SPECIAL REPORT: By Yamin Kogoya
The name Vanuatu has taken on a sacred significance in Papuan liberation consciousness.
The Free Papua Movement (OPM) elders ignited this consciousness after the declaration of West Papua’s independence on 1 July 1971.
The declaration was an act of revolution to reclaim Papuan sovereignty, stolen by Indonesia.
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General Seth Rumkorem and Jacob Prai declared it, defended it, and received official recognition. Dakar, Senegal, was among them, the first international diplomatic office opened by OPM shortly after the declaration.
As Papuans resisted the invasion, they sought refuge in the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Sweden, Australia, and Greece. All joined, at least in spirit, under the name OPM.
Its spirit of revolution that bonded West Papua and Vanuatu with those across Europe, Oceania, and Africa. This was a time of decolonisation, revolution, and a Cold War.
The decolonisation movement back then was more conscious in heart and mind of humanity than now.
Rex Rumakiek’s ‘sacred connection’
Rex Rumakiek (now aged 78), a long time OPM fighter alongside others, established this sacred connection in 1978.
In Papua New Guinea, Rumakiek met with students from Vanuatu studying at the University of Papua New Guinea and shared the OPM’s revolutionary victory, tragedy, and solution.
These students later took prominent roles in the formation of the independent state of Vanuatu — became part of the solution — laid a foundation of hope.
A common spirit emerged between the OPM’s resistance to Indonesian colonisation and Vanuatu’s struggle for freedom from long-term European (French and English) confederation rule.
A brutal system of dual rule known as Condominium — critics called it “Pandemonium” (chaos and disorder).
West Papua, a land known as “little heaven” is indeed like a Garden of Eden in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost poem.
To restore freedom and justice to that betrayed, lost paradise was the foundation of Vanuatu and West Papua’s relationship. For more than 40 years Vanuatu has been a beacon of hope.
Both shared deep religious metaphysical, cultural, and political connections.
On a metaphysical level, Vanuatu became a place of hope and redemption. Apart from supporting the West Papua freedom fighters, Vanuatu played a critical role in the reconciliation of Papuans who split off in various directions due to internal conflicts over numerous issues, including ideologies and strategies.
A tragedy of internal disputes and conflicts that placed a long-lasting strain on their collective war against Indonesian occupation.
This can be seen from Vanuatu’s decades-long effort to invite two key leaders of the West Papuan Provisional Parliament — General Seth Rumkorem and Jacob Prai.
In 2011, Peter King, Jim Elmslie and Camellia Webb-Gannon’s paper “Comprehending West Papua” wrote:
In 1985, Vanuatu brought the two conflicting leaders of OPM, Mr. Jacob Prai and Gen. Seth Rumkorem, to Vanuatu and ended their differences so that they could work together (p. 217).
In 2000, Vanuatu invited the OPM leaders and Papua’s Presidium Council (PDP) to sign a memorandum of understanding. The year 2008 was also a year of reconciliation, which led to the formation of the West Papua Nation Coalition of Liberation (WPNCL).
In 2014, there was another big reconciliation summit in Port Vila, which led to the formation of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).
Culturally, Vanuatu and West Papua share a deep sense of Melanesian identity — a common bond from shared experiences of colonisation, racism, mistreatment, dehumanisation, and slavery.
This bond, however, is strengthened far beyond these European and Indonesian atrocities as Barak Sope, one of Melanesia’s key thinkers and prominent supporters of West Papua put it in 2017, Papuans and Vanuatu and all Melanesians in Oceania have deep ancient roots. There are deep Melanesian links that connect our ancestors. Europeans came and destroyed that connection by rewriting our history because they had the power of written language, and we did not.
Our connections were recorded in myths, legends, songs, dances, and culture. It is our duty now to revive that ancient link (Conversation with Yamin Kogoya in Port Vila, December 2017).
Politically, Vanuatu and West Papua also share a common sense of resistance to both European and Indonesian colonisations.
