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Papua Leaders Take Independence Campaign Outside Indonesia - 2002-07-05

Leaders in the Indonesian province of Papua are taking their fight for independence overseas, with a recent trip to Washington and a visit to Australia in the works. VOA's Patricia Nunan spoke with independence leader Willy Mandowen to learn more about the separatist movement seven months after the assassination of a prominent leader, and in light of East Timor's recent independence.

Independence leader Willy Mandowen said he is encouraged by the response he is getting for Papua's independence struggle in some far away places, such as New York and Washington. "Although we know before we go that U.S. government official policy is not to support any separation of Indonesia…, but we're very pleased that the people in the State Department or congressmen would be very willing to sit down and talk with us and show … they want a peaceful solution." Mr. Mandowen is one of the leaders of the Papua Presidium Council, an organization formed in 2000 to push for independence from Indonesia.

Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, adjoins the country of Papua New Guinea in the western Pacific. Its people are ethnically and culturally different from most Indonesians. The province is rich in natural resources. Papuans resent efforts by Jakarta to move other Indonesians to the island, and to extract resources from Papua. Papua's struggle may be less famous than a similar struggle in East Timor, which won independence from Indonesia in 1999. But many of the details are familiar. Both fought guerrilla wars for independence for decades after being integrated into Indonesia. In Papua, the fighting continues. There is a key legal difference, however. The United Nations never recognized Indonesia's 1976 annexation of East Timor. As a result, the United Nations eventually sponsored an independence referendum for the territory, leading to East Timor's break from Jakarta.

In contrast, the United Nations approved the 1969 ballot that integrated Papua with Indonesia. Mr. Mandowen said that legal hurdle can be overcome, because there is evidence the ballot was rigged in Indonesia's favor. The United Nations, he said, should take a new look. "If the U.N. does a review and they find out that from the legal point of view there are some mistakes, as stated by several U.N. officials during that time, then let's put it back on the table and discuss it," he said. In the meantime, Mr. Mandowen thinks he is living on borrowed time. Along with his friend and colleague Theys Eluay, Mr. Mandowen was invited to a dinner at an Indonesian military base last November. The night before the dinner, Mr. Mandowen's wife had a dream in which she saw Mr. Eluay frantically waving from the backseat of a car. She saw Theys Eluay was waving his hands, and therefore she didn't want me to go to the party," said Mr. Mandowen.

The Mandowens tried to call Mr. Eluay but he had already left his home. The next day, Mr. Eluay was dead, the victim of an ambush on the drive home.

Nine Indonesian soldiers soon go on trial for the murder. But Mr. Mandowen rejects the findings of investigators who ruled the murder was an ordinary crime and not a political assassination. "Theys Eluay has been one of the many hundreds of thousands of cases that we experienced in Papua, and until now, no perpetrators have been brought to court in the past 40 years," he said.

The Indonesian government is offering Papua an alternative to independence. A new law allows Papua greater control over its affairs and a greater share of the revenue earned from its natural resources. That way, Jakarta hopes, independence aspirations may fade away.

But Mr. Mandowen said the bill overlooks human rights issues, which he said are the primary reason most Papuans want to be free of Indonesia. "You don't control the military or the police, it's not stated in the bill. And even the way they monitor, is they say you can use repressive monitoring systems. That means when everything in the province doesn't go with the wants of the central government, they can be repressive."

The Papua Presidium Council wants international support for a human rights tribunal to hear cases of human rights abuses in Papua. Indonesia is holding such a tribunal for East Timor, investigating alleged rights violations in the months surrounding East Timor's independence vote. But that tribunal has come under heavy fire from human rights groups, who charge that Indonesia is protecting high-ranking military officers. Mr. Mandowen said there are lessons in East Timor's experience. "We wouldn't be discouraged because the East Timor case has been a good lesson for the world, so next time to set up a criminal tribunal for Papua human rights violations," he said.

Mr. Mandowen said the next stop in his travels is Australia where he will continue to lobby for Papua's independence.