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Lessons of East Timor keep Papua tied down

South China Morning Post - December 4, 2003

Peter Kammerer – The Indonesian government's experiment with autonomy in the restive province of Papua has been dismantled by growing nationalism among the ruling elite in Jakarta, observers said yesterday.

They concluded that concessions made by President Megawati Sukarnoputri's approving of new laws last year had been eroded to the point of being meaningless. Indonesian military and police were using increasing force to quash independence moves by separatists.

Muted celebrations were held this week to mark the 42nd anniversary of a failed independence push. Human rights groups also condemned the appearance of two men in the province linked to atrocities in East Timor as proof of the government's caring little for human rights and justice in Papua.

Australian expert on Papua, Richard Chauvel, said yesterday the clamping down by Indonesia on Papuan political activities had been a gradual process spurred by the experience of losing East Timor.

Former president Bacharrudin Habibie had offered autonomy to the former Portuguese colony and the independence-minded provinces of Papua and Aceh in October 1998. The resultant struggle for nationhood in East Timor had sparked fears of a breakup of Indonesia and a two-track approach to autonomy.

"What we're seeing is very strong determination of a drawing of a line in the sand after East Timor," Dr Chauvel, of Melbourne's Victoria University, said. "A lot of the discussion of what East Timor meant regarding the other separatist movements in Indonesia has often been read looking over the shoulders of independence leaders. But from the point of view of the political and military elite in Jakarta, the East Timor effect has consolidated their determination not to let anything else fall off the edge." He said as governments had gone ahead with drawing up plans for autonomy for Papua, they had also started restricting the effect of those measures.

The decision had become clear in late 2000, when independence leader Theys Eluay and four other separatists were arrested and tried for trying to undermine the central government. In October 2001, the Indonesian parliament passed a bill aimed at giving the province more autonomy and a greater share of tax revenues. It allowed for the flying of an independence flag and playing of a national anthem. But the following month, Eluay was kidnapped and found strangled to death, allegedly by police. Dozens of other separatists have since been killed and arrested amid a rising tide of protest by human rights groups.

The police chief in East Timor during the violent struggle for independence in 1999, Timbul Silaen, was on Monday appointed the head of the province's force. Feared militia leader in East Timor, Eurico Guterres, has recruited 200 men in Papua to support the military and police. Brigadier-General Silaen was charged with involvement in the bloodshed in East Timor, but found not guilty by a tribunal. Guterres was sentenced to 10 years' jail for instigating the unrest and is free pending the hearing of his appeal.

Experts agreed that with the taking of the presidency by Ms Megawati a hardened tone against autonomy for Papua and Aceh had emerged in the government. "Since Ms Megawati came to power, elements within the military, home affairs and other parts of the government didn't want anything to do with them – it was like the unwanted baby," Dr Chauvel said. "In a sense, Megawati's presidential instructions to divide the province into three were quite specifically directed at undermining and winding back the concessions granted under special autonomy."

The head of the research centre for police science at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, said the government seemed determined to go ahead with dividing Papua. But he did not believe Ms Megawati's approach differed from that envisaged by Mr Habibie.

"Habibie's government was trying to give autonomy to Papua, but would not allow independence," Dr Bhakti said from his Jakarta office. "The Megawati government is only continuing that policy. Nonetheless, it is at odds with the bill signed last year granting Papua special autonomy."