PNG’s Prime Minister speaks out on West Papua
12 Feb 2015|

Of the many issues raised in Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s address to last week’s summit on how he intends to manage the headwinds buffeting Papua New Guinea’s social and economic progress, six sentences on West Papua’s plight got most of the local and all the international attention.

He says it’s time to speak up about daily pictures of brutality against Melanesians in West Papua, and that PNG should lead mature and engaging discussions with its friends to tackle that oppression.

Independence campaigners seized on those remarks as a social media-fuelled ‘change-of-heart’ and major policy shift. Online sceptics and critics of the Government, on the other hand, saw a more cynical attempt to create a diversion as the 30-month grace period protecting O’Neill from votes-of-no-confidence expired. Even dispassionate analysts couldn’t help noting PNG produces its own stream of atrocity images—particularly of violence against women.

It’s impossible to prove populist motives and base self-interest didn’t spur the comments. After all, Australia’s also accused of letting domestic political imperatives sway international decisions and relationships; and wild political dramas occurred here too (Graeme Dobell recalls Michael Somare greeting news of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal with a wry ‘we’ve only just cut them loose and they’ve already stuffed it up!’). PNG politics is sometimes described as a ‘mad scramble for power’.

But even if O’Neill was partly chasing short-term advantage, other factors were probably also in play. Most Melanesians are genuinely troubled by the economic marginalisation and periodic repression of indigenous West Papuans. Port Moresby’s chance to wrong-foot Suva in their race for regional leadership may have provided another motive. The new United Liberation Movement for West Papua, which combines the three main and several smaller separatist groups that had struggled against each other as much as Jakarta, applied last week for full membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). Murky business considerations, including fugitive investor Djoko Tjandra’s immigration status, and logging-spoils along the border, might be at stake too. The speech could even have been intended to remind President Jokowi, who’s popular in West Papua but linked to President Megawati who hobbled previous Special Autonomy arrangements, that peace in West Papua is important for Indonesia, and something that PNG (which hopes to join ASEAN) might assist.

O’Neill’s remarks probably continue Port Moresby’s past position more than they depart from it. True, they gave a powerful neighbour an unusually-public poke in the eye. But a call to work together constructively to curb violence doesn’t necessarily constitute a call for greater autonomy, let alone a cry for self-determination or independence. It’s broadly consistent with O’Neill’s decision to lead a business delegation to Jakarta rather than attend a June 2013 summit to consider West Papuan membership of the MSG, which disappointed some but precipitated the formula agreed a year later welcoming West Papua’s right to apply in consultation with Jakarta.

That stance recognises that West Papua’s predicament is complex. While Indonesia’s claim to hold more Melanesians than the five MSG countries is a stretch, it’s a multi-ethnic republic, and West Papua’s been internationally recognised as part of it since before PNG’s Independence. Although Jakarta drove the decentralisation spawning new administrative units, hand-outs, and absentee jobs ‘at a viral rate’ to divide and rule, indigenous local elites ‘misusing their own cultural traditions to enrich themselves’ are now responsible for many of West Papua’s health, education and employment challenges. Those problems in-turn sustain ‘pre-democratic’ military/business behaviours that ‘would no longer be tolerated anywhere else in Indonesia’. As Melanesians now comprise less than half of the three million citizens of Indonesia’s Papua and West Papua provinces due to transmigration, a plebiscite today would likely produce the same result as the 1969 Act of Free Choice (or act-free-of-choice). There are probably more economic refugees from PNG on the Indonesian side of the border than the eight thousand 1980s political refugees from Indonesia still in PNG. PNG’s border provinces increasingly trade in Bahasa using rupiah. Nor do West Papuans want to join ‘chaotic’ PNG.

None of that’s to say West Papua faces only socio-economic challenges. Indeed, Gary Hogan warns Jakarta’s tendency to view West Papua’s problems solely through a developmental lens could condemn it to repeat its mistakes in East Timor. Although police and soldiers are far from the only problem, and have been victims as well as perpetrators of violence, the security apparatus has ‘come to symbolise everything that’s gone wrong’ in handling the conflict. So political dialogue’s vital. And extensive public discussions would be required to rebuild acceptance, in both West Papua and Jakarta, that an Aceh-style autonomy framework and political settlement was possible and desirable.

Australia’s awkwardly placed to encourage such dialogue, given Jakarta’s deep and prolonged suspicion about our motives in Timor, inevitable friction points, and particular sensitivities about West Papua. So O’Neill’s willingness to speak-out and assume a greater leadership role could be valuable.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Danny Birchall.