After two unsuccessful attempts, the Special Leaders’ Summit of the Melanesian Spearhead Group was convened on July 14th, 2016 in Honiara.
Although there were a number of significant decisions to be made, the most eagerly anticipated was in relation to the application for membership submitted by the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP).
The ULMWP currently holds observer status to the MSG, and this has allowed it an increased level of access to decision-making forums. Recently, ULMWP representatives were invited to participate in the meeting of the MSG foreign ministers, despite the protests of Indonesia (recently granted associate member status).
However, the ULMWP has pressed for further involvement by way of its application for full membership. This application has the support of three of the five full members: Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS). It does not have the support of Fiji or Papua New Guinea at governmental level, despite longstanding and growing support demonstrated by churches, NGOs and other civil society groups in those countries.
As an associate member, Indonesia did not participate in the leaders’ summit. In the period leading up to the Honiara meeting, Indonesia engaged in a widespread and aggressive media campaign, including both traditional and social platforms. Officials argued that allowing the ULMWP (which it describes as a separatist group) to become full members would weaken the group as a whole and was contrary to a founding principle of respect for sovereignty.
Jakarta has also sought to smear Vanuatu and Solomon Islands on their human rights records further to their criticising Indonesian treatment of Melanesians in West Papua at the United Nations. Whilst the MSG leaders were in their summit, reports came in from Fiji that the police had ordered the removal of a West Papua flag from a private building, apparently at the request of the Indonesian embassy in Suva.
On Thursday the MSG leaders decided to defer their decision as to membership for the ULMWP until September. Between now and then, the MSG secretariat has been tasked with drawing up membership criteria This appears to be a holding tactic, to allow for diplomatic efforts to achieve consensus prior to the next meeting. It is hard to see how this can happen, although it is to be expected that the Indonesian government will be doing its best to influence the membership to prevent ULMWP getting any further in its attempts to join the MSG.
This result is best described as a ‘no-score draw’. It is not a victory for Indonesia – they can only claim victory if and when the MSG leaders throw out the ULMWP’s application for membership. It is a narrowly avoided defeat for the ULMWP, and whilst the issue remains on the table they will continue to mobilise support for their cause across the sub-region and beyond.
How does this rate as a result for the MSG? Vanuatu’s Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, Ralph Regenvanu tweeted on Friday: “MSG continues to be a great disappointment to the people of Melanesia....”
Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas echoed this disappointment and frustration in trenchant terms.
The decisions of the MSG are determined and articulated by the political leadership of its member countries. On this issue there appears to be a widening gap between some leaders and the wider population of the Melanesian region.