Updated at 5:55 pm today
Johnny Blades, Radio New Zealand International - email@example.com
A geopolitical storm is coming to a head in the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
The Pacific islands sub-regional organisation is considering a membership bid by West Papuans of Indonesia.
MSG member governments are struggling to balance their growing ties to Jakarta with regional grassroots support for the indigenous people of West Papua where a separatist conflict has simmered for decades.
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua was formed last year when Vanuatu hosted a reunification summit for West Papuan representative groups. This includes groups is aiming for independence from Indonesia. The groups came together to launch a new bid to join the MSG after an earlier application by a West Papuan group was deemed by MSG leaders, including Papua New Guinea's Peter O'Neill, not to be representative enough of West Papuans.
"We feel that it must be representative of all Melanesians living in Indonesia," said O'Neill, "and that the application be made in consultation with the Indonesian government."
Now, MSG leaders are grappling with whether to admit the West Papuans or to defer to an arrangement for membership of all five Indonesian provinces with traces of Melanesian ethnicity. Indonesia, which says it has eleven million Melanesians, already has observer status at the MSG and is opposed to the Papuans' bid.
Last month, Fiji's prime minister Frank Bainimarama said the best thing to do was to make Indonesia an associate MSG member, adding it made no sense to bring in Papua separately. This has drawn criticism from Fiji civil society leaders like Shamima Ali of the Fiji's Women's Crisis Centre.
"It's a big shame on Melanesian leaders, particularly Fiji and the others who are pussy-footing around the issue, and they are not very clear - apart from Vanuatu of course," she said.
"So I think they have really gone back on their word from supporting the West Papuan Liberation Movement to what it is now saying about Indonesia being in a position to decide what is happening and to address the human rights abuses and so on."
Jakarta places fresh emphasis on solving Papua matters
With four trips to Papua region in the past year, Indonesia's new president Joko Widodo has placed new emphasis on resolving social and development problems in Papua. Jokowi, as he is called, made headlines in his most recent trip there last month when he freed five Papuan political prisoners and declared that the effective ban on foreign journalists in Papua was lifted. Subsequent comments by Indonesian government figures indicate that the restrictions were not being relaxed at all. Just this week, he has also been contradicted by a government minister on his signal that there would be an end to the transmigration programme, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Javanese relocated to Papua over the past few dacades.
The president's aims to solve Papua issues face significant obstacles because he is relatively weak and beholden to other interests both within his own party and the national legislature. However Jokowi's administration is placing increasing value on the MSG membership. His last Papua jaunt was followed by a visit to Port Moresby where PNG's Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato insisted that any West Papuan bid to join the MSG should be endorsed by Indonesia.
"It's not for us to force Indonesia on how to run their affairs," said Pato.
Pato said that if there was an application, the MSG wanted to ensure that it was representative of the Melanesian that they claimed to represent.
"So we don't want a group that is factionalised fully supported by one group of Melanesians living in the US or somewhere in Europe or Australia and then cause more problems than fix."
Indonesia has been taking steps to integrate more with Melanesian countries in areas of culture, trade and investment. Jakarta's new outreach included a recent tour to PNG, Solomon Islands and Fiji by Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. On offer for the Melanesian countries was twenty million US dollars for capacity development projects within the MSG.
Ms Marsudi also had talks with Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Sato Kilman. Mr Kilman's indication that his country could open an embassy in Jakarta appeared at odds with Vanuatu's long-held support for West Papua independence. Little surprise then that this week, Vanuatu's prime minister Joe Natuman sacked Mr Kilman. A spokesman for the prime minister, Kiery Manassah, said the foreign minister's representations on West Papua did not reflect the government's position.
"Indonesia has lobbied very hard to get Fiji and Papua New Guinea on side," explained Manassah. "Recently when we went to Japan for the PALM meeting, Prime Minister O'Neill also proposed to the prime minister (Natuman) that they're thinking of supporting Indonesia to become an associate member."
Kiery Manassah signalled that Vanuatu is weary of a shifting of the goalposts on the MSG issue.
"In line with the agreements from Noumea and Papua New Guinea, the MSG must discuss the West Papua application," he said. "If the Indonesians want to become an associate member, they have to follow the same process, by applying."
Solomon Islands position in the balance
Of the five full MSG members, Vanuatu and New Caledonia's indigenous Kanak movement, the FLNKS, have voiced support for the West Papuan bid. PNG and Fiji appear to be leaning against it. Solomon Islands is somewhere in the middle.
Its foreign minister, Milner Tozaka, said the government hasn't made a decision yet.
"This is a process we have to follow. We can't just make decisions on an ad hoc basis," said the minister. "And Solomon Islands has made a position in the last government, we have not made a statement yet, we are following up that decision that they made. And if there is going to be any variation, we need to talk about it in the coming meeting."
A Solomons MP Derrick Manuari expressed disappointment in his country's lack of conviction on the issue despite what he described as overwhelming support from Melanesia's public for West Papua.
"I think it is very sad to see Melanesian leaders singing a distorted tune. The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea initially supported the cause for West Papua to be a member of MSG however he is singing now a different tune and Bainimarama is also saying the same thing. But we don't see that as an appropriate approach of addressing the issues of MSG. "
The West Makira MP said the precedent had been set in the case of the Kanaks who were given MSG membership rights over France.
"It is not a sovereignty issue - it is a solidarity issue, of solidarity of Melanesian states, Melanesian territories in Melanesia. So the precedent is already set. That West Papua as a Melanesian state should be admitted as a member of MSG and not Indonesia. It's not Melanesia."
Mr Manuari urged MSG leaders when they meet for their annual summit in Honiara later this month to remember the reason the group was originally founded - to help the decolonisation of Melanesian peoples.
Indonesia position respected
Vanuatu's new foreign minister, Kalfau Moli said Vanuatu's support for West Papua remained firm, even though the government respects Indonesia's intentions with the MSG.
"Vanuatu's position as a sovereign state is that we want to address the human rights issue and then consider the supposed political independence. However having said that, it is very important that a clear forum be put in place before we can look at the issues. But I am very much for a human rights drive."
With Indonesia asserting its own Melanesian traces and growing links with governments of other Melanesian countries, the MSG leaders may look for some sort of compromise arrangement on the matter of the West Papuan membership bid. Alternately, a decision on the bid could also be deferred, as it was at the last leaders summit in Noumea. The Honiara summit may not neccessarily be the end of the matter, and the storm may pass by for the time being. But sooner or later, the MSG may have to make an emphatic move on this most divisive of issues.
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