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Update on West Papua


November 2000

'Historical moment' for West Papua at Forum,
(article for Pacific News Bulletin, November 2000)

The Pacific Islands Forum stand on West Papua is an "historical moment for the people of West Papua", according to West Papuan delegation leader Franz Albert Joku.

Joku, a member of the Papuan Presidium Council, Nick Messet, Paul Masta and Martin Raklung Mehue were given official delegate status at the 31st Pacific Islands Forum in Tarawa, Kiribati as members of the Nauru delegation. The West Papuans were in Tarawa to seek support from Pacific governments in their campaign for independence from Indonesia.

Joku welcomed the unprecedented statement on West Papua from the regional organisation: "We are very pleased that West Papua was given the opportunity in deliberations here in Tarawa, as shown by the fact that the matter was discussed extensively and a position taken," he said. "This is an historical moment for the people of West Papua. After four decades, we are back in our natural habitat, the South Pacific. Our existence and future are beginning to get the attention they deserve amongst the countries and people of the region to which we rightly belong."

The West Papua issue was discussed at the private retreat for Pacific Presidents and Prime Ministers on the north Tarawa island of Biketawa on 28 October. The main focus of the private leaders' retreat on Biketawa islet in north Tarawa was the development of the "Biketawa Declaration", setting out mechanisms for Forum action in case of crises such as Fiji or the Solomon Islands. But for the first time, the leaders of the 16 Forum member countries also issued a statement on West Papua

"Irian Jaya (West Papua)"

"Forum leaders expressed deep concerns about past and recent violence and loss of life in the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya (West Papua). They called on the Indonesian Government, the sovereign authority, and secessionist groups to resolve their differences peacefully through dialogue and consultation. They also urged all parties to protect and uphold the human rights of all residents of Irian Jaya (West Papua).

"Leaders would welcome closer dialogue with the Government of Indonesia on issues of common concern".

(The two words "past and" were added to the statement at the full Forum session on Monday 30 October, after Nauru called for recognition of past human rights violations by Indonesia).

Support from Vanuatu and Nauru

The West Papua issue was a sensitive one for the Forum. Vanuatu and Nauru had declared their support for West Papuan independence, and urged other island nations to take up the issue. Australia and Papua New Guinea, however, continue to support Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, and were initially reluctant to see a strong Forum statement in support of the West Papuan cause. Indeed, many commentators were surprised that the Forum came out with any statement at all (the Australian and New Zealand media contingent saw this as a key issue for their leaders at the Forum and the issue was given front-page treatment in media coverage).

Early in pre-Forum discussion, some Micronesian and Polynesian officials stated that they wanted to take a lead from Papua New Guinea on the issue. Papua New Guinea, like Australia, supports Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, with the PNG Government concerned over security and border issues. During the Forum Officials Committee and the Forum meeting, PNG representatives asked other Pacific countries to recognise the "sensitive" nature of Papua New Guinea's relationship with Indonesia. Other countries with maritime borders close to Indonesia, such as Palau, were concerned about moving too fast on the issue.

Regional support

The presence of key West Papuan leaders in the official Nauruan delegation highlighted that country's stand in support of the West Papuan struggle. In June, President Bernard Dowiyogo of Nauru wrote to the Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat, Mr. Noel Levi of Papua New Guinea, seeking to have West Papua placed on the agenda of the Forum meeting. Dowiyogo's letter stated:

"The people of West Papua look upon the Forum countries of the Pacific to play an important role in relisting West Papua on the international agenda?I understand that this is a delicate topic, but I believe if the Forum is to continue to be relevant then it must confront such issues which are important to the lives and democratic rights of the people of our region."

Both Dowiyogo and Vanuatu's Prime Minister Barak Sope raised the West Papuan issue at last September's United Nations Millennium Summit in New York - the first countries to declare support for West Papuan independence.

President Teburoro Tito of Kiribati, reporting the leaders' decisions, stated that Indonesia has applied to be a dialogue partner with the Forum (China, France, the United States and other non-island nations hold post-Forum dialogues with the Forum after each annual meeting). New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said that the issue of observer status for West Papua at the Forum had not been discussed in the leaders' retreat (the Forum's policy is that "Pacific Island territories on a clear path to self-government or independence" are eligible for observer status at Forum meetings).

In post-retreat interviews, Australian Prime Minister John Howard stressed that "the sovereign authority of Indonesia over West Papua has been reasserted" in the statement. He stated: "We regard West Papua as part of Indonesia and we won't be advocating anything designed to undermining the authority of Indonesia," but added "we would like the bloodshed to end, we would like the fighting to stop."

Howard repeated asserted that West Papua "is historically part of Indonesia." But in spite of the Australian emphasis on Indonesian sovereignty, the clear mood of the Forum was that historically, culturally and geographically, West Papua has always been part of Melanesia and the wider Pacific region. As in many Pacific countries, the people of West Papua have been separated from other Pacific islanders by colonial lines drawn on the map. Franz Albert Joku, speaking on behalf of the West Papuan delegation, stated that their involvement at this year's Forum has the aim of "fitting us back into our natural habitat - the South Pacific."

President Tito of Kiribati spoke for many Pacific delegations when he told a post-Forum media conference: "Personally, I have great sympathy for the cause of the West Papuan people, just on the basis of culture alone."

Historic links with the Pacific

The presence of West Papuans at the Pacific Islands Forum is not a first with a regional body. Even under Dutch administration, West Papuans were active in regional Pacific meetings in the 1950s and 1960s. West Papuans participated in the founding of regional bodies such as the South Pacific Commission and Pacific Conference of Churches, before Indonesia's take-over in the 1960s severed links with other island nations.

In 1950, Pacific island delegates came together in Suva, Fiji for the first South Pacific Conference - the meeting of the newly formed South Pacific Commission. Representatives from the colony of Dutch New Guinea joined fellow Pacific Island delegates at this important regional gathering. Photographs from the time show the West Papuan leader Markus Kaisiepo seated beside Ratu Sir Edward Cakobau of Fiji, Albert Henry of the Cook Islands and Prince Tu'ipelehake of the Kingdom of Tonga.

In the 1960s, West Papuans were studying at the Fiji School of Medicine and Pacific Theological College. Growing from the Malua Conference of Churches and Missions in Samoa in 1961, Pacific churches worked together to found the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC). At the founding meeting of the PCC, one of the church delegations came from Dutch New Guinea. Reverend Kabel and Reverend Maloali of the Evangelical Christian Church joined fellow Christians from around the region to establish the regional ecumenical body.

For three decades, Indonesia has regarded the western half of the island of New Guinea as the province of Irian Jaya - for the West Papuan nationalist movement, the Indonesian take-over in the 1960s has not ended their right to self-determination. Current Papuan leaders regard their December 1961 declaration of independence from the Netherlands as valid, and reject Indonesia's take-over.

Reviewing the Act of Free Choice

West Papuan leaders are seeking support from Pacific countries for a review of the so-called Act of Free Choice. With this vote in 1969, a hand-picked group of Papuan leaders voted to accept Indonesian control of the former Dutch colony. West Papuan leaders argue that the 1969 vote was deeply compromised, and cannot be regarded as a true act of self-determination. In UN General Assembly resolution 2504, the United Nations simply "took note" of this vote, without formally endorsing the result. Now, West Papuans are calling on the international community to review the UN resolution. They are gaining some support amongst Pacific Island Forum members. Nauru's President Dowiyogo has argued: "The Forum states were not members of the United Nations when UNGA resolution 2504 was adopted on 19 November 1969, and therefore we are not bound by this resolution."

As with other crises in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, West Papua is forcing itself onto the regional and international agenda. There are rapid changes in the country, following the collapse of the Suharto regime, the August 1999 vote for independence in East Timor, conflict in Aceh and Maluku, and increasing mobilisation on the ground in West Papua.

Indonesian military authorities have recently ordered West Papuan nationalists to lower Morning Star flags - important symbols of cultural and political identity - that are flying in locations around the country. Over thirty people were killed in clashes earlier in October in Wamena after Indonesian army personnel forcibly lowered a Morning Star flag, and there is a likelihood of further conflict. Elements of the Indonesian armed forces are arming and training anti-independence militias in West Papua. Church and NGO leaders in Port Numbay are fearful that the Indonesian armed forces and militias could commit further human rights atrocities, as occurred in Timor in 1999.

As West Papuans mobilise to call for independence from Indonesia, their links to the Pacific will grow stronger. For more than twenty years, Australia recognised Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, only changing policy in 1999. This year's Forum is an important step in the growing regional clamour for a similar policy change on West Papua. As Joku noted when he welcomed the Forum statement:

"I am exceptionally pleased that West Papua's claim for self-determination and sovereign nationhood is beginning to receive some serious attention in the region. The Forum statement is a clear indication that Pacific countries recognise there is indeed a problem in West Papua requiring solution. The most important thing for us is that an important beginning has been made at the Tarawa Forum. It brings the West Papuan plight into a formal international process that will require the involvement of relevant regional and international institutions".

The PCRC (Pacific Concerns Resource Centre) is the Secretariat of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement.

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