This decision by the MSG is rich with political meaning and adds further depth to the already intricate mosaic of Pacific island relations: the Free West Papua campaign celebrates a tangible advancement in its age-old bid for self-determination; the MSG wrangles with its own internal politics; and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) emerges from its last annual gathering two members larger (with admission of French Polynesia and New Caledonia) but apparently hamstrung on the West Papua issue.
Although the Free West Papua campaign has gained considerable momentum and popular appeal in recent years, the bid for self-determination has been long, tragic and even to this day deliberately overlooked by the international community. In 1969, the UN acknowledged Melanesian rights to self-determination in Western New Guinea by facilitating an ‘Act of Free Choice’.
Many claim that Indonesia interfered with the referendum through intimidation and coercion of voters. Since the so-called ‘Act of No Choice’, Melanesian sovereignty in West Papua has been reduced to a memory and a fringe resistance movement.
The international community’s neglect of indigenous Papuans forms a familiar story — the rights of a sovereign people subverted by Cold War politics, under-the-table mining contracts and a fear of antagonist aggression. West Papua is still held in this decades-old inertia.
While Pacific island nations have undoubtedly been the most vocal in support of their Melanesian brothers and sisters, the Free West Papua campaign has driven a wedge within regional forums.
The Pacific Islands Forum has several times attempted to address the West Papuan issue throughout their annual meetings. But the Forum has been careful to avoid specific mention of the indigenous quest for self-determination and consistently recognises Indonesia as the sovereign power of former Dutch New Guinea. In 2016 the Forum seems to have shelved the issue, given the cursory and almost dismissive mention of West Papua in the official communique.
The actions of seven Pacific island leaders at the 71st UN General Assembly revealed the lack of internal PIF consensus. In the absence of a whole-region forum to lobby on their behalf, leaders from Tuvalu, Palau, Vanuatu, Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands individually called for immediate global attention to human rights abuses in West Papua. Notably, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands associated human rights abuses against indigenous Papuans with their right for self-determination.
While Pacific activism at the UN is almost becoming an institution, this latest round of politicking is a useful litmus test of the current state of Pacific regionalism.
Critics would argue that PIF inactivity on West Papua is yet another example of the organisation’s inability to act collectively on behalf of their constituencies. Although a changing diplomatic dynamic in the Pacific might justify the PIF diverting sensitive issues into sub-regional and individual hands.
Regardless of the interpretation, it is obvious that West Papua has brought to public attention an unresolved issue within the Forum — their collective stance on decolonisation. The West Papua case sits alongside the puzzling granting of full PIF membership to New Caledonia and French Polynesia, both French colonies. This seems inconsistent with the PIF’s identity as defender of independence and self-determination in the Pacific.
Perhaps West Papua is appealing to the PIF at a bad time: an age of ‘new diplomacy’ characterised by internal factions, a potentially unwieldy number of interest groups, and the rise of sub-regional identities. Or perhaps the PIF has decided to bet on Indonesia as an emerging partner in the region, perpetuating the political inertia that has prevented West Papuan independence since decolonisation.
In contrast with the PIF, the Melanesian Spearhead Group’s acceptance of West Papua as a full member cements their role as the new regional champions for self-determination, even if PNG and Fiji did not seem to actively support the decision.
It is unlikely that extra-regional support for the Free West Papua campaign will happen without regional cohesion. The PIF needs to wrangle out of their 18 members a clear message on decolonisation. And the MSG should at least appear united in their acceptance of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. Ambivalence on the West Papua issue won’t help gain the attention and sympathy of a historically reluctant international community.
Patrick M. Walsh is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.