Indonesia’s next East Timor?

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Indonesia’s abuse of power in West Papua from 1963 to 2000

An abridged version of this essay appeared in the New Statesman, July 2000



New Guinea is the third largest island in the world. The eastern half, Papua New Guinea, is seen as Australia‘s problem child, independent but not self-reliant. Of the western half, West Papua, we know even less. Yet hidden at 4000 metres in the blue-black ranges of its interior, it possesses the largest reserve of gold on the planet. In the British mining company Rio Tinto plc‘s annual report for 1998, its gold stocks in New Guinea are given at a little more than 19m ounces. Rio Tinto has a 12.5% shareholding in West Papua‘s Grasberg mine, plus a further 40% share in Grasberg‘s expansion. The mine is owned by Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold, based in New Orleans, whose gold reserves at Grasberg stand at 85 million ounces. Grasberg‘s gold is worth $21.5bn at today’s prices. The mine is also the world‘s third largest source of copper, with reserves of 32 million tonnes.

West Papua is as big as Spain, but large parts of it are so dense with jungle and swamp that they have never been mapped. Slightly more than a million Papuans belong to hundreds of tribal clans, many living deep in the bush, Melanesians with no ethnic or religious ties to their Moslem rulers in Jakarta. In the highlands, the men hunt cassowary and tree kangaroos with bows and arrows, while the women labour in the gardens, cook and nurse. It is not uncommon to find a nursing mother with a child at one breast and a piglet at the other. To see these things is to glimpse our earliest humanity.

To this wilderness came Freeport-McMoran in 1967, with the blessing of the Indonesian government. No mine on Earth moves as much rock every day as Grasberg. When I visited West Papua in 1986, the company was producing 16,000 tonnes of ore a day from a nearby mine. Two years later, Grasberg disclosed its huge plug of copper-gold ore, which had stood in the rock for 3 million years as equatorial glaciers advanced and retreated around it. Now production is between 200,000 and 300,000 tonnes of ore a day.

In July 1999, I flew from Darwin across the Arafura Sea to Timika, the flapping tin-and-concrete mess that is the nearest approach point to the mine. From a village of 200 twenty-five years ago, it now has a population approaching 80,000.

It was several days before I could obtain permission to visit the mine. I travelled first to the Aikwa river. The Aikwa is a cement-coloured throat of water, several kilometres wide, that receives thousands of tonnes of mine tailings (the rock powder left from the milling process) per day. Eventually, it is estimated, 220 square kilometres of Papuan lowland will be drowned by tailings. On the levee I stood with Freeport‘s environmental manager, surveying a desolate spectacle under a thunderous sky. I pointed to the far bank, a horizon scarred by kilometres of dead trees. The manager said cheerfully, ‘Oh, they‘ve just had their root systems suffocated by tailings. Unsightly, aren‘t they? But we‘ll be cutting them down.‘

The sight downriver cannot prepare you for the mine itself. First there is the spectacular access road; there are no foothills and the blue peaks of the Jayawijaya range burst vertically upwards through the freezing silken mists, so Freeport’s engineers simply shaved the crests of a line of knife-edge ridges until the surface was wide enough for two 40-tonne trucks to pass.

As you drive higher, you see the mine‘s pipeline running bare by the roadside, carrying away the ore concentrate to the waiting tankers at the coast. At Mile 68 there is Tembagapura, the mine‘s dull-looking, flatpacked township, then at Mile 74 a cable tramway casually transports you a kilometre and a half through the clouds to the Grasberg‘s summit. Sliced like a boiled egg, the huge inverted cone at its centre is deepening year by year as the ore is blasted out and borne to the surface in a never-ending caravan of 200-tonne trucks.

The mine is an undoubted engineering masterpiece, in one of the highest and remotest places on Earth. Yet the Papuans continue to see Freeport as an adversary. The highland Amungme tribe on whose land the mine stands have suffered, in their eyes, a spiritual cataclysm. The earth they walk on is their ancestral mother, the mountain her head. (Before, whenever an Amungme died, they were carried up to the Grasberg‘s summit. The mine is gouging out their mother‘s brains before their eyes.) In 1977, in retaliation for land expropriations and armed only with hacksaw blades, Amungme villagers and OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, ‘Free Papua Movement‘) fighters cut the mine’s pipeline to the coast, and the Army retaliated by bombing, rocketing and strafing villages with US-supplied OV-10 Bronco warplanes. Today the Papuans’ resentment continues under several headings: Freeport’s forcible resettlement of highlanders in the swampy lowlands; rumours of its over-close ties to the Indonesian military; its environmental record, and alleged responsibility for human rights abuses; and money. Where is the money? By any standard, West Papua should be the most bankable province in the Indonesian republic, but it remains economically backward, its riches siphoned off to Freeport stockholders and to Jakarta.

