Oceania Theater

Strategic strait at issue in Australia-China rift

Amid trade wars, diplomatic tiffs and propaganda sniping, the ugliness between China and Australia seems set to escalate as Beijing enters an agreement with Papua New Guinea to establish an industrial foothold within the narrow Torres Strait. Radio Australia reports that community leaders in North Queensland, just across the strait from New Guinea, fear that China's plan to construct the facility will jeopardize border security and threaten the commercial fishing sector.

New Caledonia: one more shot for independence

The results are in for the Oct. 4 independence referendum in New Caledonia and, as in 2018, the majority has voted against seceding from France. However, the proportion of "yes" to "no" votes changed. Support for independence rose from 43% in 2018 to 47% this time, indicating that more residents than ever before want an independent country for their island home. Voter turnout was also even higher than last time, rising from 81% to 85%. And the archipelago could still become independent in the coming years. The 1998 Nouméa Accord [translation] that paved the way for this referendum also allows for one more independence vote, in 2022, for a total of three. One-third of the region's legislature must vote in favor of holding the final referendum—and that body already has a pro-independence majority.

Pacific megastorm complicates COVID-19 response

A powerful storm that ripped across four Pacific Island nations this week raises an uncomfortable question for humanitarians on coronavirus lockdown: how do you respond to a disaster during a global pandemic? Cyclone Harold—the first Category-5 storm to make landfall in the Pacific since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March—tore through parts of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga. The storm swept 27 people on a ferry overboard in the Solomon Islands; parts of Vanuatu's northern islands saw extensive damage; some 6,000 people were evacuated in parts of Fiji; and Tonga's 'Eua Island was "devastated," the government said.

Rio Tinto accused of rights violations in Bougainville

Mining giant Rio Tinto is responsible for multiple human rights violations caused by pollution from its former mine on the Pacific island of Bougainville, the Human Rights Law Centre concludes in a new investigative report. For 45 years, the Panguna copper and gold mine on Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, was majority-owned by the British-Australian mining company, but in 2016 Rio Tinto divested from the mine, leaving behind more than a billion metric tons of mine waste. The report, After the Mine: Living with Rio Tinto’s Deadly Legacy, documents the devastating consequences of that action for the thousands of people living around the mine site. Based on visits to 38 villages, the report reveals communities living with contaminated water sources, land and crops flooded by toxic mud, and health problems ranging from skin diseases and respiratory ailments to pregnancy complications.

Bougainville votes for independence from PNG

In a referendum held over two weeks, the people of Bougainville, an archipelago in the South Pacific's Solomon Sea, voted overwhelmingly to seek independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG). The referendum was the centerpiece of the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement between the PNG government and Bougainville independence leaders to end a devastating decade-long war that claimed nearly 20,000 lives—nearly a tenth the territory's total population. Negotiations between PNG and Bougainville about the road forward will now begin and could continue for years, with the PNG parliament having the final say. Control of the territory's rich mineral resources has been a key issue in the conflict.

West Papua rights lawyer faces imprisonment

Indonesian police have named human rights lawyer and prominent West Papua advocate Veronica Koman as a suspect in the spreading of "fake news," accusing her of "incitement" in the widespread unrest that has swept the country's easternmost region in recent weeks. Koman has been charged under Indonesia's controversial cybercrime law, and faces up to six years in prison and a $70,000 fine if convicted. Police specifically mentioned Koman's online posts of an incident last month in Surabaya, Java, in which army troops and nationalist militiamen were captured on video calling Papuan students "monkeys" and "dogs." Indonesian authorities have contacted Interpol to seek assistance in locating the Surabaya, who they believe is outside the country. Indonesia's National Commission of Human Rights has assailed the move, saying Koman had merely attempted to provide "necessary information from a different point of view." (The Guardian, Asia Pacific Report)

Net silence in strife-torn West Papua

The Indonesian military and National Police are rushing hundreds of additional troops to the provinces of Papua and West Papua in an attempt to restore order amid a popular uprising in the region. The government has also shut internet access in the two provinces. Thousands of Papuans have taken to the streets in Jayapura, Sorong, Manokwari and other major towns of Indonesia's Papuan territories following a wave of mass arrests, police violence and attacks on Papuan students and activists. The repression was unleashed after an incident in Surabaya, Java, on Aug. 16, the eve of Indonesia's Independence Day, when Papuan students were accused of disrespecting the Indonesian flag. The repression has only sparked a general uprising in the Papuan territories, further fueling demands for independence.

West Papua independence forces unite

Rebel groups seeking independence for Indonesia's West Papua region have announced formation of a new united army under a single command. Three major factions have come together as the West Papua Army, under the political leadership of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).  The three tendencies agreed to unite in a "Vanimo Border Declaration" issued in May, the ULMWP's UK-exiled leader Benny Wenda announced July 5, appealing for international support. "We welcome any assistance in helping us achieve our liberation," he said in a statement. "The ULMWP is ready to form an independent West Papua. Politically and militarily we are united now. The international community can now see without a doubt that we are ready to take over our country. Indonesia cannot stigmatize us as separatists or criminals any more, we are a legitimate unified military and political state-in-waiting." The new force unites the West Papua Liberation Army, the West Papuan National Army and the West Papua Revolutionary Army. (Al Jazeera, Radio New Zealand)

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