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The ultimate test for the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG)

Image Credit: AK Rockefeller (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Ever since the United Liberation Movement for West Papua’s (ULMWP) admission in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as an observer in June 2015, progress has been decidedly slow towards assisting the West Papuan cause. Internal disagreements over this matter have raised questions over the MSG’s role as a sub-regional forum and commitment to its core philosophy of decolonisation and greater independence in Melanesia.

The membership of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), a party favouring independence for New Caledonia, does suggest the MSG’s desire to uphold its core value of self-determination. However, the potential inclusion of the ULMWP presents a more difficult matter altogether. Indonesia’s associate membership on the basis of the Melanesian identity of five of its provinces has stirred controversy regarding the country’s role in human rights abuses and subjugation of the peoples of West Papua. On the basis of shared Dutch colonial rule and a questionable referendum in 1969, West Papua became a part of the Indonesian state, which has since marginalised the local Melanesian population often viewing them as an obstacle in Indonesian plans for development.

Currently, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu openly favour the ULMWP’s inclusion whilst Fiji and Papua New Guinea remain more hesitant, presenting cracks in the unity of the MSG. Complicating this further is the fact that the current chair of the MSG is Solomon Islands' Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who has been active in persuading fellow leaders to back the admission of the ULMWP. Similarly, Vanuatu under Charlot Sawai has been uncompromising and evocative on the need for the ULMWP’s inclusion, claiming that “Vanuatu is not free until all of Melanesia is free.” Papua New Guinea and Fiji on the other hand are hesitant in including the ULMWP as Fiji continues to share strong trade links with Indonesia and currently receives aid for the MSG’s regional police academy in Fiji. Papua New Guinea’s situation is more awkward due to common sentiment within the country expressing support for West Papuan liberation. However, Papua New Guinea has extensive links with Indonesia in terms of trade and border relations and would wish to maintain these without any diplomatic disturbances.

Apart from the MSG’s commitment to independence, economic growth remains strongly on the agenda and is an area, which Jonathan Pryke, from the Lowy Institute’s Melanesia program, believes should not be neglected at the expense of West Papua. In particular, Pryke cites a number of areas where the MSG need to award greater efforts for, including greater engagement on customs and immigration, developing coherency as an economic unit and managing a secretariat, which is currently in disarray.

There are positive signs though with the signing of Fiji onto the MSG free trade agreement earlier this year, ensuring this will soon come into effect. Nonetheless, the West Papua matter will be a test of the organisation’s resolve and its own Agreed Principles, where consensus and dialogue feature prominently; begging the question, does consensus mean mutual agreement or majority rule? Ideally, Indonesia’s removal from the MSG will allow for the ULMWP’s integration into the organisation more easily, however Indonesia is firm on the importance of West Papua to Indonesia’s future and has effectively used the MSG as a platform to legitimise their narrative on West Papua.

Antagonising Indonesia serves no one; however, it is undeniable that West Papua’s liberation is an issue which does require foreign intervention and appropriate assistance. More so, critics may ask, what will the ULMWP be able do if they gain membership with the MSG and how exactly will this benefit the people of West Papua? Especially if Indonesia remains an associate member. On the other hand, a sub-regional forum may enable a constructive space for ULMWP to engage in dialogue with Indonesia, in the presence of other actors.

For the MSG, the success of this enterprise could define their future role, reflecting the ability of these seemingly insignificant island states to contribute towards the facilitation of peace, setting a valuable example in the Indo-Pacific region. Ultimately, the question over the ULMWP’s membership will be a significant test of the diplomatic capability of the MSG and its members. The onus is on them to either deliver or disappoint.

Chiraag Roy is a PhD candidate at Deakin University with a special interest in the Asia pacific region

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