Saturday, June 5, 2010

Papua - Indonesia's last frontier Indonesia is a democracy. But many Papuans do not want to be part of it

THE hotel provides free mosquito repellent and closes its pool bar before dusk to prevent guests from contracting malaria. The former Sheraton still offers the best accommodation in Indonesia’s little-visited province of Papua, catering mainly to employees of its owner, Freeport-McMoRan, an American mining giant. Freeport protects its staff from more than malaria. Since July 2009 a spate of mysterious shootings along the road linking the hotel in Timika to the huge Grasberg mine up in the mountains has killed one employee, a security guard and a policeman and wounded scores of others. Workers are now shuttled from Timika to the mine by helicopter.

Before the pool bar closes, a jolly crowd of Freeport employees have their beers stored in a cool box. They take it to one of the—mostly dry—seafood restaurants in town. As in the rest of Papua, all formal businesses are run by Indonesian migrants who are predominantly Muslim. The mainly Christian Papuans sit on the pavements outside selling betel nuts and fruit.

“We are not given licences to run a business,” says a young Papuan independence activist who does not want to be named. He sits in a car with two bearded guerrilla fighters of the West Papua Revolutionary Army, the militant wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM). For more than 40 years the OPM has fought a low-intensity war to break away from Indonesia. Partly because of restrictions on reporting it, this is one of the world’s least-known conflicts. It is getting harder to keep secret.

Unlike its independent neighbour, Papua New Guinea, which occupies the eastern half of the vast island, the western part used to be a Dutch colony. During the cold war the United Nations said there should be a plebiscite to let Papuans decide their future. But Indonesians, the Papuans say, forced roughly 1,000 Papuan leaders at gunpoint to vote unanimously for integration into their country. This “act of free will” has been contested ever since.

The two bearded rebels drive around town to evade security forces. “Indonesia might be a democracy, but not for us Papuans,” says one. “They gave us autonomy which is a joke. We are different from those Indonesians. Just look at our skin, our hair, our language, our culture. We have nothing in common with them. We beg President Obama to visit Hollandia when he comes to Indonesia in June to witness the oppression with his own eyes,” says the other, using the colonial name for Papua’s capital, Jayapura. (America’s president is due to visit the country on June 14th.) In the 1960s indigenous Papuans made up almost the whole population of Indonesia’s largest province; since then immigration from the rest of the country has reduced their share to about half.

The two rebels do not want to take responsibility for the shootings along the road to the Grasberg mine, but leave no doubt either about their sympathies or their intentions. “The Indonesian shopkeepers, the soldiers and the staff of Freeport are all our enemies. We want to kill them and the mine should be shut,” they say. “Grasberg makes lots of money but we Papuans get nothing. When we achieve independence, we shall kick out the immigrants and Freeport and merge our country with Papua New Guinea.”

The car draws up in front of the seafood restaurant where the Freeport staff are becoming ever more cheerful, unaware that rebels are watching them. Freeport is the biggest publicly traded copper company in the world, and the Grasberg mine remains its main asset. The complex, the world’s largest combined copper and gold mine, is enormously profitable. It provided $4 billion of Freeport’s operating profit of $6.5 billion in 2009. The mining facilities are protected by around 3,000 soldiers and police which were supported by Freeport with $10m last year, according to the company. In December 2009 the police shot dead Kelly Kwalik, one of the OPM’s senior commanders, whom the police blamed for a series of attacks on Freeport’s operations, a charge he repeatedly denied.

Foreign journalists are restricted in their travel to Papua. Your correspondent was lucky enough to slip through the net. In the towns, it is clear that the guerrillas generally keep a low profile. But in the central highlands they are free to operate more openly. This is their heartland. Anti-Indonesian feelings run high because of the sometimes brutal suppression of the OPM by the army.

A well-hidden rebel camp in the Baliem valley—home to a Stone Age tribe discovered and disturbed by outsiders only in the 1930s—lies a few kilometres from a small army base. The guerrillas conduct military training with villagers who use spears, bows and arrows, all without metal heads. Students with mobile phones and video cameras teach the farmers revolutionary rhetoric. They have lost faith in peaceful means of protest and hope to provoke a bloody confrontation that will push Papua on to the international agenda. So far the government has refused to talk to the fractious OPM. Unless it changes its mind, it risks being unable to prevent the young radicals from kicking off a revolution. The Economist

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