Are Pacific Nations Helping the West Papuan Case for Greater Autonomy?

Indonesia has experienced a separatist movement in its remote Papua and West Papua provinces since it took control of them in 1969. The provinces are usually referred to simply as West Papua by Pacific Islanders, who by and large continue to call for greater West Papuan self-determination.

Recent developments, and an impending visit by Pacific Island foreign ministers to Papua province, suggest those calls could play a role in incentivizing Jakarta to grant West Papua greater autonomy.

The members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG)—Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia’s Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS)—deferred an important decision at their 19th leaders’ summit on June 19–21. They set aside an application for membership by the pro-independence umbrella group, the West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL).

Jakarta sought to head off a decision by inviting the MSG foreign ministers to visit West Papua and inspect the human rights situation on the ground. With Fiji supporting the Indonesian proposal, the leaders’ communiqué noted that “the outcomes of the WPNCL’s application would be subject to the report of the [foreign ministers’] mission.” It also recognized the need for continued “dialogue and consultation” with Indonesia on the issue. 

But the communiqué reiterated that the MSG “fully supports the inalienable rights of the people of West Papua towards self-determination.” The clear implication is that if the foreign ministers do not like what they find, then the WPNCL can expect to join the group’s ranks, just as the pro-independence FLNKS did.

The MSG meeting highlighted the precarious state of Indonesia’s relationship with its neighbors over the West Papua issue. Jakarta engaged in a blitz of diplomacy in the lead-up to the meeting to try and block the WPNCL’s membership application, and it partially succeeded. Fiji vocally supported the Indonesian proposal, and Papua New Guinea’s head of state chose to skip the meeting altogether to make a trip to Indonesia. Both countries have said they respect Indonesia’s territorial integrity, echoing the position of the United States and other international players. This was crucial in securing a delay of the MSG’s decision.

But the leaders’ communiqué shows that none of the MSG members have abandoned their calls for some form of West Papuan self-determination. Indonesia succeeded in convincing its neighbors to wait in part by holding up Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s recent promise of enhanced special autonomy for West Papua.

Indonesia’s legislature passed a law in 2001 granting its Papuan provinces a degree of special autonomy. But policies stemming from that legislation have done nothing to end the pro-independence insurgency, and are widely seen as a failure in both Jakarta and West Papua. In April, President Yudhoyono and Papua province governor Lukas Enembe agreed to explore a new arrangement for greater autonomy. Enembe’s team produced a draft autonomy law in October. In November, the governor shared it with his counterpart from West Papua province, Bram Atururi, who decided it needed work.

A recent report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) argues that Atururi’s team has produced a greatly improved document. It focuses on issues of economic growth, resource sharing, good governance, and improved public services. Interestingly, both drafts also ask for “limited foreign affairs authority” for the provincial governments of West Papua. Enembe’s draft specifically asks that West Papua be allowed to represent Indonesia in Pacific regional forums. Atururi does not specify that West Papua be given representation in multilateral forums, but asks for the right to develop relations with its “immediate neighbors.”

The failure of the 2001 special autonomy law and continued human rights abuses against Papuans means skepticism is high regarding the proposed new legislation. This is compounded by the historical lack of political will in Jakarta to tackle the West Papua issue and by Indonesia’s upcoming legislative and presidential elections, in April and July 2014, respectively.

The MSG foreign ministers’ visit is scheduled for December. As the IPAC report points out, the Indonesian government might argue that negotiations over the new enhanced special autonomy drafts make this an inopportune time for the trip. But that would be a mistake. Jakarta needs to find the political will to consider the West Papuan governor’s drafts seriously and to commit to reaching agreement on a new system of special autonomy. Making such a commitment now, while fully supporting the MSG foreign ministers’ visit, will send a message for the first time that Jakarta is committed to tackling the West Papua issue.

It is unlikely that Indonesia can keep the WPNCL out of the MSG for long. The umbrella group came to the leaders’ meeting bearing a letter signed by 30 West Papuan organizations in support of its membership, ensuring that it is seen as a legitimate representative of the people. Vanuatu, where the WPNCL’s leadership lives in exile, is the most vocal proponent of West Papuan independence and will not agree to further delays if Jakarta dithers. Vanuatu’s prime minister, Moana Carcasses Kalosil, put the West Papua issue on the international radar with an impassioned call at the UN General Assembly in September for the appointment of a special investigator into Indonesian abuses in and annexation of West Papua.

Jakarta’s best option, given the unlikelihood of passing and implementing a new law on expanded special autonomy without delay, is to take steps to convince its neighbors and the world that it is committed to improving the lot of West Papuans. This should start with supporting the MSG ministers’ trip. It also means taking steps to improve human rights in the region, including by easing travel restrictions on foreigners and press. Most of all, it means progress, even if slow, on autonomy.

For their part, the MSG foreign ministers should see their trip as an opportunity to effect some change in their larger neighbor and, hopefully, get the ball rolling on removing the major irritant in the region’s relations with Indonesia. They should assess the human rights situation in West Papua honestly, but also be receptive if Jakarta signals movement on greater autonomy.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative