The recent 20th Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) summit made a landmark decision. The MSG leaders meeting in Honiara, Solomon Islands, granted the status of observer and associated memberships to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) and five provinces of Indonesia, respectively. The MSG leaders describe the former as representing Melanesians living abroad whereas the latter represents the Melanesian population living in Papua, West Papua, Maluku, North Maluku and East Nusa Tenggara.
The decision constitutes a historic moment as the MSG forum has expanded its outreach into a new area that it previously had never thought of: Indonesian Melanesia. The decision will not only lift up the discussion of Papua from activist level to the diplomatic level but also demonstrates the Melanesian wisdom that gives every member a proportionate share of the Melanesian collegiality and brotherhood. Hence the forum has envisioned the roadmap of Papuan peace building in the long run.
What would be the implications of the Melanesian contest on Papuan issues? Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama made it very clear when he addressed the summit. He stated that in dealing with Papua, the forum must engage Indonesia in a “positive and constructive manner” since Papua is under Indonesia’s jurisdiction. While the statement definitely confirmed the political status of Papua, it did not preclude any discussion about the humanitarian issues that the Papuans themselves tabled during the last two MSG summits. On the contrary, the position reaffirmed continuing dialogue between the MSG and Indonesia and reserved a guaranteed space for Papuans to have a genuine dialogue with Indonesia.
The space has been guaranteed as both Indonesia and ULMWP as Papuan representatives have been granted official status in the forum. Both may not be entirely satisfied with the MSG decisions as they had been seeking full membership. As we know, Indonesian diplomats have worked hard to ensure that the ULMWP would not get status in the forum. On the contrary, they proposed membership for the five provinces of Indonesia framed as Melanesian. Similarly, the ULMWP executives have put much effort into convincing Melanesian leaders to support its bid for full membership, referring to the case of the independent movement of New Caledonia (FLKNS) as a precedent.
Despite their dissatisfaction, both Indonesia and Papua have been given a chance to talk to each other as equals. This is the first time ever in the MSG and Indonesia’s history that Papua will have a voice for itself at an international diplomatic forum. When the MSG leaders recognized Papua as a new political entity in the forum, they immediately put Papua on the Melanesian political map. Papua is no longer invisible. It does exist
.Indonesia, on the other hand, has also been given a chance to engage more deeply with the Melanesian brotherhood. The direct partnership with the MSG nations will greatly benefit Indonesia in developing its plan to promote Melanesian culture within Indonesian society and polity. The government has a plan to build a Melanesian Cultural Center in Kupang.
If the plan goes ahead, it would contribute to promoting a stronger spirit of plurality and diversity, which has been undermined by those who promote otherwise. The decision would also be beneficial for Indonesian civil society organizations that promote dialogue between Jakarta and Papua, such as the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), the Papua Peace Network, Jakarta-based NGOs, Papua-based NGOs, Papuan churches, etc. They should be able to use the MSG decision to encourage the Indonesian government to explore genuine dialogue with Papuans in a more neutral space within the MSG forum. Perhaps some parties in the national political circle would not appreciate the opportunity for dialogue as they have frequently expressed. These parties might harden their stance and ensure that the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo would not go near the dialogue offer.
But the chance is there and cannot be ignored. If both Indonesia and Papua retain their status, it is likely that the space for ongoing discussions between Papuan representatives and the Indonesian government is guaranteed. For Papuans, the MSG decision remains a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it made space for dialogue with Jakarta but on the other, it posed a new challenge for Papuans. The challenge is the two types of Melanesia that the MSG leaders declared.
If Papuans are not able to manage it properly, it is not impossible for it to be used for divide et impera (divide and rule) tactics in the future. Therefore, Papuan leaders will have to cultivate the decision and translate it into new strategies in incorporating a larger and more vibrant civic movement in Indonesia. The movement played an instrumental role, not only to promote awareness of the issue of Papua in Indonesian politics but it has also proved effective, for instance, to campaign for human rights for East Timor in the past. So it is a matter of strategies of engagement.
Budi Hernawan, research fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM) in Jakarta.