Marchers in Honiara in support of West Papua’s bid to join the MSG, June 19.
The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) granted the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) observer membership during a summit meeting in Honiara on June 26. It also upgraded Indonesia’s membership from observer to associate.
The ULMWP had applied for full membership of the MSG in hopes of gaining diplomatic recognition to further its cause of West Papuan self-determination.
ULMWP Secretary General Octovianus Mote welcomed the decision, the Free West Papua Campaign said.
“I thank our leaders in Melanesia, especially the leaders from Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and FLNKS [the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, representing French-occupied Kanaky, or New Caledonia] for publicly supporting us in this quest,” he said. “Your public support for our struggle gives our people hope that you have heard our cries, they affirm that we are part of this Melanesian family.”
But he added, “whilst this is the first step for West Papua, we will be working towards full membership into the MSG family. But our struggle for political recognition will not stop here, we will take it to the regional and international level as we are a nation in waiting”.
Many supporters of West Papuan freedom, while acknowledging this is a positive step, have expressed reservations. Gary Juffa, governor of Papua New Guinea's Oro province and outspoken supporter of West Papua told ABC Radio National's Pacific Beats program on June 26: “Even though the manner in which they [Indonesia] have acquired West Papua was illegal in 1965 they are still recognised as a sovereign state and West Papua is a territory of theirs.
“That doesn’t mean individuals such as myself and others have to recognise, I don’t recognise that at all. I believe West Papua is a free nation that is imprisoned by Indonesia. But in regards to the decision made I think it’s a clever move, it gives recognition of some sort to the ULMWP.”
Reverend James Bhagwan, secretary for communication and overseas missions for Fiji's Methodist Church, which has advocated for ULMWP’s membership, told Pacific Beats: “We have been concerned about the issue of human rights in West Papua … will what has happened alleviate that or bring those human rights violations to a close or open the door for MSG members to go in with perhaps a peacekeeping force or some sort of support to assist the West Papuans who are suffering?
“Of course the concern always is, is it a question of political expediency or is it something they have done because they feel it is a moral, right thing to do?”
Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama welcomed West Papua's MSG membership but opposed West Papuan independence in his speech to the final plenary of the summit.
He said: “For our part, Fiji has been guided by a number of overriding principles in approaching the West Papua issue. The first and foremost of these is that Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua cannot be questioned.
“The province is an integral part of Indonesia. So that when we deal with West Papua and its people, the MSG has no choice but to deal with Indonesia and in a positive and constructive manner.
“Furthermore, we are convinced that the best hope for improving the lives of the people of West Papua — our fellow Melanesians — is to work closely with the Indonesian government.
“We cannot erase the history of West Papua and some of the negative aspects of that history, which we acknowledge include significant human rights violations. But the Indonesia that presided over those excesses is not the Indonesia we know today.
“It is now one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. And at a national level, Indonesia is also committed to righting some of the wrongs of the past and placing West Papua on a new course.”
Bainimarama’s position was not surprising, considering his government’s increasingly close relationship with Indonesia. In the weeks leading up to the MSG summit, Indonesia’s foreign minister visited each of the member states to discuss increasing cooperation and trade. Indonesian president Joko Widodo even visited Papua New Guinea, the first time an Indonesian president has done so.
Yuyun Wahyuningrum, a senior adviser on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and human rights with the Jakarta-based Human Rights Working Group, told the July 1 Jakarta Globe: “My first reaction of the inclusion of Indonesia to the MSG is that Indonesia needs to clarify its motives. Is it trying to dilute the position of the MSG over Papua? Or is it about cooperation?
“The United Liberation Movement for West Papua expects that the MSG could be a platform where discussion on human rights, sovereignty issues and development concerns in the Papuan provinces could be raised.
“But having Indonesia’s leverage in MSG may be a stumbling block in addressing Papuan issues on a regional platform.”
Rafendi Djamin, representative of Indonesia to the Association of South East Asian Nations told the Jakarta Globe: “Rights enjoyed in other parts of Indonesia are not enjoyed in Papua. People are being arrested for expressing for their opinions.”
A 2015 Amnesty International Report estimates there are 60 West Papuan political prisoners at the moment, the Jakarta Globe said.
“A lack of economic development triggers a lot of dissatisfaction among political groups in West Papua,” Rafendi said. “You have a region with huge economic potential, but a lot of work needs to be done to make sure the benefits are felt all throughout the province.”
Tomi Soetjipto, communication analyst with the United Nations Development Program told the Jakarta Globe: “The Papua region is rich in natural resources, but in terms of human development, it is lagging behind other provinces in Indonesia.”
“Take a look at poverty figures in the Papua and West Papua provinces. They are the worst out of all of Indonesia’s 34 provinces.”
According to the Central Statistics Agency, poverty in the provinces of Papua and West Papua is 31.53% and 27.14% respectively, while the national average is 11.47%.
Widodo reversed years of media restrictions in May, promising free access for foreign journalists to West Papua. “Starting from today, foreign journalists are allowed and free to come to Papua, just as they can [visit] other regions,” he told a May 10 press conference in the West Papuan city of Merauke.
But he was contradicted by Coordinating Minister for Political, Security and Legal Affairs Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, who said that foreign reporters would still face restrictions, the Jakarta Globe said.
“We’ll allow it, on the condition that they report on what they see, not go around looking for facts that aren’t true from armed groups,” Purdijatno said.
Widodo’s aim to end the transmigration policy in West Papua — implanting Indonesian migrants to displace indigenous Papuans — is also opposed within his cabinet. Minister for Villages, Disadvantaged Regions and Transmigration Marwan Ja’far called for the program to be accelerated.
According to 2010 estimates, the Jakarta Globe said, the ratio of non-Papuans to Papuans was 52:48, with annual growth rates of the migrant population outstripping the growth of the indigenous Papuan population by nearly tenfold.