Father Walter Lini, founder of Vanuatu and MSG, later became Prime Minister. Following its renaming as the Vanua’aku Pati in 1974, Lini’s party pushed hard for independence — the Republic of Vanuatu was formally established in 1980.
The OPM and Black Brothers helped shape this new nation and were part of a force that created a pan-Melanesian identity through music.
“Vanuatu will not be completely free until all Melanesia is free from colonialism” is Walter Lini’s famous saying, which has been used by West Papua and New Caledonian Kanaks in their struggle for liberation against Indonesian and French colonisation.
A just world
During this long journey, a profound bond and sense of connection and a shared cause, and destiny for a just world was born between Vanuatu and West Papua and the greater Oceania. A kind of Messianic hope developed with name Vanuatu that Papuans a hope that deliverance would come from Vanuatu.
Papuans can only express their gratitude in social media through their artistic works and heartfelt thanksgiving messages.
Ahead of the upcoming MSG summit, the Free West Papua Campaign Facebook page has posted the following image showing a Papuan with Morning Star clothing crossing a cliff on the back of a larger and taller figure representing Vanuatu.
In politics, it is all about diplomacy, networks, and cooperation, as the famous PNG politicians’ mantra in their foreign policy, “Friend to all and enemy to none.” This is such an ironic and tragic position to be in when half of PNG’s country men are “going extinct”, and they know how and why?
Sometimes it is necessary to confront such an evil head on when/if innocent lives are at risk. The notion of being friends with everyone and enemies with nobody has no virtue, value, substance, or essence.
In the real-world, humans have friends and enemies. The only question is, we must not only choose between friends and foes but also understand the difference between them.
No human, whether realist, idealist, traditionalist, or transcendentalist, who sincerely believes, can make a neutral virtue less stand — where right and wrong are neither right nor wrong at the same time. Human agents must make choices. Being able to choose and know the difference and reasons why, is what makes us human — this is where value is contested, for and against.
Stand up for something
In the current world climate, someone must stand up for something — for the oppressed, for the marginalised, the abused, the persecuted, the land, for the planet and for humanity.
This tiny island country, Vanuatu has exhibited that warrior spirit for many years. In March, Vanuatu spearheaded a UN resolution on climate change. Nina Lakhani in The Guardian wrote:
“The UN general assembly adopted by consensus the resolution spearheaded by Vanuatu, a tiny Pacific island nation vulnerable to extreme climate effects, and youth activists to secure a legal opinion from the international court of justice (ICJ) to clarify states’ obligations to tackle the climate crisis — and specify any consequences countries should face for inaction.”
More than 60 years ago, when West Papua was kicked around like a football by the imperial West and East, Indonesia, the Netherlands, the United Nations and the illegal UN-sponsored sham referendum of 1969, no one on this planet dared to stand up for West Papua.
West Papua was abandoned by the world.
The Dutch attempted to safeguard that “sacred trust” by enlisting West Papua into the UN Decolonisation list under article 73 of the UN charter. The Dutch did the right thing.
The sacred trust, however, was betrayed when West Papua was transferred to the United Temporary Executive (UNTEA) following the infamous New York Agreement on 15 August 1962.
This sacred trust was to be protected by the UNTEA but it was betrayed when it was handed over to Indonesia in May 1963, resulting in Indonesia’s invasion of West Papua.
This invasion instilled fear throughout West Papua, paving the way for the 1969 referendum to be held under incredible fear and gunpoint of the already intimidated 1025 Papuan elders.
In 1969, instead of protecting the trust, the UN betrayed it by being complicit in the whole tragic events unfolding.
OPM’s answer to the illegal referendum — The Act of Free Choice
OPM’s proclamation on 1 July 1971 was the answer to the (rejection of that illegal and fraudulent) referendum, known as the Penentuan Pendapat Rakyat-Pepera in 1969.
In protest, out of fear, and in resistance to one of the most tragic betrayals and tragedies in human history, an overwhelming number of Papuans left West Papua during this period. Several countries opened their arms to West Papua, including Vanuatu.
