The world's largest archipelago -- an enormous place of more than 17,500 islands -- is among the world's most fractious places. It's the many islands that make up Indonesia, currently the powerhouse of recession-proof Southeast Asia, where growing middle classes are spurring rapid economic growth that, unlike in the West, is not largely based on debt.
For more than three decades, the country was ruled by the dictator Suharto, who was deposed amid roiling economic calamity in 1998 that I witnessed firsthand as mobs bayed and tanks patrolled the streets of Jakarta. Among the first acts of his successor, his then-vice president B.J. Habibie, now a resident of Germany, performed was to permit East Timor, which Indonesia invaded in 1975, an independence referendum in which it voted overwhelmingly to break free. It is now officially known as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, and also notable for being one of the world's smallest and poorest nations.
Successive Indonesian governments grappled with a bloody insurgency in the northernmost part of the country, Aceh, in the province of North Sumatra, a traditionally Muslim place where the Free Aceh Movement had for decades been trying to create their own state. The Asian tsunami of 2004 that flattened the province and killed at least 130,000 people there gave them their wish, at least partly. Aceh is now a special autonomous region of Indonesia, ruled by Islamic law and gaining headlines for such practices as enacting legislation to stone adulterers to death.
Elsewhere in the giant country of 204 million people, the Republic of South Maluku has been trying to establish itself as a separate entity since the 1950s, but has gained little traction. However, further to the East, on the island that Indonesia shares with Papua New Guinea, a more robust rebellion has been brewing ever since it was annexed in 1969 following a United Nations-observed vote known as the Act of Free Choice -- essentially a show of hands among a hand-picked group and before the military -- that has since been widely dismissed as a sham.
Jakarta maintains a strong military presence in this province of primitive tribes, many of whose menfolk wear nothing other than gourds, or penis sheaths, and it is largely off-limits to foreigners, particularly prying journalists, as had long been the case in warring Aceh. The military stands accused of abuses in Papua, some of which it has admitted to, as in the case of an incident in 2010 in which soldiers tortured Papuan villagers, video of which was uploaded to the internet, making it impossible for the military to refute. The breakaway Free Papua Movement's members are routinely jailed for treason, as is anyone who dares to raise the Morning Star flag.
The Indonesian government protects Papua for another reason: it is where the largest gold mine in the world is located, the Grasberg mine operated by the American firm Freeport-McRoRan, an annual billion-dollar generator of income for the state coffers. Despite the vast wealth produced by the mine, and also copper mining at Grasberg, Papuan villagers contend that they are largely impoverished and have scant infrastructure in the remote and jungle-covered region as the funds flow to Jakarta, that their natural resources are raped to feed the central government.
Recently a new figurehead in the Papua independence struggle has emerged, in the form of Benny Wenda, who was jailed and later managed to flee to Britain, where he lives in exile. In the past month, Wenda has been on a tour of Pacific nations, raising awareness about the plight of his people and calling for an independence vote.
Should those around the world who supported the East Timor cause now join with the Papuan struggle? The cause has been gaining attention, most especially from the American activist Noam Chomsky and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a Nobel Peace Laureate.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former military commander, is coming to the end of his time in office, with a presidential election scheduled the middle of next year; he is ineligible to run again because he is in his second and final term. But it is a safe bet that whomever gains power will not relinquish control over the very lucrative part of the country that is Papua, certainly not as easy as it let East Timor slip away.
Papua has a tiny population of just 2.1 million; East Timor has just 1.1 million. Aceh, by contrast, is home to almost 4.5 million - a sustainable figure to support the needs and workings of a small country. Do those in Papua who are seeking statehood really think they can go it alone? As with Aceh, it seems that dialogue with Jakarta in which the terms of special autonomy are worked out is the more workable solution, for all concerned.