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Refugees and rebels set to dominate Rudd’s PNG visit

Asylum seekers and West Papua will be high on the agenda for Kevin Rudd’s talks with his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill. AAP/Alan Porritt

As Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd lands in Port Moresby to meet with his Papua New Guinean counterpart Peter O'Neill, several conundrums are set to tax his mind and diplomatic skills.

Front and centre of the talks will be containing Australia’s escalating refugee crisis due to the currency this issue has with the Australian electorate. There’ll be other issues on the table as well, such as PNG’s health system and how Australia can help there.

But one problem testing Rudd’s mettle, however, has little sway with the Australian public, but is of huge significance to Indonesia: the resurgent support across the Pacific for the beleaguered inhabitants of West Papua. Given Indonesia’s importance to Australia this means that the West Papua issue concerns us as well.

Papua New Guinea has always been a fascinating country and rather hard to comprehend for itinerant diplomats. Having simultaneously a booming economy (thanks to the mining and petroleum industries) and many aspects of a failed state, PNG defies simplistic analysis.

While Port Moresby is full of cranes, construction sites and brand new Toyota LandCruisers, the schools and aid posts in the bush – where some 80% of people still live – are falling apart and severely under-resourced in staff and materials. By some measures literacy is even falling. Yet there is a sense of optimism, especially amongst PNG’s elite, that the country has a bright future and is, as they say: “a mountain of gold floating in a sea of oil”.

There are serious problems to be sure. Epidemic rates of HIV-AIDS; rampant corruption; massive deforestation; mining operations that spread environmental devastation; a burgeoning population growing at one of the fastest rates on the world; entrenched violence against women; huge economic inequality and creeping land alienation under the Special Agricultural Leases are just a few.

PNG is also suffering the effects of climate change. The recent flooding of the Sepik River is the biggest in living memory and has caused the destruction of houses that survived previous floods. But these problems are unlikely to be focused on other than in the AusAID conversation checklist. As a nation with a long history of providing PNG with aid and advice - which is only sometimes taken - Australia will continue to address these issues in a methodical and sometimes successful way.

The contemporary points of concern are more recent in origin: the saga of the Manus Island refugee camps and the sudden re-emergence of West Papua. The “Manus Solution” for Australia’s refugee crisis was dusted off and restarted under the previous Gillard government’s attempts to stem the flow of boat people.

The hope that the Manus policy would create such harsh conditions for asylum seekers that other prospective boat people would be put off making the hazardous journey was dashed almost as soon as the camps re-opened. The sheer number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia overwhelmed the system and filled the Manus Island camps quickly, but showed no sign of abating under the hoped-for deterrent effect.

Responding to domestic criticism in Australia and widespread discontent with the Manus Island refugee facilities in PNG, women and children have now been removed from the camps and sent to better conditions in Australian facilities. The government would now like Manus to become the regional processing centre for refugees, still retaining its disincentive role but working in conjunction with the PNG government.

Serious money will be spent upgrading and running Manus in an effort to mitigate domestic and international criticism and enable Australia to conform to its obligations under the various international agreements and protocols the government has signed.

This gives considerable bargaining power to the PNG government. Australia needs its co-operation to progress with these plans and will have to finesse the deal with concessions and enhanced aid. Perhaps Australia will even make it easier for PNG nationals to gain entry visas to this country: a common complaint amongst our Pacific neighbours.

The other issue where PNG holds considerable bargaining power is West Papua. Long a dormant, even dismissed, issue, the conflict on the western half of the island of New Guinea is entrenched, but has suddenly come to the fore of regional politics. For instance, the recent Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) meeting in Noumea was dominated by the spectre of West Papua.

Expatriate West Papuan independence groups have formally asked for membership of the MSG. For once, their requests are being taken seriously. This is due to a variety of factors such as the increasing knowledge of the murderous conflict from the internet, the better organisation of the West Papuan groups themselves, a more receptive audience amongst the new generation of Pacific leaders and an escalation of the conflict in West Papua itself, where violent demonstrations and unsolved killings are now commonplace.

The issue of West Papuan independence has gained fresh relevance recently after political ructions in the Pacific region. AAP/Sue Wellwood

It is widely accepted how sensitive the West Papua issue is for Indonesia, which vigorously maintains its claim of sovereignty over the region. Indonesia is deeply troubled by the growing internationalisation of the conflict and is actively engaged in countering support for the West Papuan cause in the Pacific countries – especially Vanuatu, but also in PNG and Australia.

When Rudd met with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last week it was Rudd who raised the issue of West Papua. Rudd pledged support for economic development in the region, presumably to improve the lot of the West Papuans in the hope that they might moderate their calls for independence.

Membership of the MSG by a West Papuan group would hugely boost their campaign and be a massive blow to Indonesian, and by extension, Australian diplomacy. MSG membership would give the West Papuans access to take their case to the United Nations and to garner support in African and Caribbean countries. Currently, the membership issue is pending: it has been put aside to allow - at Indonesia’s invitation -, government officials from the MSG countries (PNG, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji) to visit West Papua to see the situation for themselves.

West Papua’s pending membership of the MSG therefore gives the Pacific countries – especially PNG as the biggest and most powerful member – great bargaining power in their dealings with both Australia and Indonesia. Therefore, this issue, and talks over the Manus Island facilities will feature heavily in Rudd’s brief visit to PNG. They are the areas in which PNG diplomats can exert pressure over the whole gamut of interactions the two countries share.

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