Last month, Irian Jaya celebrated the 40th anniversary of its declaration of independence, a document that has never been recognized by any member of the international community. Yet every year separatists in the Indonesian province located on the western half of New Guinea (also known as West Papua) raise their rebel flag and engage in traditional celebrations.
But this year's rituals were tinged with sadness and anger. The body of Theys Eluay, leader of the main pro-independence movement, was recently found in an overturned car in a ravine. There were signs of torture. An investigation by leading Indonesian human-rights groups alleged that the country's infamous special forces masterminded the killing.
With the assassination of Mr. Eluay, a moderate who championed independence through peaceful means, there is growing concern that militant separatists will be emboldened and the situation could become explosive. The province is under heavy military guard and in recent weeks there have been a rising number of clashes between security forces and Papuans, many armed with only bows and arrows.
Mr. Eluay's murder also poses a grave test for the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has flatly ruled out independence for Irian Jaya or any other rebellious province. In addition to separatist struggles, Indonesia's vast archipelago also suffers escalating ethnic and religious violence. There are growing doubts about Ms. Megawati's independence from the military, which provided crucial support to her campaign for the presidency.
To stabilize the situation, Ms. Megawati has offered regional autonomy to restive provinces like Irian Jaya, and to Aceh on the island of Sumatra. Her power-sharing plan would decentralize authority and enable the provinces to exercise greater administrative control. It would also allow them to retain a larger share of the profits from their natural resources.
Regarding Irian Jaya, Ms. Megawati has proposed to rename the province Papua and return as much as 80% of revenues from copper, gold, timber and other resources to local people. She had planned to visit the province this month to convince Papuans to accept a new autonomy law.
She had also hoped to use her trip to Irian Jaya as an example to more militant provinces like Aceh about the benefits of regional autonomy. But after Mr. Eluay's assassination, Ms. Megawati will be hard pressed to persuade Papuans that the government is willing or able to keep its word.
Like the rest of Indonesia, West Papua was colonized by the Dutch. It declared its independence in 1961, two years before the Dutch departed. Though the Dutch were willing to grant independence, Papuans ultimately acceded to Indonesia via a United Nations-supervised referendum in 1969. Separatist leaders maintain that this referendum was flawed because only tribal leaders, mostly handpicked by the Indonesian government, were allowed to vote. Some former U.N. officials who supervised the referendum have recently agreed.
An increasingly active Papuan pro-independence movement has emerged as a byproduct of Indonesia's overall democratization. Many Papuans believe that only independence can help them achieve racial and economic equality. As Melanesians, Papuans are ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia. They suffer rampant discrimination in their own homeland, perpetuated by the security forces and Indonesian transmigrants who came to Irian Jaya as part of a government-sponsored settlement program.
The migrant population is generally better-educated and more prosperous than the Papuans. Their dominance of the civil service raises serious concerns about the fairness of Ms. Megawati's decentralization plan. The indigenous population has little faith in the integrity of non-Papuans to administer autonomy and distribute the proceeds from natural-resource sharing.
So far, Jakarta has developed its plans for decentralization without consulting any elected representatives of the Papuans. And unsurprisingly, Papuans maintain that broad-based support for decentralization requires a dialogue about the terms for power and resource sharing.
To promote local ownership, Jakarta should consult with key stakeholders in the province's future, including the Papuan parliament, the pro-independence Presidium and local tribal leaders. Dialogue would at least enhance chances for resolving differences peacefully and through negotiation. Giving Papuans a voice in their future would also constitute an important confidence-building measure.
In addition, Papuans want an honest rendering of the past. They are calling for a "Historical Commission of Reconciliation" to consider events beginning with the Dutch withdrawal and culminating in the province's accession to Indonesia.
Moderate Papuan leaders assert that the commission's findings would not be used to justify independence claims. They maintain that, in fact, the process would have just the opposite effect. Truth-telling would provide a face-saving way to expose abuses and validate the sacrifice and suffering of many Papuans. It would encourage moderation, promote stability and enhance Indonesia's territorial integrity.
The commission would initially focus on events in the 1960s. Based on progress, its mandate could be broadened to include other abuses since accession. Papuans believe that Jakarta has robbed them of their cultural and political rights with impunity. They are frustrated and angry. Truth telling represents an important alternative to continued violence.
Whoever killed Mr. Eluay -- and there is strong evidence the military was involved -- may have transformed him from a political leader into a martyred national hero. Papuan leaders warn that if their cause continues to be ignored or met with force, they can neither control the overall population nor be held responsible for the actions of the independence movement's most militant factions. Unfortunately, violence may be exactly what those behind Mr. Eluay's murder want, for it will surely undermine Ms. Megawati's government and justify the military's thuggish tactics.
Events in Irian Jaya are seriously testing the patience of the Papuans.
Ms. Megawati and her government have a chance to head off disaster, but only if
they control the military and make a concerted effort to engage Papuans in
serious dialogue with the aim of promoting peace, justice and national unity.
David Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for
Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.