By Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka
West Papua will be the highest-profile issue at the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) leaders’ summit in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on 24–26 June 2015.
The leaders will decide on the United Liberation Movement for West Papua’s (ULMWP) application for membership of the MSG. This is an organization consisting of the four independent Melanesian countries – Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji – and New Caledonia’s pro-independence organization, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).
If the MSG admits the ULMWP, it could boost the pro-independence movement’s push for self-determination and provide an international venue to highlight the Indonesian Government’s human rights violations in West Papua. But, it could also have negative impacts on the Melanesian countries’ relations with Indonesia. This will be particularly worrying for PNG and Fiji, which have growing economic, political and military partnerships with Jakarta. It could also setback Indonesia’s bid to position itself as an emerging Asia-Pacific power.
On the other hand, if the MSG leaders deny the ULMWP membership, it could widen the rift between MSG countries, redefine Melanesia, blur the cultural and political divisions between Oceania and Southeast Asia, and see a Melanesian sub-region dominated by Indonesia.
The MSG leaders are therefore faced with the difficult task of balancing, on one hand, their moral obligation to support Melanesians in West Papua, and on the other hand, respecting Indonesia’s sovereignty and maintaining their growing political and economic relations with this emerging Southeast Asian power.
This will be the second time West Papua’s pro-independence movements have made a bid for MSG membership. The first was in October 2013 when an application by the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) was unsuccessful. Part of the reason then was concerns that WPNCL did not represent all the pro-independence groups in West Papua. Since then, the West Papuans have formed the ULMWP, which they claim is more representative.
The WPNCL’s application failure was also because of intense lobbying by Indonesia, which has an observer status on the MSG. In January 2014, Jakarta invited the MSG Foreign Ministers to visit Indonesia and “witness first-hand conditions in West Papua.” The mission was headed the Fiji’s Foreign Minister, but was boycotted by Vanuatu whose Foreign Minister Edward Natapei argued that the meeting, “was being hijacked by the government of Indonesia to work on another issue, which was to promote economic ties and development cooperation with the government of Indonesia” (Radio Australia, 16 January 2014 http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/radio/program/pacific-beat/vanuatu-defends-boycott-of-msg-mission/1248756). Indeed, the MSG Foreign Ministers were given only fleeting and restricted visits to Jakarta, Bali and West Papua.
This time, it seems there will again be a split in the MSG. Vanuatu and the FLNKS are likely to support West Papua’s bid for membership. Vanuatu has always been a firm supporter of West Papuan independence and the FLNKS is sympathetic, given its own struggles for independence from France. But the change of government in Port Vila last week and the election of Sato Kilman as Prime Minister casts doubts on how Vanuatu will vote. Kilman had earlier been sacked as Foreign Minister because “he misrepresented Vanuatu’s position over the West Papua issue” (Radio New Zealand International, 10 June 2015 http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/275896/vanuatu-pm-lays-out-concerns-with-kilman).
Solomon Islands has not made a firm commitment. Instead, Foreign Minister Milner Tozaka states that the Solomon Islands Government will “go along with a united [MSG] stand” (SIBC News, 3 June 2015 http://www.sibconline.com.sb/solomons-decided-united-stand-on-west-papuas-m-s-g-bid/). It is unclear what this means. But it is indicative of the fact that Solomon Islands has never been decisive on the West Papua issue, choosing instead the shroud of vague diplomatic language. But, it also means that Solomon Islands could hold the balance in the MSG’s decision on West Papua’s application for membership.
Interestingly, Solomon Islands played a leading role in pushing for French Polynesia to be re-enlisted on the UN’s Decolonization List. During the UN General Assembly meeting in May 2013, the Solomon Islands’ Ambassador to the UN, Collin Beck, introduced the resolution, supported by Nauru, Tuvalu, Samoa, Vanuatu and East Timor. Beck told the UN General Assembly there was “wide international support” for putting French Polynesia back on the list and that, “the map of decolonizing remains an unfinished business of the United Nations” (Solomon Times Online, 21 May 2013 http://www.solomontimes.com/news/with-solomon-islands-support-french-polynesia-back-on-the-decolonization-list/7678). Yet, Solomon Islands is reluctant to support West Papua’s application for membership of the MSG.
Fiji and PNG will likely vote against ULMWP membership or attempt to water down West Papua’s participation in efforts to save their relations with Indonesia. They prefer “non-interference” in Indonesia’s sovereign affairs, citing West Papua as a domestic issue.
