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Small Window for Peace in Papua

Author: Esther Pan
April 19, 2006

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Papua, a restive island on the eastern end of Indonesia's vast chain, has challenged Jakarta's authority for over half a century. Once part of the Dutch East Indies, Papua was granted self-rule in 1961 but annexed by Indonesia soon after. After decades of inequitable exploitation of the island's rich resources and rampant human rights abuses by the Indonesian army, some Papuan independence activists persecuted for their pro-democracy activities are taking great risks to emigrate to Australia (NYT). Canberra's decision to grant more than forty such refugees asylum has caused a diplomatic furor (Asia Times). Jakarta withdrew its ambassador in protest and has blacklisted several Australian academics, accusing them of supporting the pro-democracy movement in Papua (Jakarta Post).

Although never as violent as a parallel movement for autonomy in the western Sumatra province of Aceh, the Papua democracy movement has grown steadily for the last several decades, at a time when the region's vast natural resources—including gold, copper, forests, oil, and gas—are exploited by the U.S.-run mining company Freeport McMoRan. The BBC offers an analysis of Papua's woes, saying voters are disillusioned and angry at Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose campaign promises to take Papuan grievances seriously now seem abandoned. A CFR Special Report released April 19, Peace in Papua, says momentum created by the Aceh peace agreement reached after the 2004 tsunami is creating a window for the international community to push for peace on the troubled island. But the International Crisis Group warns that a critical group set up to mediate between Papuans and the central government, the five-month-old Papuan Peoples' Council, has been neglected by authorities and could collapse.

In December 2005, the New York Times reported Freeport McMoRan had paid Indonesian military and police officers nearly $20 million between 1998 and 2004. The report sparked a U.S. government inquiry (NYT) and criticism from Indonesian civil society groups. The mining firm has also agreed to pay the Indonesian government $30 million to settle claims for environmental damage caused by its operations. But John McBeth writes in the Asia Times that international protests ignore the progress the mining company—which employs 180,000 people, is one of Indonesia's largest taxpayers, and has brought in more than $33 billion in revenues—has made in environmental and community programs in the last decade.

The controversy over Freeport's payments—and ongoing protests that left four policemen dead in Papua (BBC)—forced the mine to temporarily shut down operations at several sites. It also drove the company's share price down 20 percent in the first quarter of 2006 and raised industry fears about Indonesia's stability. Protests also continue over rough treatment Papuans receive at the hands of police and military units protecting the mines. Human Rights Watch details police violence against children in Papua. But Indonesian government officials say the protests and international outcry won't deter Indonesia from protecting the investments of large mining corporations and other foreign businesses (Dow Jones Newswires). The Australian think tank Centre for Independent Studies laments Papua's economic stagnation and proposes a plan for sustainable economic growth. Another study, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2004, outlines the challenges to Australia of instability in its nearest neighbor.

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