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Mystery in Jungle of Papua

THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Slain independence leader Theys Eluay had a loyal following--and a long list of potential enemies in the province.

July 16, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAYAPURA, Indonesia — There are many reasons someone might have wanted to kill Theys Eluay.

An imposing figure with his curly white beard and stout frame, the charismatic tribal chief had a large following--and a dark past.

He became the foremost independence leader of Indonesian Papua and a hero to his people. But he also had once been a government collaborator and military informant who may have played a part in government-sponsored killing. He had ties to the powerful Indonesian army and to organized crime. He had questionable dealings with timber companies and cash to burn. He had nine wives and a huge ego. Most recently, the government called him a traitor.

He was last seen alive in November after leaving a lavish party at an army base here. He was found dead the next morning in the back seat of his deluxe Toyota van on a deserted jungle road. Investigators concluded that he had been suffocated with a plastic bag.

It was a chillingly modern way to die here in Indonesian Papua, a forbidding province of jungles and mountains where some tribes still live a Stone Age existence.

Eluay's death devastated the independence movement and caused an outpouring of grief in Papua, which was known until recently as Irian Jaya. The 64-year-old leader was beloved by many for his generosity, his spontaneity, his habit of speaking his mind. Many called him Bapak, an Indonesian word for sir or father.

He was buried near his home in a field where children once played soccer. Thousands of mourners came to the funeral, overflowing into the street and climbing onto rooftops to watch. Many wept. His grave is now a shrine, watched over day and night by loyal young followers.

*

New Guinea, an island twice the size of California, lies just south of the equator and north of Australia. Its dense, humid jungles and snow-capped mountains are home to many tribes making the painful leap to the modern world.

The island is split between the country of Papua New Guinea, which once was colonized by Britain and Australia, and the Indonesian province of Papua, which once was ruled by the Dutch. The name Papua, taken from the Malay word for curly-haired, was given to the people of the island by explorers 500 years ago.

It wasn't until 1938--a year after Eluay was born--that the outside world discovered the Baliem Valley in the central highlands of Papua, today a stronghold of the independence movement. There, explorers found a primitive people whose way of life had survived unchanged for thousands of years.

Men wore nothing more than feathers in their hair and a koteka, a long gourd to cover the penis. Women wore only grass skirts. Shells were their money.

Today, many still live in traditional thatched huts called honai, sharing them with their pigs. They hunt with wooden spears and arrows. They chew betel nut, staining the ground red where they spit out the juice. Some men still wear kotekas and some women still follow the tradition of cutting off a finger each time a loved one dies.

Even as many Papuans live in primitive conditions, they are surrounded by riches. The territory, Indonesia's wealthiest province, is home to an enormous gold and copper mine, U.S.-owned Freeport. In the north, huge oil and gas reserves are under development by British Petroleum. The island has the largest rain forest outside the Amazon, and army officers have made fortunes shipping timber and sandalwood.

"Why is the Papuan wealth being taken away to build Indonesia and America?" Yefeth Yelemaken, chief of the Ngalik tribe, asked shortly before he died last month at 45. "We are very angry because our natural resources are taken out of Papua and then people ask why we are so poor. We're like the mouse that died in a rice house."

When Papua's chiefs declared independence from the Netherlands in 1961, Indonesia insisted it owned the territory. Fearing the rise of communism in the region, Washington sided with Indonesia and pressed the Dutch to pull out. The territory came under nominal U.N. authority in 1963, but by then Indonesian troops had already moved in and taken control on the ground.

In 1965, when he was 27, Eluay became chief of the Sereh Sentani tribe. In Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, Gen. Suharto seized power and established a dictatorship that would last for years. But that made little difference to West Papua--it was already under Indonesian military rule.

In 1969, the United Nations called a plebiscite to decide Papua's fate but didn't grant each Papuan the right to vote.

Instead, the Indonesian military chose 1,026 tribal leaders to represent the populace. Soldiers held them under guard for weeks at community halls and army barracks. Some were given gifts and prostitutes. Some were threatened with death. In the end, they gave their allegiance to Indonesia--many of them repeating a pledge of loyalty in Indonesian, a language they didn't know.

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