Melanesian Spearhead Group Role on West Papua Issue

By Ambassador Brian Yombon-Copio

West Papua has ongoing issues on human rights abuses and atrocities committed by Indonesia’s guided democracy regime. They have suffered for far too long on their motherland and felt that they should exist as an independent nation state which would guarantee them absolute freedom from these issues. Most importantly West Papuans view that they belong to a Melanesian race and they fear continued suffering at the hands of a populous mongoloid race. The West Papuans are an ethnic minority which has resultant ethnic similarities to Melanesians where they have same features, cultural values and norms and importantly they have closer proximity with PNG based on ancestral ties especially West Sepik and Western Provinces which draws back to many years.

The Melanesian countries have witnessed and sympathised on the sufferings of the West Papuans and they have overwhelming views against the abuse of human rights and atrocities. The Melanesian Spearhead Group (‘MSG’) which is the central forum for Melanesian peoples has indicated support for West Papua with their aspirations for a fully pledge independent nation. However PNG being the largest Melanesian country which is viewed to have potential influence has different views under successive political leaders and supported West Papua with reservations at the MSG level.

Nevertheless West Papua was admitted as an observer recently in the Melanesian bloc instead of a full membership. The current government views PNG’s regional standing and reputation which have been shaped by its commitment to Melanesian values which include stronger democracy, maintaining the rule of law, protection of human rights and increasing trade and economic aspects of development as significantly important. The MSG is an important partner in the pursuit of these values regionally. PNG is therefore viewed as a strong influence and ‘bread winner’ for other Melanesian countries and ethnic minorities within the region. Accordingly PNG Government’s change of politics on West Papua is timely.

Historically PNG has been forced into a difficult situation as previous governments reached an understanding with Indonesia that West Papua remains an integral part of the country and PNG should not offend Indonesia in supporting West Papua’s independence aspirations. As a result PNG’s position on the West Papua issues has been grasped with mixed reactions by other Melanesian countries which expected PNG to equally support West Papua’s agenda on its political future.

The Melanesian countries do not duly consider PNG’s closer proximity to Indonesia and the strong bilateral relationship between the two countries. However the MSG countries view PNG as a ‘bread winner’ for the rest of the smaller island nations. In other words, PNG is expected to act on behalf of smaller island countries regardless of its own position and pursue the interest of smaller island nations and other minor ethnic groups like West Papua and New Caledonia. Given PNG’s perceived leadership in the region, the MSG views that PNG has an obligation to deliver desired results for the benefit of minor ethnic groups which have formidable issues. However MSG solidarity is important and if collective determinations are reached, PNG has no option but to respect such and support the decisions for realisation in the interest of the MSG bloc. At the MSG level there has to be solidarity in most of the decisions reached by the MSG for a common good of Melanesian peoples.

There is overwhelming support for West Papua for its aspiration for self-determination from majority of the MSG members and PNG’s change in position should impact certainty to a larger degree. PNG should play a lead role in encouraging the MSG bloc to make representation to Indonesia with its collective determinations to address the issues of West Papua. It is strongly believed that Indonesia would respect PNG and sense that the collective determinations reflect the views of the MSG.

The major regional players like Australia and New Zealand also have vested interests and are aware that the West Papua agenda on independence has potential issues with their own interests with Indonesia. On the other, Australia and New Zealand might have their own foreign policies on PNG-Indonesian relations as they are absolutely aware of the impeding position of PNG. Given the scenario, Australia and New Zealand should support on the West Papua issues through regional dialogues to reach solutions which would satisfy both West Papua and Indonesia.