Indonesia Deaths Spotlight Murky History of Gold Mine

JAKARTA ~ A series of killings in the remote highlands of Indonesia’s Papua region have thrown a spotlight on the murky history of a massive US-owned mine sitting atop the world’s biggest haul of gold.

Two workers of Arizona-based mining giant Freeport McMoRan, including a 29-year-old Australian technician, were shot dead by unidentified attackers near the company’s Grasberg gold and copper mine over the weekend.

A third victim, a policeman, was found dead in a ravine Monday after fleeing an ambush the day before. A police spokesman in Jakarta said he fell to his death but a policeman in the field said he appeared to have been stabbed.

The violence is the latest to hit a mine that has for decades extracted billions of dollars of wealth in the face of accusations ranging from environmental vandalism to the bankrolling of rights abuses by security forces.

The mine – whose operations are closed to unwanted visitors, including foreign journalists, in an area of often brutal fighting between security forces and separatist rebels – is a “magnet” for violence, Human Rights Working Group head Rafendi Djamin said.

“It’s difficult to speculate on any scenario behind the weekend attacks. But one thing is for sure: they are part of a wave of violence in Papua over the last six months,” Djamin said.

“(The attacks) are heavily politically tainted, but from which side we don’t know.”

Seen by many as a symbol of outside exploitation amid grinding poverty, the Freeport mine is a natural target for the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM).

But Freeport also has a long history of paying Indonesian security forces for protection, a practice that some observers say provides an incentive for security forces to attack the mine to justify their lucrative presence.

The company disclosed earlier this year it continues to pay for the allowances of troops guarding its mine, despite government rules designed to get the military out of the security business.

Freeport said it paid less than US$1.6 million, out of an overall $8 million in “support costs” to the security forces, to provide a “monthly allowance” for 1,850 police and soldiers last year.

A 2002 ambush on the winding road down from the mine in which two American schoolteachers and one Indonesian colleague died was officially blamed on OPM rebels, but some rights groups and academics allege a military hand in the killings.

A 2008 peer-reviewed article in the journal South East Asia Research argued the Indonesian authorities and American investigators colluded to cover up military involvement in the attack.

Indonesia has granted access to Australian investigators probing the weekend’s deaths but ensuring a transparent investigation will be difficult, the author of the article, Human Rights Watch analyst Andreas Harsono said.

“Foreign investigators are needed but they have to work harder than the FBI back in 2002,” he said.

Police for their part have so far not pointed to any group behind the attacks. They have said the weapons used were likely military or police-issued.

Any investigators wading into the jungles and mountains surrounding Freeport’s Papua operations will have to deal with an environment complicated by decades of mistrust.

The company signed a contract with the Indonesian government to exploit the mine even before Jakarta won sovereignty in a 1969 UN-backed vote of select elders largely seen as a sham. Now it is Indonesia’s largest single taxpayer.

The environmental impact of the mine can be seen flying over to the main nearby town of Timika, where tailings dumped from up in the cloud-topped mine stretch in a wide smear towards the Arafura sea.

The company responds by pointing towards spending on public services in areas surrounding the mine and an increasing share of revenues from the mine going to Papuans under new government regulations giving the region more autonomy.

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