HONIARA (Islands Business/ Radio Australia/ Pacific Media Watch): Foreign ministers of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) are meeting in Honiara, Solomon Islands today, ahead of the leaders' summit later this week.
Top of the agenda is the application by the umbrella group, United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), for membership of the MSG.
The lobbying by Indonesian officials for an upgrade to associate membership of the group will also be discussed at the summit.
The ULMWP is a coalition of groups opposed to Indonesian rule in the western half of the island of New Guinea.
Fiji has expressed its opposition to the bid for full MSG membership, Papua New Guinea is muted in its support and the Solomon Islands is offering observer status.
In contrast, MSG members Vanuatu and New Caledonia’s Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front's (FLNKS) independence movement have expressed solidarity with the West Papuan nationalist movement and their membership application.
Summit host Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who takes over as MSG chair for the next two years, must forge a consensus between these divergent positions.
Despite these differences, the MSG’s new engagement on the West Papua issue contrasts with the silence of the regional Pacific Islands Forum, where there has been no mention of West Papua in Forum communiques since 2006.
Independence leader and ULMWP spokesperson Benny Wenda is hoping for full membership.
In an interview with Radio Australia, Wenda said:
"It's up to the leaders to decided, but for us, the United Liberation Movement, we've already been campaigning for the last few years and the last few months.
"But we know that the MSG stands to defend and promote the independence and establishment of inalienable rights of indigenous people of Melanesia and promoting their human rights.
"That is the MSG principles, so I think that's what we believe, if the leaders stand for their own principles".
Today, the ULMWP secretariat includes secretary0general Octo Mote, spokesperson Benny Wenda and executive officers Rex Rumakiek, Jacob Rumbiak and Leonie Tanggahma.
These exiled ULMWP executive members have been joined in Honiara by a range of leaders from inside West Papua, including Edison Maromi of the Federal Republic of West Papua and Dominikus Surabut, the chair of Lapago region of the Papuan Customary Council (Dewan Adat Papua).
Rumbiak stressed that while some leaders were living in exile, the movement’s decision making was taking place among political parties and civic movements inside West Papua.
Unity in West Papua
Surabut agreed that there was unprecedented co-ordination among different strands of the West Papua nationalist movement.
“Our experience over the last 53 years is that there’s been a history of disunity in the struggle, with competing claims for leadership,” he said.
“So this opportunity that has been created through the creation of the United Liberation Movement, is really an excellent solution for the people of West Papua.”
Waromi told Islands Business that MSG governments had forced groups in the independence movement to better co-ordinate their efforts.
“The birth of the ULMWP is actually a direct result of the challenge put forward by the MSG leaders,” he said.
“After the previous application in 2013 and 2014, the MSG leaders said it wasn’t fully representative. They challenged us to resubmit another application from a more unified group.
"So the ULMWP was formed in response to this challenge and through great effort, we feel that we have successfully responded to this challenge. Indonesia is scared of us, now that we’re united.”
Waromi is quick to deny that there are competing applications for membership from different parts of the movement.
“I want to state clearly that the Federal Republic of West Papua gives their full and unequivocal support to the United Liberation Movement and its application for MSG membership.”
Maintaining Vanuatu’s support
Vanuatu has long supported the West Papuan nationalist movement with practical and diplomatic aid.
Port Vila hosts an office for the WPNCL, which has lobbied for MSG membership in line with the precedent set by the Kanak independence movement (the FLNKS, rather than the Government of New Caledonia, represents New Caledonia in the MSG).
However, the recent no-confidence motion that saw the defeat of Prime Minister Joe Natuman’s government raised concern that Vanuatu’s long-standing commitment on West Papua might be affected.
Over the weekend, Mote (ULMWP Secretary General) travelled from Honiara to Port Vila, to lock in support from the new government led by Prime Minister Sato Kilman and Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil.
“From my trip, I must say that Vanuatu’s support is still there,” Mote told Islands Business from Port Vila.
“Nothing has changed on West Papua. There are differences in approach between the old government and new, but it’s not political parties that support us, it’s the nation, the Vanuatu people.”
Mote re-iterated that his delegation was still seeking full MSG membership, but acknowledged recent statements by the Solomon Islands government, calling on MSG leaders to consider observer status rather that full membership.
“Of course we are still pressing for full membership, but if the MSG leaders offer observer status, I’ll take it,” said Mote.
“West Papua is now a Melanesian issue. Some people at home who are hoping for full MSG membership will be upset, but it’s important we sit down equally with the Indonesians. If Indonesia are MSG observers, and we are observers, why not?”
Mote added: “For myself, it’s important for us to sit down equally with the Indonesians, to talk together. If the Kanaks can sit down to create the Noumea Accord with the French, why can’t we create a similar agreement?”
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.