Tuesday, August 25, 2015

1) A new hopeful chapter in West Papua’s 50-year freedom struggle

1) A new hopeful chapter in West Papua’s 50-year freedom struggle

2) Police foil weapon smuggling  attempt to Papua
3) Freeport says Indonesia copper exports dry up on payment impasse
4) A Pacific Beyond Fiji



1) A new hopeful chapter in West Papua’s 50-year freedom struggle

Leaders from the Church of Melanesia, and Lilly Chekana and Grace Hilly from the Solomon Islands Solidarity for West Papua, lead a march in Honiara in support of West Papua becoming a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group on June 19. (WNV/ Pasifika collection)
Markus Haluk’s eyes are moist. We are standing inside a portside warehouse in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands. Haluk carefully unwraps the first of five large 60 pound packages encased in hessian. Inside each parcel are two large A4-sized books, parts of a massive paper petition. Each book is around 16 inches thick — they make a dictionary look like a comic book. Haluk was the lead organizer tasked with collating the hefty tomes and getting them safely out of West Papua. Yosepa Alomang, a 50-something-year-old stalwart of the West Papuan independence movement, worked alongside him and she is also now in the warehouse. Alomang reaches out and touches the books. Turning to me she says, “These are the blood and bones of our people.”
Alomang means what she says. During the signature-raising campaign which took place between March and May 2015, Indonesian security forces shot dead 32-year-old Obangma Giban, a village chief from Yahukimo. In the month of May, alone, 487 activists were arrested for participating in the campaign. Some of those were tortured. Officers from the Mobile Police Brigade in Manokwari, part of a national Indonesian paramilitary police force, stubbed out cigarettes on Alexander Nekenem’s body while the head of the Manokwari Regional Police, Tommy H. Pontororing, denied him and his compatriots access to lawyers. Police also demolished communication posts at places like Cendrawasih University, where people could go to sign the petitions. Countless scores were savagely beaten.
The petitions are the latest nonviolent tactic in a struggle that spans more than 50 years. It is a fight that pits black-skinned, curly-haired Melanesians against their brown-skinned straight-haired Asian neighbors. Different people, different cultures and different histories forced together in an inequitable and unstable political arrangement. West Papua is the Pacific’s Palestine; greener and bluer, but occupied by the Indonesian military since 1963. It is a secret struggle, hidden by the Indonesian government, ignored by the international community, sold out by the United States and its allies. West Papuans were locked out of discussions over the transfer of sovereignty from the Dutch, West Papua’s former colonial ruler, to the Indonesian government by the Kennedy administration. The rights of the West Papuans were sidelined. It was Cold War politics with a silver lining for the United States. The deal delivered the world’s largest gold mine to Freeport-McMoRan, a private U.S. company, overseen by people like Henry Kissinger who sat on the board.
Seven years later, in 1969, the Indonesian government and United Nations colluded in a violent political fraud, the Act of Free Choice, involving 1,022 West Papuans intimidated into signing a document stating that they wished to join the Unitary Republic of Indonesia. Back then the world turned away. But now, in 2015, West Papuans are finding their voice, insisting their Melanesian neighbors in the Pacific recognize them as a nation-in-waiting, separate from Indonesia.
The paper petition is in support of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua’s campaign to become a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, or MSG — an important sub-regional forum, part of the Pacific Island Forum, and with status at the United Nations. MSG leaders were meeting in Honiara in June 2015. Gaining membership of the MSG is an important first step towards bringing the issue back to the United Nations, the organization that created the problem in the first place. Unsurprisingly, independence for West Papua, or even any discussion of the rights of West Papuans in an international forum, is vigorously resisted by the Indonesian government. There is a lot at stake: Indonesia’s reputation, West Papua’s massive resource wealth and the fate of a million and a half people.
While Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was trying to reassure Melanesian leaders that Indonesia was a new democratic country, Indonesian police were undermining him. As West Papua seethed in unarmed insurrection, the security forces were desperately trying to violently pacify the population. But because of the Indonesian government’s ban on foreign media virtually no news of the petition campaign reached an international audience until the packages were carefully unwrapped in Honiara. The Indonesian government had tried to stop the petition from leaving the country, seizing copies at the airport as Papuan leaders attempted to take them to the Solomon Islands in their luggage. But Haluk, Alomang and the team had made several duplicates, sending them by different routes to Honiara. This package arrived by international courier. There are five copies, one for each Melanesian leader. Haluk tells me it cost a small fortune.
At a time when digital petitions land in our inbox every day, 55,555 signatures may not sound like much. But don’t be fooled. This is no collection of easy Facebook “likes.” Organizers with the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, or ULMWP, traveled the length and breadth of West Papua — by ship, plane, car and on foot — to collect the signatures from each of West Papua’s seven regions.
The petition not only includes the names, addresses and signatures of the petitioners, but people’s state-issued identification cards were also copied and included as further proof of authenticity. In addition to radical pro-independence Papuans, many Indonesian migrants also signed. Those who could not sign their name supplied a fingerprint. In addition, West Papuan leaders from all the mainline churches signed letters of support. So too did the National Council of Customary Chiefs in West Papua, or DAP, women and student groups, Papuan intellectuals, armed guerrilla groups and individual civil servants and politicians working for the Indonesian government.

