Maire Leadbeater: Pacific Island Forum ignores deadliest issue in its patch

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Jacob Rumbiak from West Papua in traditional dress at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2003. File Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Jacob Rumbiak from West Papua in traditional dress at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2003. File Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

West Papuans have asked our leaders for help. Maire Leadbeater wonders if they will listen

The Melanesian people of West Papua, neighbours to Papua New Guinea, say they belong to the Pacific region and that it is their home geographically, ethnically and culturally. But since Indonesia took control of the territory in 1963 they have been excluded from regional meetings.

Next week, Papuan representatives will try to be heard from the margins of the Pacific Island Forum when the heads of state meet at the SkyCity Convention Centre.

The forum leaders used to make a reference to the ongoing human rights abuses in West Papua in their annual communiques but for the past four years they have sidestepped the issue altogether.

Unfortunately, this is not a sign that the situation has improved for West Papua. Documents leaked recently to Australian newspapers show how the Indonesian Kopassus Special Forces run a vast network of spies to maintain their control of the region.

Foreign activists, journalists and politicians are also monitored, and signing a letter or filing a TV report can be enough to warrant inclusion on the "enemy" list.

A recent swell of violence, including an early-morning ambush of a passenger vehicle and the shooting down of a military helicopter that resulted in about 24 deaths, has ensured the security forces are on high alert. But in spite of the tension about 10,000 Papuans took part in co-ordinated demonstrations calling for a new independence referendum.

The new Indonesian military chief, Pramono Edhie Wibowo, vows to "clean up "separatist rebels". But West Papua's guerrilla movement is small and most of its members have made a commitment to peaceful methods of struggle. When the military cracks down the victims are often poor farmers in the highlands.

When I visited last year, rights workers were pleased that one example of military torture had gone global on YouTube after being filmed on a soldier's mobile phone. In the clip two Papuan farmers are shown being subjected to extreme brutality and one has his genitals burnt with a flaming stick. At long last the international community, including our own Foreign Minister, has been galvanised into speaking out. Indonesia was forced to seek out the perpetrators.

Some soldiers were put on trial before a military court and were given "slap on the wrist" sentences of no more than 10 months.

Netherlands New Guinea, as West Papua used to be known, was a member of the South Pacific Commission, a forerunner of the Pacific Island Forum, and West Papuans attended the SPC meetings until the Dutch ceded their authority to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority in 1962.

Under the terms of the New York Agreement, Indonesia would allow the West Papuan people to take part in self-determination carried out in accordance with global practice. But Indonesia stage-managed a fraudulent "Act of Free Choice" in 1969. Only a handpicked 1022 men out of a population of nearly one million were able to take part.

The Pacific Islands Forum can be an effective regional advocate. In the 1980s the forum gave regional support to the decolonisation struggles in the French Pacific territories. But now West Papuan leaders are turned down when they ask for observer status and Indonesia is accepted as a "dialogue partner".

These days New Zealand and Australia prioritise their relationship and defence ties with Indonesia. Australian forces train with the brutal Kopassus Special Forces while New Zealand hosts military officers on exchange and provides training in "community policing" to the mainly migrant West Papua police. In a recent letter to me, Murray McCully even goes so far as to refer to West Papua as "inseparable" from Indonesia.

Other forum members, particularly Vanuatu, have been more responsive. The first Vanuatu Prime Minister, Walter Lini, once said "so long as any Pacific Islands remain colonised, none of us is free". Last year Vanuatu's Parliament unanimously resolved to raise the issue of West Papua's political status at the UN General Assembly. Vanuatu wants to get the matter referred to the International Court of Justice.

In West Papua there is also a proposal for a peaceful dialogue with Jakarta. Independence would not be on the dialogue agenda but even so Jakarta has not yet agreed.

How can the forum say that it promotes regional stability while overlooking the deadliest conflict in its patch?

* Maire Leadbeater is the spokeswoman for the Indonesia Human Rights Committee.

- NZ Herald

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