Indonesia: corporate-military terror in West Papua revealed

Multiple ethnic struggles in Indonesia made headlines over the New Year’s weekend. On Jan. 2, local police announced they have detained at least one man in connection with the New Year’s Eve bombing at a Christian market in Palu, Central Sulawesi, in which seven people were killed and 56 wounded. The town is some 300 kilometers west of Poso, where three Christian schoolgirls were decapitated on their way to school Oct. 29 by presumed Islamic militants. The province has seen escalating violence between its roughly equal Christian and Muslim communities. (AKI, Jan. 2)

In Aceh, on Sumatra, rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) turned over the last of their arms under a peace deal brokered following last year’s devastating tsunami. But a bill guaranteeing the autonomy of the province , a key condition of the deal, is likely to face stiff opposition in parliament. Observers doubt it will be passed by the March 31 deadline set by the peace deal. (The Australian, Jan. 3)

Meanwhile, the nearly forgotten struggle in West Papua finally emerged into the headlines with revelations of US corporate underwriting of the Indonesian military’s brutal operations in the remote territory. Read a startling op-ed in the Jan. 2 International Herald Tribune:

The attention that the tsunami brought to the previously overlooked conflict in the Indonesian province of Aceh is contributing to an end to three decades of insecurity and terror there. But while Aceh may be moving toward peace, West Papua, at the other end of the Indonesian archipelago, has been witnessing the opposite trend – a sudden escalation of military activity by the same force that occupied Aceh, and East Timor before that.

For more than 40 years, the world has looked the other way while West Papua has been ravaged by the Indonesian military in a well-documented program of repression and plunder. In 2004, a Yale University report concluded that there is “a strong indication” of genocide against the Papuans.

Since the tsunami, the number of Indonesian troops in West Papua has grown to an estimated 50,000. The Indonesian military’s power is further augmented by police forces and local militias that they fund and protect.

This escalation of military activity is ostensibly to bolster security in the region, even though the vast majority of indigenous Papuans remain true to their ideal of a land of peace. The Free Papua Movement has never been known to attack civilians during 42 years of Indonesian oppression. Yet Indonesia has labeled the movement a terrorist organization, enabling the Indonesian military to regain military support from the United States, Britain and Australia that had been withheld after the East Timor massacres in 1999.

Indonesia’s military acknowledged for the first time Dec. 29 that its commanders in Papua had received “support” from the US gold-mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Co. Maj. Gen. Kohirin Suganda said the armed forces “as an institution” had never received donations from the New Orleans-based company. “But we have heard that Freeport provides support such as vehicles, fuel and meals directly to the units in the field. That’s the company’s policy. It was not done because we requested it.”

Suganda was responding to an article published Dec. 27 in the New York Times detailing Freeport-McMoRan’s payments of $20 million to military commanders in the area over the last seven years.

Human rights groups criticize direct payments by foreign companies to the military, saying they undermine efforts to bring the armed forces under civilian command following the collapse in 1998 of the 32-year military dictatorship of Gen. Suharto.

Only one-third of the financing for Indonesia’s armed forces comes from the state budget, while the rest is collected from non-transparent sources such as “protection payments,” allowing the military brass to operate virtually independently.

When asked about the payoff allegations, Indonesia’s military commander Gen. Endriartono Sutarto would only say: “Please ask Freeport, not me.” (MSNBC, Dec. 29)

Company records obtained by the Times show that from 1998 through 2004, Freeport gave military and police commanders and units nearly $20 million. Individual commanders received tens of thousands of dollars—in one case up to $150,000—according to the documents. The documents were provided by an individual close to Freeport and confirmed as authentic by current and former employees.

The Times’ also found that, according to one current and two former company officials who helped set up a covert program, Freeport intercepted e-mail messages to spy on its environmental opponents. Freeport declined to comment.

More than 30 current and former Freeport employees and consultants were interviewed over the past several months for the article. Few would speak for attribution, saying they feared the company’s retribution.

In the 1960s, when Freeport entered Papua, its explorers were among the first outsiders ever encountered by local tribesmen swathed only in penis gourds and armed with bows and arrows. Since then, Freeport has dramatically transformed West Papua. With the help of the San Francisco-based construction giant Bechtel, the company has conquered nearly impossible terrain in engineering feats that it boasts are unparalleled on the planet.

For years, James Moffett, a Louisiana-born geologist who is the company chairman, courted Indonesia’s dictator Suharto and his cronies, having Freeport pay for their vacations and some of their children’s college education, and cutting them in on deals that made them rich, current and former employees said. As Freeport grew into a company with $2.3 billion in revenues, it also became among the biggest—in some years the biggest—source of revenue for the government. It remains so today.

Freeport says that it provided Indonesia with $33 billion in direct and indirect benefits from 1992 to 2004, almost 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. With gold prices hitting a 25-year high of $540 an ounce in December, the company estimates it will pay the government $1 billion this year.

Little changed after Suharto’s ouster in 1998. Letters and other documents provided to the Times by government officials showed that the Environment Ministry repeatedly warned Freeport since 1997 that it was breaching environmental laws. But the documents reveal the Ministry’s deep frustration. Last year, a ministry scientist wrote that it was like “painting on clouds” to get Freeport to comply with environmental standards.

The Papua operation, by Freeport’s own estimates, will generate an estimated 6 billion tons of rock and waste before it is through. Much of that waste has already been dumped in the mountains surrounding the mine or down rivers that descend steeply onto the island’s low-lying wetlands, close to Lorentz National Park, a pristine rain forest that has been granted special status by the United Nations.

A multimillion-dollar heretofore unpublished 2002 study by a US consulting company, Parametrix, paid for by Freeport and its joint venture partner, Rio Tinto, noted that the rivers and the wetlands inundated with waste were now “unsuitable for aquatic life.” The Environment Ministry made the report available to the Times. (NYT, Dec. 28)

Against this backdrop is the Indonesian military’s grisly counterinsurgency war against West Papua’s separatist rebels. To return to the IHT op-ed:

A study released last November by the Dutch government calls Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua in 1969 “a sham,” and explains why West Papua is so important to the Indonesian military: “There’s a lot of money available in the territory and the troops go where the money is, … the military has to find 60 percent of its own budget.” Others estimate that the military finances an even higher fraction of its operating budget, and West Papua is the Indonesian military’s most lucrative area of operations.

As the number of troops mounts, so does the environmental destruction in West Papua, Asia’s largest remaining expanse of untouched tropical rainforest. Since 2002, West Papua has been declared by Conservation International to be the home of Asia’s largest illegal logging industry, which threatens to wipe out the bulk of its forests by 2015.

See our last update on Indonesia.