Competition for Freeport honeypot may have triggered killings

Competition for Freeport honeypot may have triggered killings
Sydney Morning Herald,
Tom Allard, Jakarta

As first light emerged and a mist hung over the lush rainforest, Drew Grant had every reason to feel upbeat. A fellow Melburnian, Lukas Biggs, was at the wheel of a Toyota Landcruiser, carefully negotiating the steep road from the US mining company Freeport's Grasberg mine to Timika.

Mr Grant's wife, Lauren, would join him in a week with their nine-week-old daughter, Ella. After three years as a well-paid project manager for Freeport, Mr Grant had a job he loved and was financially comfortable. The 29-year-old had everything to live for.

That boundless future was stolen in a few short seconds as a rapid burst of gunfire pierced the vehicle just three kilometres from a security checkpoint, sending bullet fragments and shrapnel into Mr Grant's neck, chest and shoulder.

The tragic death was the first act in a wave of shootings on the road, 100 kilometres of heavily patrolled winding gravel and bitumen that descends 4000 metres from the tropical peaks near Grasberg to the Arafura Sea.

Two others have died and 12 have been injured in a series of ambushes that followed Mr Grant's murder, all targeting police and Freeport security investigating the first shooting.

A week into the investigation, police appear to have made little headway in identifying the killers. Police in Papua say that those in Mr Grant's vehicle can shed little light on their assailants. The mist, the speed of the attacks and the well-concealed location of the shooters have prevented any identification.

Intriguingly, investigators have all but ruled out separatist fighters from the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or Free Papua Movement, who are invariably blamed by Indonesian authorities, often dubiously, for any violence that takes place in Papua, the restive Indonesian province where Freeport is.

There is no shortage of people with possible motives, including the security forces themselves, their militias and criminal syndicates that all feed off the spoils of Freeport's operations, a vast concern employing more than 20,000 people working on the world's largest goldmine and most profitable copper deposit.

Within sight of the world's only tropical glaciers, the immense concession was first awarded to Freeport by the dictator Soeharto in 1967, two years before Papua - a former Dutch colony that did not initially become part of Indonesia - was formally incorporated into the state.

Ever since, it has had a symbiotic relationship with the country's elite and, particularly, its military. Millions have been paid in protection money each year to the armed forces to secure the concession while military personnel controlled a number of rackets from illegal mining, prostitution and logging.

Eben Kirksey, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz who specialises in Papua, said that a formal relationship between Freeport and the military ended in 2007, when the Indonesian Government transferred the security role to the police.

It created, he said, enormous resentment in the military.

"My sense is that there is a war going on between the military and the police," he said.

By creating a security crisis around the mine, Mr Kirksey argues, the armed forces may be trying to convince Freeport and the Indonesian Government that it needs a military presence once again guarding the site.

Papua remains the last great honeypot for Indonesia's armed forces. It is rich in mineral, forestry and fishing resources and, more generally, is the only region across the archipelago where they still can justify the deployment of tens of thousands of troops to maintain internal security.

With East Timor now independent, and the civil war in Aceh over, Papua is "very important in terms of the military's justification for its position in a nationalist framework", says Richard Chauvel, a Papua specialist at Victoria University.

"In so many ways, Freeport is a microcosm of the conflicts and tensions in Papua, and at the same time its most extreme manifestation," Mr Chauvel says. "It's got the heavy military and security presence, the contest for its lucrative sources of income, immense economic wealth that isn't shared, a marginalised local community , environmental damage and accusations of human rights abuses. It's all there."

Indonesia's military is under pressure in Papua for another reason. The government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general, has all but eliminated the vast array of authorised business activities undertaken by the military, transferring them to the civilian sector.

The Defence Minister, Juwono Sudarsono, has conceded that "rogue" military personnel or "deserters" could be behind the spate of shootings at Freeport but emphatically denied any sanctioned military role.

Mr Sudarsono suggested that criminal syndicates involved in illegal mining in and around the Freeport concession are more likely to be the perpetrators. He said there was no indication of involvement by separatist rebels.

It is a plausible explanation, although there has been no evidence of a crackdown by either Freeport or the police against such activities in recent months.

As the conjecture over the real culprits behind Drew Grant's murder continues, so too will the investigation.

Whether they are ever brought to justice remains highly uncertain.