November 30, 2015 / 4:38 PM / 2 years ago

Freed Papua activist vows to reinvigorate independence movement

Papua activist Filep Karma speaks after being released from prison in Jayapura, Papua province, Indonesia November 19, 2015.Indrayadi TH/Antara Foto

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Prominent Papua activist Filep Karma, released this month after more than a decade behind bars, promised on Monday to reinvigorate the movement for independence from Indonesia and said he was prepared to go back to prison if necessary.

President Joko Widodo wants to open up the impoverished region after decades of conflict and neglect but he needs the backing of the military and separatists as well as the Indonesian parliament.

Skirmishes with armed separatists in resource-rich Papua has forced Indonesia to keep armed soldiers in the region to guard mines, including Freeport McMoRan's Grasberg copper and gold complex and BP's Tangguh LNG plant.

Karma said he did not think Widodo had enough power over the military and police to really decide Papua's future.

"I trust Jokowi as a person, but I do not trust him as a president," Karma said, referring to the president by his nickname. "As president and the highest commander, he has no influence over the military and police."

Papua province makes up the western half of an island north of Australia, with independent Papua New Guinea to the east.

"We are in high spirits to fight for our freedom because our struggle can be heard globally as Papua has been opened up to foreign journalists," Karma, who was one of Papua's most high-profile political prisoners, said.

"In the past, people said that our struggle for independence was only a dream. But now, people ... say that it is something certain," he said in a telephone interview from Papua's capital of Jayapura, without elaborating on his strategy.

Karma was arrested in December 2004 for taking part in a ceremony raising the pro-independence Morning Star flag. A court sentenced him to 15 years in prison, sparking protests from Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Indonesian authorities approved his early release months ago, but Karma refused to admit his guilt. Authorities in the end agreed to release him for good behavior.

Indonesian chief security minister Luhut Pandjaitan defended the president against Karma's criticism, saying government programs in Papua were progressing well.

"You can doubt his capability but the reality is that things there are now going according to plan," Pandjaitan told Reuters.

Papua was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticized U.N.-backed referendum in 1969. Dutch colonial rule ended in 1963.

Asked whether he would conduct another ceremony with the Morning Star flag, Karma said: "I will not say here whether I will raise the flag or not. I have been raising the flag in my heart and in my mind."

Additional reporting by the Jakarta bureau; Editing by Nick Macfie and Louise Ireland

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