LONDON — The biggest single taxpayer in Indonesia is the U.S. firm Freeport McMoran. The money comes mostly from its Grasberg mine in the mountains of West Papua, which sits on the largest gold deposit in the world. That is why Jakarta, which used every dirty trick in the book to hang onto East Timor in 1999, will fight even harder to hang on to West Papua, the western part of the great island of New Guinea.

A grim hint of what that might mean came last week in the West Papua town of Wamena, when Indonesian troops chopped down a flagpole bearing the Morning Star flag of the Papuan separatists and set off two days of rioting that cost 30 to 45 lives. It was the first big outbreak of political violence in the territory since Indonesia’s first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, took power a year ago.

Wahid’s dilemma, as he strives to hold his sprawling island country of 210 million people together, is that the 2.3 million Papuans have a good case for independence, but he needs their resources. He must also be careful about offending his powerful army — and with other separatist movements on the rise in Indonesia from oil-rich Aceh to the Moluccas, he doesn’t want another precedent for successful separation like East Timor.

Meanwhile, in West Papua, we are seeing a pattern familiar from East Timor, with new militias getting weapons and lavish subsidies from Indonesian sources. Their job, as in East Timor, is presumably to make any democratic choice for independence impossible, or if it should happen, to discredit and negate it through large-scale violence.

By ugly coincidence, the vice commander of the militia that Jakarta created two years ago to kill the people of East Timor if they voted for independence instead of autonomy within Indonesia, Nemecio Lopez de Carvalho, has just been spilling the beans in West Timor.

Sensing that the new regime was about to throw him to the war crimes investigators, he declared: “(Former President B.J.) Habibie said to us, ‘I give the order to you that if autonomy loses, your job is to clean East Timor from East to West and leave nothing alive but ants.’ The Indonesian government used us like killing machines. . . . The machine did not gain its aims and (now) they are blaming us.”

Habibie is gone, but the army is still there, and still playing the same games in order to destabilize democracy and preserve its privileges. The planned genocide in East Timor was halted early by prompt foreign intervention, but could West Papua count on the same response if it is needed?

Like East Timor (a former Portuguese colony that was invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975), West Papua was not part of the original Indonesia that won its independence from the Dutch in 1947. As part of the Dutch empire in Asia, it had been ruled from Jakarta, but it had few historical, ethnic, linguistic or religious links with the Indonesian archipelago.

The Dutch held on to West Papua after 1947, preparing it for an independent future, but Indonesia under the dictator Sukarno was a neoimperialist power. Sukarno’s war to wrest northern Borneo from the new federation of Malaysia failed, but his parallel campaign to seize western New Guinea from the Netherlands succeeded. The Dutch pulled out in 1961, and the United Nations (under heavy U.S. pressure) ratified the Indonesian conquest in a shamefully rigged “Act of Free Choice” vote in 1969.

Theys Eluay, then one of the 1,025 community leaders handpicked by the Indonesian Army to vote for everybody else, recalls: “If we had not voted for integration (with Indonesia), our houses would have been burned and our families slaughtered.” Abandoned by the world, the 1,025 voted obediently for the Indonesian takeover. Ever since, there has been a low-level insurgency, but it was easily controlled by ruthless Indonesian Army and police units.

Eluay now heads the Papuan Presidium Council, representing all 254 indigenous tribes, that voted for immediate independence from Indonesia last June. They see it as urgent because Jakarta’s policy remains to “Asianize” the territory by settling 10,000 families from Indonesia there each year, with the ultimate goal of reducing real West Papuans to minority status. But men like Eluay who have lived their lives under foreign occupation are inevitably compromised people, and there are disturbing aspects to the militia group he leads.

Eluay’s 7,000-strong, black-clad “Satgas” (task force) militia claims to be proindependence, but its main source of money, strangely, is Yorris Raweyai, the deputy leader of an Indonesian “youth organization” that used to act as anonymous, deniable “enforcers” for the dictator Suharto. There are also reports of rival “red and white” militias (the colors of the Indonesian flag) being set up in various West Papua towns.

A suspicious mind might conclude that certain Indonesian quarters are creating a scenario for a “spontaneous” outburst of internecine violence in West Papua, with lots of spectacular atrocities, in order to redefine a legitimate independence movement as a civil war. Wahid is probably not in on the plot, but given his poor health and short attention span, he may not be able to stop it.

Wahid’s instincts are good. He let West Papua revert to its former name last December (Suharto had renamed it “Irian Jaya”). He set up an independent commission to investigate past human-rights abuses there. After the West Papuans’ declaration last June that they had been legally independent since the Dutch left in 1961, he even said that they could fly their Morning Star flag beside (though slightly below) the Indonesian flag.

But he did not accept their assertion that the 1969 “Act of Free Choice” was invalid because it was “conducted to the accompaniment of threats, intimidation, sadistic killing, military violence and amoral deeds that gravely violated humanitarian principles.” Nor did he agree that West Papua is in the same category as East Timor — never legally part of Indonesia at all — and so can be set free without creating a precedent that other regions could follow.

Wahid is trying to hold a complicated country together, and hold off a power-hungry army, and foster a democratic culture, all at the same time. He doesn’t have any room to be reasonable over West Papua. So there may be a humanitarian calamity there, engineered by the Indonesian Army with the aim of discrediting the independence movement.

It would be nice to believe that the foreign reaction would be as swift and effective as it was in East Timor, but there will be no U.N.-supervised referendum in West Papua, with foreign TV crews on the spot. Equally important, West Papua has had nobody to raise public consciousness about the West’s responsibility for its plight, as Noam Chomsky so effectively did about the U.S. role in selling East Timor down the river.

If there is great deal of violence in West Papua soon, the rest of the world will pretend it’s none of their business. Nobody knows how it will come out in the end but then, nobody even knows if democracy will survive in Indonesia itself.

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