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Book Review - The Politics of Power: Freeport in Soeharto's Indonesia

Published by MAC on 2003-06-28

Book Review - The Politics of Power: Freeport in Soeharto's Indonesia

Book review by John Martinkus, June 28 2003

The Politics of Power: Freeport in Soeharto's Indonesia - Author Denise Leith

University of Hawaii Press, 372spp, $55

Two recent reports from West Papua demonstrate why Denise Leith's book is a timely and welcome contribution to understanding what is happening there - and how an American company of immense wealth and political influence is central to the problems facing the Indonesian province.

The first report from the Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy (ELS-HAM) details how, in late May, 15 villagers were killed by the military. Flamethrowers were used to destroy villages and hundreds fled into the forest to face starvation as the Indonesian military continued its operations in the highlands. It tells of how two local pastors who tried to return to the area to gather food were shot, and how livestock is being killed to starve the area.

The second report, from June 7, reveals how the director of ELS-HAM is being summonsed to court in the West Papuan capital, Jayapura, to defend himself against a charge of defaming the Indonesian military command. At a press conference he had produced results of the investigation that blamed the military for last year's attack on Freeport employees in which two American schoolteachers were killed.

The nature of the Indonesian intelligence and military programs in West Papua makes information from the province difficult to obtain and qualify, which is why Leith's exhaustive study of the company she identifies as the largest single producer in the West Papuan economy is so revealing. It is essential for anyone trying to understand the West Papuans' problems.

In documenting the company's history and its relations with the Soeharto regime and the military, she reveals a system that some Australian writers in the field during the former president's time tried to gloss over. Leith offers a clearly written re-assessment of the business environment in Indonesia. Freeport actively lobbied for Soeharto in Washington using none other than Henry Kissinger.

The assessment of the Indonesian military and its $8 billion in business interests is also refreshingly frank. Why, she asks, would such a wealthy body hurry to reform itself? Regarding the military's behaviour in West Papua, Leith quotes the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute, which claims that by the mid-'80s the province had the worst human rights record in Indonesia.

These human rights violations came to the world's attention in 1995 with two detailed reports of atrocities in the Freeport mines area. The company went into PR overdrive to counter the accusations that it was involved, and the ensuing focus on its behaviour forced it to make concessions to the local population. But, as Leith says, "Where is the social conscience of the shareholders who, year after year, remain silent as the company contributes to the military as much as, if not more than, it does to the military's victims?"

The position hasn't really changed for Freeport. As Leith notes, despite the company's newfound concerns for human rights, it has recently been lobbying the US-ASEAN Business Council to increase weapons and training to the military after the events in East Timor and the ongoing operations in West Papua and now Aceh. Freeport is in the middle of all this and will deal with whoever helps it secure the gold and copper it so badly wants. Operations against civilians have been happening in the highlands behind Freeport ever since it arrived in 1967. And until forced to, Freeport has never acknowledged this. With the military protecting the mines as part of the contract, local people identify the company and the military as two parts of the same evil. Free West Papua (OPM) representatives still talk of closing the mine, but the Papuan Presidium leaders who are pushing for a non-violent way to independence recognise the importance of the company and receive some funding from it.

Ironically, the main threat to the company seems to be from its protectors, the military. In last year's attack, the evidence pointed to the military and put the company in a difficult position. Investigations have got nowhere, even after the FBI was allowed to work with Indonesian police. Now the military is trying to silence the ELS-HAM director, Johannes Bonay, in court. Last December, his wife and daughter were shot and seriously injured by unidentified gunmen; since then, messages of the sounds of torture have been left on his answering machine.

Freeport remains silent about who killed its employees.

John Martinkus is the author of A Dirty Little War (Random House).

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