The MSG’s visit: A blessing or curse for Papuans?

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Late in September, Vanuatu broke the silence over human rights abuses in Papua. In light of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil raised the situation in Papua with the UN General Assembly.

 

He requested that this body appoint a special representative to investigate the state of human rights abuses in Papua. Vanuatu is no stranger to the Papuan cause. On the contrary, it is the driving force of the Melanesian Spearhead Group's (MSG) empathy for Papua.

Many of us may not be so well-informed of the invitation extended by the Indonesian government for the MSG to visit Jakarta and Papua. Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto presented the invitation to the Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama during his visit to Fiji in June 2013.

During the 19th MSG summit in Noumea, New Caledonia, the MSG leaders welcomed the invitation and decided to send a Foreign Ministerial Mission (FMM) to Jakarta and Papua led by Fiji. This decision reflects deliberation over the application for membership submitted by the West Papuan National Coalition of Liberation (WPNCL) on behalf of Papuans.

This is an important decision. It highlights the surge of interest among MSG countries to significantly contribute to peace efforts in Papua, the region with longest unresolved subnational conflict in the Pacific. More importantly, in their spirit of cooperation with Jakarta, MSG leaders are paving the way toward an end to the stalemate surrounding peace initiatives promoted by Papuan and Indonesian civil society.

What is the significance of the FMM for Papua's peace efforts? The 2013 MSG Summit was the first forum of its kind to officially invite Papuan representatives. They addressed the summit as official guests. They were equal to Indonesia and Timor Leste, which both have observer status. They no longer have to stand behind the Vanuatu delegation, as they used to. In other words, Papuans were recognized internationally as a political entity equal to that of MSG members and observers.

Second, if properly handled by the government and Papuans, the FMM may carve a new space for dialogue between Jakarta and Papua. This would be an unprecedented move, given the stalemate currently experienced by both sides in engaging with Papuan peace initiatives. The MSG diplomacy may encourage the opposing parties to find a feasible solution for conflicts in Papua.

Third, if properly exploited by the government and Papuans, the visit could result in a significant improvement of the image of both sides. Indonesia will take its credit and be more respected as a genuine democracy through a high-level visit to Papua. Papuans, on the other hand, will gain momentum in the quest to substantially engage with international diplomacy in a more strategic way.

There are some key challenges, however, that will confront both sides.

First are the issues of suspicion on the government's side and over-expectation on that of Papua. As we already know, Indonesian hard-liners remain resistant to accepting the idea of a Jakarta-Papua dialogue. So this group tends to be dogmatic in interpreting any international diplomacy with Papua as an attempt to undermine Indonesia's sovereignty.

On the other hand, sovereignty implies a commitment to the protection of citizens. This is the essence of the responsibility to protect (R2P) principle to which Indonesia subscribes.

On the Papuan side, there is a risk that the visit will be misinterpreted as providing a conclusive solution to the Papuan conflict. This can be misleading. While the spirit of the Melanesian brotherhood is well represented in this mission, it is not within the MSG jurisdiction to solve the Papua problem. The MSG, however, will definitely welcome any invitation to act as mediator of Jakarta-Papua political negotiations, but such an option will very much depend on the government's decision.

Second, if Papuans are not able to make the appropriate preparations and work closely with the MSG, it is not unlikely that the visit will be nothing more than "business as usual", in the sense that it will not substantially cover the complex reality of the Papuan conflicts. This risk may become a reality if Papuans do not prepare specific agendas and a plan of action for the FMM. If this happens, Papuans will miss a strategic opportunity to highlight their causes with their closest, and most sympathetic, neighbors.

Third, Papuans will have to make sure that information about the MSG is distributed among the Papuan community. The community has to be well-informed about the meaning, benefits and limits of such a diplomatic mission. This is necessary for the elimination of unrealistic expectations among Papuans, in order to work out a feasible strategy for a peaceful solution.

This is a challenging task, given that certain key Papuan leaders are incarcerated and so are unable to disseminate information to their people. The Papuan civil society, however, can play a critical role here. In collaboration with the media, they need to fill this information gap.

The FMM can only be effective in paving the way for peace in Papua on two conditions: First, there must be willingness on the part of the government to cooperate fully and allow the FMM unrestricted access to meet any relevant individuals and organizations. Second, Papuans must prepare a clear agenda and a plan of action for the FMM.

The writer is a part time researcher at Franciscans International, an international NGO accredited with the United Nations and is based in Jayapura, Geneva and New York. The views expressed are personal.