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Borderless instability in New Guinea
Asia Times - January 13, 2012
On the island's western half, consisting of two Indonesian provinces, what started out as a strike over wages at the Grasberg mine spiraled into four months of protests which fueled a revival of the Papuan independence movement. While relative peace had been restored on both sides of the island by year's end, lasting stability will depend on a number of mutable factors in the year ahead.
The key figure in the PNG political crisis – and also the key figure in the country since its independence – is Sir Michael Somare. Somare headed the first "indigenous" government from 1972-1975 before PNG acquired official independence from Australia in 1975. He was then PNG's prime minister from 1975-1980, 1982-1985, and again from 2002 until June 2011. Somare's family announced his retirement from politics last June due to ill health and he left the country for Singapore for three months to recover from heart surgery.
Sam Abal became the acting prime minister while Somare was recuperating out of country, but was ousted on August 2 in favor of Peter O'Neill, the head of the opposition People's National Congress Party, when 73 pro-O'Neill members of the 109-member parliament declared the government legally vacant and elected O'Neill as prime minister. Parliament then passed retroactive legislation formally recognizing O'Neill as the premier.
After returning to PNG, Somare challenged the legality of what he termed a "bloodless coup" to the Supreme Court. The court then had to decide which of the two competing prime ministers – Somare or O'Neill – had the right to power and whether Somare's or O'Neill's governor general, police commissioner, and cabinet could rightly rule. In a hotly contested 3-2 decision, the court held that the election to install O'Neill as prime minister was unconstitutional.
On December 14, Governor General Michael Ogio swore Somare and his cabinet into power, but in response the O'Neill loyalist dominated parliament voted to suspend Ogio and chose Speaker of Parliament Jeffrey Nape as his replacement. Nape swore in O'Neill in as prime minister later in the day of December 14. O'Neill had extra police flown into the capital of Port Moresby to take control of government assets, including the Government Printing Office, Treasury, and Government House while Somare's faction occupied other government offices.
The stand-off and potential for violence threatened to spark a crisis, one with geostrategic implications in light of intensifying competition between Chinese and American companies interested in PNG's resources. In March 2011, for example, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused China of trying to "come in behind" the US and undermine Exxon Mobil's US$15 billion liquefied natural gas project in PNG.
An autocratic turn in PNG could have played favorably into China's position, especially if PNG followed the way of nearby Fiji. A 2006 military coup there led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama undercut Fiji's civil society and established a new military dictatorship that has engaged China as its new patron. The Commonwealth banished Fiji from its membership in 2009, but that only pushed the country further into China's orbit.
Different dynamics are in play in PNG, however. Ogio, who is also the Queen's envoy for PNG in the Commonwealth, declared the swearing in of Somare "wrong and invalid" on December 20, thus paving the way for O'Neill to ascend to the premiership. While it is unclear what internal discussion the British Crown and Ogio may have held, the final result was that Somare, despite his insistence that he was the country's rightful leader, lost significant international support. For the time being, political stability has returned to PNG under O'Neill's leadership.
While PNG was embroiled in a potentially volatile political dispute, its neighbor, Papua Indonesia, was rocked by an intensifying labor dispute that acted to galvanize a long simmering insurgent movement. A workers' strike at the Grasberg mine over wages and other issues that started on September 15 evolved into a four-month standoff pitting at least 8,000 Indonesian miners, most of whom were indigenous Papuans, against the Indonesian subsidiary of the US mining company Freeport-McMoRan.
One month into the strike, Freeport was forced in October to declare force majeure when it could not meet its contractual obligations on shipments of copper and gold concentrate under sales agreements from its Grasberg mine. Grasberg had been operating at only 5% capacity because of the strike and the workers were blocking off main roads from Porsite Harbor to the towns of Timika, Kuala Kencana and Tembagapura, which cut off food, production equipment, medicine and other supplies needed for the mine's operations.
The strike led to protests and violence between the miners and Indonesian security forces which came down on the side of Freeport. Indonesian police and paramilitary fighters opened fire at a large demonstration in Timika, the town nearest to the mine, killing two at least strikers in October. As the violence escalated and the acrimony between the miners and the Indonesian government intensified, decades-old Papuan resentment over heavy-handed Indonesian rule boiled to the surface.
On November 31, hundreds of Papuans converged in a rally in Timika where groups of indigenous Papuans hoisted the flag of Papuan independence, a move that had provoked violent security force responses in the past. After allegedly shooting warning shots, the police then fired on the crowd, killing at least four people. Smaller rallies then broke out throughout cities in Papua in which at least one more Papuan was killed.
In total, eight people were killed in protests during the four months before a deal to settle the strike was reached on December 13. The agreement led to a 40% wage increase over two years for the miners, improved benefits, and a promise by Freeport to base future wage negotiations on cost of living and competitor benchmarks. In addition, workers were reimbursed for lost wages during the strike by a one-time three month "signing bonus".
Unlike in PNG, however, the deal the deal between Freeport and the miners failed to contain the protests for Papuan independence or settle the wider crisis. Less than a week after the deal was reached, a helicopter flying at 600 feet over the Grasberg mine site was shot at allegedly by Papuan independence fighters. One of the 23 passengers was injured and the helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in Timika.
The rebel Panai Free Papua Liberation Army (TPN-OPM) justified the attack by claiming that the helicopter was on the way to carry out attacks on Papuan villages in areas the group controls. In a December 16 report by the West Papua Media group, it was claimed that over four full strength combat battalions of the Indonesian army, paramilitary police and the elite counter-terrorism unit Detachment 88 launched an offensive where villages, schools and other buildings were burnt down in a bid to surround the TPN-OPM's headquarters under the command of General Jhon Yogi. The news group claimed at least 18 people were killed in the government assault.
Whether the rebels' claims are more propaganda than truth could not be independently corroborated, but the messaging shows how Papuan fighters have exploited the Freeport issue for their political purposes.
Despite New Guinea island's vast untapped resources and economic potential, PNG has struggled to chart a stable path as an independent country, while Papua remains pitched in a struggle against Indonesian rule. The tentative resolution of PNG's political crisis and the Papuan miners' strike brought both sides of the island back from the brink, but there is still unfinished business in both geographies.
Papuan independence fighters are now more active than before the Freeport strike and PNG is on guard against a potential sudden attempt by Somare to retake political power by force. If both PNG and Papua can accommodate the different political, labor, and cultural interests within their respective borders, 2012 could present both parts of the island with opportunities for peace and development. However, recent history shows reaching such a complex accommodation will be difficult and new bouts of instability can not be ruled out.
[Jacob Zenn is a lawyer and international security analyst based in Washington, DC. He was also a US State Department language scholar in Indonesia in 2011. He runs an open-source intelligence, due diligence, and translations team at http://zopensource.net/.]