5 Jul 2013

New debate in Papua on who represents the indigenous people

5:56 pm on 5 July 2013

The bid by the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, or WPNCL, to join the Melanesian Spearhead Group has reignited debate about who represents the indigenous people of Indonesia's Papua region.

The cultural and ethnic diversity of the region, coupled with ongoing difficulties around freedom of expression in Indonesia's eastern provinces, mean that West Papuan leadership remains fragmented.

Johnny Blades has more:

A decision on whether to accept WPNCL as a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group has been deferred by MSG's leaders while they look to engage more closely with Indonesia on West Papua. However a member of the organisation known as the government of the Federal Republic of West Papua has questioned the coalition's legitimacy. The president and prime minister of this organisation are in jail, having been being arrested after 2011's Third Papuan People's Congress in Jayapura where tribes and representative groups from around Papua elected them. The organisation's Foreign Affairs spokesman, the Melbourne-based Jacob Rumbiak, says their group rather than the WPNCL represents the majority in West Papua. He says having confusion over which group represents West Papuans is unhelpful to efforts to promote dialogue with Jakarta.

JACOB RUMBIAK: I'm very proud that they also bring the voice of West Papua into the Melanesian Spearhead Group or the international arena, but to follow the procedure, we should stand on one head, one voice, one agenda. But also we must have one political body. That's only. When (there are) lots, people get confused. Jakarta also says, we want to meet with whose? You have lots of leaders, you have lots of organisations.

At the recent MSG summit in Noumea, Indonesia, which itself has MSG observer status, brought several Papuans in its delegation including the country's ambassador to Colombia Michael Menufandu. He says the fact that its leaders are almost all in exile undermines the WPNCL's legitimacy.

MICHAEL MENUFANDU: I don't know about them because they're not from Papua. They have been living outside Papua for up to 50 years. They don't know about what's really in Papua. That is the difference. They don't know what's going on in Papua.

But the coalition has worked hard in the past two years to get support for its MSG bid from among the hundreds of West Papuan tribes, many of them based in some of the most remote parts of the world. The WPNCL's vice-chairman John Ondawame says theirs is a legitimate representative organisation.

JOHN ONDAWAME: The West Papua National Coalition for Liberation is representing 29 organisations: resistance movement, social movement and traditional organisations. So we fully get support from the wider community inside West Papua, inside the jungle and abroad, from all layers of society in West Papua. However certain elements within groups in West Papua and some other countries, they don't have any clues about how much support we have in the West Papuan community.

Despite its critics, the bid by the coalition has succeeded in elevating the West Papuan self-determination campaign to a new level where it is no longer just an Indonesian domestic matter, but an international issue. Self-determination appears a common goal among West Papuans - however the challenge they still face is to rise above their fragmentation to work together and achieve that goal.