25 Feb 2013

Border issues present new challenge to PNG's relationship with Indonesia

3:35 pm on 25 February 2013

Papua New Guinea's cabinet has ordered a 2-point-5 million US dollar deployment of soldiers to patrol and protect the border with Indonesia.

It follows tension along the porous land border, such as skirmishes in West Sepik province between Indonesian military and PNG citizens.

Johnny Blades reports about the renewed focus on the Pacific Islands region's only land border:

Papua New Guinea's latest diplomatic move to ease problems at the border comes after a recent agreement with Indonesia to work more closely on economic development in the border region.

PNG's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill recently met Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono to discuss co-operation in developing gas resources, hydro power and Indonesian assistance with building roads in PNG.

However Mr O'Neill has now spoken out about continual harassment of PNG citizens by Indonesia's military.

He has ordered the Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato to issue a protest note to Jakarta expressing the government's concern about the construction of Indonesian military posts in the border area.

PNG's Defence Minister, Fabian Pok played down any suggestion of breakdown in the relationship.

"We are trying to sort out all these issues diplomatically. We have a good relationship with our borders in Australia, Indonesia and Solomon Islands so we're not increasing the force because of anything to do with the border. The border issues with Indonesia, we are going to handle it more diplomatically than any other way."

A former head of PNG's Defence Force, Major General Jerry Singirok, says recent incidents have exposed his country's inability to adequately manage the border.

But the relationship between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea is cordial. The actions by a few elements of the Indonesian military does not really reflect a breakdown in our relationship with Indonesia.

But he admits that the contruction of an Indonesian military post on the PNG side is a serious infringement which requires diplomatic action.

The Indonesian military post a few kilometres into PNG at the river called Torasi, which is south of the border, we believe it's a serious international incident. And I think the government officials with the Defence Force have inspected the site and I'm sure they will take actions to remove the military posts.

Reports of a military build-up in Indonesia's Papua region remain a sensitive issue across the border, according to Octo Mote, a US-based member of a group tasked with negotiating with Indonesia on behalf of West Papuans.

In the border area with Papua New Guinea, the (Indonesian) military has also built up and that's why the PNG government is very worried about it and already they've ordered the military deployment there. So this is the situation that the Indonesian government is really building up in order to get international recognition (of its purported campaign against terror in Papua region).

The PNG government has plans to expand its military capacity from around 2,000 personnel to 10,000.

A lecturer in political science at the University of Goroka, Donald Gumbis, says the land border with Indonesia could be a factor in the expansion plans.

The deployment is probably part of the exercise but as I understand, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia have a Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship and Cooperation which was signed in 1986 and that still stands and any border arrangements or any kind of build-up will be seen contrary to each other's opinion. But if there have been border skirmishes, I think our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade along with the Indonesian Embassy in Port Moresby, as far as I know, they've handled those issues.

Aside from military deployments, traditional border crossing remains part of daily life in this region.

Rules on the PNG side that border crossers need official clearance haven't been enforced.

As for the thousands of West Papuans refugees still in PNG, unwilling to return to Indonesia, the fee of 10-thousand kina, or about 5 thousand US dollars per person for PNG citizenship is too expensive.

In Western Province alone, there are 8-thousand refugees, most of whom fled Indonesia in the mid-1980s.

Sister Maureen Sexton works for Catholic Health Services in Western Province's North Fly district, alongside the UNHCR, to provide access to health and education for West Papuan refugees.

For us the big thing is that these children have access to education and they have access to health. Because they fall within the Catholic diocese, they have the same access to health that any other PNG national has. There is the movement of people who have connections and land on the other side. Now from my point of view, I haven't heard in our area that there's any excessive or different type of response from the Indonesian side. But it is heavily patrolled and heavily monitored by them.

PNG's opposition leader Belden Namah has complained to parliament that the Indonesian side is much better serviced and is luring PNG citizens to move there.

The defence minister Dr Pok says the government has asked Australia for help to develop the border.

The failure on our part is not to develop our border areas, in a holistic approach. We have to set up schools and clinics and we have not done that and we realise that this is a failure on the part of the PNG government.

However the PNG government appears keen to stop skirmishes between Indonesian military and traditional villagers in the border area.

It presents a new challenge for the Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship and Cooperation PNG has with Indonesia.