Supporters of self-determination with the Morning Star, the West Papuan liberation flag. Photo: PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Opinion – The National in Port Moresby

When Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visits Australia and Papua New Guinea in two weeks’ time, apart from the very many matters of mutual bilateral concerns, will PNG dare raise the matter of autonomy for the mostly Melanesian people of West Papua?

Or is to be considered an internal Indonesian affair?

Not an original question at all but new developments in Papua New Guinea with regards to Bougainville and the very idea of autonomy give it an entirely new perspective.

Autonomy is not something PNG much likes to proselytise to the world, much less Indonesia when it itself has problems dealing with exactly the same issue.

For a long time Papua New Guineans, ordinary citizens as well as policy makers, were sympathetic to the cry by their mostly Melanesian brethren on the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea for self-government and independence.

Many did not much care for the Act of Free Choice which ceded West Papua to Indonesia, purportedly with the concurrence of the chiefs and leaders of the land. This Act, which was signed in New York, has been referred to more popularly in PNG as the “act of no choice”.

While the sentiments remain, reality intrudes.

Indonesia boasts 232 million people, the world’s fourth most populous country after China, India and the United States.

Two religions
Papua New Guinea’s population of 6.2 million would fit into one city in Indonesia. It is the world’s largest Muslim nation while PNG is totally Christian – two religions that are not well known for good neighbourly relations.

PNG and Indonesia share similar problems of governing a widely scattered and ethnically diversified population. Now they share the problem of division and have both resorted to reluctantly handing out autonomy as a way to resolve the persistent and rebellious push for self-government.

At about the same time, some 10,000 people in the Bougainville town of Arawa celebrated the signing of the autonomy package for the trouble-torn province of Papua New Guinea on August 30, 2001, on the western tip of the island of New Guinea there was a similar gathering to celebrate a similar gesture from the Indonesian government for its province of West Papua.

That these celebrations fell on the same month and that the declarations of autonomous governments were made in the same year in both instances appears for all intent and purpose to be purely coincidental.

Other coincidental similarities make these occasions quite weird. Both governments of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea were granting autonomy to their respective provinces for the first time ever.

Both were doing so most reluctantly, under tremendous international and domestic pressure and following many years of bloody conflict.

The history of insurrection in both Bougainville and West Papua date back to the 1950s and while Bougainville’s was subdued and eventually subsumed under the independent state of Papua New Guinea before re-exerting itself in April 1987, the West Papua movement for self-government and independence has been controversial ever since the Act of Free Choice in 1969.

Papuan autonomy
Papua New Guineans will be more familiar with what their government has offered Bougainville under the terms of autonomy. We are not so versed with the terms of the West Papua autonomy.

Bougainville was to establish its own police force, judiciary, taxation regime, commercial bank and courts.

The PNG government would retain control over Defence and Foreign Affairs, although its military would largely be excluded from the island.

A similar proposal containing identical provisions went to the Indonesian government but by the reckoning of many West Papuans, the version passed by the Indonesian government in November 2001 as Law No. 21 was so watered down it did not resemble the original at all.

While the Bougainville Autonomous Government has taken off reasonably smoothly, albeit with teething problems, West Papua autonomy has already been declared a failure by the Papua Traditional Council and by its powerful youth council.

While Melanesian Indonesians might have a big case for self-determination and while Papua New Guineans might be sympathetic, the PNG government seems hardly to be in a position to preach at big brother.

Editorial published in The National, 23 February 2010