For Indonesia, which declared independence 60 years ago, Papua is the last major piece of unfinished business. East Timor, a former province, claimed independence in a 1999 referendum, although international troops were called in recently to halt fighting between the police and armed forces. A three decade-long separatist uprising in Aceh province ended with a peace deal last year, given impetus by the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. Indonesia insists that Papua is an integral part of the country, a position that almost all foreign governments accept, even as some have expressed concerns over charges that Indonesian security forces have engaged in human rights violations.
The former Dutch colony, more than 2,000 miles east of Jakarta, has the world’s largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine, owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, a U.S. mining giant. But the villages here are among the least developed in Indonesia. Papua has the country’s highest poverty level and the highest concentration of HIV/AIDS. One-third of Papuan children do not attend school. Nine out of 10 villages do not have a health clinic, doctor or midwife.
Papuans voice their frustrations as a desire for freedom, or merdeka . But freedom has various meanings, from political independence to social justice.
The continuing tensions were apparent again last month, when security forces shot two protesters dead at a courthouse in Wamena, the main town in Papua’s central highlands. The demonstrators were showing support for their mayor, a native Papuan, who had been charged with corruption. The police said they fired in self-defense.
In March, activists staged protests against Freeport, accusing the company of polluting the land and taking the people’s wealth. The protest turned violent, and five security officials were beaten to death. Forty-three Papuans recently sought asylum in Australia; it has granted to all but one, sparking a diplomatic row in which Indonesia recalled its ambassador.
The Indonesian government, citing security concerns, requires foreign journalists and researchers to obtain special permission to visit Papua and has seldom granted it in recent years. In rare interviews with a foreign journalist recently, native Papuans in the highlands near Wamena described living through three decades often characterized by fear and political uncertainty. Though a brief spring followed the ouster of the authoritarian president Suharto in 1998, renewed tensions in recent years have made them reluctant to go to their sweet potato gardens, for fear soldiers will arrest them. Their crops, they said, are dwindling.
A Crucial Vote
Worige Wandikbo lives about an hour’s walk from Siliba in a hut of sticks and thatch called a honai . The dirt floor is strewn with dried grass to make sitting more pleasant. There is no road, no electricity and no store. Once, Worige walked all day on muddy trails and a pitted road to Wamena, the nearest town. There, she saw “people driving in a car and living in nice houses.”
“I want to live like that,” said the strong-boned woman, her grim face lined with conviction. “I want freedom.”