Fijians have been described as among the most hospitable people in the world, flinging open the doors to their homes at every opportunity to passing guests. In a similar style Fiji welcomed outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono this week as chief guest at the Pacific Island Development Forum meeting on the resort island of Denarau.
It was a glamorous event with red carpets, military parades, police-escorted motorcades, gala dinners and traditional ceremonies associated with state visits. But pro-West Papuan activists and journalists were monitored for weeks by Special Branch police, and every attempt was made to keep them away from the event.
In recent months there has been a slow but sure surge of support across the Pacific for self-determination for the West Papuan people and increasing calls for Indonesia to allow a referendum on the issue. Solomon Islands church leaders, Fijian university students and Papua New Guinean activists have ramped up the action and the rhetoric on self-determination.
It’s likely that Yudhoyono’s visit to Fiji has been forced, in part, by the agitation from several quarters in the region for justice in the territory that was illegally occupied by Indonesia in 1969. Indonesia wants to become a major player in the Pacific, replacing Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Thus far it has succeeded in convincing regional leaders it is an ally that will not rock the boat on questionable governance, transparency and human rights issues.
In typical diplomatic quid pro quo, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons have remained silent on the atrocities in West Papua. Not a word has been uttered on the murder of human rights activists, use of indigenous resources by foreign corporations, the call for self-determination or the continued detention of political prisoners -- despite a United Nations call for their release. Instead, regional leaders have jumped aboard the Jakarta Express gravy train, accepting bilateral visits, tractors for agriculture projects, cultural shows and the obligatory bamboo weaving projects.
This week the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) warned that the glamour of state visits must never undermine the community’s responsibility to search for the truth. No doubt Fiji’s interim Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, will attempt to tout Yudhoyono’s visit as a sign of enhanced bilateral relations with an emerging world power. But in effect, Indonesia’s presence at the Pacific Island Development Forum serves merely to cloud leaders’ judgement on the issue of West Papua.
In the false sense of bonhomie and the diplomatic pleasantries that exist around such events, the region will conveniently overlook the proverbial elephant in the room. The PCC was correct to warn that Yudhoyono’s visit must be seen in a wider context.
Who gains from the visit? What was gained from the visit? No major infrastructure has been funded for Pacific island nations, nor has agreement been reached on better quality of life for the people of the region. Essentially there has been no change to the status quo, and the only beneficiaries have been the passengers on the gravy train who received free accommodation and flights along with the usual per diems.
If this visit was designed to showcase the PIDF as a credible alternative to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the gambit has failed. As Fiji waves goodbye to Yudhoyono today, he will rest easy in the knowledge that his visit has ensured the silence of Indonesia’s regional leaders' club on his country’s human rights abuses in West Papua.