Nic Maclellan – When Vanuatu's prime minister, Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas, stood before the UN General Assembly last week, he would have known how Indonesia was likely to react to his words. Echoing the decision of the recent Pacific Islands Forum, he called on the United Nations to find solutions to ongoing violations of human rights in West Papua. Indonesian diplomat Rayyanul Sangadji was quick to respond. "Papua is, has and will always be, part of Indonesia," he said. "Vanuatu wants to give an impression to the world of backing the resolution of the human rights issue, when its real and only motive is to support the separatism agenda."
The diplomatic jousting in New York symbolises the crisis facing the government of Indonesian president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo. In the 1990s, Jokowi's predecessors lost the support of the generation of young Timorese who had grown up under Indonesian occupation and joined the campaign for independence. Today, a new generation of West Papuans is protesting in the streets of Jayapura, Wamena and other towns in the region Jakarta views as the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.
Since the withdrawal of the Netherlands from its Melanesian colony half a century ago, West Papuans have only known Indonesian rule. The young people facing off against Indonesian soldiers are responding to a crisis generated by Indonesia's failed development model in West Papua, which has brought in hundreds of thousands of workers and farmers from other parts of Indonesia, converted customary Melanesian land into freehold, and encouraged commercial extraction of gas, copper, gold and timber.
Human rights groups have long reported violations by Indonesian police and military, but concern escalated in December last year when the army extended its operations around Nduga district, following the shooting of construction workers on road-building operations. This year, West Papuan monitoring groups have reported more than 180 deaths in the district, and more than 40,000 people displaced. Healthcare facilities, churches and schools have been damaged, and families have fled into the bush with limited food and shelter.
A further upsurge in conflict began in Surabaya, East Java, in August, prompted by West Papuan student protests against Indonesian racism. Falsely accused of showing a lack of respect for the Indonesian flag and angered by taunts against Melanesian "monkeys" and pigs," thousands of students across Indonesia launched mass demonstrations against racism, which soon expanded into street protests in West Papua.
Since September, protests have continued in towns across the western half of the island of New Guinea. Indonesian police and military have shot dead at least thirty West Papuan protesters, and many others have been injured in Jayapura and Wamena. In Wamena, killings and violence against non-Papuan migrants saw people fleeing to police barracks for protection.
Chanting "We are not white and red, we are Morning Star," young Papuans have flourished the illegal West Papuan flag, first raised in December 1961 when West Papuan nationalists were seeking to create their own government under 1960 UN General Assembly resolutions on decolonisation. But US cold war support for Indonesia led to the 1962 New York agreement to introduce a UN transitional administration, opening the way for Indonesia's military to move in. Then came August 1969's widely criticised "Act of Free Choice," when 1022 carefully selected Papuan leaders voted under pressure to accept Indonesian rule.
The current repression in West Papua rolls back the peaceful diplomacy Jokowi attempted during his first term of office. A regular visitor to West Papua, the Indonesian president won early plaudits by granting amnesty to key West Papuan prisoners and launching a series of development projects. Progress looked so promising that the leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group – Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia – declared in 2015 that Jokowi "is someone whom the MSG can dialogue with."
Five months into the president's second term, Indonesian politics is more polarised. There are worrying signs of a regression towards authoritarianism: last year's blasphemy charges against the mayor of Jakarta, for instance, and the appointment of the well-known former general, Wiranto, as coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, despite his role in human rights violations in East Timor during the 1990s. Recent attempts to weaken Indonesia's anti-corruption institutions and last month's legislation promoting fundamentalist rules on culture and sexuality highlight the ugly turn.
Contributing to the shift in Indonesia's diplomacy on West Papua has been the death of former independence campaigner Franz Albert Joku in June this year. Over the past decade, the charismatic West Papuan – a prominent landowner who lived in exile for many years in Papua New Guinea – had joined fellow activist Nick Messet to advise and represent the Indonesian government.
When I met Joku and Messet at a Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Kiribati in 2000, both men were supporters of independence. Their organisation, the Papua Presidium, had emerged during a surge of West Papua nationalism after the collapse of Suharto's dictatorship in 1998, a period dubbed the Papuan Spring. A national congress in Jayapura had remobilised the independence movement and brought in a new generation of activists under the leadership of customary chief Theys Eluay.
