A coalition of West Papuan organisations has been accepted into a regional grouping of Melanesian countries but denied full membership.
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) applied to become a full member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).
It had hoped membership would give it greater diplomatic recognition and focus more attention on human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military and police.
But the leaders of the five members of the MSG decided at their summit in Honiara to give the movement observer status instead.
The MSG’s members are Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia’s independence movement FLNKS (Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste).
The group was formed in 1986 to support the decolonisation process and help regional liberation groups, but has since evolved into a regional body discussing trade and security issues.
The West Papuan representatives at the MSG summit had an opportunity to put their views on their new status in the final plenary session.
ULMWP secretary-general Octavianus Mote put a positive spin on the development, saying the diplomatic recognition would help them to focus international attention on human rights abuses in the province.
“For 53 years we have endured the most severe human rights violations — torture, killing, disappearance, rape, arbitrary arrest and detention — that the lives of at least 500,000 people have been taken, women, children and men,” he said.
“That is why today is so important to us.
“We might not be a full member of the MSG, but a door has opened to us. We will sit across a table from Indonesia as equal.”
However, Indonesia’s membership of the MSG was upgraded from observer status to associate membership, giving it a greater say in Melanesian politics than the West Papua grouping.
Discussions to begin in ‘constructive manner’
Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama, who had already put his view that Indonesia should be granted membership before the summit, said his vote was guided by “a number of overriding principles in approaching the West Papuan issue”.
“The first and foremost of this is that Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua cannot be questioned,” he said.
“The province is an integral part of Indonesia, so when we deal with West Papua and its people, MSG has no choice but to deal with Indonesia, and in a positive and constructive manner.”
He also said his decision was made in light of what he thought would help the West Papuans most.
Indonesia’s official representation on the MSG will be the governors of Indonesia’s five Melanesian provinces, known externally as West Papua.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s move in May to remove reporting restrictions in Papua was seen as a sign that Jakarta was easing its tight grip on the mineral-rich province, where poorly armed fighters have for years fought a low-level insurgency against the central government.
Mr Widodo has taken a keen interest in Papua, pledging to improve livelihoods in the heavily-militarised area which lags behind other parts of Indonesia in terms of development.
Jakarta took control of Papua, which forms half of the island of New Guinea, in 1963 from former colonial power the Netherlands.
A Papua New Guinea politician who has been very vocal in support of the West Papuan cause said the inclusion of both the United Liberation Movement for West Papua and the governors in the Melanesian Spearhead Group was a clever move.
Gary Juffa, governor of PNG’s Oro province, said he did not trust Indonesia’s motives, and believed West Papua was a free nation under Indonesian occupation.
But he told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat program that all parties now being part of the MSG might encourage positive dialogue.
“It gives ULMP a little bit of what they want,” Mr Juffa said.
“It’s a foot in the doorway, so they aren’t shut out, and that’s good.
“It also recognises and accommodates Indonesia as a sovereign nation, as it is recognised by the rest of the world.
“Even though the manner in which they have acquired West Papua was illegal, they are still recognised as a sovereign state and West Papua is a territory of theirs.”
Mr Juffa said there was always a need for dialogue and the MSG is a platform on which to have it.
Another strong West Papua supporter, Fiji’s influential Methodist Church, believes the inclusion of both the ULMWP and Indonesia could turn out to be a positive one.
Reverend James Bhagwan, secretary for communication and overseas missions for the Methodist Church, said while there were clearly problems with the decision, it may lead to political progress for the West Papuans.
Mr Bhagwan said the church had long been concerned about human rights abuses in West Papua, and it remained a key concern.
“Will what has happened alleviate that, or bring those human rights violations to a close?” he said.
“Or open the door for MSG members to go in with a peace keeping force or some sort of support to assist the West Papuans, who are suffering.”