MSG, ACP and the (almost) forgotten case of West Papuan independence

The standard principle of "one man one vote" was violated in the 1969 referendum. Now there is a strong feeling among Papuans that “there is no future with(in) Indonesia”. Image: ABC

By Veronika Kusumaryati and Cypri Dale

Two events of highest significance in the context of global history of decolonisation are taking place in the Pacific:

  • The first has been the gathering of 79 nations for the 8th Summit of ACP (the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States) heads of state and government in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 30 May-June 1.
  • Secondly, the twice postponed summit meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) in Honiara, Solomon Islands, to decide on the application of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) for full membership at the MSG.

These two events raise an important question for both West Papuans and for the international community. Will West Papua have their moment of solidarity from MSG and ACP member states, their brothers and sisters who were once in the same predicament of colonialism, or will West Papua continue to be forgotten?

Interrupted decolonisation
In the third millennial, a last call from the great global decolonisation period of 1960s seems to fade away.

Right after the World War 2, Africa, Asia, Caribbean and the Pacific, which for a long period had been under European colonialism, claimed their rights for a truly modern entity: nation states.

State and non-state actors played their equal roles in the national claims making and state making enterprises.

While big countries fought the Cold War, these newly emerged states attempted to assert their new role in shaping the world politics, through the Non-Aligned Movement and the 1955 Bandung Conference among others.

In the Pacific in particular, the wave of decolonisation swept the region in the 1970s with the plan was set up in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Countries, such as Fiji, the Cook Islands, Nauru, and Tonga received their independence early in the 1970s while in Melanesia decolonisation began with Papua New Guinea in 1975 (followed by the Solomon Islands in 1978 and Vanuatu in 1980).

Not only in terms of the times, many countries in the Pacific also went through different decolonisation processes compared to their African or Asian counterparts.

Violent struggle
For Asian, African and some Caribbean countries they had to go through a rather violent anti-colonial struggle.

This would make so much difference in the regional perception of decolonisation particularly in the case of West Papua, the last colonial outpost of the Dutch government who continues to fight an anti-colonial struggle against Indonesia.

It is easy to chart the failed promise of anti-colonial nationalism as a narrative where many post-colonial nation-states were already predetermined to become failed or fragile states riddled by corruption, or where rule of law may not extend far from the capital city.

But what is evident in this period was the spirit of building a new and better life outside the European model of governance. The establishment of the ACP is a prime example.

As an organisation whose membership consists of newly independent states of Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific, the ACP Group seeks to focus on sustainable development of its member states and participate in the establishing “a new, fairer, and more equitable world order”.

Fairer world
The irony of this dream, however, lies in places that did not become independent during 1960s decolonisation wave, let alone manage to participate in the initiative of sustainable development and in establishing a new, fairer, and more equitable world order.

In this case, West Papua is exemplary. Being promised to have their own state in 1961, West Papua failed to gain their independence as a result of a questionable process of political transfer to Indonesia.

Historical accounts demonstrate that the 1969 referendum, known as the “Act of Free Choice”, occurred under the strict control of the Indonesian military and a weak supervision from the United Nations.

The standard principle of “one man one vote” was violated by the fact that only 1025 of a total 700,000 population, handpicked by Indonesian authorities, voted in the referendum.

Papuans did not have a chance to exercise their right for self-determination. Until today, West Papua remains seeking an international recognition of their nation. And their call rings rightly loud.

Unfinished struggles
West Papua does not give up on their decolonisation agenda after more than 50 years of living with Indonesia.

Indonesia claims that development has brought progress for the life of the Papuans but Papuan experiences tell the opposite. Hazardous development, combined with human rights abuses, land grabbing, intensive resources extractions, and massive migrations that make Papuans becoming a minority in their own land have led to Papuans’ self awareness as “We are in danger ” or “We will lose everything”.

In fact there is a strong feeling that “there is no future with(in) Indonesia”.

Recently, West Papuan anti-colonial movements have transformed themselves into a more consolidated mobilisation involving non-violent and urban-based resistance groups. Their international political lobbying and actions have been more effective thanks to the formation of ULMWP as an umbrella organiSation.

They are seeking internationally facilitated dialogues and negotiations, incorporating not only development and human rights issues, but also the neglected rights for self-determination.

Interestingly, a number of nations in the Pacific, including members of the MSG began to hear Papuans’ cries for help. Despite the pressure from Indonesia and its international allies, those countries exercise their national sovereignty in international politics and show their solidarity for West Papua.

The Papuan struggle, past and present, is a struggle of an almost forgotten nation; accordingly the future of West Papua partly depends on the solidarity of post-colonial African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries.

West Papua’s call for solidarity rings rightly loud. Many countries have heard their cries.

The question is whether they choose to listen or not.  Their choice is not only political, but also an ethical one but certainly it will reflect these countries’ commitment to their own decolonisation agenda.

Veronika Kusumaryati and Cypri Dale are social anthropologists and historians based in Epouto, Indonesia, and Berlin, Germany.

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