Copies of the petition for each of the five Melanesian leaders. (WNV/ Pasifika collection)

The petitions, letters and the presence in Honiara of nearly 20 West Papuans from inside the country clearly demonstrate that ULMWP has deep and broad support inside the country. Papuan citizens may not have a country but they are the engine that is driving the ULMWP forward. And still there are tens of thousands of more petitions that did not make it to Honiara because they could not get them to the ULMWP work team in time to send the documents out of the country.
When ULMWP International Spokesperson Benny Wenda sees the petitions, he is emotional. “In 1969, the Indonesian government deceived the international community with 1,022 people who were forced to say they supported Indonesia,” he explained, referring to the fraudulent Act of Free Choice. “Today we have over 55,000 signatures.”
West Papua’s desire for freedom is the Indonesian government’s nightmare unraveling. That is why the police and military responded with such ferocity to the petition, a political act that has become routine and blasé in many countries. The rest of Indonesia may be a democracy, but in West Papua freedom of expression is prohibited. To the security forces, signing the petition is tantamount to sedition.
A herculean task
The ULMWP’s decision to focus on the MSG was important for external and internal reasons. Internally, the intermediate objective of securing membership in the MSG immediately became a vehicle for collective action — glue that bonded the newly formed organization together. Externally, West Papuan leaders knew there would be little international support for their cause unless their Melanesian kin and neighbors stood up for them. But gaining membership of the MSG was a herculean task. Not only did the ULMWP need to demonstrate massive support from inside the country, they also had to organize their efforts across five countries: Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and Kanaky, or New Caledonia. Moreover, they only had six months to do so.
This was not a level playing field. On one side was the Indonesian state with deep pockets, hard power at their disposal and the backing of the Papua New Guinean and Fijian governments. On the other was the ULMWP with limited financial resources, but increasingly organized people, with the support of the Vanuatu government, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, or FLNKS, and the people of Melanesia. What was uncertain at the beginning of the campaign was how the government of the Solomon Islands would respond.
There was sympathy from people within the Solomon Islands government, but political representatives were starting with little knowledge about the reality of the occupation. Moreover, the previous Solomon Islands government had been courted by Indonesian officials eager to present a raft of economic development opportunities in return for political support. As the campaign progressed, the ULMWP was hindered by repression within West Papua, as well as externally by climatic disruption. Tropical Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu in March, leaving nearly half the country homeless. It completely destroyed the ULMWP’s administrative office and made it more difficult to draw on Vanuatu’s assistance to lobby other Melanesian leaders. Around this time Obangma Giban was shot dead as he organized a ULMWP fundraiser for humanitarian relief in Vanuatu.
Then there were the political challenges. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill from Papua New Guinea said a lot of nice words. He called West Papuans “brothers” and “kin,” but refused to meet with both Wenda and ULMWP General Secretary Octovianus Mote. In late March, O’Neill even went as far as deporting Wenda. In a somewhat embarrassing move for many Fijians, former military strongman, Prime Minister Voque “Frank” Bainimarama, pronounced on the front page of the Fiji Sun, his government’s mouthpiece, that the Indonesian government did not need to worry about their position on the ULMWP’s application: “Indonesia, we’re with you,” crooned Bainimarama.

Public records reveal that the Indonesian government invested $20 million to derail the ULMWP’s campaign. Fiji benefited handsomely. So too did Papua New Guinea. In the months before the MSG Leaders’ Summit, the Indonesian president and foreign minister criss-crossed Melanesia in their private jet. What deals were made behind closed doors is not known, but there was no way the Indonesian government wanted the ULMWP in the room. That is why they shot ULMWP activists dead in West Papua. It is why they jailed over 500 activists even as President Widodo announced he was freeing five, trying ­ and failing ­ to demonstrate that all was fine in West Papua. As far as the Indonesian government was concerned, West Papua was part of Indonesia. End of story.

Political machinationsIt was always going to be a tough campaign. Then in the week before the leaders’ meeting in Honiara things got tougher. The pro-West Papuan government of Joe Natuman in Vanuatu was deposed in a no-confidence motion, ushering in Sato Kilman, a pro-Indonesian politician, whose previous election campaign was allegedly funded by the Indonesian government. The mood on social media in Vanuatu was ugly. The ULMWP leadership team met with representatives of the Vanuatu government. With less than a week before the Leaders’ Summit they were still unsure who would be representing that government in Honiara. The balance of power was shifting in the Indonesian government’s favor. Mote immediately embarked on an emergency diplomatic mission to Port Vila. Although he was assured that the Vanuatu government’s Wantok Blong Yumi Bill 2010 tethered governments of all stripes to enduring support for the liberation of West Papua, Prime Minister Kilman was unavailable to meet.

ULMWP leaders march in Honiara, Solomon Islands on June 19. (WNV/ Pasifika collection)

Then there were internal challenges. At a meeting in Port Vila in December 2014, when the ULMWP was formed, three large West Papuan coalitions of resistance groups came together: the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, the National Federal Republic of West Papua, or NFRWP, and the National Parliament of West Papua. Immediately after the Port Vila meeting the President of the NFRWP, Forkorus Yaboisembut, withdrew his support for the ULMWP. As a parallel government pushing for international recognition of West Papua as an independent state, Yaboisembut argued that all groups should instead unite under the NFRWP. According to Yaboisembut, the NFRWP was both more representative and, as a government-in-waiting, had greater political authority than the ULMWP, which was formed as an umbrella organization.

I was part of a small delegation that met with Yaboisembut at his home in West Papua in February 2015. The three of us tried to explain what occurred in Port Vila, including the clear message that the MSG would not support an application for membership from a “government,” but there was no changing his mind. Yaboisembut announced that he would submit a new application for membership. The decision caused the NFRWP to split. The overwhelming majority of the NFRWP, including the West Papua National Authority and DAP, united under the leadership of Edison Waromi, who reiterated his support for ULMWP.

Political machinations continued. The Indonesian government, in an ambitious act of numerical contortion, announced that after years of criminalizing Melanesian identity, including killing West Papuan songwriters like Arnold Ap and Eddie Mofu for simply singing Papuan songs, that Indonesia was suddenly a Melanesian country. In fact, the Indonesian government boldly claimed they were the most Melanesian country in the world, with 11 million Melanesians ­ more than the entire population of the other five Melanesian countries combined. As a result, the Indonesian government argued, they needed to have their status as an observer of the MSG elevated to associate membership. To facilitate this they proposed that the five governors of Indonesia’s easternmost provinces would represent Indonesia at the MSG and duly submitted an application for associate membership. Franzalbert Joku masterminded the plan and O’Neill enthusiastically backed it.

The overwhelming majority of the population from the Indonesian government’s three recently discovered Melanesian provinces ­ North Malukus, South Malukus and Nusa Tenggara Timor provinces ­ are Muslim Malays, not Melanesian. I met the rather large Indonesian delegation in Honiara. There were only two Melanesians in the delegation, Franzalbert Joku and Nicholas Messett, and both are former pro-independence fighters now induced to travel the world as enthusiastic ambassadors for the Indonesian government. The rest of the delegation were Malay Indonesians.

Interestingly, the proposal that the five governors of eastern Indonesia represent the Indonesian government was not even supported by the governors of Papua Barat and Papua provinces, Indonesia’s only real Melanesian provinces. In a stunning act of non-cooperation, when President Widodo tried to meet with Lukas Enembe, the governor of Papua province, Enembe switched off his phone for three days. He told a trusted insider, who declined to be named, that “the MSG has nothing to do with me.” Both he and the Papua Barat Gov. Abraham Atururi refused to attend the MSG Leaders’ Summit. These two facts ­ the non-attendance of the West Papuan governors and the lie that Indonesia had a sprawling population of Melanesians ­ were quietly ignored by Papua New Guinea and Fiji. They embraced the governors’ application and argued against the ULMWP becoming full members, no doubt looking to benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars of trade the Indonesian government promised.

