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Peace Hopes Rise For West Papua

Peace Hopes Rise For West Papua

PAPUA New Guinea has now launched an initiative aimed at defusing the standoff over West Papua, raising hopes of a breakthrough in one of the most intractable rows in the Asia-Pacific region.

The progress emerged after PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill led a large delegation to Jakarta a month ago for talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono about building the economy of the New Guinea island and associated diplomatic initiatives.

The western half of New Guinea island comprises two Indonesian provinces, Papua and West Papua. It has a 750km - mostly mountainous, often fraught and dangerous - border with PNG.

"West Papua has been a sticky issue for PNG and the western Pacific for quite some time. Our role is to open up discussion," Mr O'Neill told The Australian.

"We feel the government of Indonesia has a genuine desire to ensure that the issues relating to West Papua are managed in a mutually beneficial manner, and for the first time in our bilateral discussions we were able to discuss this openly with the Indonesian government."

He said he was convinced Dr Yudhoyono now wished "to withdraw the military presence from West Papua, and to allow for more autonomy through economic empowerment of the people".

"We feel this is a good opening for us to engage with the Indonesian government so we can participate in the improvement of the lives of Melanesian people there, and of our own people along the border," he said.

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"Our officials are now engaged meaningfully in establishing the co-operation we agreed."

Relations between Indonesia and the Melanesian nations, led by Papua New Guinea, have been difficult since the Dutch withdrew from "Netherlands New Guinea," and the Pacific islands became independent states.

The plight of West Papua has soured relations between Indonesia - even since it became a liberal democracy 15 years ago - and Australian non-government organisations and universities.

In 2001, the area now covered by the two provinces was declared autonomous, with 80 per cent of its tax receipts to be retained for local use. This process has remained only partially complete, compared with the more successful governance situation in Aceh at the other end of the Indonesian archipelago.

PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato elaborated on the deal that was informally struck: "The Indonesian President will adopt a softer approach to West Papuan issues, allowing them greater autonomy." As an indicator of this, official representatives will participate in the Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture hosted by PNG next year.

He said Indonesia would allow Papua New Guinea communities near the border to draw on its excess hydro power capacity, with state-owned enterprise PNG Power buying electricity for its grid from Indonesia, and the two countries would jointly explore for oil and gas in highly prospective targets that straddle the border.

Indonesia, he said, would fund an ambitious paved highway from Merauke on its side of the border, in the south, to PNG's Wewak on the northern coast.

The countries' leaders signed a total of 11 memoranda of understanding during Mr O'Neill's visit, after which Mr Pato and his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa began to chart an implementation course.

They agreed a mutual extradition treaty, which may ensure that Indonesian businessman fugitive Joko Chandra, wanted for corruption, who obtained PNG citizenship under a process that is being challenged legally, returns to face charges. Another agreement is to permit planes to fly from Nadi in Fiji through Honiara in Solomon Islands, then Port Moresby, on to Bali.

One goal of the warming of relations, Mr Pato said, was to prevent any resurgence of asylum-seekers from the Indonesian side of the border. About 8000 refugees remain in PNG, living in camps in Western province run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees following earlier conflicts, many of them seeking refuge more than 25 years ago.

The discussions between PNG and Indonesia have led to the latter inviting the foreign ministers of the four Melanesian states - Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji, as well as PNG, who form the "Melanesian Spearhead Group" - to visit its Papua and West Papua provinces.

Mr O'Neill flew for talks with Dr Yudhoyono instead of attending an MSG leaders' meeting held at the same time in New Caledonia, an observer to the MSG. Discussion of West Papuan independence activists' bid to join the MSG was postponed. While PNG is helping to usher its fellow Melanesians towards better relations with Indonesia, Jakarta is in return backing Port Moresby's membership of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, which has 10 members - and which PNG feels entitled to join because it has such a long land border with the group's largest state.

Indonesia is also backing PNG's bid to host the 2018 summit of the APEC forum - which would bring the US and Russian presidents, among other leaders, to Port Moresby - which will be decided at the next summit, in Bali in October. "It's important for us to have such a relationship with Indonesia," said Mr Pato, who points out in previous years, tensions prevented the development of mutually beneficial arrangements between the countries.

Now a joint committee of ministers from the countries has been formed to tackle the details and ensure the memoranda are implemented, he said - starting with the joint economic projects.


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