A hard choice, but a simple one

A hard choice, but a simple one

This was also published in a slightly different form in the weekend edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post.

No matter how we slice and dice the issue of West Papuan independence, it always comes down to this: Do the indigenous peoples of a distinct and discrete land mass have the democratic right to self-determination or not?

The answer, according to international law and standards, is an unequivocal yes.

Even a cursory examination of history reveals that Indonesia has systematically ignored and subverted the desires of the people who share the island of Papua with their cultural and ethnic brethren and sistren in Papua New Guinea. They have oppressed these people using military force, and their policies in the region have from the beginning been designed to silence the voice of the indigenous people there.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s protestations notwithstanding, there is no free press in the Papuan provinces. Police and military continue to claim in the face of incontrovertible evidence that there is no unrest. And still they claim that even advocating for independence is a crime. Attending a peaceful demonstration is considered grounds for arrest and incarceration. Political activity can get you tortured or killed. Virtually all of the independence leaders living in exile have faced systematic persecution extending across borders. After he escaped prison and fled for his life, Benny Wenda faced years of forced immobility because of a flagrantly erroneous Interpol ‘red notice’, which falsely accused Mr Wenda of arson and murder.

Just last month, Mr Wenda was denied entry into the United States following an interview with US Homeland Security personnel. No reason was provided at the time. Presumably, the terrorist watch-list, or a similar international mechanism, is being used to curtail his visibility on the world stage.

It needs to be said that Jokowi, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono before him, would do more if they could. But the plain truth is that civilian rule of law does not extend to the Papuan provinces. These frontier areas are the under the hegemony of the Indonesian military. The wealth they derive from this island is such that they are content to conduct what has been characterised as a ‘slow-motion genocide’ in order to perpetuate their own prosperity.

It’s despicable, frankly. But nobody seems to have either the power or the political will to end this tyranny. One can argue realpolitik, and claim that Indonesia is moving in the right direction, but it’s clear that politicians in Jakarta allow these depredations to continue on Melanesian peoples even while they take great strides to protect their ethnically Asian populations.

In editorial pages across the region, commentators are writhing and contorting themselves to try to find a dignified, elevated expression of the pending decision: Should the Melanesian Spearhead Group recommend full membership for the United Movement for the Liberation of West Papua? Will they do it?

The answer to each question is agonisingly simple: Yes, they should; and no, they will not.

The MSG cannot move out of this morass if it won’t speak clearly about the situation.

Indonesia has already won this round. They won on the day that Voreqe Bainimarama reiterated that Indonesia’s territorial integrity was inviolate. They won doubly when he recommended them for associate membership in the MSG, a move that effectively kills the prospect of any dialogue concerning West Papuan independence in this forum.

The MSG operates on consensus. If there is no agreement, there is no action. Given the opposing stances that Vanuatu and Fiji have taken concerning the ULMWP, no compromise—let alone consensus—seems possible. And given the recent rise to power of Sato Kilman, widely considered to be Indonesia’s cats-paw in Vanuatu, membership for Indonesia is not out of the question.

Regional commentators and political figures wax poetic about the need for dialogue and inclusion. They ignore the rather inconvenient fact that West Papua’s MSG bid is a result of the fact that dialogue within Indonesia is not only impossible, it’s frequently fatal to those who attempt it.

It’s frankly infuriating to see the namby-pamby linguistic contortions that some of those involved have engaged in. Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare’s championship-level equivocation, advocating for observer status for the ULMWP and membership for Indonesia, simply closes the coffin and hands the nails to Indonesia. PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill’s ability to swallow his outrage over human rights abuses seems to increase right alongside his ability to attract Indonesian business interests.

But worst of all is Vanuatu’s deputy prime minister Moana Carcasses, who only last year made history with his presentation of West Papua’s plight to the United Nations. Now, he is reportedly professing that the issue is a difficult one, and that understanding and patience need to prevail.

Turned away, again.

Turned away, again.

Fiji, at least, is unapologetic, if shameless, in its stance.

The MSG cannot move out of this morass if it won’t speak clearly about the situation. There is a prima facie case for West Papuan membership in the MSG. If the fact that the chair is currently held by the New Caledonian independence movement weren’t evidence enough, then the words of support from MSG founding member Sir Michael Somare should suffice.

But ULMWP membership is unacceptable to Indonesia. And it has played its hand with care. Ensuring that even Australia did not remain on the sidelines, it prodded and pulled at everyone involved, and got the result that it wanted.

If the MSG is to retain even an iota of credibility, the only line that it can honestly take now is to admit that it cannot usefully function as a forum for discussions concerning Melanesian decolonialisation, because it lacks the strength to resist the overwhelming power of its neighbours.

