Indonesia cancels West Papua rights meeting with Melanesian nations, delegate says

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo

Indonesia cancelled a regional meeting this week on the human rights situation in its Papuan provinces on the grounds that the leaders of Melanesian nations weren’t attending it, a member of Papua New Guinea’s delegation said on Tuesday.

According to Radio Free Asia news affiliate, Benar News, the canning of the meeting comes after the Papuan independence movement had its application to become a full member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group rejected in August. The UN-recognised organisation comprises the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak independence movement. 

Indonesia, an associate member of the Melanesian group, has lobbied against the liberation movement’s membership aspirations for at least a decade.  

“I am disappointed that the meeting was canceled by the Indonesian government at the last moment,” Powes Parkop, the governor of Papua New Guinea’s National Capital District, told BenarNews. 

Leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group nations agreed at a summit in August to create “space” for dialogue with Indonesia on the human rights situation in its Papuan provinces – often known as West Papua – rather than encouraging the independence movement, which has strong grassroots support in Melanesian countries. 

Possible measures included an annual parliamentary dialogue between Indonesia and Melanesian nations. 

Poorly armed Papuan fighters – collectively known as the West Papua National Liberation Army – have battled Indonesia since the early 1960s, when it took control of the western half of New Guinea island from the Dutch.

Papuans, culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia, say they were denied the right to decide their own future. Indonesian control was formalized in 1969 with a UN-backed referendum in which little more than 1,000 Papuans were allowed to vote.

Documented and alleged killings and abuses by Indonesian military and police, from the 1960s until the present day – along with impunity and the exploitation of the region’s natural resources and widespread poverty – have fueled resentment of Indonesian rule.

The Papua New Guinea government’s invitation to Parkop to be a member of its delegation said that Indonesian President Joko Widodo had called for Melanesian leaders to “have a historical meeting with him on West Papua issues.”

He was about to leave Papua New Guinea for the meeting that was scheduled for Wednesday in Bali, alongside a summit of island and archipelagic states, when he was informed of the cancellation. 

Parkop said he spoke to Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and her explanation for the cancellation was the nonattendance of the leaders of Melanesian nations.

“I have impressed on her to allow dialogue to commence initially with those MSG leaders like myself … who have been pushing this agenda and not to wait for prime ministers,” said Parkop.  

“I am hopeful that this meeting will take place soon so we can see progress toward resolving the long standing political and human rights issue in our region.”

Abdul Kadir Jaelani, the director general for Asia, Pacific and Africa at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, said the leaders of Melanesian countries couldn’t attend because of domestic priorities.

“Therefore, the dialogue is currently difficult to hold,” he told BenarNews. “Indonesia is always open to dialogue with any country. 

“Of course, any dialogue should be conducted in accordance with international principles such as sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Papuan groups that peacefully advocate for independence from Indonesia suffered a setback in August when the Melanesian Spearhead Group denied the United Liberation Movement for West Papua’s application for full membership. 

The official communique from the August summit was not released publicly, but a copy seen by BenarNews said leaders could not reach a consensus on West Papuan membership, which meant it could not be approved. 

It reiterated long standing international calls for Indonesia to allow a UN human rights delegation to visit the Papua region.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka had earlier in the year made a public show of support for West Papua and Vanuatu is a longstanding bastion of support for the independence movement. 

But Papua New Guinea, which has a 760-kilometer (472-mile) border with Indonesia and is dwarfed in both military and economic strength by the Southeast Asian country, has made improving relations with Jakarta a foreign policy priority.    

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, formerly a supporter of West Papuan independence, said earlier this month that self-determination is an internal matter for Indonesia’s Papuan provinces.

“Melanesian politics are pretty fluid, a change of governments will result in a different conversation about self-determination and human rights in the region,” Hipolitus Wangee, a researcher at Australian National University, told BenarNews. “There is another chance for the ULMWP application as long as the Indonesian government fails to address the root causes in West Papua,” said Wangee.