The Papuan Spring was supported by Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia's president at the time, who was seeking to chart a path to democracy and de-fang Indonesia's military after decades of repression in Timor, Aceh and West Papua. But Wahid lost the presidency in 2001, and incoming president Megawati Sukarnoputri crushed the Papua Presidium. Indonesian special forces soldiers murdered Eluay.
Abandoning his support for independence, Joku returned to Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, in 2008. Jakarta's 2001 Special Autonomy Law, he declared, provided a pathway to greater autonomy and peaceful development. In recent years, Joku and Messet served as frontmen for Indonesian diplomatic efforts, seeking to blunt growing international support for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.
Joku was the garrulous and good-humoured voice that argued Indonesia's case on the international stage: travelling in Indonesian delegations to the MSG and Pacific Islands Forum, lobbying in UN corridors, even briefing Indonesian student groups at universities in Australia and New Zealand. He put a human face on the ugly rhetoric of Indonesian military leaders who have long benefited from their business interests in the eastern provinces of Indonesia.
"I believe I am still working for the emancipation of my country," he told me when we crossed paths in Wellington last year. "The Special Autonomy Law, however incomplete it may be, is an acceptable political compromise. We need to grab hold of it and make it serve our interests."
Security minister Wiranto and defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu are much less diplomatic when they push back against Pacific island governments and human rights advocates. Visiting Australia in November 2016, Ryamizard chastised island nations that had spoken at the United Nations in support of West Papuan rights. "Please tell Solomon Islands and those six nations never to interfere or encourage West Papua to join them," he said. "Those countries better keep their mouths shut and mind their own business. It is better that Australia speaks to them gently. If it was left up to me, I would twist their ears."
Indonesia has joined the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, alongside Fiji and Papua New Guinea, partly to block any move to have West Papua relisted as a non-self-governing territory by the United Nations. Indonesian diplomats, like their French counterparts, were horrified when Tuvalu, Nauru and Solomon Islands successfully moved a motion through the UN General Assembly in 2013 adding French Polynesia to the list.
In July this year, Indonesia hosted a trade and tourism conference in Auckland as part of its Pacific engagement effort. Looking beyond current trade negotiations with Papua New Guinea and Fiji, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi said that Jakarta was seeking to extend its influence in even the smallest island nations: "We are connecting the dots between the 17,000 Indonesian islands and the thousands of Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand. One of the steps that we are taking to connect is by opening diplomatic relationships with Cook Islands and Niue."
But charm only goes so far. The Indonesian government is clearly hostile to any country that raises its voice in global institutions. When island nations promoted a resolution at the UN General Assembly in August on cooperation between the United Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum, it was adopted in a vote of 137-0, with Indonesia abstaining. Its UN representative regretted that "one member of the Pacific Islands Forum continued to interfere with Indonesia's domestic affairs," a not-so-subtle reference to Vanuatu.
No doubt mindful of possible repercussions in other parts of the region, Pacific Islands Forum leaders aren't calling for independence for West Papua. At their most recent meeting in Tuvalu in August, they reaffirmed their recognition of Indonesia's sovereignty over the two provinces, but also acknowledged reports of escalating violence and human rights abuses and "agreed to re-emphasise and reinforce the Forum's position of raising its concerns over the violence."
In their final communique, they called on Jakarta to facilitate a long-mooted visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. They "strongly encouraged" Indonesia and the commission to agree on timing for a visit that Indonesia has stalled, calling for "an evidence-based, informed report on the situation" to be published before next year's Forum leaders meeting in Vanuatu.
"This is the first time that Forum leaders have called for a United Nations human rights visit," West Papuan leader Benny Wenda told me in Tuvalu. Wenda chairs the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, and was in Funafuti with spokesperson Jacob Rumbiak to lobby island leaders for support. "This is step by step," he added. "This is the starting point and the fact is that the resolution is a really, really important step for us to go to another level."
Efforts to extend support to West Papuans have often been stymied at the Forum by Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. The two larger Melanesian nations have also defended Indonesia's interests at the Melanesian Spearhead Group, backing associate membership for Jakarta. After rejecting a West Papuan bid for full MSG membership at their 2013 summit in Noumea, Melanesian leaders agreed to "invite all groups to form an inclusive and united umbrella group in consultation with Indonesia to work on submitting a fresh application."
