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Another Problem on Indonesia's, and the World's, Agenda

Another chicken is coming home to roost in Indonesia. On July 6, troops killed and wounded a number of anti-government demonstrators in Irian Jaya, or West Irian.

This territory was West New Guinea, part of the Netherlands colonial empire, the Dutch East Indies, which also embraced the vast Indonesian archipelago. Unlike Portuguese East Timor, which Indonesia overran by naked force. West Irian was seized in 1969 under a fig-leaf of fraudulent self-determination.

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When Indonesia achieved independence after World War II, West New Guinea remained in Dutch hands. Indonesia's President Sukarno, extreme nationalist and megalomaniac, demanded it and launched a war of nerves to take it. He infiltrated Indonesian troops to plant the flag. The Soviet Union, cheering him on, offered to send "volunteers."

The Dutch protested that the inhabitants were Papuan, not Indonesian, and should be allowed to decide their own future when they were ready. That was the rub. Some 800,000 nearly Stone-Age people, belonging to more than 250 tribes, lived in an almost trackless land roughly the size of France and full of towering mountains, islands, and swamps. The swamps, infested with insects, the dense jungles and the high, wide valleys wrapped in mist and swept by rain clouds are not a hospitable environment.

The territory might not seem much of a prize, but Sukarno wanted it. When he was swept away in a military coup in 1965, his successor, Suharto, felt, perhaps, that he couldn't appear to be less patriotic by renouncing the claim; in any case, he pressed it. As bitterness and tension rose between Indonesia and the Netherlands to the point of conflict, UN Secretary-General U Thant proposed a face-saving formula, which the Dutch, bowing to the inevitable, accepted. The UN would briefly manage the territory and then turn it over to Indonesian administration on condition that by 1969 the people decide their own future.

Western style voting was never contemplated. When the time came, Jakarta convened what were called regional consultative assemblies to stage an "act of free choice," unanimously approving annexation to Indonesia. Since then, West Irian has been sealed off while the Army has suppressed opposition, and hundreds of thousands of settlers have been shipped in from overpopulated Java.

Some multinational mining and logging firms were brought in for "economic development," pushing local people aside. One large American outfit, the Freeport-McMoRan copper and gold mine, has been the target of big, even riotous demonstrations. Villagers accuse it of ravaging the environment - saying its toxic mine tailings cause serious pollution downstream, killing fish and other sources of food and livelihood. It is also tarred with the brush of Indonesian sponsorship.

There is a resistance group, the Free Papua Organization, whose weapons are bows and arrows and arms taken from soldiers. But the Indonesian military presence is heavy, as it is in East Timor, and groups like Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights report extrajudicial executions, rape, and sexual abuse by the military.

Over the years, conditions in West Irian have remained unchanged. This year, corruption and economic collapse forced Suharto out of the presidency but there is no sign this will make any difference. His successor, B.J. Habibie, needs the support of the Army and can't afford to give up land, even if he should want to.

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But continuing trouble reminds them - and the world - that West Irian is on their agenda.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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