Last Updated on Monday, 8 July 2013 01:03

West Papuan delegates from the WPNCL at the MSG plenary session at the SPC, Noumea 2013 – Photo by Ben Bohane

By Ben Bohane

Among those clinking glasses to celebrate 25th anniversary of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) at the recent summit in Noumea were leaders of West Papua.

For the first time the West Papuan issue was front and centre at this regional meeting, after decades of being ignored by the metropolitan powers and swept under the tapa mat by the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional organisations.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Indonesian takeover of Dutch New Guinea, when Jakarta assumed control on the 1st May 1963. Since then Church groups and NGOs estimate at least 200,000 people have perished in a low-intensity guerilla conflict as West Papuans have waged their struggle for independence while Indonesian settlers have now made Papuans a minority in their own land.

Now it looks like momentum is building for this territory to go back onto the UN decolonization list, just as Tahiti was recently re-admitted.

After submitting their application for membership, the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) were initially disappointed following the announcement made at the Foreign Ministers meeting, as the MSG summit began, that the decision on their membership had been deferred. This followed a recommendation by Fiji and Indonesia that the decision on membership be made after a special visit by an MSG delegation to Jakarta and Jayapura within the next six months.

After decades of claiming West Papua was an internal domestic issue for Indonesia alone, it is clear that this is no longer the case. For the first time Indonesia has grasped that not only is this now a regional, and international issue, but that it is also one moving beyond Jakarta’s control. They sent a large delegation to Noumea, far more than any other nation – and for weeks before the summit Indonesia mounted a serious foreign policy blitz among Melanesian countries to try and influence the outcome. Bi-laterals with Fiji, a red-carpet state visit for the PNG government during the exact same dates as the MSG summit and behind the scenes maneuvering in Vanuatu to topple the pro-West Papua government of Prime Minister Moanna Carcassas Kalosil all hinted at the extent to which Indonesia attempted to shut down any MSG recognition for West Papua.

In the end they got a measure of victory in getting Fiji to convince the other MSG countries that membership be deferred until after a special visit to the province. Another victory for Jakarta was in persuading the PNG government of Peter O’Neill to lead a 100-plus delegation of government and business leaders to be wined and dined in Jakarta for exactly the same dates as the summit. This raised many eyebrows in Noumea.

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare of PNG, who attended the summit as a Founding Father, was himself angry at PNG’s lack of representation to this important summit – not just at Peter O’Neill’s decision to choose Indonesia over Melanesia, but that no-one from the PNG delegation showed up for the closing ceremony at the Tjibaou cultural centre, after the deputy Prime Minister fell sick. At the closing ceremony, without PNG’s signature, other MSG leaders signed a joint document committing the MSG to further supporting the FLNKS in New Caledonia. In a significant shift in his own policy, Sir Michael said it was time to allow the West Papuans into the MSG family, something he opposed in the past.

Following the final plenary session held at the SPC (Secretariat for the Pacific Community) it became clear where the divisions lay within the MSG. PNG and Fiji affirmed Indonesian sovereignty and tried to water down MSG support, while Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the FLNKS in New Caledonia all made strong representations on West Papua’s behalf.

While Indonesia achieved the early victory over membership deferral, the West Papuans clearly had a win with the wording in the final MSG Communique. Here it states in section 21 of the document:


(i)  endorsed that the MSG fully supports the inalienable rights of the people of West Papua towards self-determination as provided for under the preamble of the MSG constitution;

(ii)  endorsed that the concerns of the MSG regarding the human rights violations and other forms of atrocities relating to the West Papuan people be raised with the Government of Indonesia bilaterally and as a Group;

(iii)  noted the application received from the WPNCL to be a member of the MSG and that the application will be reviewed after the submission of the Ministerial Mission’s report; and

(iv)  approved the Roadmap as recommended by the FMM which included:

a)  that the MSG send a Ministerial Mission at the FMM level to be led by Fiji’s Foreign Minister to Jakarta and then to West Papua in 2013 and accept the 
invitation of the Government of Indonesia;

b)  the Ministerial Mission to present its report to the Leaders at the earliest 
opportunity within the next six months;

c)  the WPNCL to be officially informed of the MSG Leaders’ decision regarding 
its application; and

d)  the Mission would be part of a process in determining WPNCL’s membership 

Sensing the divisive nature of this issue, the MSG Secretariat was able to produce an outcome that is sensitive to all the key players involved and did well to strike a balanced position. It affirms the need for dialogue between MSG nations and Indonesia over the West Papuan issue. It offers Indonesia a window in coming months to improve conditions on the ground and prepare a good “dog and pony show” (as media sometimes refer to government public relations exercises) for MSG leaders when they visit.

At the same time, the West Papuans now have official recognition of sorts to keep building their diplomatic case. They are asking that media be allowed on the MSG visit to Jakarta and Jayapura and that delegates go with “open eyes”.

Indonesia’s most senior representative at the summit, Ambassador Wardana (Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs) made some compelling pleas to understand Indonesia’s position: that it was spending billions of rupiah on local government services; that it had localized important positions so that only ethnic Papuans could become Governor, and that President SBY has promised “Autonomy Plus” for Papua ahead of his visit there in August.

Yet for as long as killings, torture and imprisonment of Papuans by the Indonesian military continues and the entire province remains off-limits to all foreign media and NGOs including the Red Cross, Indonesia has a serious credibility problem. The advent of social media means that even banning foreign media has not stopped the daily reports and pictures of atrocities to be seen around the region. The fact that the MSG communiqué used undiplomatic words such as “atrocities” in the context of West Papua shows the level of concern they have.

The other victory for West Papuans at this summit revolves around unity and the legitimacy of the WPNCL to represent them. Despite efforts by some to question whether the WPNCL really represents the majority of Papuans, their delegates were able to furnish letters of support from more than 30 significant groups. Several prominent Papuan leaders who have publicly criticized the WPNCL in the past and were present at the summit praised the WPNCL. Jacob Rumbiak from a rival grouping said the WPNCL had done well to get their issue to this level.

Even Franz Albert Joku, a former independence advocate that has in the past decade supported Indonesia’s autonomy plan (and came with the Indonesian delegation), said external lobbying by WPNCL had improved conditions on the ground in West Papua because the Indonesian government now realised it had to do something to minimise the international campaign and win local hearts. Those pushing for autonomy inside recognize the strategic value of those on the outside pushing for independence to give them better leverage.

The MSG may well emerge as a key broker between Indonesia and Melanesia to help solve the West Papua question, raising the prestige of this key group now in its 25th year. After a decade or two focused mainly on trade issues, it would appear the MSG has returned to its original political mandate – to build solidarity and integration between all Melanesian peoples and nations.

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pps-2013-04-15 This week on Pacific Politics: PiPPtalks - MSG Secretariat Director General Peter Forau discusses the organisation's identity and purpose; Dan McGarry looks at the West Papuan independence movement's long road to freedom; a photo essay on the MSG's Eminent Persons Group and much more....

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