West Papua shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea, on the western rim of the Pacific. A former colony of the Dutch, it was taken over by Indonesia in the 1960s. West New Guinea, as it was then known, had already held national elections and inaugurated its own New Guinea Council in April 1961. The Morning Star flag of the proposed new nation of West Papua was raised next to the Dutch Tri-colour on 1st December 1961.
But Indonesia gained Western support for its claim and was granted control of the territory on the condition that an act of self determination would be held. A fraudulent “Act of Free Choice” in which less than 1% of the West Papuan voted under duress was held in 1969. The West Papuans have never stopped struggling for their freedom even though they have paid dearly in the loss of more than 100,000 lives. Today the people are repressed by a heavy military and militia presence and outsiders have limited access. West Papua now suffers a HIV/AIDS epidemic and many of its tribal communities are under threat from illegal logging.
The West Papua leaders summit held outside the country in Port Vila, Vanuatu was a historic step for a broad movement which has not always achieved unity of strategy and aims.
The 28 groups represented included the Free Papua Movement, or OPM, the human rights group ELSHAM, and coalitions representing tribal organisations, students, women and former political prisoners. The gathering achieved a higher degree of unity among the political organisations and the NGOs as well as a strong plan of action in the diplomatic arena. The representatives reaffirmed their commitment to the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) formed last year.
Photo journalist, writer and Pacific expert Ben Bohane who follows West Papua closely said this meeting could be the most significant summit held since 1964 when the OPM was formed.
The groups have common goals and despite their different backgrounds and approaches all hope to see a peaceful dialogue between Indonesia and the West Papuan people on the issue of self-determination.
At some levels the international climate can be considered weighted against the West Papuan cause and hopes for negotiations; for example in the post 9/11 atmosphere it seems that the label of ‘separatist’ is an effective way to dismiss West Papuan aspirations. Indonesia has been boosted by renewed military support from Australia (the Lombok Treaty) the US and New Zealand, and Indonesia’s leadership may be risk averse in the run up to the 2009 Presidential elections.
However, on the positive side the newly assertive Melanesian Spearhead Group (Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands, and the Indigenous FLNKS political party in New Caledonia) offers a ray of hope. According to Dr John Ondawame, the Vice Chair of the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL), the upcoming Melanesian Spearhead Group leaders’ summit in Vila this May represents the best chance yet to get observer status for West Papuans at the MSG. The Government of Vanuatu has undertaken to take the issue of self-determination to the MSG Summit following an important meeting of the West Papuan leaders with Vanuatu’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, George Wells. Mr Wells said he wants to see West Papua ultimately given Observer status in the MSG as well as the Pacific Islands Forum.
The West Papuans also met with Prime Minister Ham Lini and visited the Vanuatu Parliament where President Kalkot Mataskelekele said the struggle for West Papuan freedom is always in the hearts of the people of Vanuatu.
The West Papuan leaders and NGOs settled on a new unified leadership for their self-determination efforts. WPNCL voted Rex Rumakiek of the Free Papua Movement, or OPM, as Secretary-General, and hopes its new international drive for discussion on Papua will be helped by a unified structure.
Vanuatu has come under pressure from Jakarta and Canberra but has not abandoned its independent foreign policy - the legacy of its own independence struggle. Vanuatu achieved independence from Britain and France in 1980. It was only Pacific nation to join the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War.
Vanuatu has a strong West Papua Support Association and the Vanuatu people consider themselves brothers and sisters to the West Papuan people.
As the Australian West Papua Association newsletter expresses it:
“Vanuatu is the only country in the world where everybody knows about West Papua and supports the right of the people of West Papua to self-determination. A courageous people, a courageous country.”
Maire Leadbeater: Indonesia Human Rights Committee