A Very Melanesian Solution

Manasseh Sogavare explains how he helped bring West Papua into the MSG

“It’s all under the water now, so we can actually say it: It came down to 3-2.”

This is how Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare described the situation in Honiara in June of this year, when he played a central role in brokering an historic agreement finally to bring West Papua into the MSG fold.

This week marks Mr Sogavare’s first visit to Port Vila since Solomon Islands took over the chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group at that fateful meeting in June. He took some time to give an exclusive interview to the Daily Post.

In it, he looked back at the events leading up to the decision to include the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. He also offered some frank observations about the road ahead for the MSG under his chairmanship.

Asked how he could square the circle of embracing both Indonesia and the West Papuan independence movement, he said, “I guess that’s where the true Melanesian spirit of arriving at decisions comes into play.”

“It came down to 3-2,” he continued. “If we’d gone down the path of democratic voting, it would have gone through. But if we did, it would have caused serious division amongst the group, and we don’t want to go down that path.”

Seeing that an all-out push for full membership for the ULMWP wasn’t achievable, Mr Sogavare decided to apply a more Melanesian approach, and to broker a compromise.

He described how he presented his solution: “We have a history of making consensus decisions, and we would like to maintain that…. The bottom line is that we would like to bring West Papua into the fold of the MSG. How can we achieve that?”

About the result: “That’s what it came down to. Observer status as a first step toward associate and then full membership. At the same time we compromised to… you know… to elevate Indonesia.”

The issue of West Papuan independence has been around for decades, he explained. In fact, he said, it was one of the issues that drove the decision to create the Melanesian Spearhead Group. “That’s how it got its name,” he said with a knowing smile.

According to Mr Sogavare, the MSG was envisioned by its founders as a political grouping designed to drive the agenda of decolonisation for Kanaky, specifically via the FLNKS, and freedom for the people of West Papua.

He noted that the MSG has progressed of course, and has taken on other priorities, including economic issues and trade issues. “Those are relevant and good,” he said.

But the bottom line was that the politics of freedom and self-determination for all Melanesian peoples remains paramount. “That was the reason we established ourselves in the beginning.”

But decolonialisation and self-rule are not simply neighbourhood matters, he insisted. “We would like to make a statement to the world as well.” West Papuan independence, and the vestiges of colonialism generally, “will remain a thorn in the side of everyone. Of leaders of developed countries and of the United Nations. They’ve made very powerful statements and [taken] very powerful stands on human rights. And not only that, they’re willing to spend billions and trillions of US dollars to fight wars.”

He paused for a moment.

“In the name of democracy,” he continued, emphasising the last word. “In the name of human rights.”

Asked if he saw a useful role for the United Nations in all this, he agreed. “Eventually, the issue of West Papua has to come to the United Nations. They neglected them back at the very, very beginning. It’s a sad story.”

He harked back to the words of Father Lini: “It was with the permission and full knowledge of the United Nations that we gone down that path…. And eventually we’ve got to remind them of our slogan, Melanesia will not be free….” He trailed off, treating it as a slogan we all know by heart.

The slogan, he said, lives in the heart of every Melanesian. “And this is the mandate of every leader in Melanesia.”

So what is the way forward for the MSG under Solomon Islands leadership? “We’ve made it very clear,” he said. “Although the idea of sovereignty is debatable from the very beginning. Because [the Indonesians] invaded. They invaded West Papua when they were about to celebrate independence.

“So the argument of sovereignty is a very weak argument. But nonetheless the United Nations has recognised West Papua as part of Indonesia. And the independent states in Melanesia are members of the United Nations. So it would be silly to contradict them.

“But nonetheless, the United Nations has recognised the right of people to self-determination. That’s very clear in the United Nations charter as well. We will simply remind them, as members of the United Nations, that we need to address this.”

It doesn’t promise to be a simple or easy process, he admitted. “The road forward is to do this in very very close consultation with Indonesia. That’s been made very clear.”

“They will obviously put walls and barriers all over the place,” he said with a smile, “to stop us from getting to where we would like to go.”