PNG shares a border with Indonesia/West Papua. And although it is directly affected by the conflicts in West Papua, PNG has always been reluctant to speak out against Indonesian occupation. In October 1986, PNG signed the “Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship, and Cooperation” with Indonesia, which frames the relationship between the two countries. In 1988, PNG’s then Foreign Minister, Akoka Doi, said that Port Moresby recognizes West Papua as “an integral part of Indonesia.” It was, in his words, a “mistake done by the colonial powers so let it stay as it is.”
But more recently, it seems opinions in the haus tambaran in Waigani have changed. In February, in a carefully crafted statement, PNG’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, expressed concern about Indonesia’s human rights abuses in West Papua. He stated that, “the time has come for us to speak about [the] oppression [of] our people. Pictures of brutality of our people appear daily on social media and yet we take no notice. We have the moral obligation to speak for those who are not allowed to talk. We must be the eyes for those who are blindfolded. Again, Papua New Guinea, as a regional leader, we must lead these discussions with our friends in a mature and engaging manner” (The Interpreter, 9 February 2015 http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2015/02/09/PNG-Prime-Minister-speaks-up-on-West-Papua.aspx?COLLCC=1551706283&). This was, to date, his strongest statement on the issue, referring to the Melanesian West Papuans as “our family,” “our brothers and sisters,” and “our people.”
But in March, O’Neill told a gathering at the Lowy Institute in Sydney that he prefers that West Papua’s Provincial Governors rather than the ULMWP, represent West Papua at the MSG. In other words, he wants Indonesian government representatives to be the mouthpiece for West Papua at the MSG.
The Fiji Government has never been an advocate for West Papua. It joined the MSG in 1998 – a decade after the MSG (which was conceived in 1983) was formalized in March 1988 with the signing of the “Agreed Principles for Cooperation.” Fiji joined mainly because it saw the potential benefits from the MSG Trade Agreement that PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu signed in 1993. Its first engagement with the MSG was at the Trade and Economic Officials’ Meeting in Honiara in April 1997. It could therefore be argued that Fiji’s membership of the MSG was driven largely by economic imperatives, rather than concerns for human rights and self-determination.
In contrast, Fiji has a longer history of flirting with Indonesia. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1974, but became actively engaged in the late 1980s. Following Fiji’s first coup, and as a result of being marginalized by traditional allies, the Sitiveni Rabuka-led government turned to Jakarta. In November 1987, a eight-member Indonesian trade mission arrived in Suva and held talks with the then Foreign Minister, Filipe Bole, offering Fiji up to 25,000 tons of rice on credit and special financial facilities as a “goodwill gesture.” Along with that, the then Indonesian military boss, General Benny Murdani, expressed interests in forging military cooperation with Fiji.
The current Fiji Government continues the strong tie with Indonesia. In May 2011, Suva and Jakarta signed a Development Cooperation Agreement (DCA) that covers a wide range of sectors, including Agriculture, Fisheries and Marine Resources, Forestry, Trade & Investments, Education, Legal & Judicial Sector, Defense, Police, Tourism etc. In March 2015, the Fijian Foreign Affairs Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, met his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, in Nadi to discuss enhancing trade cooperation in fisheries, agriculture processing and in the marketing of their various products. While Indonesia is presently not Fiji’s largest trading partner, the value of trade between the two countries is significant.
It was Fiji Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, who pushed for Indonesia to become an observer on the MSG in 2011. Last month, he proposed that Indonesia be made an associate member of the MSG, adding that “Papua comes under the governance of Indonesia and if you want to do anything in Papua, the best thing to do is to bring in Indonesia, no matter what, if we bring in Papua separately, it doesn’t make sense” (Pacific Islands Report, 26 May 2015 http://pidp.eastwestcenter.org/pireport/2015/May/05-26-01.htm).
Bainimarama’s statement ignores the fraudulent processes that led to Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua, including the US-brokered New York Agreement of August 1962 that facilitated the Netherland’s handover of West Papua to Indonesia. It also ignores the questionable 1969 Act of Free Choice and the human rights abuses and atrocities that Indonesia committed in the past fifty years, including the killing of about 500,000 Melanesian West Papuans. Bainimarama chose to ignore all that in favor of trade.
Given its relationship with Indonesia, it is unlikely Fiji will support West Papua’s application for MSG membership. Instead, Bainimarama will use this MSG summit to seek endorsement for Fiji’s political agendas, including its attempts to expel Australia and New Zealand from the Pacific Islands Forum, making them participate only as donor partners.
