This item was first published on The Interpreter on 27th June 2014
There is a lot going on in Port Moresby just now. People are protesting on the streets (or trying to), court cases are being adjourned, anti-corruption task forces are being disbanded and formed, final preparations are being made for the fifth Melanesian Festival of Arts & Culture.
And in between, the leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group met yesterday for a special leaders’ summit (final communique here). Vanuatu’s prime minister Joe Natuman attended; his first foreign trip since taking office. He turned down an invitation from New Zealand soon after becoming PM, preferring instead to spend time with his constituents on Tanna, in the south of the country. Furthermore, neither he nor any of his government attended last week’s Pacific Islands Development Forum in Nadi. His participation in this week’s Moresby meeting fits with his ‘back to basics’ approach to government and its focus on the importance of cultural values. Solomon Islands’ prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo is also in attendance, as is Victor Tutugoro of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) in his capacity as chair.
Noticeable by his absence is the interim prime minister of Fiji, although his country has sent a 100+ contingent to the Melanesian Arts festival.
There are two items of particular interest on the leaders’ agenda. One is a paper relating to the appointment of the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. So maybe, contrary to what I said last week, the leaders will indeed come to an agreement on which of the three strong Melanesian candidates they will support for that position. That would appear to be the desire of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill of PNG. He has been meeting with Prime Minister Lilo of Solomon Islands in an attempt to consolidate support behind Dame Meg Taylor, PNG’s preferred candidate.
The second item is more contentious. The MSG leaders gave further consideration to the issue of membership for the West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL), which was first raised in Noumea last year. The statement by Peter O’Neill (see clip above) conveys the consensus position after yesterday’s meeting. It betrays underlying divisions on this issue among the MSG membership.
Vanuatu is recognised as the country that is most vocal and steadfast in support of self-determination for West Papua. Both Solomon Islands and the FLNKS generally align with Vanuatu. But Fiji and PNG are more ambivalent.
The position put forward by Peter O’Neill does little to advance the cause of the WPNCL becoming an MSG member. In fact it may well set it back. O’Neill’s statement called for consultations with Indonesia, but the WPNCL is opposed to dialogue with the Indonesian Government. O’Neill also wants the application to be ‘representative of all Melanesians living in Indonesia’, though practically, the restrictions on access to West Papua will make it difficult for the WPNCL to come to a shared position with other pro-independence groups.
The fact that O’Neill is the one who made the statement (ostensibly in his position as co-chair) is a clear signal as to where the lead in MSG thinking is coming from.
Photo credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller