After Aceh, Megawati works her charm on Papua

President hopes to appease separatists on her first visit to province.

After sealing a peace deal with rebels in Aceh successfully, President Megawati Sukarnoputri has moved to consolidate Jakarta’s grip on another restive province – Papua.

Against a backdrop of increasing demands for independence in the region, the 55-year-old leader flew to the country’s eastern-most province and celebrated Christmas there, offering Papua similar pledges of concessions under a special autonomy package.

Signalling the importance of the resource-rich province to Jakarta, she was accompanied by several ministers and husband Taufik Kiemas during the two-day trip, her first to the area since she became President.

And she came with a strong message that underscored Jakarta’s concerns about developments in the province.

‘We have to stop condemning one another and each side has to stop all security disturbances,’ she told thousands of Papuans on Christmas Day, at a sports stadium in the provincial capital of Jayapura.

Demand for the territory’s independence has been rising, along with calls for a referendum following accusations of human-rights abuses by the Indonesian military and exploitation of natural resources in the region.

There has been mounting anger in Papua following the murder of pro-independence leader Dortheys ‘Theys’ Hiyo Eluway more than a year ago.

Such anger has not been lost on Jakarta, especially Ms Megawati.

Indeed, well-placed sources said the President had maintained consistently that resolving problems in strife-torn provinces was her top priority. A senior diplomatic source added: ‘Her visit registers a very clear signal that her administration will not allow Papua or any other province to contemplate breaking away.’

Her visit to Papua came exactly a week after her trip to Aceh, Indonesia’s western-most province, where she joined 2,000 people in a prayer for peace.

The peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) won the Megawati administration praise and there is expectation that Papua could also be similarly dealt with through concessions that would appease separatist elements.

Under the special autonomy package, Papua could receive 70 per cent of government revenue from the exploration of natural resources.

Apart from job opportunities for thousands, the province stands to make about 6 trillion rupiah (S$1.3 billion) from copper and gold mine company PT Freeport Indonesia, in addition to revenue from oil and liquefied natural gas explorations.

Inaugurating the Tangguh liquefied natural gas project, Ms Megawati urged the people of Papua not to squander the wealth expected from the massive project, slated to start production in 2006.

Media reports covering her visit to Aceh widely quoted disillusioned citizens who said they were cynical about promises of help.

Similarly in Papua, there continues to be seething resentment towards the central government, despite such offers.

One main reason is the role of security forces in the region.

The Jakarta Post yesterday quoted Bishop Sahadung in Papua as saying that the on-going conflict with the Free Papua Movement should be resolved peacefully.

His comments reflected widespread sentiment in the province that trigger-friendly soldiers were operating without any control, and damaging peace efforts.

Senior military officials have long maintained a hardline stance in dealing with provinces like Papua and Aceh, preferring force rather than dialogue, as an option.

Political observers said Ms Megawati’s visit would go some way towards assuaging concerns in Papua that Jakarta was only interested in a ‘shoot first, think later policy’.

A senior government official noted: ‘The civilians believe that the soft option always works best. But if there is a real threat that the province will break away, we will have to go with the military option of using force.’

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