John Otto Ondawame, Vice President of the West Papua National Council for Liberation, was a deeply disappointed man at the end the 41st Pacific Islands Forum summit in Port Vila last month. There was high expectation among the West Papuans that Vanuatu’s recent Act of Parliament supporting its claim for independence would get wide acceptance among other Forum nations.
Vanuatu not only failed to table the issue at the leaders’ summit but there was also no mention of West Papua in the post-forum communiqué, leaving the leaders sorely disappointed. Despite that, the leaders still place some faith in Vanuatu, as chair of both the Melanesian Spearhead Group and now the Pacific Islands Forum to take their cause further, though they are well aware of the conflicting influences other countries will have on it in the coming months.
The West Papuans are concerned that Indonesia has stepped up its aid and co-operation in Melanesia and suspect the agenda is West Papua. While some 20 Indonesian diplomats attended the Forum, the country is also believed to have sent an envoy to the ‘Engaging Fiji’ summit in Natadola, Fiji, weeks before the Forum summit.
Indonesian diplomats ISLANDS BUSINESS spoke to predictably denied concerns about West Papua coming up for discussions at the Forum. Andri Hadi, Jakarta based Director General of Information & Public Diplomacy, said the delegation was primarily concerned with co-operation in the Pacific and that they were not aware of the presence of any West Papuan activists.
“West Papua is an internal matter for Indonesia and we will not discuss at this Forum,” he said. Asked to comment on Vanuatu’s Bill supporting its independence, he said that was Vanuatu’s internal matter.
Director of Foreign Affairs Arto Suryodipuro, also based in Jakarta, would not specify any details of the co-operation initiatives Indonesia was planning in Vanuatu or any of the Forum member countries but said that Indonesia was working hard on implementing greater autonomy in the West Papuan region.
Asked for his comments on the West Papuan issue, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said his government recognised West Papua as part of Indonesia.
Meanwhile, the West Papuan leaders squarely accused the Papua New Guinea government of scuttling their bid for support in the four-country sub regional Melanesian Spearhead Group when Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare last year successfully blocked the possibility of West Papua being conferred observer status.
But Ondawame and the movement’s long time external spokesman, the Canberra-based Rex Rumakiek are determined to take it to the next level despite feeling let down by their own region’s leaders.
Here’s what Ondawame told ISLANDS BUSINESS after the Forum.
How do you feel?
"Disappointed and badly let down."
Do you expect Vanuatu to follow up on their assurances?
"Yes, they promised us to take the issue to the Pacific Islands Forum, to the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and the United Nations. We trust the Vanuatu government to follow up."
But it was not brought up at the Forum. Do you think the MSG will support when it is raised there?
"Well, that’s a sticky question. But finally, the whole of the Melanesian community must recognise that it is so important to have West Papua as part of Melanesia."
Was there pressure from Indonesia during this Forum?
"Yes, Indonesia did put pressure on this Forum. It is no surprise that there are almost 20 delegates from Indonesia here. It is just because the issue was West Papua. They have been trying hard to convince Vanuatu not to raise the issue with MSG but there is a commitment of the Vanuatu people to continue to demand independence for West Papua."
Do you think Sir Michael Somare will support your cause?
"No, he will not. As long as Michael Somare is in power, he will never support the West Papuan cause, even though at the ground level in PNG, as in the rest of the Pacific, most of the people support the cause. We’ve seen it in Fiji, Solomon Islands, PNG, East Timor, Kanaks in New Caledonia. But when it comes to government there is some reservation. It is only the Vanuatu government is the only sovereign government that has firmly taken a stand to support. "
Why does Sir Michael Somare not support the cause?
"He is closely linked with Jakarta and he has been well taken care of by the Indonesian government. We cannot trust a man like him. I was one of his victims. He had me put in prison in 1978. Indonesia has a number of arrangements in place with the islands states and Vanuatu for fisheries, trade, security. We are aware of that but that doesn’t mean that has any effect on the Vanuatu people’s support for us."
Could the movement turn violent?
"That would be the only alternative left for us if the Pacific community continues to deny our rights – in that case, the people will have to take up violence as a last resort."
Do you see that happening?
"At the moment no, but in the long run it may well be. If people in the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand continue to ignore the situation, that may soon happen."
Is there any sign of arms flowing into the hands of rebels?
"We do not have arms in West Papua. We depend heavily on our traditional arms—bows and arrows—and our minds. And as we fight for our own soil on our own soil, we are prepared to die for it there. We cannot defeat Indonesia with arms. It is impossible—they have huge numbers of armed forces. We only believe in achieving our just cause with peaceful dialogue. We have friends in Indonesia that are working closely with us to address the issue in a peaceful manner. But it is possible our OPM movement could be pushed towards violence at some stage."
Is autonomy working?
"Autonomy doesn’t work. The people have totally rejected it and have returned the autonomy to Indonesia during protests last month. The autonomy has been only lip service. It has never helped develop the Papuan community. There has been no improvement at all. Instead it has brought in corruption, militarisation, making it the poorest province in Indonesia even though West Papua is so rich in terms of natural resources. But Indonesia is also reorganising the territory and carving out new provinces?
"That is the military strategy to divide the people and increase bureaucracy and corruption and bring in more Indonesian settlers. By 2020, West Papuans will be a minority in their own territory—that is the plan of the Indonesian government.
So what is next? Where to from here?
"We will work with Vanuatu to internationalise it. We want to work towards bringing it up in the next UN General Assembly. Fifty US Senators have already signed a petition to President Barack Obama to make the West Papuan issue part of the United States’ foreign policy in the near future. The US is a champion of freedom and we are confident its people will see our point. We will not let a regional setback to hold us back, although it would be good to have the support of our governments, just as we have the support of our wantoks."
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