In a speech on February 5th, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Peter O’Neill, said that he wants to speak out about human rights in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.
Mr O’Neill broke with his government’s usual policy of recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over the provinces of Papua and West Papua and silence over the alleged human rights abuses committed there. In comments during a speech outlining his government’s core policies at the PNG Leaders’ Summit, Mr O’Neill said “Sometimes we forget our own families, our own brothers, especially those in West Papua. I think, as a country, the time has come for us to speak about the oppression of our people there.” He vowed to open and lead mature discussions with Indonesia over the issue.
His statement coincided with the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULWP) announcing that it was submitting an application for full membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG, an umbrella group of countries with Melanesian populations, as well as representatives of New Caledonia’s Melanesian population). With the exception of Vanuatu, Pacific governments have been slow to speak out about human rights abuses in Papua and West Papua.
Beyond a handful of legislators, PNG has been reluctant to talk about human rights abuses in West Papua, or to speak out on behalf of West Papuan separatists. However, the issue has become more prominent in recent years, due in part to the rise of social media highlighting alleged Indonesian abuses. There have also been a number of incidents along the 760‑km border between PNG and the province of Papua. In April and May last year the Indonesian military reportedly fired on PNG border patrols, prompting the foreign minister, Rimbink Pato, to summon the Indonesian ambassador for an explanation.
In a softening of PNG’s stance, Mr Pato stated on February 9th that he had contacted the Indonesian foreign minister and had reassured him that there had been no change in PNG’s recognition of Indonesian sovereignty and that ULWP’s application to the MSG would be carried out in consultation with Indonesia.
Impact on the forecast
Mr O’Neill’s vow to speak out on West Papua will win him support domestically and is likely to raise the profile of the West Papua issue. However, it may threaten relations with his country’s nearest neighbour.