Widodo talks trade and security in Port Moresby, silence on the Papua conflict
The Indonesian president arrived today for a short visit after three days in Australia. In May top PNG and US officials met. Containing China and boosting trade are top goals, with the conflict in West Papua in the background.
Port Moresby (AsiaNews) – Indonesian President Joko Widodo landed in Papua New Guinea (NPG) this morning where he will meet his NPG counterpart James Marape. The two leaders are expected to discuss bilateral and regional issues during their meeting, including a border agreement and trade.
President Widodo’s visit comes three days after his meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Back in May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also met in the PNG capital of Port Moresby with Pacific islands leaders to counter Chinese influence.
Indonesia shares a 760-kilometre straight-line border with Papua New Guinea, and only in March of this year, after reviews and updates, did the PNG parliament ratify a border agreement signed 10 years ago.
The island of New Guinea is divided between Papua New Guinea (in the east) and the two Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (in the west)
Indonesia annexed the western part of the island in 1969 in an “Act of Free Choice” in which only 1,035 village chiefs participated, voting unanimously in favour of joining Indonesia but under the long shadow cast by the Indonesian army.
For Papuan activists, the “referendum” was an “Act of non-choice”; instead, they want the indigenous people to govern their own country, West Papua. However, since the territory came under Indonesian rule, it has undergone a process of “Indonesianisation” so that non-Papuans now constitute 40 per cent of the resident population.
Pro-independence groups, such as the West Papua National Liberation Army (Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat, TPNPB, in Indonesian), have emerged, opposed to Indonesian forces. The TPNPB is the armed wing of the Free Papua Organisation (FPO).
The conflict has last for about a century. The latest incident dates back to 7 February of this year when Papuan guerrillas seized New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens in the Nduga highlands, hoping to gain greater exposure for their cause.
By contrast, Indonesia and the PNG have recently established, for the first time, a direct air link between the two countries.
In the PNG, in a camp near the capital Port Moresby for West Papuan refugees who fled violence at home, police recently prevented residents from raising the “Morning Star”, the West Papuan independence flag.
“Even if they remove our flag, they cannot remove us. We are the flag,” said Samuel Inggamer, a community leader. “I urge President Widodo to give us independence. He would make history if he did that.”
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED, armed clashes between the TPNPB and Indonesian security forces (including attacks against civilians) increased by 80 per cent in 2021 compared to the previous year, an upward trend that began in 2018.
In order to counter criticism over the lack of development, human rights violations and militarisation of its Papuan provinces, Indonesia has provided aid and technical assistance to Pacific island countries, including PNG.
For Papuans, the reality remains one of discrimination, treatment as second-class citizens, this despite living in Indonesia's most resource-rich territory.
Militarily and economically, Papua New Guinea is no match for Indonesia. In recent years, it has become an important trading partner with China, but signed a defence cooperation agreement with the United States that gives the US military access to PNG ports and airports.
During his visit to Australia, President Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Albanese discussed regional security, as well as economic cooperation with electric vehicle batteries as a priority. In fact, Indonesia is home to some of the world's largest nickel reserves, while Australia is a major supplier of lithium.