It’s a fact: Melanesia is weak. There’s no shame in saying so. Indonesia is powerful—powerful enough even to give Australia pause. Indonesia has the will and the political and material resources necessary to ensure that West Papuan independence remains merely a dream for years yet to come. Likewise, armed resistance to an utterly ruthless military cannot succeed. The days of the OPM are past—if they ever existed.

The sooner we come to terms with these truths, the sooner ULMWP can begin developing effective tactics to counteract them. Those of us in Melanesia owe them at least that much.

This article was written by
Dan McGarry

Dan McGarry is chief technologist at the Pacific Insititute of Public Policy. He has worked in the Pacific for over a decade now, assisting in numerous capacities in the development of ICTs in Vanuatu and the Pacific. He has extensive experience in technology policy formulation and implementation as well as in traditional and new media. He still writes software.

There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Rollance at 11:37 pm

    Thankyou for that interesting article its really good to know some interesting facts you have written.So in your own opinion,what kind of tactics are we talking about here do west papua/msg,need to have, to counteract this issue or problem? and why is it so difficult?

    • Dan McGarry at 2:05 pm

      I think the membership application process, especially the unification that came of it, has benefited the West Papuan independence movement significantly, even if they haven’t managed to parley that into membership in the MSG.

      It’s really not my place to prescribe to the ULMWP, but they must be aware of the significant strides they’ve made over the last few years in terms of international awareness. In my opinion, Indonesia’s use of no-fly lists to limit the mobility of independence advocates will work against them, especially in light of the fact that American and Australian youth are increasingly leaning toward taking this on as a cause célèbre.

  2. Nick Gorshenin at 8:42 pm

    Hi Dan

    As someone with very strong ties to Vanuatu, I “Liked” the Free West Papua FB page late last year. I became increasingly suspicious of some of their posts and started looking into them.

    I then co-incidently accepted a three months assignment with Australian Business Volunteers in Jakarta – just returned to Sydney. While in Jakarta, I continued my research and spoke with a number of people who have either been there, or have a close understanding of the place. Some of the people include:

    o Founder of an NGO who did her thesis on Papuan health issues “terrible state of affairs with various contributing factors”
    o 40 year old lady born in West Papua, 1/4 Papuan, sympathetic however knows their claims are grossly exaggerated – 500,000 dead from atrocities more like 100,000 which Wiki details and the mass atrocities ceased 30 years ago. She travels back regularly to visit her parents.
    o Aussie manager living in Jakarta who subcontracts to Freeport and visits regularly
    o Australian scholarship educated, switched-on young Indonesian lady who worked for a number of years in the Australian embassy in Jakarta
    o Another AusAid volunteer who grew up in PNG but has friends who visit West Papua and keeps abreast.

    Everyone agrees Indonesia acted shamefully in the 60’s through to mid 80’s and that social progress has only been improving this century. Fact is there are more Melanesians living in Indonesia outside of West Papua, and there are now as many Indonesians living in West Papua as there are Melanesians. And there are other complexities – Melanesia is not a distinct ethnicity, more an geographical and to some degree cultural (all Christian missionised as well). I trust you are aware the Papuans arrived in the region tens of thousands of years ago, while the Austronesians arrived in the region less than four thousand years ago.

    Indonesia itself is a country with many ethnicities – including the Bataks in Sumatra, Dyaks in Kalimantan, the creole Betawis of Jakarta, Ambonese, Javanese, Balinese, with Europeans, and Chinese spread throughout. You would appreciate they are not all Muslim and those that are tend to be moderate by Middle East standards, e.g. women in Indonesia have it better than their counterparts in Melanesian countries http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/table-4-gender-inequality-index.

    I agree with you that MSG is unlikely to admit ULMWP, however am not convinced this is a sell out or an unfair decision. I reiterate your opening proposition:

    “Do the indigenous peoples of a distinct and discrete land mass have the democratic right to self-determination or not?

    The answer, according to international law and standards, is an unequivocal yes.”

    If West Papua comprised of Melanesians (we’ll define as Papuan and Austronesians) by a large majority, I might agree with you, assuming they are ready for independence. But they no longer are a clear majority. One can bang their fists and say Indonesia had no right, but it is done. Like Europeans did in so many places you choose to name, Asians to Fiji and so many other historical movements – the reason why the vast majority of countries are multi-cultural.

    Secondly, I’m yet to be convinced the ULMWP are as unified as portrayed, granted they have a slick PR presence – you would be aware the various factions are lately killing more of their “brothers” than what the authorities are, in trying to keep the peace. This quote recently from Allan Nairn “Within Papua, some unity among the Papuans would help, because there are many splits and it just weakens the movement. But, if there could be enough of a coming together and they can compel Jokowi to sit down with them and start some kind of political process, who knows where it could lead.” http://etan.org/news/2015/01nairn.htm and this from author Elizabeth Pisani “When a senior Papuan politician said recently that Papua was not ready for democracy I was mildly shocked. ‘The people are not mature yet, neither are the political elite. They are not ready to accept defeat, which results in them resorting to violence. Organizers of elections in the regencies are terrorized and intimidated. People are prone anarchic acts,’ Yop Kagoya, the deputy speaker of Papua legislative council.” And further on “In Tolikara district, elections that have already been postponed for two years were put off again this month as running battles broke out between supporters of different candidates. Today’s paper reported 46 people killed in the last couple of weeks; the death toll in Puncak in recent months has been even higher.” http://indonesiaetc.com/note-to-papuan-politicians-democracy-is-for-grown-ups/.

