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Indonesia: Separatists Mark 'Independence Day' Papua Province - 2003-12-01


Separatists in Indonesia's Papua province marked what they consider independence day on Monday by defying a government ban on raising their flag. Recent administrative changes imposed by Jakarta have increased tensions in the province, and there seems to be no sign that discontent with Indonesian rule is easing.

A group of about five hundred separatist sympathizers raised the Papua independence flag on Monday morning. Despite a government ban on flag-raising ceremonies, and a military order to shoot demonstrators, the ceremony passed peacefully. Over the past few days, however, 42 people have been arrested for similar acts of defiance and could face life in prison.

Forty years after Indonesia took over the former Dutch colony, tensions are running high in Papua, fueled in part a government decision to divide the province in two. Jakarta says the move makes it easier to administer the huge area. Some critics, however, including Sidney Jones, who heads the Jakarta office of the International Crisis Group, say there are other motives.

"What there is now is outrage of an unprecedented level with Jakarta for this effort to divide the province with an almost explicitly stated motivation of weakening the political independence movement," says Ms. Jones.

Five years ago, after the downfall of authoritarian President Suharto, there were signs that Jakarta was trying to improve relations with Papua. However, negotiations came to an abrupt halt in 2001 when members of the army murdered separatist leader Theys Eluay.

Since then the gulf between the two sides has been widening. When Mr. Eluay's killers were convicted earlier this year, the head of the army described them as "heroes." Rebels from the poorly armed military wing of the independence movement have made a number of small attacks this year. Analysts, however, say military force is unlikely to end the dispute.

Indonesia faces separatist and sectarian fighting in several parts of the far-flung archipelago, in addition to Papua, giving rise to fears the country could break apart. The government has taken a hard-line on separatist movements since it lost control of East Timor in 1999.

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