JAKARTA, Indonesia - Ignoring stern warnings from the government in Jakarta, separatists in the province of West Papua made a declaration of independence yesterday, in hopes of following the lead of East Timor, which broke from Indonesia last year.
About 3,000 supporters of separation gathered in what they called a "congress" this past week. Yesterday, they unanimously endorsed the declaration and called on the United Nations to recognize a new state, which it is unlikely to do.
"West Papua is independent and enjoys a status of sovereignty since the 1st December of 1961," said the statement, referring to the date of the territory's independence from the Netherlands, its former colonial overlord.
The declaration was read by a separatist leader, Thaha Alhamid, to wild cheers at the gathering in Jayapura, the provincial capital. Thousands of people packed Jayapura's streets last night to celebrate, and local police and military units remained out of sight.
Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, seeking to combat the specter of disintegration for his nation of 210 million people, has flatly ruled out independence for West Papua, which lies on the western half of the island of New Guinea.
The area holds some of the world's most pristine rain forest, and its 2 million inhabitants, mostly Melanesians, are racially and culturally distinct from people in the rest of the vast archipelago that forms Indonesia.
The declaration said that "Indonesia must recognize the sovereignty of West Papua, based on historical, cultural, ethnic and religious rights."
While most of the province's people live a strikingly primitive existence, often hunting with bows and arrows or spears, West Papua carries disproportionate importance to Indonesia's economy because of its giant copper and gold mines. "Its economic stature is very important," said Hasnan Habib, a leading analyst of political and military affairs, "and if the other regions see that it is easy to get free, I think it would break us.
"The armed forces would never want to see Irian Jaya separate from Indonesia," he added, using the territory's former name, "and our armed forces are still powerful."
Dharmawan Ronodipuro, Wahid's spokesman, said yesterday that West Papua was an integral part of the country and dismissed the independence declaration.