Last week, rallies to demand the closure of a gold and copper mine run by U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan in Indonesia's Papua province turned violent, leaving three policemen and one air force officer dead. But the real surprise is that violence didn't break out sooner. Papuans have long seen the mine as a symbol of Jakarta's unequal share of the proceeds from the province's natural resourcesand the roots of their resentment go even deeper. The remote province, whose inhabitants are ethnically distinct from the rest of the country, was forcibly taken over by Indonesia in 1963 and remains bedeviled by corruption, secessionist warfare and some of Indonesia's worst rates of HIV/AIDS and poverty. "Years of integration with Indonesia hasn't brought much improvement in the locals' quality of life, while their resources continue to be exhausted," says J. Kristiadi, a political analyst at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Following the latest clashes, Indonesia's army chief and other senior officials traveled to Jayapura last Friday to talk with local leaders. There's much at stake: the Freeport facility, the world's largest gold mine, is the single largest contributor to Indonesia's coffers, paying roughly $1 billion in taxes last year.
University of Indonesia sociologist Thamrin Amal Tomagola says Jakarta's recent truce with rebels in formerly restive Aceh province has inspired Papuans to take to the streets in hopes of securing similar concessions. Indeed, maintaining the status quo in Papua might no longer be an option. "Jakarta must change the way it handles Papua and listen to people's complaints," says Thamrin. "Otherwise the violence will continue and get worse every time it breaks out."