While West Papuan independence groups appeal for international recognition, Jakarta is fighting to retain control of the region
By Paul Angelle
Melanesian politics are rarely a concern for the world’s emerging powers. For the Indonesian government, however, they have become a matter of grave importance.
The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) – an intergovernmental organisation composed of Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and the FLNKS, an alliance of political parties in New Caledonia – has promised to send a mission to West Papua, Indonesia’s resource-rich, easternmost region. On the agenda will be assessing whether the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) should be allowed to join the MSG – something Jakarta would prefer to avoid.
West Papua is a part of Indonesia, but the WPNCL, an umbrella group of dozens of West Papuan organisations, campaigns for the region’s independence. Indonesia’s history is littered with separatist plays, and Jakarta fears nothing more than the breakup of the republic. MSG membership could serve as a stepping stone for West Papua’s addition to the United Nations’ list of countries yet to be decolonised, an unprecedented acknowledgement by the international community that its people have been deprived of their right to self-determination. The 1969 Act of Free Choice, a UN-sponsored referendum in which West Papuans were supposedly able to choose whether to join Indonesia or form their own country, is widely regarded as a sham.
The MSG already considered the coalition’s bid, but its foreign ministers elected, at Jakarta’s behest, to defer a decision until they could see for themselves the situation in West Papua. At the 19th MSG Leaders’ Summit, held in mid-June in Noumea, New Caledonia, they announced they would form a delegation to visit Jakarta and then West Papua before the end of the year. The stated aim was to investigate whether West Papuans really are victims of human rights abuses and economic marginalisation. There is a long history in Indonesia of vicious acts committed by the security forces and of wealth flowing inordinately from the archipelago’s peripheries to Java and Jakarta in the centre.
Jakarta was relieved by the deferral. It now has the chance to state its case on its own turf. “[Jakarta] was likely aiming to create a situation where they could control what data was provided to the MSG regarding [West] Papua,” Selpius Bobii, a Papuan political prisoner, wrote in Scoop Media. “It’s going to be absolutely critical that the [delegation] in their visit… show extreme caution and a highly selective process in their acceptance of data and information.”
The interim might also give Indonesia time to influence the course of events in other ways. Jakarta will probably use it to try to buy off Melanesian political leaders, according to Jason MacLeod, a University of Queensland professor and a research fellow with the West Papua Project at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. “I think we are likely to see financial inducements offered to MSG nations in the form of bilateral agreements and aid,” he said.
The MSG members seem divided in their stances. Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama enjoys close military ties with the Indonesian government, and recently there have been high-level visits, MacLeod said. In Papua New Guinea, there is a split between Peter O’Neill, the current prime minister, and Michael Somare, the previous one. While Somare, a guest of honour at the June summit, said that he backed West Papuan membership, O’Neill did not even attend. Instead, he visited Jakarta, concluding the trip by telling reporters that West Papua was an integral part of Indonesia.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Gordon Lilo said at the summit that “the West Papuan case is an incomplete decolonisation issue… it must be resolved now”, according to a WPNCL statement. But in August, Lilo told journalists after a meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta that he was “quite impressed with the [ongoing] progress in Papua”. He also visited West Papua but, to MacLeod’s knowledge, did not meet with any political prisoners or resistance leaders. Last month it came to light that Jakarta had paid for the trip, giving Lilo’s government $171,000.
There is a chance Jakarta will try to head off the MSG delegation by inviting the ministers on a series of individual, bilateral visits, according to MacLeod. “After several visits by single foreign ministers, the Indonesian government could claim a multilateral visit is not necessary,” he said. “The danger is that the MSG foreign ministers could write their report advising on the decision of West Papuan membership to the MSG without any genuine input from Papuan civil society.”
The other two MSG members seem less vulnerable to such overtures. The FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist Nationalist Liberation Front, a political coalition from New Caledonia, whose multi-party government is divided over whether the territory should push for independence from France) is seeking support for its own decolonisation campaign. Indeed, it was the FLNKS that invited the WPNCL to attend the summit.
In Vanuatu, the issue of Papuan decolonisation has risen further up the national agenda than in any other country. In 2010 its parliament passed a unanimous motion to take the matter up with the UN. At the June summit, Vanuatu’s prime minister, Moanna Carcassas, said that the country would not be free until all of Melanesia was free: “I say that we as brothers must stand for [West Papua]. The epicentre of support for the advocacy for West Papuan self-determination must begin in this region – Melanesia – and from here it could spread to other foreign lands.”
That is exactly what Jakarta does not want to happen. The lengths it will go to to prevent it remain to be seen. Already, foreign journalists are effectively banned from West Papua. Reporters will undoubtedly seek to accompany the MSG mission, but the rules are justified by a supposed threat to their safety. Leaked military documents, however, show that Jakarta is more worried about international opinion toward West Papua than about militants. Secret files that surfaced in 2010 said that the “separatist political movement” which had “reached the outside world” was “much more dangerous” than armed groups that “hardly do anything”.
This is not the first time Jakarta has had to decide how to handle journalists reporting on a foreign delegation it would rather not accommodate. In 1991, Portugal planned a fact-finding mission to East Timor, its former colony, to determine whether the people there were content with Indonesian rule. The delegation was cancelled after Jakarta objected to the inclusion of Jill Jolliffe, an Australian reporter who it regarded as pro-independence. “They said the journalist was not serving the purpose of the visit,” said Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The purpose of the visit was for the Portuguese delegation to see things getting better in East Timor.”
The East Timorese went ahead with a massive demonstration anyway; more than 200 protesters were killed. But an English reporter filmed the carnage, and the video he smuggled out was broadcast across the world. That was when the international movement for East Timor really took off.
A similar incident in West Papua, known as the Biak massacre, produced a different result. In 1998 soldiers opened fire on Papuans as they demonstrated in Biak, killing dozens. “There were no outsiders there to witness it,” MacLeod said. “West Papua is a secret story.”
Jakarta is already selling the MSG ministers its own version of the West Papuan story. The WPNCL may never get to tell its side.
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