Stephen Wright – Indonesia has protested to Fiji's government after the prime minister of the Pacific island country met with a Papuan leader in a morale boost for the regional independence movement.
Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who was elected in December, also said he would support Papuan membership in a U.N.-recognized organization of Melanesian nations.
Fiji's previous government and Papua New Guinea for a decade have blocked such a membership bid to maintain good relations with Indonesia, a source of foreign aid for both nations.
The meeting between Rabuka and Benny Wenda, who from exile in London heads an umbrella group of Papuan organizations that seek independence from Indonesia, took place at a summit of Pacific island leaders in the Fijian town of Nadi last week.
On Tuesday, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said Indonesia had sent a diplomatic note to Fiji.
"Indonesia expressed deep disappointment over the Fiji PM's meeting with someone who unilaterally claimed to represent the Papuan people in Indonesia," he said.
The archipelago nation of 270 million people is a rising Southeast Asian power that reaches into the South Pacific region and says it is on track to be the world's fourth-largest economy by 2045. The United States and Australia are seeking closer security ties with Indonesia to counter China's influence in the region.
Rabuka's social media accounts posted a photo of a smiling Rabuka, wearing a traditional string bag emblazoned with the Morning Star flag – an emblem of the Papua independence movement that is banned in Indonesia – meeting with Wenda.
Rabuka's Twitter account said he would support the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, of which Wenda is chairman, "because they are Melanesians."
Papua's independence movement
The Papua region is better known as West Papua among people in Pacific island countries.
A peaceful independence movement and an armed insurgency have simmered in the region – which makes up the western half of New Guinea island – since the early 1960s when Indonesia took control of the territory from the Dutch.
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 local resentment of Indonesian rule.
Deploying aid and technical assistance to small island states scattered across the Pacific ocean, Indonesia has in recent years sought to neutralize criticism from some of those nations of its rule in Papua.
Jakarta's assistance is small relative to long-standing donors such as Australia but still significant for economically lagging island nations. In Fiji, Indonesia recently funded the U.S.$1.9 million reconstruction of two boarding school dormitories after a tropical cyclone destroyed them.
"Fiji is the biggest recipient of Indonesia's aid [in the Pacific] along with Papua New Guinea," said Hipolitus Wangge, a researcher at Australian National University. "It's something that cannot be easily thrown away."
Rabuka, in his Twitter statement, said he was "more hopeful" that Wenda's group could get full membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group that comprises Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste – the indigenous Kanak independence movement in French-ruled New Caledonia. Indonesia is an associate member.
A 'significant' meeting
The meeting between Rabuka and Wenda was significant, analysts say, because Fiji, under the 16-year rule of former Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, gave short shrift to the Papuan independence movement – one of the many obstacles to its goals of gaining international recognition and legitimacy.
"It's definitely morale boosting for West Papuans because Fiji and Papua New Guinea have been the roadblocks," said Cammi Webb-Gannon, coordinator of the West Papua Project at the University of Wollongong in Australia.
She said Melanesian Spearhead Group membership would give the independence movement "more clout because they'd be acknowledged by a regional political grouping as the legitimate representatives of West Papuans."
Wenda didn't immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment.
According to the Fiji Sun newspaper, he said, "give us full membership so that we can sit down with Indonesia and the Melanesian leaders to find a solution" to the conflict between Indonesia and Papuans.
Vanuatu, a bastion of support for Papuan independence from Indonesia, is likely to push hard for progress on Papuan membership when Melanesian Spearhead Group leaders meet in July in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila, said Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific analyst at the Griffith Asia Institute.
Indonesia, meanwhile, is likely to lobby Papua New Guinea and Fiji vigorously to keep Wenda and his organization out.
"They will come under a lot of pressure between now and when the leaders meet, to vote against accepting that membership," Newton Cain said.
[Dandy Koswaraputra in Jakarta contributed to this report. BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.]