Subject: NYTimes: A Political Maze for Papuans Seeking Independence

The New York Times Saturday, April 15, 2006

Long Trip by Sea and Into a Political Maze for Papuans Seeking Independence


SOMERVILLE, Australia, April 9 — From one of the most remote places on earth, Herman Wanggai stepped into a 75-foot motorized outrigger last November and pushed off for a calculated and clandestine journey.

Along with one of his twin 2-year-old sons and more than 30 other people, he set off from the northern coast of Papua, the Indonesian province once called Irian Jaya, on New Guinea. After six weeks, under a blistering equatorial sun and with Pacific waves sloshing on board, they made it thousands of miles to Merauke, on the southern shore.

There, they picked up his wife and other son and set out once again, in the dead of night, with little food and no compass.

Four days later, on Jan. 13, the group hit a reef near Mapoon, on the northwest coast of Cape York peninsula, clambered ashore, and found that they had miraculously reached their destination, Australia, where a new drama began.

Caption: Herman Wanggai of Papua and his wife, Ferra Kambu, with their twins on a Melbourne beach. Indonesia is protesting their asylum in Australia. Edwina Pickles for The New York Times

Several weeks later, Australia, acting with surprising speed, granted Mr. Wanggai, 32, and all his passengers, save one, political asylum.

The decision set off a diplomatic firestorm that has brought the issue of Papuan independence to international attention, which is just what Mr. Wanggai and his wife, Ferra Kambu, wanted.

In response, Indonesia recalled its ambassador and Indonesian politicians have called for trade sanctions.

For Indonesia, the issue could not be more serious. An archipelago stretching thousands of miles, the country has already faced two secessionist wars in recent years, in Aceh and East Timor. The latter succeeded in breaking away.

Indonesian leaders do not want to repeat the episode with Papua, which holds the biggest source of income for the government: the world's richest gold reserve.

Caption: The journey in a motorized outrigger from the northern shore of West Papua Province to a reef in North Australia took more than six weeks. Edwina Pickles for The New York Times

As conflicts on Papua have flared — four people were killed in protests last month — more and more churches and human rights groups in Australia, the United States and Europe have lined up behind the cause of Papuan independence.

Though Australia does not support independence, the decision to grant asylum meant that authorities had concluded the Papuans faced a "well-founded fear of persecution" if they were returned to Indonesia.

[In an effort to soothe relations with Indonesia, the government announced April 13 that from now on Papuan refugees would be deported to places like the desolate island of Nauru while their asylum claims were processed, which can take several years.]

The Indonesian government does not permit journalists to visit Papua without special permission, which is rarely granted. Even diplomats are closely watched when they visit the province, a European ambassador said recently.

Without access to Papua, it is almost impossible to assess the human rights situation. The Indonesian police and military deny there are any abuses; the Papuan refugees here speak of systematic persecution.

The United States government does not support independence, either.

But in its annual country-by-country human rights report, released last month, the State Department cited incidents in which Indonesian soldiers had beaten, tortured and killed suspected promoters of independence.

In one case, the report said, soldiers tortured a suspected secessionist "by slashing his face and body with a knife and razor and then pouring petrol over his head and setting his hair on fire."

The report also noted that the Indonesian government had made only "limited progress in establishing accountability" for past human rights abuses committed by the military and police.

It was because of persecution for their support of independence, Mr.

Wanggai said, that he had risked all and braved what his wife described as waves "as high as mountains."

They also wanted to make a point, they said: that Papua, a wild, mountainous and heavily forested land roughly the size of California and rich in natural resources, does not rightfully belong to Indonesia.

Papua's population of some 2.5 million people are mostly Melanesian, and many are Christian, converted after years of missionary work. Most Indonesians are Javanese and Muslim.

"We are activists," said Mr. Wanggai, a one-time law student who has been active in the independence movement for more than a decade. He has been jailed twice, once for two years for flying the West Papuan independence flag.

Ms. Kambu, 36, the daughter of a tribal chief, has a bachelor's degree in sociology and has been part of the movement since her university days. She described the independence cause as a "nonviolent struggle."

Most of the others who fled with the couple were university students and were also active in the independence movement.

West Papuans' claims for independence reach back half a century. After World War II, the Dutch gave Indonesia its independence, but because of its vast riches kept Papua.

In 1963, to appease Indonesia's left-leaning dictator Sukarno, who was demanding West Papua as part of Indonesia, President Kennedy persuaded the Dutch to agree to a United Nations sponsored plebiscite, which was held in 1969.

The Papuan leaders voted to join Indonesia, but by nearly all accounts, including by people who do not support Papuan independence, the vote was manipulated by Jakarta.

Indonesia has made some concessions in recent years, agreeing to change the name of the province from Irian Jaya to Papua, and to grant more autonomy, including a greater share of the revenues from the province's riches, like a huge copper and gold mine run by the American mining company Freeport-McMoRan.

But little of the promised autonomy has been delivered. The central government has done little to improve the lives of Papuans, and health care and schooling remain rudimentary.

For President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is highly regarded by the American and Australian governments for bringing stability to Indonesia, Papua is a critical test.

On the one hand, he faces rising protests in Papua by an alienated and increasingly organized independence movement that, as the Australian asylum decision shows, is drawing greater international support.

On the other, he must satisfy strident nationalists at home, including senior military commanders who are angry over a deal he made last year with secessionists in Aceh Province that brought peace but gave the Acehnese considerable autonomy.

The commanders, who hold great sway in Indonesia, will not give the president much room to maneuver on the Papuan issue, and some even favor a military solution, which they pursued for years in Aceh at the cost of many lives.

The refugees in Mr. Wanggai's party, who attended St. Andrew's Anglican Church here, about 40 miles south of Melbourne, on Palm Sunday, said they had talked with their relatives back in Papua and had been told that the Indonesian police had been questioning the relatives to determine exactly who fled and why.

The "why" is clear to the refugees and those who support them, including Peter Woods, the pastor of St. Andrew's, who was a missionary in Papua from 1978 to 1983. "The Papuans are treated as slaves of the Javanese," he said.

As the refugees and other worshippers walked out of St. Andrew's, they passed a bulletin board with a poster on it that read, "West Papua: An Issue Whose Time Has Come."

That is precisely what the Papuan refugees here hope, and what the Indonesian government fears.

------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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