Perhaps the main question is not even about money. As the head of the Catholic diocese office, Brother Theo van den Broek, put it, ‘It is: my land. Me.

‘Where am I in this whole story? I am nowhere.‘

Freeport‘s first contract was signed with Indonesia in April 1967. West Papua had come under interim Indonesian rule four years earlier. The Dutch had not wanted to hand it over with the rest of their East Indies empire, but President Sukarno began to flaunt his new friendship with the Soviet Union, and the United States took fright. The New York Agreement of 1962, brokered by the United Nations but choreographed by Washington, paid lip service to Dutch insistence on self-determination. Under the agreement, Indonesia was allowed six years of interim rule before it had to consult the Papuans as to whether or not they wanted to be annexed. As in East Timor, Indonesian troops were given responsibility for security.

That consultation, known as the ‘Act of Free Choice‘, was held on 2 August 1969. The 1025 Papuan council members who assembled at the army headquarters in the capital, Jayapura, were told by President Suharto‘s envoy that anyone who voted against Indonesia would have his tongue torn out or be shot on the spot. The vote for integration was unanimous.

Between 1963 and 1969, there were countless Indonesian ‘security operations‘ to break Papuan protests against the occupation, including a bloody bush war by OPM fighters. The precise number of Papuans who have died in the 37 years since Indonesian troops arrived is unknown, but at least 45,000 are believed to have been killed, mostly in villages bombed and burned and in the systematic depopulation, rape and extra-judicial murder of the population. In 1967 alone, 3500 Papuans were killed. Reports of atrocities by Indonesian soldiers had become so persistent that, on 5 April 1967 in the House of Lords, Lord Ogmore called for a UN investigation. That was also the day that Freeport celebrated the signing of its contract.

The connection between these two events is more than coincidental. Mining companies exist to pile on value. But the Grasberg mine‘s development – not forgetting the contribution of Rio Tinto (a company that annually sponsors a prize for ‘socially committed journalism‘) – so closely mirrors Indonesia‘s history in West Papua that it is worth considering the two in parallel. There is the question, for example, of the legality of Freeport‘s 1967 contract, a contract Indonesia almost certainly had no right to grant as an interim power. There have also been revelations that, between 1991 and 1997, the company provided loan guarantees of $673 million for the purpose of buying Freeport stock to three Indonesians with close ties to President Suharto or his ministers. One of the businessmen involved, Mohammed ‘Bob‘ Hasan – the Suharto aide who introduced Freeport‘s CEO Jim-Bob Moffett into the president‘s family circle – was arrested this year on fraud charges.

Possibly because Freeport smells political change, in the past year it has been moving rock fast. A month ago, a slide of rock waste into Lake Wanagon buried four contractors‘ employees and injured 18 others.

Brother Theo believes the enormous speed of extraction is a prime cause of environmental problems. Although the company has claimed a clean bill of health from an independent environmental audit, the mayor of the Timika region recently ordered local people to stop eating tambelo – a water snail that is a staple of the lowland diet – because of suspected high copper levels. At concentrations of less than two parts per million (ppm), copper can cause intestinal and other damage. The Aikwa‘s copper level is around 10ppm; other metals associated with gold-bearing ores include mercury, arsenic, barium, cadmium and lead. Freeport‘s ebullient CEO dismisses the environmental impact of the mine as ‘the equivalent of me pissing in the Arafura Sea‘.

But the Papuans’ chief source of anger remains the company‘s ties with the Indonesian military. Freeport cannot dissociate itself from the army: the Army is there because Freeport is there. Regular Papuan protests against the mine are routinely met by Army reprisals. A Catholic church report following a series of army attacks in 1994-5, part of a ‘cleansing operation‘ against the OPM, listed killings, torture, detention and disappearance of Papuans. The most notorious case was of five men from the Kwalik family. Arrested and tortured, they subsequently vanished and are still missing. Several months later, another Kwalik, an ex-teacher named Kelly, abducted and held hostage a group of British research scientists for several months.

