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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 March 2006, 15:00 GMT
Mine hits deep seam of Papua unrest
By Tim Johnston
BBC News, Jakarta

A Papuan protester
Papuans say they have been ignored by Jakarta
When protesters killed five members of the Indonesian security forces in the remote and restive province of Papua last week, it focused international attention on a region with long-standing grievances.

Analysts are warning that the Indonesian government has a limited window of opportunity to do something about the unrest.

Although the demonstrations were nominally spurred by objections to the world's largest copper and gold mine, operated by the US-based Freeport McMoRan, the roots of Papuan discontent are deeper and more intractable.

Papua has a distinct identity and political history. Dutch colonial forces granted Papua self-rule in 1961, but after the Dutch pulled out a year later, Jakarta annexed the province without honouring the agreement.

In 2001, the government recognised this by granting the province increased autonomy, but it has had little tangible benefit on the ground.

Losing faith in the political process, many activists believe direct action is the only way to bring their concerns to the attention of Jakarta.

"Many of the demonstrations had long been planned by student groups linked to the independence movement, but the Freeport protests also reflected broader frustration and anger over the role of the military in Papua, lack of justice for past abuses and the failure of special autonomy to improve the welfare of the people," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report released this week.

Tired of waiting

The list of Papuan complaints has been growing steadily over the years. People in the province feel that at best they are neglected, and at worst they have been ruthlessly exploited by successive Jakarta governments only interested in taking their gold, their copper, their timber and their land and giving nothing in return.

The brutal and heavy handed tactics of the Indonesian security forces and the lack of any reliable system of redress have also provided a constant source of aggravation, and a constant source of recruits to the ranks of the rebels. The authorities are aware of the problem and have taken some steps: after the recent police deaths, they took away the guns of 40 members of the paramilitary mobile police brigade to prevent retribution.

Grasberg mine in Papua
Grasberg mine attracts protests, but Papua's problems run deeper

Papuans also feel let down by the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In his election campaign in 2004, Mr Yudhoyono promised to tackle long-standing Papuan concerns, a promise that won him an overwhelming share of the vote in the province.

But Papuans say he has not delivered.

They say his administration has ignored the Papuan People's Council, which was set up late last year as an interlocutor to ease tensions between Papuans and the central government. They say that they are tired of waiting for change that never comes and that now is the time to for them to push it onto the agenda, both within Indonesia and internationally.

Asylum embarrassment

Papuan nationalists are becoming much more adept at attracting international attention to their concerns. They know that the topic of gold mining, with its visceral if frequently mistaken associations with rapacious greed, has a broad and incendiary appeal in the liberal West. By coupling their economic grievances with Freeport with accusations of environmental damage, the appeal has been given extra impetus.

A prominent Papuan nationalist, Edison Waromi, says that the recent arrival of 43 Papuan asylum seekers in Australia was designed to bring attention to the problems in the province. The boat they arrived on carried a banner saying in English: "Save West Papua people souls from genocide, intimidation and terrorist from military government of Indonesia."

On Thursday, the Australian government granted all but one of the group temporary protection visas, an indication that their fears of the Indonesian authorities may have foundation. It is a clear embarrassment for South East Asia's largest democracy and a country that is trying to re-establish its humanitarian credentials after years of repression.

Protesters and police in provincial capital of Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia
Riots at Grasberg mine provoked fears of reprisals

Beneath Indonesia's newly restored democracy runs a powerful vein of nationalism. What the nationalists fear is that Papua will become another East Timor.

After almost a quarter of a century of Indonesian rule, international pressure forced Jakarta to hold a referendum on Timorese independence, and in 1999 the land that Indonesians once called their 27th province voted to break away, leaving a deep wound that for many has never healed.

Nationalists accuse the West of orchestrating the plan to "steal" East Timor, starting with a mass campaign by human rights activists and ending with the UN-organised referendum on independence.

The subject is still so raw that almost all visiting dignitaries, from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this month to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair next week, are required to make a statement that they are committed to "the unitary state of Indonesia" - shorthand for a declaration that they don't support independence for Papua or any other part of the country.

The Indonesian government has to perform a difficult balancing act in many dimensions.

It needs to move towards addressing Papuan concerns while trying to keep inflamed Indonesian nationalist sentiments in check; and it needs to be seen to be taking concerns over Freeport into account while avoiding being seen unilaterally to renegotiate the company's licence, and thus alienating vital foreign investment in the country.

Although the government has been tinkering with solutions to specific Freeport-based issues, it has done little to address the underlying sources of discontent in Papua. The International Crisis Group says that the most important element of any solution would be constructive dialogue with a representative Papuan body.

It says that although it would currently be possible to revive the Papuan People's Council as a dialogue partner, people are running out of patience, and that will not hold true indefinitely.

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