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zaterdag 08 juli 2000 01:00

Sydney Morning Herald 8/07/00

Papua
Lindsay Murdoch

Seven Papuan leaders ushered into the presidential palace this week were
surprised with the reception they received
from Abdurrahman Wahid.

"The President welcomed us," said Tom Beanal, a co-leader of the
delegation that had travelled from Indonesia's
far-eastern province, formerly called Irian Jaya.

Wahid listened intently as the men reported on a landmark congress in
the province's capital, Jayapura, in late May,
where 2,700 delegates renewed calls for secession. But the delegates
were careful not to tell the President that
Papuans had declared their independence, an act regarded as treason in
Indonesia.

Instead they spelt out how the congress rejected a 1969 United
Nations-supervised "act of free choice" and restated
that Papuans obtained their freedom on December 1, 1961. Splitting
hairs, maybe, but their presentation was
conciliatory enough for Wahid to agree to ongoing talks on the
province's future.

"The President committed to holding a dialogue for the best solution of
Papua," said Willy Mandowen, one of the
delegates from the Papuan presidium council.

But agreeing to talk appears to be the only point of agreement between
Wahid's administration and the majority of
Papuans from 254 indigenous tribes which the council represents.

Only swift and decisive action by Wahid will avoid trouble in Papua.

The congress decided unanimously to campaign internationally and in
Indonesia for the province's independence.
This lifted already high expectations among a majority of the 2.5
million people in the province that independence
was imminent.

But the Government, struggling to maintain stability amid a series of
crises, knows it would be committing political
suicide if it were to allow Papua to break away.

Most observers believe that if an East Timor-style referendum were held
in Papua, the majority would support
independence. Papuans hold deep-seated resentment at the arrival of
non-indigenous newcomers who now dominate
business and hold the best jobs in the regional government.

After decades of the central government's ripping off the province's
rich natural resources and its repressive rule,
people at the congress made it clear they wanted independence and would
fight for it.

Indonesian military-backed militias similar to those that caused mayhem
in East Timor last year are starting to
operate in the west of the province.

Among many of Papua's tribal people a cargo-cult-like thinking exists
that independence arrives with the raising of
the Morning Star, the flag of the province's independence movement.

Wahid is treading warily. He has ordered the stepping up of development
programs, replaced hardline military and
police commanders, allowed the province to be officially called Papua
and agreed to let the people fly the Morning
Star as long as it is together with and below the Indonesian flag.

Wahid is right in keeping the lines of communication open with the
Papuan leaders. One of the most immediate
challenges for the Government is the successful implementation of
radical laws providing wide regional autonomy to
the provinces.

Under the laws introduced last year by former president B.J. Habibie,
the regions will be permitted to keep most of
the revenue from natural resources such as forestry and mining.

But the extent to which autonomy will satisfy the demands of the Papuans
will not be known until after it is
introduced next year. In the meantime, Papua will remain one of the
country's flashpoints.


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