Indonesia and the Melanesian Spearhead Group need the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. 

In recent times the Melanesian Spearhead Group has been considering whether or not it should grant full member status to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), with a decision on the controversial issue deferred at the Group’s most recent meeting.

When a decision is made however, the outcome will come down to  dialogue and discussion versus repression.

West Papuans have been voicing their grievances against Jakarta unabated for six decades now in spite of silencing tactics from the Indonesian state. Repression is clearly not only futile, it results in more violence.

In the face of ongoing state violence to achieve political ends, Indonesia’s leaders need continued pressure to fulfil the principles of reform and democratisation. It is not only West Papuans who are drawing attention to unmet human rights promises. The ULMWP, as a voice for human rights in West Papua, represents another voice in support of rights and freedoms in Indonesia.

The ULMWP ‘threatens’ to promote political dialogue and resolution to West Papuan grievances. The Indonesian government would do well to resist the urge to crush and isolate the movement. The ULMWP also builds on a history of West Papuan advocacy for non-violent, political solutions to questions of security, rights, and development.

The Indonesian government agreed to political dialogue, including open and official discussion of past and present abuses, in the Special Autonomy law of 2001, but has avoided fulfilling this promise.

Instead of going away, West Papuan activism has snowballed, outreach efforts redoubled, and allies have been gained. If not ULMWP, there will be another organisation that threatens to complicate Indonesia’s sway over a large part of the international community.

The Indonesian government has reacted with gusto to the threat of internationalisation represented by the ULMWP, dangling talk of new jobs, trade, transport routes, and diplomatic engagement with Asia for MSG countries.

The accusation that the ULMWP only represents overseas West Papuans is another sort of reaction, an attempt to discredit the organisation and prevent it from participating in the MSG and other international groups. If the ULMWP has no support among Papuans inside Indonesia, then why has the government been trying to repress support for it in cities around Indonesia?

The MSG needs to embrace the ULMWP to further its goals of stability, peace, safety and livelihoods for Melanesians. As MSG leaders like Vanuatu Deputy Prime Minister Joe Natuman has said, the MSG was established for the protection of the identity of the Melanesian people, the promotion of their culture and to defend their rights to self-determination, land and resources.

Moreover, what Indonesian leaders are saying to the MSG forum may be quite different to what they are claiming at home. The MSG should be wary of being represented, or used, as Indonesia’s political pawn in a longstanding battle against West Papuans.

When the MSG recently deferred its decision on full membership for the ULMWP, Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s then Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, appeared to claim victory, viewing it as proof of Indonesia’s power and a vindication of its repressive, dogmatic approach to West Papua. A headline in Jakarta proclaimed, “MSG rejects separatist bid.” Full membership in the MSG, which Indonesia is angling for, would help it to block dialogue and action on West Papua.

On the issue of whether or not West Papuans need or want the ULMWP in the MSG, I think they will continue to speak for themselves. The question is whether or not these voices should be heard and included in a diplomatic forum. The MSG is an ideal context for West Papuans to raise issues regarding their security, rights, culture and livelihoods precisely because dialogue, mediation, and negotiation are possible.

This is something that the Indonesian government has not yet been willing to offer West Papuans, and the growth of street-level and everyday forms of political violence, whether in Yogya, Jayapura or Enarotali, shows that this position is increasingly untenable and detrimental.

Jenny Munro is a research fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.