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Tensions simmer over Papua status

Ellen Nakashima

SILIBA, Indonesia – Yumbologon Wandikbo is a tall man with a lithe stride and a touch of gray in his sideburns. Here, in the chill central highlands of Papua, he wears nothing but an orange beaded choker and a penis gourd, a custom of his Dani tribe. “When we get freedom,” he said with a hint of defiance, “I will put on clothes.”He paused on a dirt path near about a dozen huts topped with shaggy thatch domes. Snorting pigs rooted around muddy trails. In a free Papua, he said on a crisp, gray afternoon, the young people will go to school and then find jobs.A simmering dispute over the status of Papua, a region absorbed into Indonesia under controversial circumstances a generation ago, continues to fuel fear, distrust and a low-level insurgency in this remote land of ruggedly beautiful mountains and vast virgin forests on the western half of New Guinea island.”I have never felt like I was part of Indonesia,” said Jelam Wandikbo, a former Dani warrior, sitting cross-legged on the ground in a thatched hut an hour’s hike away. This clan elder, with five wives and 17 children scattered across various villages, is a hero and tribal chief of war for the enemy tribesmen he killed in his youth. Now, he posts scouts around his hamlet, but not to fight. “I will run to the forest,” he said, eyes bright, his body still taut and square-shouldered, “when the government troops come.”For Indonesia, which declared independence 60 years ago, Papua is the last major piece of unfinished business. East Timor, a former province, claimed independence in a 1999 referendum, although international troops were called in recently to halt fighting between the police and armed forces. A three decade-long separatist uprising in Aceh province ended with a peace deal last year, given impetus by the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. Indonesia insists that Papua is an integral part of the country, a position that almost all foreign governments accept, even as some have expressed concerns over charges that Indonesian security forces have engaged in human rights violations.The former Dutch colony, more than 2,000 miles east of Jakarta, has the world’s largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine, owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, a U.S. mining giant. But the villages here are among the least developed in Indonesia. Papua has the country’s highest poverty level and the highest concentration of HIV/AIDS. One-third of Papuan children do not attend school. Nine out of 10 villages do not have a health clinic, doctor or midwife.Papuans voice their frustrations as a desire for freedom, or merdeka@. But freedom has various meanings, from political independence to social justice.The continuing tensions were apparent again last month, when security forces shot two protesters dead at a courthouse in Wamena, the main town in Papua’s central highlands. The demonstrators were showing support for their mayor, a native Papuan, who had been charged with corruption. The police said they fired in self-defense.In March, activists staged protests against Freeport, accusing the company of polluting the land and taking the people’s wealth. The protest turned violent, and five security officials were beaten to death. Forty-three Papuans recently sought asylum in Australia; it was granted to all but one, sparking a diplomatic row in which Indonesia recalled its ambassador.The Indonesian government, citing security concerns, requires foreign journalists and researchers to obtain special permission to visit Papua and has seldom granted it in recent years. In rare interviews with a Western journalist recently, native Papuans in the highlands near Wamena described living through three decades often characterized by fear and political uncertainty. Though a brief spring followed the ouster of the authoritarian president Suharto in 1998, renewed tensions in recent years have made them reluctant to go to their sweet potato gardens, for fear soldiers will arrest them. Their crops, they said, are dwindling.In an effort to redress longstanding grievances, the government passed a law in 2001 giving Papua, which is about the size of California, greater revenue and decision-making power than other provinces. The government also gives Papua more money per capita than any other province except East Kalimantan.President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has admitted the government has made mistakes in the past, including human rights violations. But now, he said, “the government is firmly committed to upholding human rights.”He recently announced that he would issue a decree to ensure that the $1.4 billion in special autonomy money that Jakarta sends to Papua is spent wisely, on poverty relief, health and education.Danny Mofu, 30, a pastor who lives in Wamena, wants to see Papuans help themselves.”There’s a popular slogan at the moment: Be a king of your own land. But the problem is, a lot of people take it wrong. They want to be a king but don’t want to work,” said Mofu, who hikes for days to reach his church members in the hills and valleys. “It’s about awareness, and are Papuans willing to be leaders of their own people, to build their own people?”Biruk Wandikbo, Jelam Wandikbo’s oldest son, is adamant about what he wants: “Our own president. Our own military chief. Our own police. Our own pilots. Our own Freeport.”When asked if he would see freedom in his lifetime, Jelam Wandikbo, the old tribal chief of war, paused and then smiled.”Wa. Wa. Wa. Wa,” he said, using a Dani word. “I hope so.”


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