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A push for independence in Indonesia's rich but troubled territory of Papua is set to become an issue for the Pacific Island Forum.
Vanuatu is leading the regional charge in lending open support for the long-standing cause of the territory's independence from Indonesia.
The people of Vanuatu consider West Papuans "Wantok" - brothers or "someone who speaks my language" - part of the larger Melanesian brotherhood and have long been supportive of their cause for sovereignty.
In the Vanuatu Parliament, Prime Minister Eduard Natapei and Opposition leader Maxime Carlot Korman jointly sponsored a motion stating Vanuatu's position on Papua.
Last month's motion is now a bill called the "Wantok blong yumi Bill" (our wantok bill) reflecting a pan-Melanesian spirit across political boundaries.
Essentially, the bill clears the way for the Vanuatu Government to develop specific policies on how to support the independence struggle of West Papua.
Vanuatu has previously supported decolonisation moves in New Caledonia and kept the issue in front of annual Forum summits - most notably in Auckland in 2003 - and has opened an office for the Free West Papua Movement in its capital of Port Vila.
The bill is timely in that it has created a platform for Vanuatu's efforts to get forum leaders to focus on the issue once more when it hosts the 41st summit on August 3-6 in Port Vila.
Natapei has already stated that Vanuatu would work towards getting the forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group - of which it is the current chairman - to confer observer status on West Papua.
It would be a message to Indonesia from the Pacific Islands region and may have repercussions in areas such as security and fisheries, where forum countries work closely with Jakarta.
Papua, formerly known as the province of Irian Jaya, is the western half of the large island of New Guinea (the eastern half is Papua New Guinea).
The Indonesian Government split western Papua from the rest of Papua to form the administrative region of West Papua in 2003. Vanuatu's backing for independence covers the whole Papua region.
The territory of larger Papua remained under Dutch control for more than a decade-and-a-half after Indonesia gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1949. But when the Dutch administration agreed to support Papua's sovereignty bid in 1961, Indonesian President Sukarno enforced Jakarta's control militarily, putting paid to Papuan ambitions. Towards the end of the decade, the United States facilitated talks between the Dutch administrators and Indonesian leaders, resulting in the United Nations sponsoring a referendum in 1969, called "Act of Free Choice", giving a choice for West Papuans to decide whether to secede from Indonesia.
Only about 1000 Papuans are reported to have voted. Most Papuans believe the referendum was not representative of the vastly larger numbers that never participated.
Successive Indonesian governments have countered even the slightest hint of separatism by strict policing and enacting laws of the kind that make flying the West Papua flag anywhere in Indonesian territory punishable by imprisonment (Indonesia's embassy in London is reported to have asked the British Foreign Office to prevail upon the Oxford town council not to fly the morning star flag on December 1 last year).
In recent years, however, the Indonesian Government has granted Papua special autonomy status, allowing indigenous Papuans greater control over tax and other local revenues from natural resources.
But activists say centrally sponsored projects are implemented without adequate consultation and regard to local rights.
West Papua and Papua provinces are the least populated and the poorest areas of the Indonesian archipelago. But the two provinces are also some of the most mineral rich within Indonesia, especially for gold, timber and natural gas.
The huge Grasberg mine, run by Freeport-McMoran, the world's largest combined copper and gold mine, is in Papua. The complex is enormously profitable. It provided US$4 billion ($5.6 billion) of Freeport's operating profit of US$6.5 billion last year.
The mining facilities are protected by about 3000 soldiers and police, which were supported by Freeport with US$10 million last year, according to the company.
Last December the police shot dead Kelly Kwalik, a leading figure in the Free Papua Movement or OPM. Police accused him of a series of attacks on Freeport's operations, a charge he repeatedly denied.
Vanuatu's backing for Papua comes amid renewed stirrings in the independence struggle itself.
Earlier this month, thousands marched in the Papua centres of Jayapura, Manokwari and Sorong, rejecting the autonomy and demanding instead a referendum and a UN-mediated dialogue towards self-rule.
There is concern in the regional leadership of the growing discontent at the grass-roots level in West Papua and fears people will take up violent measures of protest in a bid to bring their plight into international focus.
- NZ Herald