AP: New head of Asia panel in U.S. Congress champions self-determination for Papua

New head of Asia panel in U.S. Congress champions self-determination for Papua

The Associated Press

Published: January 23, 2007

WASHINGTON: The new chairman of a congressional panel on Asia promises to turn a spotlight on a little known, long-simmering independence movement in the Indonesian province of Papua.

Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa's nonvoting delegate and an 18-year veteran of Congress, means to examine the North Korean nuclear standoff, the rise of China and U.S. policy on resource-rich central Asian nations and small Pacific islands.

But the fate of Papua is of particular interest to Faleomavaega, whose relatives served as Christian missionaries in the province.

Faleomavaega assumed leadership Tuesday of the House of Representatives' subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. And while the Democratic delegate from the Pacific island territory will have little say in shaping the policies of Republican President George W. Bush, he plans to hold public hearings on Indonesia's actions in Papua.

That could be awkward for the Bush administration, which opposes Papuan independence and is deeply sensitive to Indonesia's concerns about sovereignty. The world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia is a crucial U.S. ally in fighting terrorism. U.S. officials are wary of undermining the vast archipelago's stability or damaging recently improved relations between the countries' militaries and governments.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Faleomavaega bluntly stated his intention to champion the right of Papua, also called West Papua, to stage a vote of "self-determination" about its future.

"The bottom line, as I've said to Indonesian leaders in recent times, is that you've done such a lousy job in your relationship with the West Papuan people, you might as well give them their independence," he said. "If you want to talk about fairness, give the people of West Papua the right of self-determination."

Doug Bereuter, a congressman for more than two decades until 2004 and former chairman of the House's Asia panel, said Faleomavaega's leadership of the subcommittee will bring fresh attention to the issue.

When it comes to "the question about increased autonomy" in Papua, the government of Indonesia is "always quite mindful of what the opinion of members of Congress might be, and especially Mr. Faleomavaega, who has spoken out more on that subject than anyone else," said Bereuter, currently the president of The Asia Foundation.

Faleomavaega has used his position on the Asia panel often to press for the United States to review its policy toward the province, where rights groups maintain that about 100,000 people have died as a result of military action or abuses by Indonesian troops.

Some critics contend that an abundance of natural resources, including large gold deposits, and Indonesia's strategic importance have prompted the United States to ignore atrocities against natives of the western half of New Guinea island.

Riaz Saehu, a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy, pointed out that his country is emerging as a democracy after more than 30 years of dictatorship. It was not until 2004 that Indonesia held its first direct presidential election.

Saehu said Faleomavaega's meetings with Indonesian officials have led to an understanding that the country is "taking care of the welfare of the people and upholding the human rights" in Papua.

For his part, Faleomavaega said he recognized the sensitivity of the issue for Indonesia, which would see Papuan independence as a potential spark for the country's breakup.

Still, he signaled a strong willingness to continue bringing congressional attention to Papua. He wants to lead a delegation of U.S. lawmakers to Indonesia this year to discuss the matter with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"I would like to see more action on the part of the Indonesian government that they really do care and appreciate looking after the people of West Papua as they would any other region of the country," Faleomavaega said.

International Herald Tribune

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