West Papua struggles for recognition, opens office in Australia

June 1, 2014
The first Free West Papua campaign office in Australia opened in April in Perth. Photo from FreeWestPapua.wordpress.com.

The first Free West Papua campaign office in Australia was opened in April in Perth, signalling the growing international campaign for West Papuan self-determination. West Papua has been occupied by Indonesia since the 1960s, despite an ongoing struggle for independence.

Benny Wenda, a leader of Free West Papua living in exile, said he hoped the Australian government would withstand pressure from Indonesia over the office opening.

Wenda referred to the Indonesian reaction when the group opened an office in Britain. The Indonesian government responded by summoning the British ambassador in Jakarta to explain why they were not taking steps to shut the office.

There has been no diplomatic showdown between Australia and Indonesia over the new office so far, but a look at the attitudes of Australia’s leaders may indicate why.

When former foreign minister Bob Carr discussed the British campaign office with Indonesia’s foreign minister at the time, he was told that Indonesia would “prefer [Australia] not to allow an office to open”. In his memoir, Carr writes that West Papua activists are “provocateurs who encourage Papuans to put their lives on the line”.

During a visit to Indonesia in October, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: “And people seeking to grandstand against Indonesia, please, don't look to do it in Australia. You are not welcome.”

Despite these remarks, polls have shown that more than 75% of Australians support West Papuan self-determination.

But West Papua is facing difficulties in gaining recognition in the region. Over May 23-25, a seminar of the United Nations Special Committee On Decolonisation was held in Nadi, Fiji.

West Papua is not on the UN's Non-Self Governing Territory List and is therefore left out of official discussions. West Papua was removed from the list in 1963, after the UN took over management of the colony from the Netherlands and handed administration to Indonesia.

The Pacific Conference of Churches and the Pacific Regional Non Governmental Organisations Alliance called for West Papua’s reinstatement to the list. A PCC statement said: “For the freedom of our brothers and sisters in Guam, Kanaky/New Caledonia, Maohi Nui/French Polynesia, Tokelau, West Papua to chart their own political future, we call on our Pacific peoples in all walks of life to stand up, speak out and be actively be engaged in their struggle.”

PCC desk officer Peter Emberson said: “We recognise that this might be a difficult position for some governments to take but the Pacific people must be treated with justice.”

Emberson may have been referring to the less than principled stance of countries like Fiji. At the seminar, Fiji's PM Frank Bainimarama reaffirmed his country's support for Kanaky (New Caledonia).

PCC general secretary Reverend Francois Pihaatae said: “However, we note with concern the silence of regional governments ― including Fiji ― on the issue of decolonization and self-determination for Pacific peoples still under colonial rule.

“Whilst we applaud the explicit support for Kanaky’s self-determination, we call on all Pacific governments, in particular Fiji and Papua New Guinea ... to take a similar position on other non-self-governing Pacific territories, especially American Samoa, Guam, Maohi Nui (French Polynesia), West Papua, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) amongst others and to do so consistently.”

Fiji, and some other Pacific countries, have shown a willingness to engage with Indonesia while ignoring West Papua's struggle. This was especially clear when the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) visited West Papua in January to investigate West Papua's conditions and consider its representation in the group.

However, delegates spent barely a day in West Papua and did not meet any West Papuan civil society representatives. They then went to Jakarta to talk about trade and relations with Indonesia, issuing a statement saying: “We respect Indonesia’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity as well as the non-intervention principle into a country’s domestic affairs as stated in the United Nation’s charter.”

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will visit Fiji this month for the Pacific Islands Development Forum meeting in Nadi. Dr Richard Chauvel of Victoria University said this is part of Indonesia's increasing intervention in the region after the MSG visit.

He said: “The way the [MSG] Foreign Ministers visit [to West Papua] was hosted; you'll remember [PNG Prime Minister] O'Neill was in Jakarta when the MSG meeting was held. But clearly it has longer term strategic ambitions beyond its difficulties in West Papua.”

Vanuatu has been the strongest supporter of West Papua in the region. The country was the only MSG member that took a principled stand by boycotting the trip. Then-PM Moana Carcasses, a vocal supporter of West Papua, lost his position in a vote of no confidence on May 15.

Vanuatu Independent editor Tony Wilson said: “This has been kept extremely quiet. Everyone in the media, and I think even some politicians, were in the dark.”

The West Papua Coalition for Liberation says the new prime minister, Joe Natuman, will continue supporting West Papuan self-determination. But the new foreign minister, Sato Kilman, tried to strengthen ties with Indonesia when he was prime minster.

Indeed, it was partly his abandonment of Vanuatu's traditional support for West Papua that led to his defeat by Carcasses.

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