Several African countries recognised OPM’s declaration and Ben Tanggahma was the first official OPM diplomat sent to Senegal, Sponsored and funded by the Senegalese government officially.
A major split occurred in OPM camps due to internal conflict and disagreement between the two key founding members. The legacy of this tragedy has been disastrous for future Papuan resistance fighters.
Papuans are partly responsible for betraying that sacred trust as well. This realisation is critical for Papuan-self redemption. That is the secret, redemption, and genuine reconciliation.
Every time a high-profile figure from Vanuatu or any Melanesian country engages internationally, Papuans feel extremely anxious. Amid the historical betrayals, Papuans wonder, “Will they betray us or rescue us?”
This tiny doubt eats at the soul of humankind. It is always toxic, a seed that contaminates and derails human trust.
In such difficult times, it is crucial for Papuans to reflect sincerely and ask, “where are we?” Are we doing, okay? What’s going on? Are we making the right decisions, are our collective defence systems secure?
Vanuatu historic visit to Jakarta
Jotham Napat, the Foreign Minister of Vanuatu, visited Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on 16 June 2023. The main topic of discussion was bilateral relations between the two countries.
It is the first visit by a Vanuatu foreign minister to Indonesia in more than a decade. This marks an important milestone.
According to Retno, “I am delighted to hear about Vanuatu’s plan to open an embassy in Indonesia, and I welcome the idea of holding annual consultations between the two countries,” in her statement.
At Monday’s meeting, Napat expressed urgency to build a sound partnership between Vanuatu and Indonesia and expressed his eagerness to recover trust. The minister also expressed his country’s eagerness to create a technical cooperation agreement between the two countries and to establish sister city and sister province partnerships, which he said could begin with Papua.
Welcoming DPM/FM Jotham Napat of Vanuatu on his 1st official visit to Indonesia – the 1st visit of FM in more than a decade
An important milestone in our bilateral relations, based on respect to sovereignty, territorial integrity & principles of mutual interests & benefits pic.twitter.com/Y8GkpwxvQC
— Menteri Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia (@Menlu_RI) June 16, 2023
During a joint press conference with Indonesian Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin, Napat expressed his commitment to the “Melanesian way”.
Vanuatu’s Napat meets Indonesian Vice-President
In response to Minister Napat’s visit to West Papua, Benny Wenda of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) said he welcomed the minister’s remarks on the “Melanesian Way”. Though it isn’t really clear what the Melanesian way is all about?
“Melanesian Way” is a complicated term. Although intuitively, everyone in the Melanesian context assumes to know it. Bernard Narakobi, the person who coined the term refused to define it. It has been described by Narakobi as being comparable to Moses asking God to explain who God was to him.
“God did not reveal himself by a definition, but by a statement that I am who I am,” wrote Narakobi.
Because God is the archetypical ultimate, infallible, eternal, omnipresent, alpha and omega. Narakobi’s statement about the God and Moses analogy is true that God cannot be defined by any point of reference; God is the point of reference.
For Melanesians, however, we are not God. We are mortal, unpredictable, flawed, with aspects of both malevolence and goodness. Therefore, to state that “we are who we are” could mean anything.
Continuing his search for a path for Melanesia, Narakobi wrote:
“Melanesian voice is meant to be a force for truth. It is meant to give witness to the truth. Whereas the final or the ultimate truth is the divine source, the syllogistically or the logical truth is dependent on the basic premises one adopts. The Melanesian voice is meant to be a forum of Melanesian wisdom and values, based on Melanesian experience.”
It seems that these truths and virtues as outlined by this great Melanesian philosopher do not have a common shared value system that binds the states of the MSG together.
‘Bought for 30 pieces of silver’
Following the rejection of ULMWP’s membership bid in Honiara in 2016, Vanuatu’s then Deputy Prime Minister, Joe Natuman, stated,
“Our Prime Minister was the only one talking in support of full membership for West Papua in the MSG, the Solomon Islands Prime Minister couldn’t say very much because he is the chairman.
