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New Violence in Indonesia over Papuan Independence

New America Media, News Report, Bramantyo Prijosusilo Posted: Aug 17, 2008

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Opinus Tabuni, 35, was shot dead during a peaceful rally in the city of Wamena in the picturesque Baliem valley in the Indonesian province of Papua on August 9th.

Yeremiah Pigay,19, an anthropology student, was amongst the participants of the rally. He said over the phone that thousands of tribes people, many armed with traditional bows and arrows and spears, had gathered in Baliem to mark the U.N.s Indigenous Peoples Day. The rally began at around 11 A.M and ended in chaos at about 2.30 P.M when the police began to fire and some in the crowd responded by throwing stones. A bullet hit and killed Mr. Tabuni, who was an organizer of the rally. One soldier was reportedly injured.

Mr. Pigay said that the police fired single shots for approximately 15 minutes to disperse the crowd after the organizers of the rally raised the Papuan Morning Star flag. The Morning Star was raised alongside the Indonesian national flag, a U.N. flag, and a white flag serving as a S.O.S signal.

The situation in Wamena is now tense and non Papuan Indonesians are reportedly seeking protection in the city because of rumors of possible attacks by angry mobs of indigenous people.

Not all Indonesians agree with the ban on the Morning Star. During the presidency of the blind cleric Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001) the people of Papua were allowed to express their political aspirations peacefully. Late last year Mr. Wahid, who is known for his liberal and democratic views, declared that the Morning Star flag is a cultural icon and the government is stupid to ban it. However, Papuans continue to receive harsh consequences for raising the Morning Star.

Indonesian Papua has seen a low-key military and political struggle for independence for several decades. During the repressive rule of the late General Suharto (1966-1998) the Indonesian governments only response to independence aspirations was to send in the guns. Since democracy began to take root after the fall of Suharto the government has awarded autonomy to Papua, and divided the province in to two, Papua and West Papua, but the aspirations for independence have not abated. The land is rich in minerals and other natural resources but the majority of the indigenous tribes, some who have been living in Stone Age cultures for millennia, have yet to enjoy a share of the wealth of their land.

The US mining company Freeport Indonesia/Rio Tinto exploits the Grasberg mine, which contains the planets largest single copper and gold reserve. In the past, Freeport has been in conflict with the local population over several issues, namely the desecration of sacred areas, the exclusion of the local work force and massive environmental destruction. The Indonesian military has reportedly received large sums from Freeport to guarantee security of the mining operations that dumps over 220 thousand tones of tailings into the Ajkwa River every day, polluting massive areas of forest and waterways and ultimately sea.

The shooting in Wamena coincides with the receipt of a letter from 40 USA members of Congress, requesting the Indonesian government to release two Papuan independence activists who are in prison.

Former government civil servant Filep Karma and student Yusak Pakage are currently serving 15 and 10 years in prison respectively for expressing hostility and hatred towards the state. The hostility and hatred relates to their participation in a ceremony in December 2004, when the Morning Star flag was raised. Amnesty International considers Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage to be prisoners of conscience detained for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and has been calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

In Jakarta, several members of parliament, including speaker Hidayat Nur Wahid, military figures, and the anti-democratic Islamist party Hizb ut Tahrir, seized the news of the letter from the US members of Congress, as an opportunity to condemn what they described as US intervention in Indonesian domestic affairs. On Sunday (August 10, 2008) Hizb ut Tahrir attempted to stage a massive demonstration in down-town Jakarta rejecting US intervention in West Papua, but only managed to gather several score of supporters.

In a separate development, Indonesias Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said that several Papuans who had sought asylum in Australia want to return home. Mr. Wirayuda was speaking in an exclusive interview with Melbournes The Ages reporter in Jakarta ahead of talks with Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. In 2006, 43 Papuan independence supporters fled to Australia by canoe and were granted asylum. Mr. Wirayuda said that the situation in Papua had improved and that the new Lombok Treaty, scheduled to come into force this year, committed Australia not to allow its territory to be used "as a staging point for separatist movements from Indonesia".

There is also the risk of religious conflict in Indonesian Papua, fueled partly by the rise of both Christian and Islamist fundamentalism and migration. As Indonesia continues to wield a heavy hand in West Papua, the independence movement will increase in strength. If this trend continues, more blood will flow, and ultimately, the non-Papuan, Muslim Indonesians there will suffer the most.

Bramantyo Prijosusilo is a contributing writer for NAM based in Indonesia.

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