The day before I left Timika, I met Kelly Kwalik‘s mother, Ibu Josefa, an old-fashioned figure bound in bright cloth, like a polished and carefully wrapped antique. She had also found herself in jail in 1995, ‘because they thought I was giving orders. I was in jail for a month and three days. It was a toilet with water up to my knees.‘ The ‘toilet‘ Josefa mentioned was a freezing steel freight container. She and nine others had had to stand in their own excrement for a month. She became blind in her left eye as a result.

Brother Theo confirms that there are between 2000 and 4000 army and special forces troops around Timika, more in the hamlets surrounding the mine.

‘They ask for cars and facilities, and Freeport agrees. One senior executive said to me, “We don‘t like it either but we feel safe.”‘

During my visit, I was introduced to a number of Freeport officials including an American named Tom Green, in charge of the ‘community liaison office‘. Later I discovered that prior to joining Freeport he had been a military attaché at the US Embassy in Jakarta.

Back in London, I received some papers from an American lawyer who had represented the Amungme people. Incomplete but revealing, they contained evidence that Freeport has budgeted to equip the military to perform its violent role. In the year in question – probably during the second half of the 1990s – the company was budgeting to finance military headquarters buildings, guardhouses, barracks, parade grounds, ammunition-storage, water, power and fuel installations, tennis and volleyball courts, flagpoles and signwriting. In a list of requirements for Freeport project architects, draughtsmen and engineers, provision had been made for two army advisers. The amounts are substantial, given that the papers were not complete: for the army $5,160,770, for the police $4,060,000.

At the end of June, the chairman of the Papuan People‘s Congress, Theys Eluay, and his deputy, Tom Beanal, were due to meet President Abdurrahman Wahid in Jakarta to present an independence proclamation. The meeting was cancelled at the last moment. Neither side has room for manoeuvre. If West Papua‘s fate remains an internal matter, President Wahid is likely to have to defer to his generals, and Papuan nationalism will be contained by military repression.

But there are problems too in taking the case of West Papua’s self-determination back to the United Nations. As every UN diplomat knows, Indonesia has had a recent lesson in the concept of international justice, in East Timor, and will not tolerate another. West Papua is even more vital to Jakarta, and Papuan nationalism more potentially destabilising, inside and outside Indonesia. Grasberg, 4000 metres up in the south-west highlands, is an economic beachhead. Freeport is one of Indonesia‘s biggest tax and royalty sources and has a licence to prospect in another 2.6 million-hectare area, as far as the Papua New Guinea border. It is likely to show mineralogical possibilities that Jakarta will not abandon without a fight.

A fight, therefore, is likely. If political moves to secure Papuan independence fail or falter too long, OPM commanders have indicated that their future strategy will concentrate on economic targeting. Freeport knows it is vulnerable to guerrilla attack: Grasberg workers remember, given that some were employed there, how the profitable Panguna mine on nearby Bougainville island was closed in the early Nineties: all the Bougainville Revolutionary Army had to do was blow up a power plant and murder a couple of expatriates. Panguna has not reopened. Without the Indonesian army‘s presence and readiness to inflict reprisals, the mighty Grasberg mine would be as exposed as Panguna. look like a picnic. Freeport and Rio Tinto cannot say they haven‘t been warned.







Since publishing this article in July 2000, further developments have taken place. On 10 November 2001, Theys Eluay was found dead in his car close to the Papua New Guinea border after attending an army ceremony, to which he had been invited. Marks on his body suggested he had been tortured. On 31 August 2002, a group of gunmen opened fire on a convoy carrying Freeport personnel on the mountain road up to Tembagapura, killing two American teachers, Ted Burcon and Rickey Spear, and an Indonesian, Bambang Riwanto, and injuring 12 others. The Indonesian army immediately blamed the OPM for the ambush, but evidence suggests that the army themselves may have taken part in an attempt to extort money and other concessions from the company. Although Freeport had always strenuously denied that it paid the military, sources inside the company indicated that it had recently stopped making payments, and it was also reported that Freeport had accused military personnel of stealing from the company. It has been speculated that new American corporate fraud legislation, which makes CEOs and their financial officers personally liable for the accuracy of their accounts and had come into force the previous month, was responsible for the company’s change of heart.

In March 2003, in response to a shareholder resolution filed by a group of New York’s public pension funds concerned about alleged humanitarian abuses by the Indonesian army, Freeport was finally obliged to disclose to the New York City Comptroller’s office and to the US Securities and Exchange Commission that it had paid Indonesian military and security personnel US$5.6 million in 2002; it also documented payments of $4.7 million for 2001, and other payments.




© Julian Evans 2000, 2003

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