“Prime Minister Charlot Salwai was the only one defending Melanesians and the history of Melanesian people in the recent MSG meeting in Honiara.
“The MSG, I must repeat, the MSG, which I was a pioneer in setting up, was established for the protection of the identity of the Melanesian people, the promotion of their culture and defending their rights. Right to self-determination, right to land and right to their resources.
“Now it appears other people are trying to use the MSG to drive their own agendas and I am sorry, but I will insist that MSG is being bought by others.
“It is just like Jesus Christ who was bought for 30 pieces of silver. This is what is happening in the MSG. I am very upset about this, and we need to correct this issue.
“Because if our friends in Fiji and Papua New Guinea have a different agenda, we need to sit down and talk very seriously about what is happening within the organisation.”
Principles or a facade?
Whatever agenda Minister Napat had in mind when he travelled to Jakarta on June 16 — in a capital of rulers whose policies have resulted in fatalistic and genocidal outcomes for West Papuans for 60 years — these wisdoms from Melanesian elders will either be his guiding principle, or he will use the term “Melanesian Way” as a facade to conceal different intents not in agreement with these Melanesian values.
These are the types of questions that are at stake for West Papua, Vanuatu, and Melanesians, particularly in a world which is rapidly changing, including ourselves and our values.
In an interview with Island Business published on 3 February 2023, Minister Napat stated his priority for the 100-day work plan.
“Vanuatu has, like other Pacific countries, too often in the past been seen in the international limelight as a subservient associate to others’ interests and agendas, this must change if Vanuatu is to take its rightful place as an equal partner in the international arena.
“The creation and implementation of a new National Foreign Policy must take into account current global geopolitical trends”.
Minister Napat continued:
“The global geopolitical environment has and will continue to change. Our government must implement foreign policy directions which will have as its first priority, the best interests of the nation and people of Vanuatu.
“Since the original foreign policy directions after independence, Vanuatu’s foreign policy approaches in the last 30 years have been at times unclear, ad hoc, and reactive to circumstances and influences. It is time we set our own course and become proactive at all times”.
Vanuatu only support
The minister did not rule out West Papua as one of the countries that influences Vanuatu’s engagement with the world. As anyone familiar with West Papua’s plight knows, Vanuatu is the only sovereign UN member country that has publicly supported West Papua.
There is no indication as to whether those “other interests” and “agendas” pertain to West Papua, Indonesia, MSG, the USA, China, or Australia.
If the minister’s trip to Jakarta was demonstrative of his pragmatic words and West Papua is one of the external interferences the Minister has implied, then Papuans can only hope for the best, that new developing relationships between Jakarta and Port Vila will not be another major betrayal for Papuans.
Minister Napa’s pragmatic approach to adapting to an unpredictable changing world is crucial for the country. Especially since Oceania is becoming increasingly similar to the New Middle East as China and the United States continue to compete, contest, revive or renew their engagement with island nations.
There is also another major player in the region, Indonesia, which has its own interests.
The government and the people of Vanuatu have a duty and responsibility to ensure they must be ready to face these vulgar threats, they pose as stated by the Minister. For persecuted Papuans, their only wish is: Please don’t betray us — the Sacred Trust.
West Papua will always remain a lingering issue — a unresolved murder mystery that has been swept under the rug. For a long time, the Vanuatu government and its people have decided to resolve this issue.
Vanuatu’s Wantok Blong Yumi Bill – Sacred Trust
On 19 June 2010, this sacred trust was protected when the notion regarding West Papua was passed by Vanuatu’s Parliament. The purpose of the “Wantok blong yumi” Bill was to allow the government of Vanuatu to develop specific policies regarding the support of West Papua’s independence struggle.
Then, both the government under the late Prime Minister Edward Natape and his opposition leader, Maxime Carlot Korman, united and sponsored the motion to be drafted by one of the young proponents of West Papua’s cause, Ralph Regevanu, on behalf of the people of Vanuatu and West Papua.
