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“Forum failing Melanesians” (Island Business, April 2021)

14/07/2021

During the recent crisis over the appointment of Forum Secretariat’s s new Secretary General (a Cook Islander), much public debate occurred over the supposed “gentlemen’s agreement” to share the leadership between Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.

There was little debate about what great regional challenges that actually faced and defined Forum’s leadership, other than climate change which all acknowledged was likely to devastate Micronesia (and some said justified appointing the candidate from Marshalls.

Once upon a time, the stopping of French nuclear tests in the Pacific, was such an issue that united all Pacific countries.

Then over the last two decades, economic integration in the Pacific via PICTA and Pacer then took center stage.  But this issue has dwindled away out of sight as fairly empty agreements led by Australia and NZ were signed by all the countries, except the two largest (PNG and Fiji) who really needed to be part of the agreement to make it meaningful.

But to any knowledgeable international observer, there are three shocking omissions from the dialogue table that need explanation: the genocide of West Papuan people, the suppression of the Kanak call for Independence in New Caledonia and the abject failure of Pacific peoples to identify with the plaintive pleas by the First People of Australia  for full recognition.

One common threat in all these three issues is that the people suffering are all Melanesian people.

The second common thread is that the oppressors of these people are major donors with Forum Secretariat and some Pacific countries: France, Australia and Indonesia.

Genocide of West Papuans

The Melanesian people of West Papua have been waging a desperate and often bloody struggle for independence from the time when the Dutch withdrew from New Guinea fifty years ago, with the Indonesian Government using brutal violence against innocent civilians, to protect its ill-gotten economic gains from resource-rich seized territory.

Most Forum countries have taken for granted their own independence from former political powers, nearly all obtained without any spilling  of blood or any great struggle.

So why has Forum not made the West Papuan struggle for independence a major issue in Forum deliberations, given that the West Papuans are true Melanesians like Papua New Guineans or Solomon Islanders or Ni-Vanuatu or even Fijians?

One can understand the fear of PNG of its giant super-power neighbor who once upon a time was seen as a positive global force in the Non-Aligned Movement alongside India. 

But it is so difficult to understand why Fijian political leaders (including one former ethno-nationalist) chose to get into bed with Indonesia, other than the cheap attraction of aid dollars from Indonesia (even for an elite Fijian secondary school).

Why has Forum never given special and formal recognition to West Papuan representatives at Forum gatherings, although the oppressing power Indonesia has been invited to sit at the Forum table?

One issue that has been raised by some writers is the silent but very real racism of light-skinned Polynesian peoples (and some say the eastern dominated Fijian political leadership) towards the dark-skinned Melanesians.

It may be no coincidence that leadership of the Forum has been dominated for decades by Polynesians who have very special relationships with NZ in ways that Melanesian countries have never had with Australia.

It may be no surprise that one of the largest financiers of Forum is Australia which has geostrategic reasons not to irritate Indonesia by explicit or implicit support for West Papuan Independence.

One result of Australian and NZ failure to take the lead in West Papuan independence struggle has been the shocking fifty year neglect by UN of this disgraceful genocide for fifty years.

Kanak call for Independence

One of the sad moral failures of Pacific people and indeed of the United Nations has been to call out the brutal French colonization of New Caledonia and continued suppression of genuine the Melanesian Kanak population and their justified calls for Independence.

The Pacific people and the United Nations have abjectly failed to call out the series of sham referenda in which the colonizing French people and introduced migrant Pacific peoples allegedly have decided whether New Caledonia should be granted independence.

There is absolutely little doubt that the indigenous Melanesian people have been systematically marginalized from the economic resources of New Caledonia and have suffered levels of poverty and deprivation by all MDGs which ought to be scandalous internationally given the wealth and well-being of the white French and the migrant Polynesian peoples.

Why has the UN not made Kanak independence a priority?

Most importantly, why has Forum Secretariat not made Kanak Independence a rallying cry at Forum meetings and demanded the same at international UN meetings?

Is it a coincidence that the oppressed people of New Caledonia are Melanesians and Forum is Polynesia oriented and dominated?

Is it a coincidence that France is a major financier of Forum Secretariat?

