Can the next #PNG Government do better on West Papua?


Port Moresby residents join West Papuans in calling for Papuan self determination. photo credit: Martyn Namorong

Recently I had tea with terrorists.

At least that is what the Thai State calls them.

Mohammed, Abdul and Halim[1] are all Muslim militants. The men are part of Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the Patani National Revolutionary Front, one of a number of liberation groups in the Muslim south of Thailand.

It’s a 200 year old struggle that dramatically escalated thirteen years ago after two violent incidents. First, the Thai army opened fire on alleged militants at the historically important Kru Se Mosque. Then, a few months later in Tak Bai, Thai police shot dead seven protesters and rounded up survivors, throwing them in the back of army trucks. Seventy eight unarmed protesters suffocated to death that day on a five hour drive to a Thai military camp.

Malay Muslim militants in Pat(t)ani[2] have carried out a campaign of bombings and armed attacks in pursuit of their goal of self-determination. Unsurprisingly, the Thai state also escalated. Since 2004 over 6,600 people have been killed. And although peace talks between militants and the state have begun, Pat(t)ani and the wider Thai state continues to be rocked by improvised explosive devices and retribution by the Thai army.

I was talking with members of BRN and fellow militants from Mara Patani because they were interested in exploring how to advance their struggle through civil resistance and diplomacy. But that is another story. What I am more interested in exploring here, is the response of regional neighbours to local self-determination struggles.

Are there are lessons the Papua New Guinea government could take from how the Malaysian government has responded to Mara Patani and how the Philippines government has responded to another longstanding separatist struggle in Mindanao?

Could these examples open up creative foreign policy options for the Papua New Guinea government on West Papua?

To date, successive Papua New Guinean governments have been staunch supporters of the Indonesian government’s occupation of West Papua. PNG governments have destroyed rebel bases on the PNG side of the border, denied entry to United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) Spokesperson Benny Wenda, and General Secretary, Octo Mote, and followed the Fijian government’s lead in blocking the ULMWP’s push for full membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

ULMWP Spokesperson, Benny Wenda. Photo credit: Martyn Namorong

But uncritical support for the Indonesian government’s continued occupation of West is not the only option.

The Malaysian government, for instance, is currently facilitating dialogue between Mara Patani and Thailand’s military junta.

There are plenty of reasons not to talk. The Thai state regularly deals with a campaign of bombing and some of these have gone off in popular tourist areas far from Pat(t)ani. And of course the Malaysians don’t want to see the violence spread into their side of the territory either. Or want to start a war with Thailand.

Of course, Thailand’s military junta is not necessarily happy about Malaysia facilitating political negotiation. But the sky has not fallen on the Malaysian government’s head.

But Malaysia has gone beyond the role of facilitator. They have provided a degree of sanctuary to Patani self-determination activists. Certainly the spokesperson of Mara Patani, Dr Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, is able to freely reside in Malaysia and travel abroad. The Malaysian government has also issued Malaysian passports to Patani leaders on the Thai side of the border.

The Philippines government has been even more radical.

While they do not want to see Mindanao secede the Government of the Philippines has enabled the Moro, the indigenous people of Mindanao, to establish the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute. The institute, which emerged out of peace negotiations between the MILF, the MLNF (Moro National Liberation Front) and the Philippine government, is preparing the Moro to not only transition from armed struggle but also to run their own affairs, with a multilateral coalition of donors footing the bill.

Of course, none of these initiatives are perfect. The Moro and Mara Patani would both like to see the Philippine and Malaysian government’s do more to resolve the conflict in favour of greater justice in Mindanao and Thailand respectively.

But the Malaysian and Philippine governments are playing a proactive and creative role, assisting, not hindering, the cause of peace with justice.

The same cannot be said for Papua New Guinea.

Historically, successive governments have played a partisan role, siding with their more powerful Asian neighbour in disputes over sovereignty.

But the experience of Malaysia and the Philippines show there are other options. And of course the next government in Waigani will also have to come to terms with conflict in Bougainville.

As government and opposition parties in Papua New Guinea approach the general election, party chiefs are reviewing policy positions. Perhaps it also time to develop a progressive foreign policy on West Papua, one with specific detail that stands out from the crowd?

In reality, the border region is a potential prosperous economic development zone, able to stimulate trade and tourism. Some of this is already happening but it needs to be supported by change in the political dynamics between Indonesia and West Papua. Unless political interventions follow economic ones, Papua New Guinea will find itself being viewed as not only supporting the occupation but also trying to benefit economically from it as well. And that will not go down well.

But Papua New Guinea is fortunate. Unlike the BRN, West Papuans are not using terrorism. Papua New Guinea does not have to deal with bombs going off in hotels in Port Moresby. The West Papuans have publicly committed to waging the struggle by diplomacy and civil resistance. They show a level of discipline exhibited by few other liberation struggles. That does not mean they can be ignored. Boycotts, strikes and other forms of nonviolent action can be equally, if not more, politically and economically costly to deal with.

By extending hospitality to the ULMWP leadership and taking a longer, more objective view on political developments in West Papua and Indonesia, Papua New Guinea will be positioning itself for a more assertive regional and international leadership role in not only resolving conflict but also stimulating economic development.

Whatever the next PNG government decides to do the conflict is not going away.

A geo-political super storm cell is brewing in the West. To the east a wave of island solidarity is picking up speed and force. As ordinary Papua New Guineans learn more about the plight of their kin in West Papua, moral outrage grows.

Sooner or later, the situation on the border and domestically, inside Papua New Guinea, will reach breaking point.

The next government might want to re-think building a new domestic and foreign policy shelter, dedicated to support for West Papua, before the storm hits.

[1] Not their real names.

[2] Malay Muslims in Thailand spell Patani with one ‘t’. The Kingdom of Thailand’s official English spelling is with two ‘t’s’. To acknowledge both perspectives I follow a convention established by Thai peace activists and spell the territory as Pat(t)ani, unless referring specifically to one side or the other.