It was towards the end of my tour at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta when, in 1969, West Papua became the twenty-sixth province of Indonesia after the so-called ‘Act of Free Choice’ sponsored by the UN saw the transfer of official administration from the Netherlands to Indonesia.
I have found in my travels that few understand the history of West Papua, and concerned with the growing number of nations voicing their support for the United Nations to revisit the flawed plebiscite, I decided to write this story, part-fact, mostly fiction, in an attempt to offer an insight into a scenario that could bring Australia and Indonesia into conflict.
Jakarta should indeed be concerned that they could eventually lose the resource-rich territory – an event that could drag Australia into conflict with its restive neighbour.
Over the five decades that Indonesia has held official control of West Papua, the indigenous population has endured a repressive and unjust system of Javanese-colonial occupation. Based on reports filed by church organizations, missionaries and West Papuan diaspora, Indonesian security forces continue to commit gross human rights abuses against the indigenous population with estimates of civilians killed reaching half a million since occupation commenced.
There has always been a deeply-felt sense of kinship and common heritage amongst the Melanesian Spearhead Group of nations towards West Papua. Vanuatu has always been a place of refuge for West Papuan dissidents and independence activists.
Indonesia has been aware of this support within the Vanuatu body politic for many years, and has recently sought to counter it. This open diplomatic confrontation was evidence that Indonesia’s diplomatic offensive over West Papua was well underway.
The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) came into being on July 17, 1986 as a result of an informal meeting of Heads of Government of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and a representative of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS).
The member states are Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, the Kanak and Socialist Liberation Front of New Caledonia. In 2015, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) a coalition of West Papuan organisations was made an observer of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).
The ULMWP had since applied for full membership, hoping it would give their movement greater political recognition. This is unlikely to succeed as the leaders of the MSG voted to make Indonesia an associate member, paving the way for stronger cooperation between Jakarta and Melanesian countries. Indonesia’s membership of the MSG has giving them a greater influence in Melanesian politics than the ULMWP.
In January 2017 the MSG commenced discussions to provide full membership to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.
It is Indonesia’s view that West Papua already falls under their (Indonesian republic) representation in the MSG and strongly opposes this consideration because it regards West Papua as an integral part of its territory.
Although the MSG’s core philosophy supports decolonisation and greater independence in Melanesia the potential inclusion of the ULMWP is problematic with Indonesia’s associate membership (granted on the basis of the Melanesian identity of five of its provinces).
Currently, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu openly favour the ULMWP’s inclusion whilst Fiji and Papua New Guinea remain undecided. Papua New Guinea and Fiji’s hesitancy can be understood as Fiji continues to share strong trade links with Indonesia and currently receives aid for the MSG’s regional police academy in Fiji. Papua New Guineans support West Papuan liberation. However, as PNG has extensive trade and border relations with Indonesia and would wish to maintain these without any diplomatic disturbances Port Moresby continues to vacillate on the issue.
In September 2016 history was made for West Papua at the United Nations General Assembly when seven Pacific Island nations raised the issue of West Papuan independence. These countries were Nauru,Marshall Islands, Tuvalu ,Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Palau.
Ireland, Guinea and the Netherlands have now added their voices to the cause. In April of this year a global petition for West Papuan self-determination was launched in Papua New Guinea. This historic petition was originally launched at the British parliament in Westminster on January 27, 2017.
The petition calls upon the UN Secretary General to – “appoint a Special Representative to investigate the human rights situation in West Papua; – put West Papua back on the Decolonisation Committee agenda and ensure their right to self?determination ?- denied to them in 1969 -? is respected by holding an Internationally Supervised Vote (in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolutions 1514 and 1541 (XV)).”
Political support in New Zealand for an independent West Papua also continues to grow after eleven members of Parliament from across four political parties signed the Westminster Declaration in May 2017, calling for West Papua’s right to self-determination to be legally recognised through an indigenous Papuan vote.
October 19, 2011 five thousand academics, politicians, church leaders, and senior tribal leaders established the Federal Republic of West Papua (FRWP) during the 3rd Papua Congress. They determined its objectives, and elected a president and a prime minister. The Indonesian government immediately charged the President, Prime Minister and organizers of the Congress, with subversion, and they were all incarcerated.
ASEAN member states remain reluctant in acknowledging the growing possibility that Indonesia may be challenged with losing yet another of its provinces following former President Habibie’s misstep that precipitated East Timor’s gaining independence from its Javanese, colonial masters.
Indonesia continues to pressure Australia to caution its Pacific Island neighbours against interfering in the West Papua issue and to urge them to withdraw support for West Papuan membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, warning that the issue could pose a ‘stumbling block’ to closer bilateral ties if Canberra fails to adopt a stronger public defence of Indonesia’s position.
Although all Australian governments since 1962 have supported Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, the growing international support for independence is highly likely to continue to negatively impact upon Australia-Indonesia relations in the future, recalling Australia’s support for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia in 1999. Jakarta believes that Australia will eventually support West Papuan independence or has strategic designs on the province.
We can be certain that Jakarta would not readily surrender West Papua as it did East Timor. Papua New Guinea could also become victim to any conflict arising from a territorial fight and that would certainly invoke existing arrangements between PNG and Australia requiring boots on the ground to protect its borders.
Kerry B. Collison’s latest book Rockefeller and the Demise of Ibu Pertiwi will soon be available in hard copy print on demand, and uploaded worldwide as an eBook.
Amazon US – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B075J8H47W
Amazon AU – https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B075J8H47W
(plus all eleven other Amazon international sites)
(Amazon AU does not sell print books, only eBooks)