In fact, this was a historic and extraordinary event. It was called a “Parliament extraordinary session” — a sacred session. This Act is an analogy to the declaration of war by tiny young ancient Jews against the giant Goliath and his fearsome army. With a slingshot, David defeated Goliath, not with a giant weapon, bomb, or money, but with courage, bravery and faith.
The Wantok Bill was Vanuatu’s slingshot to fight against and defeat the might of pandemonium warlords and Goliath armies that tortured Papuans everyday while scavenging the richness of this paradise land that has been continuously betrayed.
After the success of the motion, the prime minister promised to sponsor the issue of West Papua at the MSG and PIF meetings.
This promise was partially fulfilled when West Papua was granted observer status in the MSG in 2015. Tragically, this courageous figure passed away on 28 July 2015 (aged 61) just a few days after West Papua was granted observer status by the MSG on June 26.
Furthermore, West Papua has seen some positive developments at an international level. In September 2016, seven Pacific Island countries raised the plight and struggle of the West Papuan people at the UN General Assembly.
A resolution was passed by the PIF in 2019 regarding West Papua.
During the ninth ACP summit of heads of state and government, Ralph Regevanu and Benny Wenda succeeded in convincing the group to pass a resolution calling for urgent attention to be paid to the rights situation in Indonesia-ruled Papua.
Vanuatu also made it possible for Pacific leaders to request that the UN Human Rights Commissioner visit West Papua in 2019. Ralph Regevanu, then Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister, drafted the wording of the PIF’s Communique.
Edward Natape also said his government would apply to the UN Decolonisation Committee for West Papua to be relisted so the territory could undergo the due process of decolonisation.
West Papuans still wait for the UN’s promised decolonisation
A long time OPM representative from West Papua, Dr John Otto Ondawame, and Andy Ayamiseba, were among those who witnessed and assisted in this victory. Sadly, both of them have since died.
Dr Ondawame died in 2014 and Andy Ayamiseba in 2020.
Both of these figures, as well as others, were long-time residents of Vanuatu since the 1980s. With their Vanuatu, Melanesia, and Oceania Wantoks, they had tirelessly fought for the rights of West Papua.
The people of West Papua continue to look towards Vanuatu and Melanesia and pray, just as the exiled diaspora of persecuted Jews looked towards Jerusalem and prayed. Vanuatu remains a beacon of hope for West Papua
Papuans’ greatest task, challenge and responsibility is to determine where to go from here.
This spirit of revolution was ignited by the OPM elders, and many brave young men, women, and elderly are fighting for it in West Papua today.
On 30 June 2023, the MSG Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM) concluded successfully with members approving the outcomes of the MSG senior officials meeting (SOM) at the MSG secretariat in Port Vila, Vanuatu. A traditional welcome ceremony was conducted for the delegates.
A progress report by the MSG Director-General was presented to the SOM, along with the secretariat’s annual reports for 2020 and 2021, a calendar of events for 2023, a proposal to establish MSG supporting offices in member countries and a draft of the MSG secretariat’s work programme and budget for 2023.
The same people who were seen in Jakarta dancing, singing and propagated imageries of gestures, symbols, images, and rhetoric are the ones driving this MSG meeting. Indonesia’s delegation with the red and white flag is also seen sitting inside the MSG’s headquarters — the sacred place, sacred building, of the Melanesian people.
The test for Vanuatu is so high at the moment — reaching a climactic decision for West Papua. Hundreds of Free West Papua social media campaigns groups are inundated with so much optimistic images, symbols, cartoon drawing, words, prayers.
Giving this connection and high emancipation with the upcoming MSG summit, Minister Jotham Napat’s visit to Jakarta was indeed a huge shock for Papuans.
For Papuans, this is a stressful time for such a visit. Pressures, anticipation, prayers, and anxiety for MSG is too high.
