The Indonesian government has denied speculations that it is trying to weaken the influence of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) over Papua after the MSG granted a Papuan resistance group an observer status.
The Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that the government had no ulterior motives in its effort to join as the newest member of the MSG.
'We have 11 million Melanesians. If you combine the whole population of the MSG countries, I don't think they reach 11 million. So, if we talk about Melanesians, we're talking about Indonesia. We are the biggest Melanesian country. So we will be the biggest elephant in the room if we're not part of the MSG,' the ministry's spokesman, Armanatha Nasir, told reporters on the sidelines of a press briefing in Jakarta.
Foreign ministry officials have made a round of diplomatic trips in the region in recent months as MSG member governments are struggling to balance their growing ties with Jakarta while providing support to regional grassroots movements dedicated to securing rights to the indigenous people of West Papua, where a separatist conflict has been simmering for decades.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry has denied any connection between Jakarta's recent diplomatic push and the bid of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) to become a full MSG member. The ministry have claimed that Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and her counterparts had only discussed 'Indonesia's commitment to the US$20 million capacity-building program for MSG countries'.
'I believe that this is a strategy by Indonesia to be able to more closely detect any separatist movements through the MSG. They are concerned that the MSG could support separatist movements or include the agenda of Papua in its discussion,' Indonesia Defense University's international relations expert Bantarto Bandoro told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.
The ULMWP was formed last year when Vanuatu hosted a reunification summit for West Papuan representative groups. The summit included groups that desire independence from Indonesia.
Regular bouts of violence continue to occur in Papua, where insurgents are fighting on behalf of the mostly ethnic Melanesian population.
Jakarta took control of Papua, which forms the Western half of the island of New Guinea, in 1963 from former colonial rulers the Netherlands.
The ULMWP, which had also been seeking membership to the MSG, was ultimately granted observer status to the regional body.
In December last year, the ULMWP set up an office in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, a country which frequently criticizes alleged human rights abuses in West Papua and Papuan provinces.
Vanuatu also declined to join a mission of high-ranking representatives from MSG nations to visit Jakarta, Maluku and Papua in January last year.
Armanatha said that the inclusion of the ULMWP as an observer group should not be a cause for concern.
'They're an NGO and they're an observer. They're not part of the decision making process. They speak when they are requested to speak. So that's the limit,' he said.
Furthermore, the MSG has agreed that it would only focus on economic cooperation, according to Armanatha.
'It's clear in the mandate of the MSG that the sovereignty of members of the MSG must be respected. The prime ministers of Fiji and Papua New Guinea have also made it clear,' he said.
Armanatha said that if the issue of West Papua continued to be debated within the MSG, the group would unlikely accept Indonesia as one of its members.
'If the MSG remains doubtful on Indonesia's commitment on Papua, then they wouldn't have accepted us as an associate member,' he said.
'We have 11 million Melanesians. If you combine the whole population of the MSG countries, I don't think they reach 11 million.'