In December 2014, Vanuatu churches and customary leaders hosted a meeting in Port Vila aimed at transcending longstanding divisions between three key strands of the nationalist movement: the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, the Federal Republic of West Papua, and the National Parliament of West Papua (which includes the National Committee for West Papua that has mobilised most of the recent protests). The meeting was successful, and these groupings came together as the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.
But there's still a way to go in gaining stronger support from the largest countries in the regional organisations. Both Australia and Papua New Guinea border Indonesia and have a range of strategic reasons – from trade and investment to anxiety over the movement of refugees – for maintaining good relations with Jakarta. In recent years, their stand has been backed by Fiji under prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who led a coup in 2006 and then oversaw Fiji's return to parliamentary rule in 2014.
Since the post-coup regime was suspended from the Forum and Commonwealth in 2009, Fiji's international diplomacy has expanded beyond its traditional partners. In recent years, Indonesia has been a key ally in Fiji's bid for leadership roles in bodies like the Non-Aligned Movement, the G77-plus-China group and the Asia-Pacific bloc within the United Nations.
"Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua cannot be questioned," Bainimarama declared at the MSG's 2015 summit. "The best hope for improving the lives of the people of West Papua is to work closely with the Indonesian government, one of the most vibrant democracies in the world." Despite this, the 2015 summit gave observer status at the MSG to Wenda's United Liberation Movement for West Papua, the first major diplomatic breakthrough.
In contrast to Papua New Guinea and Fiji, Vanuatu has long championed self-determination for West Papua. Lora Lini, daughter of Vanuatu's first prime minister Walter Lini, has been appointed as special envoy on decolonisation of West Papua to the Pacific island states. Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu's foreign minister, is a key international champion of the West Papuan cause.
Vanuatu is supported within the MSG by the Kanak independence movement, FLNKS, which reaffirmed its longstanding support for its fellow liberation movement as the Indonesian repression mounted in September 2019. The Solomon Islands, under prime minister Mannaseh Sogavare, has also appointed a special envoy on West Papua.
With decisive action within the Forum and the MSG blocked by the larger powers, a separate Group of Seven has been taking initiatives in support of West Papua in international forums. Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands presented a joint statement on West Papua to the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Council of Ministers in Brussels in May 2017. Leaders of these island nations have spoken out at the UN General Assembly, and Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have lobbied this year at the UN Human Rights Council. Pacific church and community groups have ensured that West Papua remains on the Forum agenda, using their annual dialogue with island leaders to promote action on human rights.
Pacific nations, however, are facing a changed geopolitical context. As with other Asian powers – China, Taiwan, Korea and India – Indonesia is a new regional player, extending its diplomatic and political relationship with Forum members and providing new pathways for aid, trade and investment. Not surprisingly, Jakarta is seeking a diplomatic quid pro quo in the form of silence on human rights abuses and public acceptance of Indonesian sovereignty over the western half of the island of New Guinea. Jokowi's administration is wooing or threatening those who speak out on the issue.
Next year, forty years after Vanuatu gained independence in 1980, the Melanesian nation will host the fifty-first Pacific Islands Forum. Foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu hopes that meeting will build on this year's call for an urgent visit to West Papua by the UN human rights commissioner.
"In the last few years, the resolution has been about constructive engagement with Indonesia on the issue," he says. "But I think the leaders realised that the open and constructive engagement had not necessarily achieved the improvements in human rights that are desired. I think the situation in Nduga over the last year has caused Forum leaders to elevate the tone of the resolution."
The UN's Michelle Bachelet could provide an "honest and frank account" before the next Forum leaders' meeting, Regenvanu told me. The Forum secretariat and member states "need to make sure the commissioner gets to go," he said. "Indonesia should see that there is a very clear concern and we hope this this statement will make them come to the table and work with the commissioner to make sure this mission does happen."
But time is short. "The situation in West Papua is getting worse and worse," says Benny Wenda. "This is the next East Timor – it's beginning. Sixteen thousand additional Indonesian troops have now been deployed to bring violence to West Papua, working with the new nationalist militias. How long does the world need to watch my people being slaughtered like animals before they intervene? Fifty-seven years of this is enough."