Report – By Nic Maclellan in Noumea
As a guest of honour at this week’s summit of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare praised the MSG as a “vibrant and successful” organisation.
In a wide-ranging speech at the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, the former Papua New Guinea Prime Minister spoke of the founding of the MSG and future challenges facing the organisation.
Somare called on MSG member states to employ their size and strength to the service of the region: “An MSG without the Pacific is the weaker, just as a Pacific without the MSG is the poorer.”
The five members of the MSG include the largest states of the islands region, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, together with the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), the coalition of parties calling for independence in New Caledonia.
Somare’s speech was part of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Spearhead Group, which was founded in March 1988. Following anniversary ceremonies in each Melanesian capital from the start of the year, the FLNKS is currently hosting the 19th MSG summit in New Caledonia’s capital.
The MSG was conceived by former Melanesian prime ministers Paias Wingti of Papua New Guinea, Ezekial Alebua of Solomon Islands and Walter Lini of Vanuatu. The FLNKS joined in 1991, followed by Fiji in 1996.
As a signatory to the founding MSG Agreement, Somare was invited to this week’s summit as a guest of honour, together with Vanuatu MP Ham Lini, representing the family of the late Vanuatu leader.
Addressing the challenges of globalisation, the importance of MSG’s growing trade links and the importance of culture and identity, Somare’s speech focussed on the MSG’s role in support of self-determination in New Caledonia and West Papua.
As the FLNKS independence movement takes over as MSG chair for the next two years, Somare stated: “Political and security concerns, namely decolonisation of New Caledonia and cessation of nuclear testing on Moruroa, were the main reasons MSG was formed.”
“New Caledonia’s re-inscription as a non-self-governing territory within the purview if the UN Committee of 24 is largely due to the change in approach and the concerted efforts of the MSG,” he added. “It is also arguable that the Noumea Accord would not have come about without the deliberate international campaign mounted by the MSG countries in support of New Caledonia’s right to self-determination.”
Somare paid tribute to past FLNKS leaders who carried the issue of self-determination onto the international stage: the late Yann Celene Uregei, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Yeiwene Yeiwene “and the young Kanaks of Ouvea who paid the ultimate price for championing justice and emancipation of the Kanak people.”
Calling for good governance across Melanesia, Somare stated that the current political situation in Fiji continues to test MSG solidarity, “with a real risk of a chasm developing between MSG members if we are not careful.”
However, he argued that “Melanesian values of dialogue and patience, although protracted in process, has the greatest potential to bring about the changes we want in Fiji.” He criticised “the effects that condescending tactics and heavy handed punitive actions advocated by some have had on Fiji.”
West Papua support
In his address, Somare also addressed the contentious issue of West Papua, which has been a major focus of this week’s summit while Radio New Zealand International reported that the MSG approved a roadmap for closer dialogue with Indonesia on West Papua’s future.
The FLNKS has invited a five-person delegation from the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) to attend the summit. WPNCL Vice President John Otto Ondawame and Secretary-General Rex Rumakiek have been lobbying in support of their bid for MSG membership, after a formal application was lodged with the MSG Secretariat in March.
Other West Papuan activists, led by Jacob Rumbiak, are also in the New Caledonian capital, while the government of Indonesia has sent a large delegation to press its case.
In his speech, Somare acknowledged “there is strong and growing support among the MSG peoples for West Papua’s membership to MSG and West Papua’s aspirations to self-determination.”
“For me personally, I believe that MSG should actively make representations to Indonesia to address human rights abuses in West Papua,” he said. “MSG must also involve West Papua in some of MSG’s cultural events, sporting activities and technical skills exchanges.”
However he re-iterated the sensitivities of the West Papua issue for his nation, which has the only land border in the region.
Somare’s successor as PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, is absent from the summit, leading a large delegation of ministers, officials and business leaders to Indonesia – a potent symbol of the growing importance of PNG’s neighbour.
Fiji’s leader Voreqe Bainimarama has also been building links with Indonesia, as part of expanding links with developing nations after Fiji joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 2011 and was appointed as chair of the G77 plus China in the United Nations this year.
Earlier this week, Fiji foreign mInister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola lobbied MSG foreign ministers to defer action on MSG membership for West Papua until an MSG mission could travel to Jakarta and Jayapura later this year.
Awaiting a decision on Friday from MSG leaders on the WPNCL bid, Somare said: “We have to be inventive” to find a solution.
He stated: “Should the MSG leaders decide on granting West Papua membership, in one form or another, it should only be done on the basis that it is a Melanesian community and not because MSG countries recognise West Papua as a sovereign state.”
During question time, Somare engaged with West Papuan activists in the audience. A Kanak participant stood before him bearing the West Papuan Morning Star flag, challenging MSG leaders on their failure to halt Indonesian human rights abuses in West Papua.
In response to questions, Somare said: “The only way to solve the problem of self-determination is to sit down and talk with the Indonesians … the Papuans must be prepared to sit down and talk.”
From the audience, WPNCL delegation leader Dr Ondawame questioned whether the roadblock to dialogue lay with the West Papuan nationalist movement. Dr Ondawame argued that the Indonesian military were blocking the road to dialogue, and that ongoing human rights abuses by the Indonesian armed forces were the source of the current impasse.
Speaking after the event, the summit’s other guest of honour, Ham Lini, echoed Sir Michael’s call for dialogue with Jakarta. The former Vanuatu Prime Minister stated: “Maybe both Indonesia can be an observer state in the MSG and maybe the West Papuans can be a member of the MSG, it will help so we can raise the issues together and talk about it.”
Lini noted: “One of the purposes that the MSG was established was to help the brothers be independent. What’s happening in New Caledonia this week I believe is something to bring forward Kanaky to independence and also the West Papuans.”
Radio NZ International’s Johnny Blades reported that at the conclusion of the 19th MSG summit, the leaders resolved to pursue increased dialogue with Jakarta over the West Papua issue.
“MSG leaders officially addressed the sensitive issue of human rights violations in West Papua for the first time at this summit. While they have deferred a decision on the West Papuan membership bid, they have approved a roadmap on which the application can be considered at a later point.
“The key to this roadmap is raising the MSG’s concerns with Jakarta over violations and atrocities in West Papua. The MSG has agreed to send a Fiji-led Foreign Ministers delegation to Indonesia this year to discuss West Papua, and then after a subsequent report is presented to Leaders, the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation will be officially informed of the MSG decision regarding the application.”
Nic Maclellan is in Noumea reporting for Islands Business. This article is republished with Maclellan and IB’s permission.