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Fiji's military ruler uses Melanesian Spearhead Group to end pariah status

The Guardian - April 26, 2011

Johnny Blades There aren't many international summits where the leaders sit down to a round of sedatives before settling into formal talks. But getting together around the kava bowl in laid-back Pacific style is their way of reaching consensus.

So it was at the 18th Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) summit in Fiji, the beginning of a new era for the sub-regional grouping under the direction of a regime branded the pariah of the Pacific.

The summit in Suva was a show of strength for the host, Fiji's military ruler, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. As current chair of the spearhead group, Bainimarama is enjoying what Fiji's media, complete with military censors in most newsrooms, have been trumpeting as a victory in the political battle the commodore has been waging with Australia and New Zealand since the 2006 coup in which he seized power.

Australia, New Zealand, the US and the EU continue to enforce sanctions against Fiji, which is also suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum over the regime's failure to meet a deadline for democratic elections. But Bainimarama shows no signs of loosening his grip on Fiji and is portraying the MSG, with him at its helm, as the new leadership of the Pacific islands region.

It also means looking for new friends to help shore up Fiji's tottering economy and Bainimarama has been busy strengthening ties with Asian powers. Fiji's need has driven the move in the MSG to grant Indonesia observer status, a decision that strikes at the heart of the Melanesian people of Indonesia's Papua region.

It's been described as a major test of the sub-regional grouping's credibility due to the sensitive issue of West Papuans living under Indonesian rule. Despite years of lobbying for MSG observer status by West Papuan leadership groups, they have not yet been granted a seat at the table even though New Caledonia's Melanesian Kanaks are already accepted as full members and not the government of France.

In a recent telephone poll across independent Melanesian states conducted by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, a clear majority of respondents said they supported West Papuan independence, with very high support in Papua New Guinea (89.3%) and Vanuatu (88.2%).

However, Papua New Guinea's foreign minister, Don Polye, suggested at the Suva meeting that "Indonesia is willing to speak with members of the MSG in close proximity on that issue". Could the new approach be a positive step?

The co-ordinator of the Papua Peace Network, Pastor Neles Tebay, told Radio New Zealand International that the move was acceptable if it helped to `encourage Indonesia to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict.

"But if that move is not helpful, the MSG will get a very bad image among Melanesians." It has already proven the key issue behind the toppling of Sato Kilman's government in Vanuatu, where the MSG approval of Indonesia has proven deeply unpopular.

Bainimarama describes greater Melanesian regional co-operation as imperative for achieving his vision of a prosperous Pacific. It involves an expansion of the MSG trade agreement and a labour mobility scheme to take advantage of the thousands of jobs on offer in Papua New Guinea's massive ExxonMobil-led liquified natural gas project.

And in a sign that the Pacific Forum's suspension of Fiji is losing ground, MSG leaders are demanding Fiji's re-inclusion in key regional economic and trade discussions. This includes trade talks with the EU as part of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of countries.

The MSG is also planning far greater co-operation in security matters. A proposed Humanitarian and Emergency Response Force will be trained to respond to threats to regional and international borders, and to tackle natural disasters and internal conflicts within Melanesian countries.

"We don't want to be caught unaware in a crisis situation," says Polye. "It's wise to have a proactive force ready to address security concerns rather than a laid-up approach when a crisis strikes. It's not a new concept previously we've had the police and military force in Bougainville and recently with the Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands."

However, in those cases the security forces were almost totally drawn from Australia and New Zealand. The new regional security force will be all Melanesian.

Bainimarama's recent trip to Indonesia may have provided a clue. As well as Indonesia's president, he met with the chief of the National Armed Forces (TNI), Admiral Agus Suhartono, and has invited the TNI to use Fiji's jungles for military training. He says the TNI has a lot to offer the Fiji army in terms of training and has increased the number of officers sent to Indonesia for training.

However, this could p rove a step too far for Melanesians. If widely circulated videos of TNI troops torturing Papuans are anything to go by, it's becoming hard to keep a lid on what's happening in Melanesia's forgotten western region.

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