he next two years could prove to be transformative for Melanesia, a region of Pacific islands spanning from Papua in the west to Fiji in the east. Two votes on independence, scheduled in 2018 and 2019, could bring two new nations into the fold and shake up the politics of a region where decolonization is still a pressing matter.
One more long-running movement hopes to join their ranks: the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), which seeks independence for the Indonesian-controlled western half of the island. Unlike their neighbors in French New Caledonia and the Papuan island of Bougainville, there is little prospect of a free vote for West Papuans.
In an unprecedented effort organized by ULMWP leader Benny Wenda, activists in West Papua and among the diaspora worked to collect 1.8 million signatures throughout West Papua’s two provinces for an independence petition to be presented to the United Nations last September.
Despite receiving the backing of over 70% of West Papua’s population, the effort to gain a seat at the UN Decolonization Committee failed — it won the support of only eight countries, all of them small Caribbean and Pacific island states.
“I think the Indonesian government will increase its efforts to block the ULMWP,” says Jakarta-based Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono. “This could range from increasing bilateral cooperation with Melanesian states to threatening to boycott some businesses over their support for West Papua.”
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