Indonesia announces slight opening up in West Papua as regional diplomatic battle unfurls

Foreign journalists will be allowed free access to territory, five political prisoners will be released, Indonesian President says · Decision announced few days before regional intergovernmental organization discusses membership for West Papuan pro-independence organization

Foreign journalists will enjoy unrestricted access to West Papua while five Papuan political prisoners will be released from prison. This was announced last weekend by President of Indonesia Joko Widodo Jokowi. Both decisions are a slight opening up by Indonesia as regards the conflict in West Papua, where a violent struggle has been pitting Papuan pro-independence armed groups against the Indonesian army since the 1960s.

Maybe even more important than that, Jokowi also asked the Indonesian police and army to stop using a repressive approach in West Papua. According to the president, engaging in dialogue with the Papuan people and building mutual trust should now be priorities for the Indonesian forces there.

Jokowi's announcement comes only one week after dozens of Papuan protesters were arrested during a series of protests against the Indonesian occupation. The suppression of the Papuan pro-independence movement by the Indonesian army and police has been common in West Papua for decades.

West Papua had been a Dutch colony during the 1950s, while Indonesia had already been granted independence by the Netherlands. As such, West Papua should have had its own process of decolonization. But in 1962, the Netherlands and Indonesia reached an agreement whereby West Papua would be annexed by Indonesia. Papuan separatists believe the deal was made in violation of international law, and have since been demanding a referendum on independence and an end to the Indonesian colonization, which is leading Papuans to become a minority in their own country.

Diplomatic battle for recognition

Measures announced by Jokowi arrive shortly before the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), an intergovernmental organization consisting of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji, plus the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia (French overseas collectivity), is scheduled to discuss on May 21st admission of a West Papuan organization as a new member.

In February 2015, the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) applied for MSG membership. The ULMWP is an umbrella organization for West Papuan independence groups. MSG membership would signal an unprecedented diplomatic victory for the Papuan pro-independence movement, as it could then count on the support of several UN members in its struggle for self-determination.

ULMWP Spokesman Benny Wenda believes that changes announced by Jokowi, and an official visit by the Indonesian president to Papua New Guinea, are part of an attempt by Jakarta to exert pressure on the MSG to reject West Papuan membership.

(Image: West Papuan independence flag.)