    Thirdly, West Papua has achieved semi autonomy which not only gives them more control over their region – the Papuan governors and other officers are elected, though recognise their electoral process is not perfect (at least an international monitoring body was appointed to observe, see http://anfrel.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Papua-Gubernatorial-Election-Report-2013.pdf ) – they also receive more federal government funding.

    So I believe when West Papua achieves independence it will have been planned with the government of Indonesia, similar to the process underway for New Caledonia. Another quote from the same source as above by Allan Nairn, “Hardly anybody remembers it, but when the Timor referendum was held, the Indonesians settlers were not allowed to vote. Nobody really paid any attention then because there were so few of them, they actually hadn’t been there very long. In Papua though, they’re now the majority, so if you tried to use that condition you’d actually, in a sense, disenfranchise the majority of people that are presently there. But, that’s the kind of thing that political talks can go through. You might be able to find some formula that is seen as tolerable by the Indonesian community that’s in Papua, as well as the Papuans themselves, leading up to some kind of vote regarding status with a question proposed in a way that could at least be a first political step.”

    In the meantime, I find the NiVanuatu preoccupation with West Papua somewhat naive as well as potentially dangerous. There seems to be well orchestrated campaign on YTS to continually stir up Melanesian nationalism towards the Free West Papua cause, and religion is often invoked. Leaders in PNG and Fiji are branded as either corrupt or traitors to their Melanesian brothers in West Papua. I don’t think many NiVanuatu understand the complexities of the situation, the history (so many believe Indonesia marched in illegally) while believing every graphic and utterance from FWP movement (500,000, ongoing genocide and misleading pics).

    I don’t see ULMDP admission into MSG being positive at all. Independence under Melanesian stirrings is not going to happen – it is nothing like East Timor; and the UN, US, Australia, PNG etc are just not interested. There are too many people from different parts of Indonesia living there now – mostly Javanese, but also from Madura.

    I write this as someone who was an initial sympathiser with FWP, has looked into the situation quite deeply and would like to see more objectivity into Vanuatu discussions. I am pleased MSG have signalled they will send a delegation. I’m delighted Jokowi ceased transmigration, which the Dutch actually commenced, and has recently announced foreign media will be allowed into West Papua – just hope he doesn’t renege. I know there are many NGOs in the region trying to improve conditions and the federal government genuinely seems to be trying to improve progress in the Papuan provinces. I believe the Indonesian proposal of having five (elected Papuan) governors into MSG will greatly assist the cause of independence through dialogue, and hope militia activity subsides in the meantime.

    I’d like to see West Papua gain their independence but not through pent up emotions over the past – it’s done. And I would prefer if NiVanuatu prioritised the matter further down the list of issues that should be driving debate and progress through the archipelago.

    I hope you accept this reasoning thoughtfully. I’d be delighted to maintain communications… and apologies for the long winded comment.

    With kind regards


    • Dan at 3:57 pm

      Nick, you persist in conveniently ignoring the basic premise that, minority or not, the Melanesian people of West Papua have the right to democratic self-determination; this right is systematically denied them by the Indonesian government and military. If they continue to this day to be killed, tortured and imprisoned by the TNI and the Indonesian government merely for holding an opinion, how can you even suggest that they have no right to advocate for a better future on the international stage?

      The rest of your ‘reasoning’ is confabulation. Educate yourself.

  3. Bob Waleferatelifilia at 6:01 pm

    Thanks for the information and I must say I am fully agreed to the paper.


  4. John Licht at 9:48 am

    So Dan, what strategy or answer would do you propose to settling the WP issue on a more inclusive and diplomatically sound manner at this time of age in the 21st century, noting the likely repercussions that could arise if it was to be handled the way some people thought it should, without enough information on the ground realities in WP and Indonesia? Secondly, to make the statement you have in your third paragraph and first sentence of your second last paragraph of your opinion piece would suggest to me that you have a vast knowledge of WP and Indonesia issues that you think this could be better handled? I ask you a question: Have you visited WP and Indonesia in person to assess the ground realities and dynamics that have under-played WP people and other Melanesian provinces in Indonesia in their struggle for independence? If so, please clarify if not then are you planning to visit sometimes soon?

    I think there is a potential danger in making hot air opinion without having a full understanding of the situation besides lack of research and visit to actually see the difficulties and complexities that surrounds what may seems like a straight-forward problem to solve.