As the MSG prepares to discuss West Papua’s application for membership, one might ask: Why should West Papua be given MSG membership? Will MSG membership help address West Papua’s issues? How can the MSG countries address the West Papua issue while maintaining cordial relationships with Indonesia? There is no space here to answer these questions. But, in seeking answers, three issues are pertinent.
First, it is important to note that sovereignty is not absolute. In the past two decades, we have seen an increase in international interventions in situations where human rights have been violated and atrocities committed. The reasons for and the nature of interventions vary, but there is definitely an international willingness to “infringe” on Westphalian notions of sovereignty in order to hold states accountable to universal principles. We have seen this from East Timor to Kosovo, from Sierra Leone to Sudan, and from Angola to Afghanistan. On the other hand, the case of Rwanda demonstrates the humanitarian costs when the international community stood by and did too little, too late.
As the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in September 1999, “State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined – not least by the forces of globalization and international cooperation. States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa. At the same time individual sovereignty – by which I mean the fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in the charter of the UN and subsequent international treaties – has been enhanced by a renewed and spreading consciousness of individual rights. When we read the charter today, we are more than ever conscious that its aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them” (The Economist, 16 September 1999 http://www.economist.com/node/324795).
West Papua is not the same as East Timor, Sierre Leone, Sudan, Angola, Afghanistan, Kosovo, etc. But, the international community must hold the Indonesian state accountable for more than fifty years of human rights abuses and the murder of about 500,000 West Papuans – the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Solomon Islands. “Intervention” does not have to be by military force. It can be a “diplomatic intervention” that holds Indonesia accountable, reminding Jakarta that its sovereignty is not absolute.
The MSG could, and should, take on that responsibility, not only because of ethnic affinity with indigenous West Papuans, but because of universal human rights principles. It will not be easy, given Indonesia’s growing economic, political and military power in Southeast Asia and its alliances with the US, Australia and other Western powers. But it is a noble and worthwhile engagement. It is time to take decisive action by admitting West Papua to the MSG.
Second, there is a need to redress the fraudulent processes that led to Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua. This discussion should be taken to the United Nations. There have been suggestions for a legal approach – one that challenges the transfers of sovereignty from the Dutch to the Indonesian government. This approach is favored by the International Lawyers for West Papua and Vanuatu. In June 2010, the Vanuatu parliament unanimously passed a motion calling on the International Court of Justice (IJC) to investigate the legality of West Papua’s transfer from the Dutch to Indonesia.
But, as Australian academics, Jason MacLeod and Brian Martin have pointed out, there are risks with the legal strategy. These include the fact that it would require considerable money and resources; legal strategies usually favor the powerful; it could dampen wide spread civil society activism both within and outside of West Papua; and there is the risk that the case might never be heard because of technical legal issues. And, as MacLeod and Martin state, “A failure to win the case, even on technical grounds, could undermine the cause for self-determination by giving a legal stamp of approval to the Act of Free Choice.” They argue that, “The case of West Papua is essentially about power politics and vested economic interests. Therefore, winning the ‘court of public opinion’ (in other words, building a powerful social movement) and raising the political and economic costs of the Indonesian government’s continued occupation will be more decisive than a legal victory” (Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney, Papua Paper No. 3, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/12papuapaper.pdf). West Papua’s membership in the MSG would add to Indonesia’s political costs.
Third, West Papua had historical associations with Oceania prior to the Indonesian takeover. In his book, “Asia in the Pacific Islands: Replacing the West,” the late Professor Ron Crocombe notes that, “Until Indonesia took over, West Papuans took part in the South Pacific Commission and its training courses and conferences, West Papua Churches participated in the Pacific church conferences, and West Papuans studied at the Central Medical School and the Pacific Theological College in Fiji, and at other PNG and regional institutions. When Indonesia took over West Papua in 1963, all West Papuan participation in regional activities was stopped.” This calls for Oceanian responsibility.
The MSG should seriously consider West Papua’s application for membership. The worse thing that could happen would be to admit Indonesia as an associate member. That would be an insult to West Papuans and on the original intent, impetus and spirit for establishing the MSG. It could also result in Indonesia’s domination of Melanesia.
As the Melanesia’s Big Men gather in Nahona Ara (Honiara), the cries and blood of West Papuans will hang heavy in the town’s humid air. There is a lot at stake. West Papua is an issue that could make or break Melanesia. (*)
Tarcisius Kabutaulaka is an associate professor at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He received his undergraduate and MA degrees from the University of the South Pacific, and a PhD in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. He is from Solomon Islands.
This article was published on pidp.eastwestcenter.org