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Fate of West Papua Hangs in the Balance

5 August 2004

The cause of self-determination in West Papua is facing its biggest crisis since the murder of would-be independence leader Chief Theys Eluay by army special forces (Kopassus) in November 2001. Indonesian militarism is the main problem faced by the Papuans with President George Bush's administration showing renewed determination to bury the hatchet with the Indonesian army (TNI) over its record of human rights abuse. TNI seems about to be embraced once again in the larger interests of the war on terror.

The US Attorney General has just decided in his wisdom that the shooting murder of two US citizen employees at the Freeport mine in August 2002 was "an unprovoked brutal terrorist attack": the unaided work of an OPM rebel commander and his group. To most experts, including Papua's leading human rights monitors who have cooperated unreservedly with the FBI investigation of the Freeport killings, the complicity of TNI in the deadly ambush has long been clear. But the next step in Washington could well be to declare the OPM guerrillas a terrorist organisation and re-legitimate the horrors which the Papuans have faced over 40 years of Indonesian occupation.

In Aceh, a ferocious but apparently futile military campaign during the past year has devastated that province for the third time since the GAM rebellion began in 1976, but the campaign is being talked up as a success in Jakarta. The miserable fate of the Acehnese under TNI could be visited on the Papuans after September.The threats facing the Papuans include a new military build-up, which has been on the cards since TNI commander Endriartono Sutarto visited Wamena early last year in the wake of the suspicious "rebel break-in" at a military armoury and canvassed the need for new army battalions in Papua. TNI has also declared Biak island the site of a new national air base, and remains the main sponsor of both "Red and White" and Islamic militias (including Laskar Jihad) in Papua, which have been disruptively active since 2000.

The one bright note for West Papuans is that former Suharto court General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seems likely to become the next leader of Indonesia after the second round presidential election in September.

Yudhoyono is being hailed as the leader most likely to restart a serious reform effort in Jakarta. He may indeed try to get beyond repression and divide-and-rule games in Papua. Susilo, as President Megawati Sukarnoputri's coordinating security minister, was the man who invited the Papuans to draft a proposal for dialogue with the government in the aftermath of Theys Eluay's murder. He is also the only presidential candidate who has promised full implementation of the October 2001 special autonomy law for Papua, which Megawati has virtually jettisoned with her January 2003 decree for splitting Papua into three new provinces. Susilo did fail to act when a Papuan civil society proposal for dialogue was forwarded to Jakarta in 2002.

But in 2004 he promised to sign a draft decree to establish an all-Papuan upper house (MRP) for Papua province if he is elected President - something which Megawati has signally failed to do. Other straws in the wind suggest a fresh effort for peace in Papua is possible if the TNI diehards can be forestalled. Early this year there was a big surge in support for the campaign by the West Papuan solidarity movement around the world to persuade the UN to review its role in the notorious Act of Free - Papuans would say Forced - Choice of 1969.

Then in March 2004 a combined Papuan civil society, Papua Presidium Council and OPM team was invited to present a lengthy position paper to the British foreign office, and was treated to a four-hour no-holds-barred consultation by the South-East Asia desk. This occasion was okayed by several of Jakarta's more progressive leaders, including Bambang Yudhoyono himself and also Gus Dur's former civilian defence minister Juwono Sudarsono, who is now Indonesia's ambassador in London.

This Foreign and Commonwealth Office overture to the Papuans was obviously motivated by anxieties about British Petroleum's impending multi-billion dollar investment in a Papuan natural gas field, as well as Rio Tinto's 13 per cent share of Freeport, the world's biggest gold mine. The FCO has acknowledged that Papua is a time bomb that could go off at any time, destabilize the region and affect the interests of the international community. Britain is still Indonesia's largest weapon supplier in the absence of an American connection since 1999, but Papuans are optimistic about getting a policy rethink from Tony Blair. They are also counting on Whitehall's good offices in future negotiations with Jakarta.

Then in June 20 US Senators, including Edward Kennedy, petitioned Kofi Annan for the appointment of a United Nations Special Representative to monitor and report on the situation in Aceh as well as Papua with a view to Security Council action on what they call the "troubling and deadly" conflicts there. And, finally, in the countdown to the November's election in Washington, John Kerry's Secretary of State designate, Richard Holbrook, has privately acknowledged that Papua is the "Tibet of the South Pacific" and promised a review of policy to Indonesia.

In all of this sound and movement, Australia is once again a striking absence. But the Australian Government has now made a radical new commitment to help combat violence, disorder and corruption in the near neighbourhood, specifically Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. West Papua, through no fault of the Papuans, certainly suffers from all of these afflictions in trumps, but it scarcely seems to be on the government's radar, let alone in its sights. However the moment may be drawing nigh when Australia will be called on to have a policy rather than a conditioned reflex of genuflection to Jakarta on the fate of West Papua.

John Rumbiak and Peter King

John Rumbiak is West Papua's most prominent human rights investigator and activist, and is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, New York.

Professor King is a research associate in the School of Economics and Politics and convener of the West Papua Project in the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His book 'West Papua and Indonesia Since Suharto: Independence, Autonomy or Chaos?' has just been published by UNSW Press.

Published in The Canberra Times

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