CANBERRA - Whenever I ring home to West Papua, my village people ask about rumours they have heard of an upcoming Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) meeting.
What they want to know is whether West Papua will be accepted as a full member.
I tell them I do not know, and, dispirited, they say to me they will continue to pray for it.
I don't want to give false hope to the West Papuan people. MSG often changes the date of scheduled meetings. Unfortunately this has become the norm.
Its foreign ministers’ and leaders’ summit was scheduled for 15-17 June, but was postponed again.
In July 2016 the leaders’ summit was held in Honiara and was meant to be the moment when West Papua would be accepted as a full member. But this was rejected due to some criterion West Papua did not meet.
The rhetoric in the media and the expectations of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) had given much false hope - and the disappointment - to Papuan people.
There had been a climate of anxiety and anticipation, like expecting your team to score a goal in the world cup. Hundreds of people fasted and prayed in West Papua, supported by grassroots solidarity across Oceania. But the MSG leaders failed to score the goal everyone had cheered for.
This MSG failure was a tragedy captured in the words of Melanesian leaders at that time. Joe Natuman, Vanuatu's then deputy prime minister, said, "West Papua was sold out for 30 pieces of silver”.
And the MSG's Director-General, Amena Yauvoli, said, "I believe the MSG Secretariat has been working hard to formalise membership criteria from observer to full member."
Unfortunately this hard work never bore any fruit.
There had been other forces at work behind the scenes, trying to sort out the criteria of what constituted 'Melanesia'.
Given these unfolding events, the late Grand Chief Michael Somare, one of the founding fathers of the Papua New Guinea and MSG, said, "We must make the right choice on West Papua."
In the same week, Vanuatu’s ambassador in Brussels, Roy Mickey Joy, said, "The Melanesian Spearhead Group is too politicised; it has lost its Melanesian integrity and what it stood for."
For the Melanesian leaders, changing and postponing dates and sorting criteria for MSG membership seems inconsequential. But it is a matter of life and death for Papuans.
Unfortunately, this drama is playing out like a horror movie wherein desperate people are seeking a safe place but are refused entry by their family.
These setbacks have been accompanied by the recent loss of many Melanesian leaders who for decades dedicated their lives to open the MSG's door for Melanesian Papuans.
Tongan prime minister Akilisi Pohiva, an outspoken proponent of West Papua's cause, died in 2019.
Another prominent West Papuan leader, Andy Ayamiseba, died in Canberra in 2020.
This year we lost Grand Chief Michael Somare, the founder of MSG and the state of Papua New Guinea.
In May, West Papua, Klemen Tinal, the vice governor of Papua's province from Damal tribe of Papua’s central highlands, died in Jakarta.
Papuans lament these tragic losses as well as the endless grief of many prominent church, tribal and independence leaders continuing to die in West Papua’s long freedom war.
And adding to this heartache, the people of West Papua and Vanuatu lost another great leader. Pastor Allan Nafuki, a prominent social justice campaigner, died on 13 June.
Pastor Nafuki was responsible for bringing warring factions of Papuan resistance groups together in Port Villa in 2014 which helped precipitate much of the ULMWP's international success. Vanuatu, West Papua and communities across Oceania mourn the loss of this great beacon of hope for our region.
Benny Wenda, ULMWP's interim president, stated, "This is a great loss – but we also celebrate his legacy. He helped combine the destiny of the people of West Papua with the Republic of Vanuatu and helped bring about Papuan unity in 2014."
Despite these tragedies and losses, Papuans and their solidarity groups still fix their eyes on MSG.
“MSG leaders cannot continue to postpone the admission of West Papua into the group,” Matthew C Wale, the Solomon Islands opposition leader, has tweeted.
“It's time the word 'Spearhead' in the title is given meaningful use. Thirty pieces of silver and a mercenary approach cannot be the way decide the application for full membership.”
‘Bring West Papua back to the Melanesian family,’ is the main message Papuans are trying to convey to Melanesian leaders.
Although Melanesia itself is a colonial invention, Papuans take their identity as part of Melanesia seriously. They feel threatened by the large influx of Indonesian migrants into their ancestral land.
In response to these growing demands, the MSG leaders granted observer status to ULMWP in 2015; however Papuans insist that elevation to full membership will boost their confidence as they carry their cause to the wider world.
The modern history of West Papua since 1963 has been tainted with tragic stories of betrayal.
It started when the Dutch prepared Papuans for independence on 1 December 1961, but then withdrew in silence.
In 1962, the controversial New York Agreement followed this betrayal, which gave the green light to Indonesia to recolonise West Papua, sealing its fate with a sham Act of Free Choice in 1969.
Two prominent Papuan leaders, Willem Zonggonau and Clemens Runawery, fled West Papua to Papua New Guinea to fly to New York to inform the United Nations that the Act of Free Choice was corrupt, but were stopped by the Australian government.
Unlike Palestinians, Papuan stories hardly make global headlines. It remains a secret war.
West Papuans and their solidarity groups around the world continue to knock on the MSG doors, but its leaders are reluctant to open their arms and embrace Papuans as part of Melanesia.
The MSG's decisions on ULMWP's application for full membership are not in the hands of some celestial beings beyond human comprehension.
These decisions that affect human lives are in the hands of individuals with families and consciences.
Ancient Greeks wrote about such tragedies in the fifth century BC, but these tragedies still unfold.
The basic theme of the Greek tragedy is still relevant today because it tells of the decisions we make about our relationship with other people, the consequences and the unfairness of life itself.
What happened and what is still happening to West Papuan people reflect these tragedies – being cheated and mistreated for decades, and forgotten by nations around the world turning their back on fellow humans.
MSG’s indecisiveness on West Papua’s full membership adds to the prolonged mistreatment of the Papuan people.
These are uncertain times. It seems the old world is dying and a new one is being born, and we are at a crossroads, gazing at some looming cataclysmic collapse.
The pressures compel us to reflect on why the Melanesian Spearhead Group was formed in the first place more than 40 years ago. Was it to save Melanesia? Or destroy it?
In October 2016 in Port Vila, when Sogovare told Pastor Allan Nafuki about granting West Papua full membership of MSG, the Vanuatu Daily Post reported that the pastor "smiled a long overdue smile and breathed a sigh of relief, saying, ‘Now I can go to my home island of Erromango and have a peaceful sleep with my grandchildren, with no disturbance whatsoeve’r."
The beloved Allan Nafuki died on Sunday 13 June with the goal that thrilled him to utter these words, West Papua membership in MSG, still unresolved.
So what should I tell Papuan villagers when they call me?
How do I explain things to West Papuans who have been waiting a painfully long time for recognition, for salvation and for independence.