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Irian Jaya was under Dutch control until 1963 and was formally integrated into Indonesia under the discredited 'Act of Free Choice' in 1969. A separatist Free Papua Movement grew up, though this was relatively inactive during the Suharto era when province was designated a "special combat zone".
The province is sparsely populated by indigenous Papuans, former cannibals many of whom have been converted to Christianity and "civilised" by first Dutch and American missionaries, then Indonesian officials. It has been a destination for transmigrants from overcrowded parts of Indonesia under an official government programme, and this has led to ethnic tension and disputes over land.
It has also recently been a destination for spontaneous migration to coastal areas, which has meant the further marginalisation of unskilled Papuans.
Irian Jaya is the site of one of the country’s most important foreign investment projects - the Freeport Indonesia gold and copper mine - and the government is hopeful of exploiting timber and mineral resources further.
But local Papuans are increasingly resentful of rule by Jakarta, military abuses, loss of tribal lands and the growing presence of Islam. Talks on autonomy were temporarily shelved until after the elections amid fears that any discussions might be dominated by calls for independence.