Papua Murder Case Could Set Back U.S. Military Plans PDF Afdrukken

The recent killings of two U.S. teachers and an Indonesian colleague in an ambush on the road to the giant Grasberg gold and copper mine in the eastern Indonesian province of Papua could set back hopes by the U.S. government for quickly renewing close military ties with Jakarta.

While the Indonesian military, which claimed to have shot one of the assailants shortly after the Aug. 31 ambush, has blamed the killings on guerrillas associated with the Free Papua Movement, the regional police chief and a local rights group have suggested that the culprits may have been from the army.

Soon thereafter, the U.S. State Department announced the dispatch of experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to help the police investigation of the case.

Congressional aides who keep a close eye on the Indonesian military, have warned that if the military were found to be responsible, tens of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid and training may be at stake. "If the police and the FBI find that the army was responsible, I think a lot of people up here will want to take a new look at the wisdom of the aid package," said one aide whose boss has opposed renewing military aid to Indonesia until there is more evidence that the civilian government really controls the army and that the army is prosecuting senior officers implicated in serious rights abuses.

Two months ago the administration of President George W. Bush persuaded Congress to ease strict conditions on renewing military aid for Jakarta. Military ties were suspended in 1999 after army-backed militias rampaged through East Timor following landslide approval by its inhabitants for independence from Indonesia in a UN-sponsored referendum. The ambush came amid rising tensions in Papua among the independence-minded indigenous population.

This tension is between groups including the Free Papua Movement and the Presidium of the Papuan Council (PPC), an umbrella group that represents the province's many ethnic groups, on the one hand, and the army and Indonesian migrants who have moved to Papua over the past three decades, on the other.

A mineral- and timber-rich territory that was promised independence by the Netherlands, the colonial power, Papua, was annexed by Indonesia with crucial U.S. backing in 1969. Since then, the province, renamed Irian Jaya until last year, has been the site of sporadic clashes between the security forces and the Free Papua Movement, known by its local acronym OPM.

The biggest single investor in the province has been Louisiana-based Freeport McMoRan, whose Grasberg holding is the world's biggest gold and copper mine. Freeport has long relied on the military to provide security for its operations, a relationship that has not endeared it to local communities.

Freeport has been accused by local and international human rights groups of condoning serious human rights abuses--including murder--committed by the military against the local population, who until recently have seen very little of the wealth produced by the mine returned to their communities. The relationship between the military and businesses active in the province, including a number of Asian logging companies, has been a major source of conflict and local anger, according to a new report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).

In addition to providing security, the military has often acted as partners or agents for foreign companies. The ICG report called, among other things, for the provincial government to substantially reduce both the military's security and its business role as a means of defusing growing tensions. It calls for the police to take on more responsibility for security. "There's a direct correlation between injustice in the management of natural resources and the strength of the pro-independence sentiment in Papua," according to Sidney Jones, ICG's Indonesia Project Director, who also worked as Indonesia specialist for many years with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Hoping to quell the unrest, Jakarta approved a special autonomy regime for Papua earlier this year. It includes some important concessions, according to the ICG report, including returning more natural resource wealth to the province and giving a greater role to Papuan customary law, or "adat" in determining such key issues as land use and ownership. But it still fails to address Papuans' deep grievances, particularly because its implementation, according to the ICG, has been left to an inefficient and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy. Likewise, adat, which was ignored when most of the mining and logging concessions were originally granted, will not apply retroactively.

"There's little hope for the autonomy option unless Indonesia ends the abusive practices associated with resource exploitation," Jones said. Tensions have risen steadily over the past year. In November, PPC chairman Theys Eluay was murdered by Indonesian soldiers. In addition, Laskar Jihad, a radical Islamist militia that reportedly has been backed by elements within the military elsewhere in Indonesia, established a presence in the province, spurring fears of violence between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian settlers.

As in the case of Eluay's murder, according to Jones, many Papuans believe that the Aug. 31 ambush was part of a broader strategy by the military to destabilize the province in order to justify a major counter-insurgency campaign.

The military's insistence that the OPM was responsible has generally been scoffed at. The ambush was carried out with automatic weapons, something that the OPM is not known to possess. Nor had the rebels ever before launched a deadly attack against foreigners.

Disclosures by the police and the Papua-based Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy over the past week have also cast doubt on the military's version of events. A police autopsy found that the attacker allegedly killed by soldiers after the incident had in fact been dead for some 24 hours before that. The Institute, after talking with the dead man's family, alleged that he was a military informant. The police chief and others have suggested that soldiers may have carried out the attack in order to extort from Freeport.

The military in Indonesia has a long history of providing protection to companies in exchange for money and other concessions, according to the ICG report. Freeport has tried to patch up relations with the local community over the past several years in part by increasing spending on local development projects. Although its continued reliance on growing numbers of immigrants who work at the mine have fuelled social and ethnic tensions, the company may also be having problems with the military, according to some observers. "When Freeport annoys the military, (the military) stages an incident to prove to Freeport that they can't do without the military," Denise Leith, author of a forthcoming book on the subject, recently told the Financial Times.

(Jim Lobe < Dit e-mailadres is beschermd tegen spambots. U heeft Javascript nodig om het te kunnen zien. > writes for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at as well as for and Inter Press Service.)