed men, women, and children who had raised an independence flag on Biak, an island off Irian's coast. The most recent military shootings occurred in early May.
The central government, grappling with a well-organized separatist insurgency in Aceh more than 3,000 miles away, has been growing impatient with Irian's independence movement.
President Abdurrahman Wahid attacked the current independence congress yesterday, saying it doesn't represent a majority of the province's people. He recently warned that the government will take "firm action" against any attempt to secede from Indonesia.
Though there has been a small insurgency called the Free Papua Movement for more than 30 years, it has neither the numbers nor the arms to pose any threat to the tens of thousands of Indonesian troops stationed in the province. And unlike East Timor, which was pushed to independence with the support of its former colonial power, Portugal, and the United Nations, Irian has no powerful international friends.
The UN signed off on the hand-over of Irian to Indonesia, and considers the territory's "decolonization" closed. The Dutch and the US supported Indonesia at the time, so they have few places to turn for international support.
Though Indonesian Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab has begun to accuse Australia - a favorite Indonesian boogeyman - of stirring up Irian's independence hopes, Canberra is likewise disinterested in freedom for the province. Some of the world's largest companies have assets in the province, from Freeport McMoRan of Louisiana, which operates the world's richest copper and gold mine here, to Australia's BHP to BP/Arco.
The province's 3.5 million people are deeply divided, falling into more than 200 different tribes with more than 100 different languages, they've historically lived in a state of war with one another, and the emergence of a province-wide sense of unity has been slow in coming.
This week's congress has been called to start to address that, and independence leaders have been moving toward a unified leadership. But observers say it's going to be a long process. "A lot of the top people are tribal leaders who don't have much interest in a modern, political consciousness for their people,'' says a Jayapura-based independence activist who asked not to be identified. "They want to be the new feudal leadership."
At the moment, there are two key leaders: Tom Beanal of the Amungme tribe and Theys Eluay from Lake Sentani, near Jayapura. Both are jostling to be declared the top independence leader, but tension among their followers assures that neither will be. Mr. Beanal has more of an international profile, and has lobbied the UN unsuccessfully for years to put Irian's independence onto its agenda.
Nevertheless, the desire for independence remains strong, whether in a village of 50 people a two-day walk from the closest air strip, or in Jayapura, a cosmopolitan city of 300,000. For many of the province's least sophisticated, the idea of independence is tied up in an almost magical way to their desire for a better life.
Discussing the problem is tricky. Melanesia has been littered with so-called "cargo cults" since World War II brought an infusion of material goods and the modern world. The basic idea of the cults is that the right combination of prayer or magic will deliver the superior goods held by the "outsiders," who are clearly subverting what they see as god's will by preventing an equal distribution of the "cargo."
Such beliefs are common, and can be dangerous. In the remote and rarely visited Kamu Valley, half of its 10,000 people stopped planting sweet potatoes in September last year and began killing most of their livestock and feasting. They'd decided the world would end on Jan. 1, so there was no need to carry on. Only massive aid organized by the local church prevented a famine.
Missionaries and anthropologists working in the area say such beliefs have been growing under the strain of rapid change. "People have begun to place irrational hopes on independence to solve the problems of their lives,'' says an anthropologist who works in the area, reluctant to be identified for fear of losing his visa.
Meanwhile, educated Papuans make strong arguments about their rights to choose. The province's civil service almost entirely consists of racially distinct Indonesians from other parts of the country, and most of Irian's vast mineral wealth has flowed to Jakarta. The military dominates Papua's local politics and also has vast business interests in timber and forest industries.
While Indonesia grapples with separatist pressures across the country, nowhere are the demands more serious than in Irian. In many provinces, independence demands are rooted in a sense of economic injustice that could be rectified. But the Irianese are acutely aware of a distinct culture and history. Irian Jaya is one of only two provinces added after Indonesia's independence in 1945; the other was East Timor.
In the end, it's the military's business interests, and the financial stakes in Papua, that will ensure it does not follow East Timor any time soon, analysts say. While Indonesia could afford to lose an arid province of 700,000 people, the central government is not willing to let one of its major assets go.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society