A wave of solidarity buildsMeanwhile, Mote kept traveling while Wenda and the other three members of the ULMWP Secretariat kept meeting MSG officials and leaders. In June 2015, the governments of both Samoa and Tonga expressed support for freedom in West Papua and the ULMWP. West Papua was rapidly becoming a cause célèbre across the Pacific. While diplomacy with governments continued, it was grassroots support that created the incentive for political leaders to take a clearer position. And still a wave of solidarity was building.

ULMWP leaders thank the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, for his support. (WNV/ Pasifika collection)

In Fiji, where the Pacific Conference of Churches had its head office, the proliferation of support for the ULMWP required the formation of a solidarity council. The Pacific Conference of Churches also helped reignite solidarity in the Solomon Islands. In March they brought church and secular civil society leaders together in Honiara. The local solidarity group, Solomon Islands in Solidarity for West Papua, suddenly went from a group with half a dozen individual members to an organization of organizations. Churches, local non-government organizations who provided essential services, artists, journalists, chiefs and the Young Women in Parliament Group ­ one of the members included Christina Sogavare, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s daughter ­ all got involved.

When the MSG meeting started on June 17, Honiara’s two newspapers, the Solomon Island Star and the Island Sun, enthusiastically followed the story. On each day between June 17 and June 27, the day after the decision, the front pages of both papers ­ and often the second, third and fourth pages ­ were devoted to some aspect of the ULMWP’s campaign for membership; there were over 140 separate newspaper articles in the space of 20 days. For many in the Solomon Islands it was not just an issue of solidarity with their Melanesian kin. They saw their government’s position on West Papua as a litmus test on an independent foreign policy. Local activists felt that the willingness of the police and local civic authorities to allow people to freely march and protest in support of West Papua was a sign of the health of local democracy, 10 years after ethnic tensions threatened to tear the Solomon Islands apart.

It was not just the population in the Solomon Islands that was growing restless. The leaders of the Melanesian countries began to express concern too. In an article in Vanuatu’s Daily Post, Vanuatu Prime Minister Kilman referred to comments from ordinary people circulating on Facebook and declared that Port Moresby, Honiara and Port Vila could easily riot if Melanesian leaders were seen to be backing away from supporting West Papua.

The door is pushed ajarOn June 26 the decision was made. West Papua represented by the ULMWP was granted observer status and the Indonesian government represented by the five governors of the country’s easternmost provinces, associate membership. The MSG leaders tried to offer something to both West Papua and Indonesia, disappointing both. They recognized Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, but they also rebuffed the Indonesian government’s diplomatic efforts to deny the ULMWP entry. In their 20th Communique, MSG leaders referred to the ULMWP as an organization “representing Melanesians living abroad,” presumably to reassure the Indonesian government that they respected the country’s territorial integrity. At the same time MSG leaders acknowledged West Papua as separate from Indonesia. The door has been pushed ajar to some kind of political negotiation and it won’t just be the central government in Jakarta that does all the talking. The ULMWP will have a seat at the table. The five governors of eastern Indonesia will also have a voice. And some of them, like Enembe, have shown independent thinking and a willingness to propose creative solutions.

Melanesian leaders sign the 20th Leaders Summit Communiqué in Honiara confirming ULMWP as observers and Indonesia as an associate member on June 26. (WNV/ Pasifika collection)

The Indonesian government was less than pleased. For years Jakarta vigorously resisted calls for dialogue by West Papuans or any suggestion that causes of conflict were political in nature. In the words of Englebert Surabut, the head of the Lapago Council of Customary Chiefs, “The Indonesian government is allergic to dialogue.” For years Jakarta has wanted to avoid any suggestion that Jayapura, the capital of West Papua, was either equal to Jakarta, or that a discussion of independence was on the table. But when Jakarta closed down the space for dialogue they left West Papuans demanding political freedom with no domestic avenues left for talking about why they wanted freedom. So they took their concerns to the Pacific, to Melanesians with a shared identity who would thus resonate with their cause.

