Page last updated at 14:54 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Papua's struggle for independence

By Rachel Harvey
BBC News


Rare video of Papua's freedom fighters filmed by a British activist

The word most often associated with West Papua is remote.

An area of thick jungle and mountains, roughly the size of Spain, Papua is the eastern-most outpost of the Indonesian archipelago, some 3,200km (2,000 miles) from the government in Jakarta.

Culturally it feels even further.

Papua became part of Indonesia in 1969 after a controversial and very limited vote. Ever since there have been calls from some Papuans for independence and for decades a low-level armed resistance has been rumbling on, largely unnoticed by the outside.

International journalists are severely restricted from working in the province. A special permit is required.

But the BBC's Newsnight programme was recently offered rare footage of rebel fighters in their jungle hide-out.

The pictures were filmed by a British man keen to document the independence movement. He travelled undercover, aided by local activists, and asked that he remain anonymous to protect those who helped him.

It took him nine hours in a car and 16 hours on foot, trekking through the jungle, to reach the mountain stronghold of the Free Papua Movement Rebels.

Cultural erosion

They are, in truth, a pretty fragmented, poorly armed band of warriors. Some dress in Western-style shorts and T-shirts, with wellington boots the footwear of choice.

Rebel commander Goliath Tabuni
This is my land - our ancestors gave us this land. Indonesia has stolen it from us
Rebel commander Goliath Tabuni

Others proudly sport more traditional attire - a few feathers and beads, unkempt beards, wild hair and penis gourds. The size and curlicue of the latter denoting status.

They are armed with a few assault rifles stolen from the Indonesian security forces, and homemade bows and arrows.

The power of the rebels lies as much in the symbolism of their existence as it does in their ability to wage war.

Many Papuans feel their culture and identity are slowly being eroded. Papuans don't look like other Indonesians. They are Melanesian, closer to Aboriginals than Asians.

But migrants from other Indonesian islands now make up about half the local population. Some of these incomers consider the traditional Papuan way of life backward and uncivilised.

Layers of grievance have built up over the decades.

"We've had enough," said Anton, a tribal leader. "Indonesia has committed crimes, killing people and other human rights abuses. We want freedom, justice and democracy."

Investigation promised

A rebel commander, Goliath Tabuni, sits at Anton's right hand. Compared to the chief's traditional body decorations, the commander looks a bit dishevelled in his floppy camouflage hat.

Papuan rebel fighters
There is no sign yet that Papuan independence is any closer
But in terms of their passion for the cause, they are equals.

"This is my land," said Goliath. "Our ancestors gave us this land. Indonesia has stolen it from us."

Over the years there have been serious abuses committed by the Indonesian security forces. Accusations of torture and rape persist.

But under the democratically elected government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the military and police are being reformed.

In a statement responding to the Newsnight programme, the Indonesian Embassy in London said: "No-one in Indonesia will ever condone human rights violations. Therefore, it is a sad fact if one still judges Indonesia by the old yardsticks.

"We can confirm that all human rights abuses will be duly investigated in Indonesia and, if proven guilty by the court, all abusers of human rights will be punished. No-one is immune."

But the legacy of past behaviour will take time to erase.

Elusive dream

As long as the independence fighters exist, the soldiers and police will stay in Papua in large numbers.

Their mission is not just to root out the rebels, but also to protect vital business interests. Papua is rich in natural resources.

Rebels raise the Morning Star flag
Raising the Papuan flag, the Morning Star, is illegal in Indonesia
It is home to the world's largest gold and copper mine and there are big investments in gas, timber and palm oil. A blessing for some. A curse for others.

"We believe it's about morality," said Anton, the tribal leader. "Because the world is interested in our resources, they won't talk about us. That's why the world just ignores us and our struggle."

On 1 December, independence supporters gathered in a clearing in the jungle to mark Papua's self-declared Independence Day.

With great ceremony and formality they raised the Papuan flag. It was a very deliberate act of defiance: raising the Morning Star flag is illegal in Indonesia.

In the jungle no one could see. But when, in 2004, the flag was raised in the provincial capital, Jayapura, the police were looking on.

Yusak Package, who spoke at the rally, was arrested and charged with treason. He is currently serving a 10-year jail sentence and is considered by Amnesty International to be a prisoner of conscience.

In terms of raising the international profile of the Papuan cause, Yusak's case, and others like it, are probably more effective than the armed rebellion.

But there is no sign yet that independence is any closer. And in their remote mountain hide-out, that is still the dream the rebel fighters are striving for.

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