Features | Politics | Oceania

Power of One

A solemn prayer and a stirring rendition of the West Papuan national anthem kick-started the gathering in a house behind the little South Seas church in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila.

By Ben Bohane for

A solemn prayer and a stirring rendition of the West Papuan national anthem kick-started the gathering in a house behind the little South Seas church in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila. Inside, West Papuan delegates from around the world were meeting to attempt to find what has so far eluded them in their long struggle – a unified leadership.

Over the years, factionalism between political groups and within the military wing of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), or Free Papua Movement, has helped prevent regional support and internal cohesion. Yet the differences have been more to do with Melanesian “Big Man” politics – read personal jealousies – than any conflicting ideology: they all agree on the need for independence and continue to reject Indonesia’s autonomy promises.

West Papua’s tribal diversity, relative poverty and wild geographic terrain has led to a number of political and military figures claiming leadership of the resistance in the past and operating fairly autonomously. The last figure with widespread support, Chief Theys Eluay, President of Papuan Presidium Council, was assassinated by Kopassus soldiers in 2001. Since then a leadership vacuum has resulted in tensions between the now-silent Presidium Council and OPM guerillas operating in the bush. Part of the Vanuatu conference seems to be an attempt to bridge the divide and bring all groups back under the OPM banner, and is regarded as the most significant meeting of West Papuans since the OPM was formed in 1964.

“This is a historic meeting and the end of an eight year consultation process which began in Jayapura in 2000,” says Andy Ayamiseba, a West Papuan leader whose behind the scenes diplomacy has kept Vanuatu as one of the few countries that provides consistent diplomatic support for the West Papuans. “We are creating a ‘pyramid structure’ with one leader who can be recognised by our people and the international community.”

One leader tipped as the possible head of the whole movement is Richard Yoweni, an OPM Commander from the Manokowari region. At 66 years old, Yoweni is the longest serving OPM Commander, having joined the guerrilla struggle in 1966 when he had returned to Jayapura following several years training in Jakarta to be a mechanic.

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Although the Vanuatu government has publicly distanced itself from the summit – at one stage it said the summit was not to take place for security reasons – President Kalkot Mataskelekele re-affirmed the all-party support West Papua enjoys in the nation when he declared at the recent resumption of Parliament that “the struggle for freedom of the West Papuan people is always in the hearts of the people of Vanuatu.”

Vanuatu continues to be a lifeline for the West Papuans, despite pressure from Jakarta and Canberra. It is indicative of Vanuatu’s robust and independent foreign policy, born of its own struggle for independence from Britain and France, which it achieved in 1980. Vanuatu is the only republic in the South Pacific worth the name and was the only Pacific nation to join the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. It has long championed indigenous struggles in the region from East Timor to Tahiti to New Caledonia.

After more than 40 years and 100,000 dead according to church groups and NGOs, it is not surprising that a new generation of educated leaders and student groups is providing fresh momentum to the West Papuan struggle, taking it out of the jungle and into the international community. One of the leaders is Paula Makabory, a human rights activist with ELSHAM, an NGO based in Jayapura, Papua, who has settled in Australia following regular threats by the Indonesian authorities. She is in Vanuatu to facilitate the summit with various leaders. “The key to this summit is unity so all Papuans can come together under one roof, one umbrella and achieve our goals. Our people at home don’t care who the leader is, they just want us to unite and be more effective,” she says. “The reality is that the Indonesian system is killing us. It’s hard to be a Melanesian in Indonesia. They are creating horizontal conflicts and creating conflict within our political elite.”

Makabory has the same quiet intensity and eloquence that her mentor John Rumbiak, former head of ELSHAM, demonstrated before he suffered a stroke some years ago after a long history of tireless campaigning. “The West Papuan struggle is not for us to get rich, but only to have the most basic and fundamental human rights that every person deserves and that is enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have always felt like orphans in our own land.”

Like most West Papuans, Makabory believes the UN has a special responsibility to look at their case again, since it violated its own principals there in 1969. “We must be allowed to have a proper referendum so we can decide our own destiny,” argues Makabory. It was the UN’s first ever decolonisation mission and has long been viewed as a farce. The plebiscite it supervised – known as the Act of Free Choice – remains controversial since it was not based on “one man one vote”. Instead, the process was turned into an exercise in cold war pragmatism by allowing Indonesia to handpick 1025 delegates to vote on behalf of 800,000 people. UN troops were pulled out and the Indonesian military was allowed to provide “security”. Given the level of bribery and coercion exercised by the military, almost all the delegates unsurprisingly voted for integration “with the motherland” despite widespread protests.

Indonesia had begun its annexation of Dutch New Guinea in 1962 when a young General Suharto launched “Operation Mandala” with paratroopers and naval forces to wipe out the Dutch-backed Papuan forces, the forerunners of the OPM. It is worth noting that Canberra supported Dutch plans to give West Papua independence in 1970, as Australia was itself preparing Papua New Guinea for independence. Successive Australian governments, mainly Liberal, supported independence for West Papua until the New York Agreement of 1962, when the US pressured Australia and the Netherlands to let Indonesia absorb West Papua into Indonesia. The US feared that a protracted war between the Netherlands and Indonesia over Dutch New Guinea would push Indonesia under Sukarno deeper into the communist fold. With the exception of former President Gus Dur, who had allowed the West Papuans to have their own national summit in 2000 and has promised them a referendum in future if he is elected again, virtually every Indonesian leader continues to echo Sukarno’s catchcry of “from Sabang to Merauke” as a nationalist article of faith.

While Canberra has faithfully recognised Indonesian sovereignty since 1969, looming developments in the region are likely to further complicate Australian relations with Indonesia and Melanesia.

April also sees the launch of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Secretariat in Port Vila, Vanuatu – built and backed by China. MSG countries (PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji) are expected to grant “observer status” to both West Papua and New Caledonia. A common foreign policy platform is likely to be developed at the MSG headquarters from now on and then presented to the Pacific Islands Forum. Port Vila is thus emerging as the political capital of Melanesia. Although the MSG has been around for 20 years, it seems only now to be developing its teeth.

Given Vanuatu’s growing political status and historically independent foreign policy approach, there may be a few surprises in store for Canberra even if relations have improved since the Rudd government was elected. As one West Papuan leader said on the sidelines of the Vanuatu summit, “It’s to our advantage that countries like Indonesia and Australia underestimate us. They still think we are just rag-tag rebels and bushmen fighting with bows and arrows. Let them underestimate us and soon they will be shocked when they witness our next strategy.”

Ben Bohane is a Photo Journalist, Author and TD Producer Based in Vanuatu.