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Asia Buzz:
Independence Day

Free Papua: the information war is half the battle

June 7, 2000
Web posted at 11.30 a.m. Hong Kong time, 11.30 p.m. EDT

Here is a real-time test for all those who follow Indonesian affairs--and the Internet. Much has been made of how the Internet liberates the mind, and possibly even nations. Governments and regimes which seek to control and doctor information can be circumvented by the Net. The Internet in many parts of Asia, for example, is seen as a more reliable medium than the quasi-official press.

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Perhaps the classic, recent example in Asia was the struggle by the East Timorese for independence. With their widespread, tech-savvy diaspora in Portugal, Australia and North America, the East Timorese won that particular hearts-and-minds battle. That Jakarta sanctioned various massacres, militias and human-rights abuses obviously didn't help the Indonesian cause either. Still, it was an eloquent statement when Jakarta, in the dying days of the B.J. Habibie administration, was still vacillating on recognizing last year's UN independence referendum while Dili burned, and East Timor's Jose Ramos-Horta vowed to unleash computer terrorism on Indonesian systems, promising to comprehensively cripple what was already a dying regime.

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Cyber terrorism had officially arrived as a quasi-legitimate political tactic. East Timor will be the first country born in the Internet Age, thanks in large part to the sophisticated information bombardment of its committed supporters.

So now the attention turns to West Papua--or Irian Jaya as Jakarta likes to call it--the massive, primitive province that abuts the New Guinea landmass. The idea of a breakup of Indonesia discussed online is not new but the Aceh Merdeka movement, or its equivalent in Ambon and elsewhere, don't have the sophistication of the Papuans, whose often-Christian diaspora are sprinkled across university campuses in Australia, New Zealand and North America, where communications infrastructure are very solid.

Just a few days after the unilateral declaration of independence by the Free Papua Movement in Jayapura, the world's press has been bombarded with information about the cause. We are encouraged to log on to various sites detailing the alleged human-rights atrocities of Jakarta and its military, as well as the environmental outrages allegedly perpetrated by the New Orleans- based mining giant Freeport McMoran, which operates a huge gold and copper mine in the province that is Indonesia's biggest foreign investment. I suspect this is a foretaste of what is to come, as the campaign gathers intensity.

The source sites were in New Zealand, Canada and Australia/United States. Interestingly, as I trawled through the various sites and search engines for information on Irian Jaya, there was very little by way of rebuttal, or an alternative view from either Jakarta, or Freeport, or even humble Indonesia patriots or academics anxious to maintain a unitary state. One of the significant points here is that technical skills are clearly more advanced in places like North America than they are in Jakarta. Some of the above sites suggest strong technical competence in getting the message out.

So, the first strike in the info-war has been won by the West Papuans, and from that one can expect an avalanche of sympathetic stories from the world's press. This is an opportunity for us, the readers, to follow how goes the campaign. It is a political battle in embryo, and the desktop will be a significant theatre of action.

Eric Ellis is the Southeast Asia and technology editor of web-based finance portal

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