Asia-Pacific

A fight over independence could cause uproar in the Pacific this week

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One country has been accused of "trolling" a Pacific Island on social media before a high-stakes meeting.

As Pacific Island leaders gather this week for their annual meeting, one far-flung region could be a major cause of controversy.

Vanuatu plans to use the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Tuvalu to call for West Papuan independence and put the spotlight on alleged military abuses in the Indonesian-ruled area.

Leading the charge is exiled West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda, who is now based in Vanuatu. It's believed to be the first time someone from Indonesia's Papuan provinces will form part of an official delegation at PIF.

A file photo of Benny Wenda.
A file photo of Benny Wenda.
Getty

Indonesia has controlled the western half of the island of New Guinea since the 1960s. Activists have long been fighting for an independent West Papua there and some Pacific countries, especially Vanuatu, support the cause.

Pacific policy expert Tess Newton Cain said the latest play by Vanuatu at PIF is part of a more concerted effort by the country to rally the regional and international community.

"There are certainly indications that there has been an uptick in engagement and violence [in the Papuan provinces] leading to displacement, injuries and death," Ms Newton Cain said.

She said, as a result, there has been a "very significant push by Vanuatu" for strong wording on Indonesian human rights abuses in the PIF's final communique.

Additionally, Vanuatu wants member states to call for a "definite timetable for a visit to the area by the UN Human Rights Commissioner".

Ms Newton Cain said it was unclear who Vanuatu could get on side, but the country will "make it very clear to all members that they see this as an important issue and I can't see them backing down".

Indonesia 'trolling' Vanuatu

Indonesia, who is not part of the Pacific Islands Forum but attends the meeting as a "dialogue partner", is unimpressed.

"We've seen significant efforts by Indonesia to derail Vanuatu's efforts ... by exercising influence in countries where they have more influence such as Australia, Papua New Guinea and to a certain extent the Solomon Islands and Fiji," Ms Newton Cain said.

And Ms Newton Cain said Indonesia has taken their campaign online.

"We've also seen an uptick in trolling on Twitter, basically [Indonesia] making very derogatory statements about Vanuatu and its leaders," she said.

"[There's] Facebook pages that have been set up which are ripping off material and presenting it in a way that paints Vanuatu in a very poor light."

Indonesian troops prepare to be deployed to Nduga district where suspected separatists shot dead dozens of workers at a field in Wamena, Papua.
Indonesian troops prepare to be deployed to Nduga district where suspected separatists shot dead dozens of workers at a field in Wamena, Papua.
AAP

Ms Newton Cain said some content "portrays Vanuatu as a vassal state of China".

"Indonesia is certainly making their presence felt in the background," she said.

Australia standing by Indonesia

Australia firmly sides with Indonesia on the West Papua issue and recognises Indonesia's sovereignty over its Papuan provinces.

"Australia's position is to try and tamp this down and not let this become a major focus of the forum," Ms Newton Cain said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told SBS News, "Australia will not support efforts that undermine Indonesian sovereignty over Papua in any forum and will not associate itself with any PIF communique to that effect".

A Papuan student holds a banner which reads, 'Free Papuan People', during a rally in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia.
A Papuan student holds a banner which reads, 'Free Papuan People', during a rally in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia.
AAP

"Australia raises with Indonesian authorities human rights concerns wherever they might occur, including in the Papua provinces," the spokesperson said.

"Australia continues to encourage Indonesia to implement the UN Universal Periodic Review recommendations it accepted in 2017, including the resolution of outstanding human rights cases."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will attend PIF on Wednesday.

A contested region

The former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a UN-sponsored ballot that was seen as a sham by many.

A small, poorly armed separatist group has been battling the Indonesians for independence since then.

For years, a low-level insurgency has plagued the mineral-rich region, which is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia.

The area was known as Irian Jaya until 2000, but was divided into the two provinces of Papua and West Papua in 2003.

Indonesia's government, which for decades had a policy of sending Javanese and other Indonesians to settle in Papua, is now also trying to spur economic development to dampen the separatist movement.

Both the Indonesian authorities and separatist forces have been accused of human rights abuses. 

With additional reporting from AAP.

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