Internationalizing the West Papua issue like this is exactly what Jakarta was trying to prevent. Suddenly a Jakarta–West Papua dialogue that Papuan Peace Network founder Rev. Neles Tebay and others had been pushing for the better part of 10 years might look moderate. On the other hand, the elevation of the ULMWP might cause hardliners within the Indonesian government to push harder. But there is no going back. For the time being, at least, the political dynamics have gotten much more complex and unpredictable ­ full of possibility. Sogavare was particularly explicit, telling the Island Sun that “a forum where the two political groups can engage in dialogue” has now been created. Whatever the case, the Indonesian government will have to respond.

Relentless unarmed resistance inside West Papua and unprecedented solidarity outside the country ­ in West Papua’s Melanesian neighbors ­ has turned West Papua’s long-running struggle for freedom into a cause célèbre in the Pacific. The MSG has become West Papua’s first international forum for dialogue. West Papua and Indonesia will sit across the table from each other. Vanuatu and the FLNKS have confirmed their support. The Solomon Islands government has emerged as a stronger ally. Papua New Guinea and Fiji will have to deal with sustained and organized domestic discontent and the other Pacific Island countries are beginning to stir. On June 26, the MSG finally brought West Papua back to the Melanesian family. As Benny Wenda said, “With the region firmly behind us we will now take our message to the world.”

Haluk and Alomang have since returned to West Papua resolute in their commitment to nonviolent resistance. They and the other members of the ULMWP are now preparing for the Pacific Island Forum, a meeting of 16 Pacific Island nations that will gather in Port Moresby in September. The ULMWP have already secured West Papua as one of five priority agenda items, along with climate change. “We have to finish this,” Haluk told me. “Freedom will come.”

This article is an edited excerpt from the author’s forthcoming book “Merdeka and the Morning Star: civil resistance in West Papua.”
2) Police foil weapon smuggling  attempt to Papua
thejakartapost.com | Archipelago | Tue, August 25 2015, 5:51 PM - 
The police have foiled an attempt to smuggle 2,952 bullets and shells to Papua.
The ammunition was found on Monday with no proper documents and was ready to be dispatched to Papua, the police stated. It was suspected that the ammunition had been ordered by Papuan separatists.
“We are still investigating,” Jakarta Police spokesperson Sr. Comr. Muhammad Iqbal said, as quoted by tribunnews.com on Tuesday.
The ammunition consists of 575 38-caliber bullets, 1,000 7.65x51-caliber bullets, 500 9x19-caliber bullets and 877 5.56x45-caliber bullets. These bullets were scheduled to be sent off to Papua using a Garuda Indonesia plane on Monday night.
The police arrested Sumadi, who checked the baggage in at the airport.
During his interrogation, Sumadi said the package was ordered by a man named Komeng or Komarudin in Papua. The police found out later on that the order was requested by a man named Ibnu, who was a member of a separatist group in Papua.
The ammunition is now being kept at the airport and the police are still investigating the case. (ika)(++++)
3) Freeport says Indonesia copper exports dry up on payment impasse
Industries Tue Aug 25, 2015 5:38am EDT JAKARTA 

Aug 25 Freeport-McMoran said exports of copper from its giant Indonesian mine have slowed to a trickle over the past month as it faces new rules on how buyers pay for metal, with the government showing no sign of handing it a second waiver.

Freeport, which is one of Indonesia's biggest tax payers, won a six-month exemption from new rules introduced this year making it compulsory for exports of coal, palm oil, oil and gas and minerals to be transacted through letters of credit issued by domestic banks.

The U.S. miner said almost all exports of copper concentrate from its Grasberg mine had been halted since the exemption expired on July 25 and it was currently in talks with both its buyers and the Indonesian government.

"We are gradually working with our buyers to change their method of payment," Freeport Indonesia spokesman Riza Pratama told Reuters on Tuesday. "Hopefully we will get this matter resolved very soon. We are talking with the government so we can continue our exports."

International buyers and traders often pay Freeport directly or in advance, without going through the Indonesian banking system.

The dispute is the longest disruption to shipments since a seven-month stoppage last year when Indonesia imposed an escalating tax on metal concentrates.

Freeport exports about 60 percent of the estimated 2 million tonnes of concentrate produced each year at Grasberg, one of the world's biggest mines, while the rest is smelted locally into metal.

Mines Ministry Coal and Minerals Director General Bambang Gatot said any fresh exemption for Freeport would be decided by the trade ministry.

"Every company is supposed to comply with this regulation," he said, adding that Newmont Mining Corp, Indonesia's second largest copper miner, seemed to be complying with the new rules without problems.

Karyanto Suprih, acting director general for foreign trade at the trade ministry, told Reuters: "So far, there is no instruction to give an exemption on this LC obligation for mineral or coal exports."

Operations at Freeport's mine in remote Papua were running normally, Albar Sabang, a senior official at a Freeport union said late last week.

Under normal conditions, Grasberg produces about 220,000 tonnes of copper ore per day, which is converted to copper concentrate.

Freeport's Pratama said the miner would need more space for stockpiling "very soon" but could not give a timeframe.

Rio Tinto has a joint venture with Freeport for a 40 per cent share of Grasberg's production above specific levels until 2021, and 40 per cent of all production after 2021. (Reporting by Michael Taylor and Wilda Asmarini; Additional reporting by Bernadette Christina; Editing by Richard Pullin)

4) A Pacific Beyond Fiji
India needs to widen its engagement with other island countries.
Written by Karan Nagpal | Published:August 26, 2015 12:04 am - 

Nine months after the first Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation in Fiji, India hosted leaders from 14 Pacific island countries last week. India’s relationship with them is usually cast in terms of their natural resources, strategic location and countering China’s growing influence in the region. But the Pacific is a lot more than mineral resources or strategic locations, and China merely one of several players competing for influence there. As it steps up its engagement, India would do well to remember the complexity and diversity of the Pacific, and learn from the experience of other major countries that have done business with it.

While Australia has for long been the largest donor to the region, other major powers have recently expanded their presence. In 2012, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ meeting and asked them to “not count the US out”. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi was meeting the leaders in Jaipur last week, the US held talks with Pacific officials to explore the contours of a trade agreement. Immediately after Modi’s visit last year, Fiji hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping with equal, if not greater, enthusiasm.
Though often grouped together, the Pacific countries belong to three ethnically distinct subregions: Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Micronesia, spanning the north Pacific, consists of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Nauru. After World War II, Palau, the FSM and the Marshall Islands became US territories, and even today, the US exerts a lot of influence on their economy and foreign policy. Polynesia includes the independent countries of Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu, and New Zealand associates Niue and the Cook Islands. Having been its colonies, these countries are closer to New Zealand and depend on liberal access to its labour market. Melanesia — covering Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu — has made more progress than others in subregional cooperation, through the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
With this diversity, it is not surprising that efforts to promote regional cooperation have rarely borne fruit. Even at the UN, these countries seldom vote together. The PIF, established in 1971 to promote regional cooperation, has a sprawling bureaucracy that manages everything from regional ICT to trade negotiations and donor coordination. Largely financed by Australia and New Zealand, it has sometimes been accused of promoting their agenda.

Headquartered in Fiji, its relationship with the host country has been complicated. Fiji has often used its status as the “hub of the Pacific” to shape the regional agenda. Some members, particularly Samoa, have resisted these efforts.
Following its last coup, Fiji was suspended from the PIF in 2009. Fiji’s leader, Frank Bainimarama, responded by questioning the PIF’s legitimacy, and in 2013 launched the alternative Pacific Island Development Forum. Even though Fiji’s suspension was revoked following elections last year, Bainimarama refuses to attend meetings until Australia and New Zealand leave the group. Others, notably Samoa and PNG, have emphasised more gradual regional reform. Membership is also divided over the status of West Papua, which has been part of Indonesia since its annexation in 1969. Members have to weigh their economic interests with Indonesia against solidarity with Pacific brothers.

Fiji’s suspension was perhaps the most extreme action taken in Pacific diplomacy, which normally functions through consensus. Avoiding conflict and respecting “kastom” are the hallmarks of Pacific cultures. This has not been sufficiently understood by developed country partners, which have often mistaken polite silence for consent, only to be disappointed later. Domestically, several countries have experienced frequent and abrupt political change; agreements signed by a PM are sometimes forgotten by successors.
In this environment, the importance of continued engagement with all stakeholders cannot be overstated. It is understable that India has a special friendship with Fiji, but it also needs to proactively develop close relations with other island countries and expand its engagement beyond the current political leadership. This will safeguard its interests in a region with fleeting political stability. Establishing diplomatic presence in each country would be a welcome first step. Following up on initiatives announced last week would be another. For example, Modi announced several scholarships for the countries last week; he should ensure that they are taken up. Ultimately, diplomacy and politics in the Pacific are personality driven. Anything less than close engagement is no engagement at all.
The writer is a former trade economist with the government of Vanuatu.

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