SYDNEY — Nobody, least of all any of the troubled South Pacific nations, is calling last month’s Pacific Islands Forum in the island country of Kiribati a decisive victory. Yet all 16 nations that attended the historic summit see the Biketawa Declaration as the best framework yet for ensuring stability in this ill-named tropical paradise.

As the forum’s president, Kiribati President Teburoro Tito, put it, “It’s like a village where we now agree for the first time in the history of the Pacific that we have common rules. We also agree on how we should deal with a member of the village who is not complying with the rules.”

Australia, as the major donor country to the region and forum facilitator, trod a narrow path through a diplomatic jungle in advancing the agreement. But Prime Minister John Howard is not altogether happy about one far-reaching clause in the declaration, the one demanding protection of human rights in a nonmember country, Irian Jaya.

Irian Jaya, often called West Papua in the West, is the easternmost province of Indonesia. Bordering Papua New Guinea, the once mandated territory of Australia, this rugged jungle province has lately been the scene of bloodshed. Leaders of local breakaway groups have been shot trying to raise their blue-and-white independence flag.

The independence fighters want to set up a separate state as other Melanesians did after the post-World War II demise of colonialism. But Indonesia, having acquired this minerals-rich bloc from the retreating Dutch, will have no part of such talk.

Plagued as it is by bloody breakaway clashes across its islands, Jakarta is particularly sensitive to any suggestions of outside interference in the smoldering Irian Jaya dispute — more so since nearby East Timor recently gained its independence. Mobs of Jakarta protesters who burned Australian flags during the U.N.-led rescue mission to the former Portuguese colony still blame Canberra for Indonesia’s loss of the territory it invaded 25 years ago.

It seems inevitable that sooner or later the anti-West protests in the Indonesian capital will spill over into the kind of unneighborly fireworks Canberra has come to expect.

Only a few months ago, Jakarta was piqued when the Australian Defense Department printed a map labeling Irian Jaya with the taboo name West Papua. Bad mistake. Since then, Canberra diplomats have been wary of mentioning the on-again, off-again visit here proposed for Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.

Now Canberra is trying to explain why a visiting Free Papua Movement group got a reception there recently. All unofficial, of course, but recalcitrant Greens Party Sen. Bob Brown had to make a publicity play by hosting a media reception for a movement leader, John Koknak. There was much gnashing of official teeth next day, when Brown was quoted as predicting Australians will support the free Papua cause as they did with East Timor.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer warned of a blood bath in Irian Jaya if outsiders foment the independence cause. “West Papua is an integral part of Indonesia,” he declared, using that touchy name again. “We won’t be advocating anything designed to undermine the authority of Indonesia.”

The ever careful Howard must be sorry that the prickly issue of Irian Jaya has returned for yet another rerun. Especially as he tried so hard to keep that nonmember out of the Pacific Islands Forum. But the issue did raise its head, both in person and in the final declaration, thus ensuring that it will fester as a diplomatic dilemma regionally and beyond.

The trouble in paradise surfaced when several visiting Free Papua Movement members got unofficial status at the forum conference in the remote coral atoll named Kiribati. The island nation of 90,000 people rises just three meters above sea level. It is one of many island-states hereabouts threatened by global warming. Japanese veterans of World War II remember the atoll as the scene of one of their bloodiest battles. More than 6,000 American and Japanese lives were lost in 72 hours.

The uninvited freedom fighters got unofficial attendance status as guests of Nauru. Tiny, resources-depleted Nauru is said to have been offered the inducement of land in a liberated West Papua to resettle its crowded population. Both Howard and his New Zealand counterpart, Helen Clark, were conspicuously absent when the uninvitees came calling.

Neither Howard nor Clark, however, managed to water down the final communique “urging all parties to protect and uphold the human rights of all residents of West Papua.” For the first time in the forum’s 30-year history, Irian Jaya became a South Pacific cause celebre when the nations expressed “deep concerns about recent violence and loss of life in the Indonesian province.”

Still, Canberra did manage to persuade the annual regional heads-of-government meeting that the forum will no longer tolerate member-states that abandon democracy. Despite strong lobbying from Fiji’s interim government, the forum agreed to a procedure for responding to regional crises.

Future attempts to violently overthrow elected governments like the recent abortive coups in Fiji and the Solomon Islands may now be met with region-imposed sanctions. This radical departure from the usual tame forum resolutions follows the Fijian and Solomons threats to regional democracy while friendly neighbors looked on helplessly. Only when the Commonwealth Secretariat office in London stepped in did rebel George Speight and his hijackers get thrown out of the Suva Parliament building they had taken over at gunpoint.

Fresh outbreaks of violence among Speight’s military backers late last month show the crisis is not yet over. The civil unrest poses another problem for friendly neighbors such as Australia: the threat of drug-running through the islands.

Two Chinese smugglers were recently arrested in Suva following the largest-ever heroin bust by the Australian Federal Police. Fijian police seized 300 kg of heroin with a street value of $50 million. Australian police believe the Myanmarese drug was being stockpiled in Suva because strife-ridden Fiji was considered a safe haven during political instability. They fear the smugglers will now move to East Timor.

At the height of the Fijian crisis, Canberra and Wellington had to avoid acting the role of big brother. Although they feared that the local military coup could lead to copycat rebellions across the South Pacific, only backroom diplomacy could be used to help local good sense restore democracy. At Kiribati last month, the Big Two members found plenty of support for a stronger means of response among smaller states where democracy is still fragile.

This assertive departure from the tired old “Pacific way” of noninterference may well lead to a more united formula by which the widely disparate peoples of the South Pacific can face the world.

The peoples are too few and too scattered to become a political force. But by first establishing a dialogue that offers license to impose trade, political and moral leverage against errant members, the new-look forum becomes a more effective means of stabilizing the so-called tropical paradise through internal cooperation.

The good relations Australia continues to enjoy with the region is a source of some satisfaction in Canberra. Less so with the neighbor to the near north. There, Jakarta has announced it will raise the cost of tourist visas to $50, a move seen here as partly retaliation against foreign journalists — such as a recent pushy “60 Minutes” investigative team — who try to reach remote fighting against official disapproval.

The 260,000 Australian tourists who trek to Bali each year will now have to holiday farther afield. Not that this worries Bali Governor Dewa Made Berata. He prefers Japanese tourists anyway.

“Japanese tourists have more money and are more disciplined than the Australians,” he told the Jakarta Post.

Ah, well, back to that luxury resort on a South Pacific coral atoll.

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