Irian Jaya/Papua

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Irian Jaya/Papua


In Irian Jaya, as in Aceh, a longstanding rebel movement has been joined by a more recent civilian organization to press for independence from Indonesia. The Free Papua Organization (OPM) was founded in 1965, shortly after the United Nations transferred the territory from Dutch to Indonesian control in 1962-63. The OPM declared the formation of a Government of West Papua in 1971, two years after Soeharto staged an "Act of Free Choice" in which his government organized about 1,000 tribal elders to ratify union with Indonesia. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the rebels and Indonesian troops engaged in periods of intense military conflict, but since then violence has been very limited. In large part, the movement's lack of military success is attributable to demography, geography, and economics. The province's population of about 2.5 million is spread over a mountainous terrain nearly eight times larger than Aceh. Moreover, as a result of migration from other parts of Indonesia, indigenous Papuans account for only about two-thirds of the province's population and immigrants dominate most of the leading economic sectors.

During the two years since Soeharto's fall, hundreds of public figures in Papua have co-operated to build an increasingly well-organized independence movement. In mid-1998, they established the Forum for the Reconciliation of Irian Jaya Society, which called on the government to open discussions about the territory's political status, but allowed that the outcome could be less than full independence. In February 1999, Soeharto's successor, President B.J. Habibie, was persuaded to hold a National Dialogue with one hundred Papuan leaders, but their blunt demand for independence soured further chances for dialogue and led to a crackdown on independence supporters. In February 2000, about 500 Papuans attended a four-day meeting at which they elected a thirty-one-member Papuan Presidium Council to prepare a transitional government. From 29 May to 4 June they held a week-long Papuan People's Congress at which 2,700 registered participants established a 501-person legislature to complement the Executive Council. In addition, a loosely organized militia, known as the Papuan Task Force, sprang up across the province and has perhaps 15,000 members. Although some elements have ties to members of the Council and enforce law and order in the absence of Indonesian control, most are organized along tribal lines and some engage in criminal activity. One of its main units is controlled by the son of the Council president.6

The Papuans' grievances are much the same as those of the Acehnese. They resent Jakarta's control over the exploitation of their natural resources, particularly as symbolized by the enormous Freeport copper and gold mines. They also resent the transfer of their land to hundreds of thousands of government-sponsored migrants, mostly from Java, and decry a long line of human rights abuses by Indonesian armed forces. Other Papuan complaints mirror those of the East Timorese. Unlike the Acehnese, who can claim an important role in the Indonesian revolution against Dutch rule in the late 1940s, Papuans say that they were excluded from talks about their own future in the 1940s, when the Netherlands was able to keep control of the territory, and again in the 1960s when Indonesia gained control. Moreover, under Indonesian rule they felt unfairly excluded from positions in local government.

Until the middle of 2000, Wahid took an accommodating approach towards Papuan demands. In late 1999, he released independence leaders whom his predecessor Habibie had jailed and permitted the Papuan flag to be flown on condition that it be flown alongside but not higher than the Indonesian flag. In addition, he spent New Year's eve in the provincial capital, Jayapura, where he announced his agreement that the province's name be changed to Papua (a change that did not occur, and consequently resulted in much confusion). …

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