The Age's Indonesia correspondent, Mark Forbes, gained rare access to the province of West Papua, a new powderkeg on Australia's doorstep.
THEY appear from palm and bamboo thickets, tribal warriors armed with traditional spears and giant bows. Some wear cassowary feather headdresses; most boast beaded armbands bearing the red, white and blue morning star flag, symbol of the struggle for West Papuan independence.
At least 40 warriors, some members of the OPM — the ragtag guerilla movement that has resisted Indonesian rule of Papua for nearly 40 years — have not seen our approach to their hideout on the outskirts of Timika, adjacent to Freeport, the massive mine that has extracted more than $100 billion in gold from Papua's resource-rich soil.
"Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah!" one of the surrounding Dani tribesman chants incessantly — a traditional greeting — until I hesitantly stretch out a hand and am enveloped in an embrace and the thick odour of jungle sweat.
These men helped blockade Freeport last month, closing it for four days after a shoot-out with security forces evicting tribesmen panning for traces of gold in the mine's tailings. Eleven days ago they stormed and ransacked Timika's Sheraton Hotel, angry that an inspection by local politicians of the US-owned mine had not included activist opponents.
The conflicts at Timika sparked an outpouring of protests against the mine, inflaming Papuan resentment of Indonesia and culminating in a bloody riot in the provincial capital, Jayapura, when four police and one intelligence officer fell, stabbed and battered, outside the university campus.
Concerned Indonesian leaders, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, warn of a conspiracy to ferment a revolt for West Papuan independence — his intelligence chief even suggested Australian activists could be involved.
Papuan leaders admit deeper tensions underpin the Freeport protests, dating back to the 1969 "act of free choice" when 1022 Papuans handpicked by Indonesia voted to accept its rule.
Indonesia's recent compromise of special autonomy for the province has been a failure, they say, warning that locals will again raise the morning star flag and "cry for freedom" if their grievances are not addressed.
A meeting of Papuan leaders this week called on Dr Yudhoyono to hold an internationally monitored dialogue and settlement with the province, similar to the process that brought peace to Aceh last year. They want Australia to be part of the monitoring team.
January's arrival of a boatload of 43 Papuan asylum seekers off Cape York drew Australia further into the debate.
Yesterday Jakarta condemned Canberra's decision to grant the Papuans temporary protection, stating it was baseless, it harmed attempts to resolve West Papua's problems and justified speculation that elements in Australia support the separatist movement.
Indonesia is paranoid at the prospect of a repeat of East Timor's 2002 succession and had banned Western journalists from the province for nearly two years, until The Age was granted permission to visit Jayapura and Timika last week. In West Papua, the gap between local aspirations and Jakarta's expectations is widening, inviting the spectre of bloodier conflict.
On Timika's outskirts, the warriors lead the way to a jungle clearing. Here the leading activist behind the clashes in Timika and Jayapura, Jefri Pagawak, vows the protests and the violence will continue unless Freeport's contract is renegotiated. Activists' demands include that it stop polluting and that it redirect more of its revenues to Papuans. Some want it closed altogether.
The focus may be the world's largest gold mine, which tips more than $1 billion a year into the national coffers, but Mr Pagawak argues Freeport's contract with Indonesia was signed in 1967, two years before Indonesia formally took over Papua from the Dutch and an interim United Nations administration. The mine's riches drove the US to collude to "trap Papua into Indonesia", he says.
"Since Papua was integrated into Indonesia, military and the police treated Papuans badly and we are traumatised. We will not step back until the Government can think democratically. We will move forward even stronger if the Government does not open doors of dialogue. We will stage protests, if the Government acts brutally the people, in self-defence, will attack back."
In Jayapura it was the protesters who acted brutally, using rocks, sticks and spears to break down an attempt by the police riot squad to remove barricades blocking the main road outside the university.
Student organiser Henny Lani watched one policeman being beaten. Just four metres away, she pleaded for his life through her megaphone. "I said, 'people, please remain calm, we should not be provoked' … But the masses were just angry, no one listened."
But Ms Lani blames police: "I am upset because security officers did not respect our effort for negotiation. To me, the death of four officers is incomparable to the death of thousands of Papuans slaughtered since Freeport existed in Papua."
Burying their dead, police in Jayapura were angry with churches and human rights groups for focusing on their alleged reprisals, rather than the slayings. Spokesman Kartono Wangsadisastra concedes authorities had struggled to contain the urge for revenge.
No protesters were shot on Thursday, but three bystanders were hit by gunfire during aggressive police sweeps for student suspects the next day.
Up to 1000 students are still hiding in the mountains, some planning to flee to Australia.
Early this week the night market bustled, with tribal women squatting on cardboard with meagre offerings of fruit and beetlenut, while in stalls behind them migrants from Indonesia — 1 million of Papua's 2.5 million population arrived under a Government transmigration program — sold more lucrative products. Most traditional Papuans see little of the wealth generated by Freeport — 40 per cent live under the poverty line, surviving on less than $6 a week.
Most of the mine's profits flow back to the US, but Freeport contributes $40 million a year to a community development fund, much of it benefiting the primary landowner, the Amungme tribe.
The huge open pit slices deep into Papuan soil, its crushed tailings weave a muddy scar through the forest, choking the Ajkwa River. A scar deeper than Freeport's pit slices into Papuan hearts, a collective dream of independence darkened by claims of 44 years of injustice and abuses.
Head of Papua's provincial parliament Komarudin Watubun says last week's clash "is linked to the unsolved, accumulated problem in Papua".
Although the provincial Government is meant to receive three-quarters of Freeport's taxes, he believes they get far less. Mr Komarudin has lost faith with Dr Yudhoyono's pledge to resolve the Papuan issue and his promises to implement special autonomy. In violation of the special autonomy law, Jakarta created a new province to the east, West Irian Jaya, which held elections for a separate governor this month.
Among the groups claiming to represent the aspirations of Papuans, it is Papua Presidium fermenting the independence struggle. Gone underground since the murder of leader Theys Eluay, the Presidium has since placed its members in key roles in regional bodies.
Presidium's secretary-general, Thaha Al Hamid, says its strategy, via links to tribal leaders, students, aid groups and the armed OPM, is "to get independence. Indonesia has to leave Papua, has to leave this land. Our platform is peaceful struggle, that everything should go through dialogue, although Jakarta always keeps its door shut. We have two approaches: weapons and dialogue."
Agus Alua is head of the Papuan Peoples Council — formed under the new autonomy law to protect Papua's culture and resources via consultation with the national administration.
He is also a senior member of the Presidium. He tells The Age that Jakarta's violations of its own autonomy law mean "Papua's trust to Jakarta comes to zero".
The new West Irian Jaya province must be abandoned and Freeport closed, he says, demanding talks with Jakarta.
"If not, cry for freedom, raise the flag and ask the international community to help West Papua. We don't have hope for life on our land."
Interesting times ahead