August 17, 2010
The conclusion of the Pacific Islands Forum has left a great sense of disappointment. There was every reason to think that Vanuatu would be the prominent voice in the forum for the West Papuan demand for a seat at the table. As recent as June 19 the Vanuatu Parliament passed a motion to bring the matter of West Papua to the UN this year.
All the public reports leading up to the forum, and the private assurances to the lobbying being done by the Vanuatu Free West Papua Association even up to the Prime Minister, gave every indication that West Papua would be high on the agenda, and even that the representative West Papua delegates would at least be given observer status.
In his opening speech, incoming forum chairman Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Nipake Natapei, said: ‘‘We need to be talking much more about how we can bring hope to the Pacific citizens who are struggling to find employment; who are without political freedom . . .’’
What happened? Nothing. Silence. No delegate raised any matter publicly concerning West Papua. All the talk was that politically, the matter of Fiji dominated, and that this shut down any further debate about West Papua. Three questions arise from this: Is this the real reason why West Papua was not promoted? If not what was the reason? Does this failure mean that Vanuatu’s sponsorship is now a lost cause for the West Papuan independence movement?
The real reason West Papua became the elephant in the room at the forum is that Natapei is obviously under great pressure from foreign powers — especially Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Australia continues to advocate the territorial integrity of the Indonesian republic and the necessity of Special Autonomy working for West Papua. Australia is also the major development donor for the country, and that must come with some loyalty tag.
PNG, together with Solomon Islands, supports Fiji, contrary to Vanuatu who is taking the Australian/New Zealand stance. Indonesia, for its part, is increasingly muscling into the Pacific – it just supplied Vanuatu with new uniforms for its police force, and increased its presence from the usual six to 48 members at the most recent forum. These came in two waves, on August 1 and August 5, the last delegation including a West Papuan, Dr Felix Wainggai, an adviser to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on development on East Indonesia.
This probably proved too much fire-power for the Vanuatu PM, who afterwards on radio claimed that his silence on West Papua was due to procedural matters to do with the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
Another angle on Vanuatu’s silence may have to do with the internal or external manifestations of the West Papuan independence groups themselves. A delegate to the PIF told Jacob Rumbiak, foreign affairs spokesman for the West Papuan National Authority (WPNA) and myself that the perception from inside the Vanuatu Foreign Office is that the West Papuan independence movement is still divided.
The reality on the ground, however, is that there is a growing consensus from among the majority of activist groups, and more importantly between the Presidium and the WPNA — the transitional government increasingly recognised across West Papua as a credible political next-step to the current frameworks within West Papua.
The ire has been raised, however, of the pro-West Papua council of chiefs and various members of the coalition. They see this as a cave-in and Natapei and his government may not last.
All may not be lost then regarding Vanuatu’s advocacy role for its Melanesian fellow countrymen in West Papua. PIF 2010 may prove a Pyrhhic victory for the countries leaning on Vanuatu. The groundswell of opposition is rising within Vanuatu. This will either galvanise the Natapei government or replace it with a coalition really dedicated to proceed on the West Papuan issue. Vanuatu’s reluctant neighbours could indeed end up with a little mouse that is roaring in the Pacific.
Peter Woods spent five years in West Papua from 1978 to 1983.