Adding to this, this year the Chairmanship and Leaders’ Summit of the MSG are being entrusted to Vanuatu and Vanuatu is also the home base of MSG.
One of the moments West Papua have been waiting for
In the upcoming MSG games, Vanuatu had all the best cards at her disposal to achieve something big for Papuans. Vanuatu was one of key founding fathers of MSG, the MSG embeds Vanuatu’s spirit and values.
It would be “THE” long-awaited moment for Papuans to enter into MSG as Papuans have been insisting that their Melanesian family has been left out for decades.
Social media images and small videos of Vanuatu’s delegation, MSG’s leader and Papuans who support the Indonesian occupation of West Papua dancing and singing during the visit was indeed disheartening for Papuans.
The imagery and propaganda of the visit spread through the media. They intended to dim Vanuatu’s dawn Morning Star. A sacred beacon of light where tortured West Papuans look to, every morning, and pray for deliverance.
Vanuatu’s “Messianic hope” for West Papua in a world where almost no nations, empires, kingdoms, and institutions such as the UN offer refuge, to listen to and seeing such propaganda imageries spread through social media is dispiriting.
Whatever the reason for this visit might be, Papuans who simply just want their freedom from Indonesia, seeing such a visit and display of their trusted friend at the headquarters of their tormentors prompts immediate questions: What happened and why?
‘Liklil Hope Tasol’ (Little Hope At All)
Dan McGarry, former media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post, writes:
“One of the more popular songs Ayamiseba wrote for the Black Brothers is ‘Liklik Hope Tasol’, a ballad written in Tok Pisin whose title translates as ‘Little Hope At All’. Its narrator lies awake in the early morning hours, the victim of despair.
The vision of the Morning Star and a songbird breaking the pre-dawn hush provide the impetus to survive another day. The song, with its clear political imagery and simplistic evocation of strength in adversity, is clearly autobiographical. It is, arguably, the anthem which animated Ayamiseba’s lifelong pursuit of freedom.”
Such an extravagant display of rhetoric and imagery in the capital of the Pandemonium army that has mercilessly been hunting down “Papuans” on “their ancient timeless land”, New Guinea, as PNG philosopher Narakobi described it, or “little heaven” as Papuans referred to it, can only mean two things: either destroy that “little hope” or “rescue it”.
Only God knows the answer to this question as well of the real intent of the visit and what outcome will emerge from it — will it bring disappearance or hope for Papuans.
The late Pastor Allen Nafuki, a key figure in Vanuatu responsible for bringing warring factions of Papuan resistance groups together in Port Vila in 2014, which helped precipitate much of the ULMWP’s international success, left his last message on West Papua before he died: “God will never sleep for West Papua.”
Vanuatu is a sovereign independent country and as a sovereign nation, Vanuatu has every right to choose to whom she wants to be friends with, visit and sign any treaties and agreements with.
However, when the sacred trust of hope for the betrayed, rejected, persecuted nation like West Papuans is entrusted to them either by choice, force, or compassion, then the choice is clear: You either betray that trust, compromise it, or protect it.
The seed of the sacred bond planted by legendary OPM freedom fighters when the nation of Vanuatu was founded, before MSG was founded, will be either dimmed, betrayed, or resurrected.
The 2010 “Wantok Blong Yumi” Bill should be resurrected and protection given for the “Sacred Trust” (The Sovereignty of West Papua) that has been betrayed for more than 60 years.
The United Nations was the place that the Sacred Trust was betrayed and Vanuatu as a new Guardian of this Trust should restore that trust in the same institution. The statement by the former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, during the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Summit in Auckland stated: “West Papua is an issue; the right place for it to be discussed, is the Decolonisation Committee of UNGA”.
Yamin Kogoya is a West Papuan academic who has a Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development from the Australian National University and who contributes to Asia Pacific Report. From the Lani tribe in the Papuan Highlands, he is currently living in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
This content originally appeared on Asia Pacific Report and was authored by APR editor.