Foreign Ministers of the Melanesian Spearhead Group are set to tip-toe through a diplomatic minefield with news that a MSG delegation – led by Fiji’s Ratu Inoke Kubuabola – will make its long-awaited visit to the Indonesian province of West Papua this week. The mission is fraught with potential difficulty and will require all the diplomatic skills the Ministers can muster as they walk a tightrope between the intense sensitivity of their Indonesian hosts and the equally intense expectations of their Melanesian brothers and sisters in West Papua.
Ratu Inoke is famed for his own political dexterity – a man who has been able to weather successive upheavals in Fijian politics and still be at the centre of decision-making. So arguably no one is better placed to lead this delegation to West Papua and bring it back without fracturing relationships on either side. The stakes are high and the pitfalls perilous. It will be one of the toughest assignments Ratu Inoke has ever undertaken, arguably more so than his patient to-ing and fro-ing with the recalcitrant Australians and New Zealanders on behalf of the Bainimarama Government. Yet, once again, Fiji has a unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership, judgment and wisdom, not only in our own foreign policy but on behalf of all Melanesians, including the people of West Papua. So our best wishes go with him as he tackles one of the biggest challenges of his diplomatic career.
Put simply, the indigenous people of West Papua regard themselves – quite rightly – as being as Melanesian as their kin across the border in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji – the existing members of the MSG. Yet they now find themselves outnumbered in their own country by the Javanese and other Indonesian ethnic groups that have flooded into West Papua since what was then a Dutch colony was invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1961. That invasion took place in highly controversial circumstances and amid an international outcry. It was eventually agreed that the United Nations oversee a plebiscite of the people of West Papua to finally decide their future. They were given two choices – to remain part of Indonesia or to become an independent nation. But while this vote was officially described as “An Act of Free Choice”, it was conducted not by a poll of the entire population but of about 1,000 men selected by the Indonesian military. This group – described at the time as a consensus of elders – was allegedly coerced into unanimously voting to remain part of Indonesia. And ever since, the result has been rejected by Papuan nationalists, who established what they called the Free Papua Movement (OPM). The OPM ran a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Indonesian administration over the years in which many thousands of people were killed on both sides. And while this has since tapered off, the independence movement has continued, mainly through peaceful protest and a campaign of international lobbying.
The main pro-independence group now is the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation ( WPNCL) – an umbrella group of several bodies – with a leadership largely outside the country – in Vanuatu, the United States and Europe. This group has now made a formal application to join the MSG and in doing so, has given the regional grouping a massive headache. It can’t really say no altogether because it has already admitted the FLNKS, which is not a Melanesian country but the pro-independence movement in New Caledonia, once a French territory and still part of the French Republic, though with a degree of internal autonomy as a “Special Collectivity” of France. The people of New Caledonia are due to be given a vote on full independence from France sometime between now and 2018. But the people of West Papua are in a completely different situation.
Indonesia regards West Papua as one of its provinces and an integral part of the nation, as integral as Java, Sumatra or anywhere else. It says it will never countenance independence and fights the notion at every turn, regarding it as a threat to national sovereignty. Part of its sensitivity lies in the humiliating manner in which it was forced to surrender East Timor, which it invaded and took from the Portuguese in 1975, but lost in 1999 after a bloody guerrilla war and a similar United Nations vote, though one carried out properly. In the interim, Indonesia has evolved from a military dictatorship into a robust democracy. Yet the Indonesian military still sees itself as the ultimate guardian of the country’s territorial integrity and cracks down hard on any expression of dissidence or revolt over its hold on West Papua.
For Fiji and the other MSG countries, negotiating a way through this minefield is naturally going to be extremely challenging. Philosophically, they cannot exclude a substantial Melanesian population whose representatives want to join the organisation. But neither can they – nor do they want to -upset or damage the relationship of the MSG countries with Indonesia. That relationship ranges from excellent – in the case of Fiji – to somewhat strained, in the case of Vanuatu, which has close ties to the West Papuan leaders in exile, provides them with a base and has strongly argued their case in global forums such as the United Nations. So in essence, the door has to be kept open to both the Indonesian leadership in Jakarta and the leaders of the West Papuan independence movement, a considerable challenge that now rests at the feet of the MSG Foreign Ministers and Ratu Inoke Kubuabola in particular.
At the MSG summit meeting in Noumea last June, the MSG leaders decided to send a delegation led by Ratu Inoke to Indonesia for talks on the membership application by the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation. It’s taken more than six months of delicate negotiations to organise but finally, Jakarta issued a formal invitation for the mission to proceed. On Tuesday (Jan 11th), Ratu Inoke will begin sitting down in the Indonesian capital flanked by the Foreign Ministers of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, a Special Envoy from Vanuatu and a senior representative of the FLNKS, which is the current chair of the MSG. In a clear sign of how seriously the Indonesians are taking the mission, across the table from them will be the senior leadership – including the President of the Republic, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa.
The tenor of these meetings will be crucial. Neither side wants a showdown over West Papua and both will be working hard to ensure a successful outcome. But it is a challenging prospect indeed to expect the Indonesians to accept West Papua joining the MSG, except as part of the Indonesian Republic, which currently has observer status at the MSG. Can a formula be hammered out for the Province to join as a full member, just as the Kanaks of New Caledonia have full membership but France doesn’t? Would the pro-independence exiles accept this? Can they be brought into the tent to both the satisfaction of Indonesia, themselves and the MSG? These are all imponderables at the present time yet must logically be in the mix if a successful outcome is to be achieved.
After these talks will come the most sensitive part of the visit, when Ratu Inoke and the other Foreign Ministers travel from Jakarta to West Papua itself. Their official program for the two day visit hasn’t been officially released. Yet there’s no doubt that the pro-independence lobby sees the visit as a golden opportunity to press its case. A senior West Papuan activist, Octovianus Mote, was recently in Fiji lobbying on behalf of the WPNCL. He said the Movement was “thrilled” that the MSG Foreign Ministers would be coming to the Province and pledged that thousands of Melanesians would turn out to line the road from the airport to welcome them. Just how the Indonesian security forces will respond remains to be seen. But the record shows that they give short shrift to any public manifestation of Melanesian nationalism and especially the raising of the Free West Papuan flag. Octovianus Mote said this would definitely happen at some stage during the visit. The MSG Foreign Ministers will be dearly hoping for restraint on both sides.
In his official announcement of the visit, Ratu Inoke appeared to play down the prospects of any dramatic outcome, stressing cooperation with the Indonesian Government and ruling out any prospect of supporting independence for the Province.“We are happy to undertake this important visit at the invitation of the Indonesian Government to be able to assess the application by WPNCL to become a member of the MSG to enable us to present a recommendation to our Leaders,” Ratu Inoke said. “ (But) we fully respect Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and we further recognise that West Papua is an integral part of Indonesia. The visit will provide the opportunity to learn firsthand about the situation in West Papua and understand the aspirations of our fellow Melanesian brothers and sisters in Papua with regards to their representation by WPNCL to become a member of the MSG.”
So a softly, softly, vaka malua, approach to this most sensitive of issues – the Foreign Minister and his MSG colleagues desperately hoping their visit passes off without incident and that the whole conundrum can eventually be resolved through patient negotiation and dialogue. From where Fiji sits, it is certainly not the time for rash provocations on the part of the separatist movement, nor a heavy handed, repressive response on the part of the Indonesian security forces. The leitmotif of Fiji’s foreign policy under the Bainimarama Government is to be “friends to all” and that includes both Indonesia and our Melanesian neighbours. Ratu Inoke will certainly be approaching his mission in that spirit and the whole nation will be hoping that he can succeed.