Australia’s First People

One of the shocking social cancers facing Australian politics and society has been its centuries of oppression of Australia’s First People who have the longest history of civilization in the world, some sixty thousand years.

Historians have amply recorded (and Australian society largely ignored) the shocking impact of British colonization of Australia via the pathetic “terra nullis” claim of Captain Cook and the British Crown: the systematic theft of lands, the brutal systematic marginalization and genocide of the original inhabitants; the systematic suppression of Aboriginal culture and languages; the stealing of generations of mixed race Aboriginal children “to be saved by Assimilation” (the Stolen Generation); the blatant and callous refusal to acknowledge Aboriginal land rights (until the Mabo decision by the High Court made a small dent); the massive rates of incarceration of Aboriginal peoples and especially their young and women, all of whom have one of the highest shocking rates of suicide in custody in the world.

Despite all these facts historically verified for decades, the Australian Government of Morrison (and Turnbull) have cynically and callously rejected the First People’s mild but unanimous request for national recognition via the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” (google it).

Many Pacific readers may better understand the immense human tragedy of Australia’s First People by reading a painful 2016 book Talking To My Country by Stan Grant, of the Wiradjuri people of Aboriginal and Irish convict descent. Stan Grant has been an award winning journalist and correspondent in Hong Kong, Beijing and the war-torn Middle East, and today is often seen and heard as a formidable “Voice of Reason” in Australian media and politics, a genuine thought leader.

Again I ask the question: given the dire straits that Australia’s First People are in, without any doubt worse than the Pacific Island peoples represented in the Forum (and amongst the worst in the developing world living in a rich developed country), why has Forum Secretariat never placed the Aboriginal issues on its agenda?

Is it because the Aboriginal people are Melanesians?

Is it that placing them on the Forum agenda would make Australia uncomfortable and Australia is a key financier of Forum?

Where are the clarion calls from Forum?

I have little doubt that Forum officials will be able to point to some items or other on their agenda for the last thirty years that suggest that Forum Secretariat has been concerned about the West Papuan genocide, the Kanak calls for Independence and the plight of the Aboriginal people.

But these would never be the issues identified as “clarion calls” sounded by Pacific Island leaders under some guidance from Forum Secretariat’s leadership so that at least ordinary Pacific people can see what vital issues that Forum has stood for over the last three decades.

Just as recently the fight against climate change as an existential threat to many Pacific Islands has been globally recognized because of some Pacific leaders international stand.

It may not be a coincidence that when former South Pacific Community head Dr Colin Tukuitoga recently wrote about the future of regionalism, USP and Forum Secretariat, his one suggestion was that students of Polynesian countries could go to NZ.  He made no mention of the far greater development problems faced by the Melanesian countries of Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Yet these Melanesian peoples, not even including the Kanaks of New Caledonia, the West Papuans or the First Peoples of Australia, comprise more than 95% of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

One cannot but have the sinking feeling that the leadership of regional organizations like Forum Secretariat (based in Fiji) and Pacific Community (based in New Caledonia) do not have Melanesian concerns at the heart of their agenda, and the silent racism of Polynesians against Melanesians may explain some of the marginalization of the most anguishing Melanesian problems.

So also might be the “who pays the piper calls the tune” syndrome where it is not the Pacific Island countries themselves who fund these regional organizations but Australia, NZ and France with their own geostrategic agenda.

Not ever discussed in the Pacific is the hidden reality that the senior management of most Pacific CROP organizations funded by Australia, NZ and France, are citizens of these same countries, while the CEOs are often highly paid symbolic heads, with little real influence on the direction of their organization (although there have been exceptions like Dame Meg Taylor).

It seems that Forum countries have retreated into convenient silence after the recent brief storm in the teacup over the appointment of Forum’s Secretary General.

I would suggest that if these organizations are to have any real purpose in the Pacific they need to regain their moral compass with respect to the traumatized Melanesian peoples of West Papua, New Caledonia and Australia.

I would suggest that the Melanesian countries of PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji take the lead in recommending that Forum Secretariat invite membership from formal representatives of the West Papuan people, the Kanaks, and the First People of Australia.

I would hope that Australia, NZ and Indonesia keep a diplomatic silence over these issues and not use their control over the purse strings to influence outcomes.

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