Yamin Kogoya: ‘Rebuilding our Melanesia for our future’ – culture and West Papua

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Morning Star flags of West Papuan independence on display at MACFEST2023
Morning Star flags of West Papuan independence on display at MACFEST2023 in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Image: MSG

SPECIAL REPORT: By Yamin Kogoya

“Rebuilding our Melanesia for our future” is the theme chosen by the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) for their 7th Melanesian Arts and Cultural Festival (MACFEST) this year.

Vanuatu hosted the event in Port Vila, which opened last Wednesday and ends next Monday.

The event was hosted by the MSG, which includes Fiji, New Caledonia’s Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

MACFEST2023
MACFEST2023: 19-31 July 2023

Aside from the MSG’s official members, West Papua, Maluku and Torres Straits have also been welcomed with their own flags and cultural symbols.

Although Indonesia is an associate member of the MSG, there were no Indonesian flags or cultural symbols to be seen at the festival.

This action — Indonesian exclusion — alone spoke volumes of the essence and characteristics of what constitutes Melanesian cultures and values.

This event is a significant occasion that occurs every four years among the Melanesian member countries.

The MSG’s website under the Arts and Culture section says:

The Arts and Culture programme is an important pillar in the establishment of the MSG. Under the agreed principles of cooperation among independent states in Melanesia, it was signed in Port Vila on March 14, 1988, and among other things, the MSG commits to the principles of, and holds respect for and promotion of Melanesian cultures, traditions, and values as well as those of other indigenous communities.

A screenshot of a video of a MACFEST2023 and Melanesian Spearhead Group solidarity display showing Papuans daubed in their Morning Star flag colours
A screenshot of a video of a MACFEST2023 and Melanesian Spearhead Group solidarity display showing Papuans daubed in their Morning Star flag colours – banned in Indonesia. Image: @FKogotinen

MACFESTs

  • 1998: The first MACFEST was held in the Solomon Islands with the theme, “One people, many cultures”.
  • 2002: Vanuatu hosted the second MACFEST event under the theme, “Preserving peace through sharing of cultural exchange”.
  • 2006: “Living cultures, living traditions” was the theme of the third MACFEST event held in Fiji.
  • 2010: The fourth MACFEST event was held in New Caledonia with the theme “Our identity lies ahead of us”.
  • 2014: Papua New Guinea hosted the fifth MACFEST, with the theme “Celebrating cultural diversity”.
  • 2018: The Solomon Islands hosted the sixth edition of MACFEST with the theme “Past recollections, future connections”.
  • 2023: Vanuatu is the featured nation in the seventh edition, with the slogan “Rebuilding our Melanesia for our future”.

Imagery, rhetorics, colours and rhythms exhibited in Port Vila is a collective manifestation of the words written on MSG’s website.

MSG national colours mark MACFEST2023.
MSG national colours mark MACFEST2023. @WalakNane

There have been welcoming ceremonies united under an atmosphere of warmth, brotherhood, and sisterhood with lots of colourful Melanesian cultural traditions on display.

Images and videos shared on social media, including many official social media accounts, portrayed a spirit of unity, respect, understanding and harmony.

West Papuan flags have also been welcomed and filled the whole event. The Morning Star has shone bright at this event.

The following are some of the images, colours and rhetoric displayed during the opening festive event, as well as the West Papua plight to be accepted into what Papuans themselves echo as the “Melanesian family”.

Wamena – West Papua on 19 July 2023
For West Papuans, July 2023 marks a time when the stars seem to be aligned in one place — Vanuatu. July this year, Vanuatu is to chair the MSG leaders’ summit, hosting the seventh MACFEST, and celebrating its 43rd year of independence. Vanuatu has been a homebase (outside of West Papua) supporting West Papua’s liberation struggle since 1970s.

Throughout West Papua, you will witness spectacular displays of Melanesian colours, flags, and imagery in response to the unfolding events in the MSG and Vanuatu.

Melanesian brethren also displayed incredible support for West Papua’s plight at the MACFEST in Port Vila — a little hope that keeps Papuan spirits high in a world where freedom has been shut for 60 years.

This support fosters a sense of solidarity and offers a glimmer of optimism that one day West Papua will reclaim its sovereignty — the only way to safeguard Melanesian cultures, languages and tradition in West Papua.

Although geographically separated, Vanuatu, West Papua and the rest of Melanesian, are deeply connected emotionally and culturally through the display of symbols, flags, colours, and rhetoric.

Emancipation, expectation, hope, and prayer are high for the MSG’s decision making — decisions that are often marked by “uncertainty”.

A contested and changing Melanesia
The Director-General of MSG, Leonard Louma, said during the opening:

The need to dispel the notion that Melanesian communities only live in Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and acknowledge and include Melanesians that live elsewhere.

I am reminded that there are pockets of descendants of Melanesians in the Micronesian group and the Polynesian group. We should include them, like the black Samoans of Samoa — often referred to as Tama Uli — in future MACFESTs.

In the past, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Australia, and Taiwan were invited to attend. Let us continue to build on these blocks to make this flagship cultural event of ours even bigger and better in the years to come.

MSG leaders may perceive their involvement in defining and redefining the concept of Melanesia, as well as addressing date postponements and criteria-related matters, as relatively insignificant.

Similarly, for MSG members, their participation in the Melanesian cultural festival could be considered as just one of four events that rotate between them.

For West Papuans, this is an existential issue — between life or death as they face a bleak future under Indonesian colonial settler occupation — in which they are constantly reminded that their ancestral land will soon be seized and occupied by Indonesians if their sovereignty issues do not soon resolve.

The now postponed MSG’s leaders’ summit will soon consider an application proposing that West Papua be included within the group.

Regardless of whether this proposal is accepted by the existing member countries of the MSG, the obvious international pressures that impel this debate, must also prompt us to ask ourselves what it means to be Melanesian.

United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) interim chair Benny Wenda being interviewed by Vanuatu Television
United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) interim chair Benny Wenda being interviewed by Vanuatu Television during MACFEST2023. Image: VBTC screenshot APR

Decisions around unity?
Does the primacy of maintaining good relations with a powerful country like Indonesia, the West and China supersede Melanesian solidarity, or are we able to transcend these pressures to redefine and “rebuild our common Melanesia for our future”?

The Melanesian people must decide whether we are sufficiently united to support our brothers and sisters in West Papua, or whether our respective cultures are too diverse to be able to resist the charms offered by outsiders to look the other way.

The imminent decision to be made by the MSG leaders in Port Vila will be a crucial one — one that will affect the Melanesian people for generations to come. Does the MSG stand for promoting Melanesian interests, or has it become tempted by the short term promises of the West, China and their Indonesian minions?

What has become of the Melanesian Way — the notion of the holistic and cosmic worldview advocated by Papua New Guinea’s Bernard Narakobi?

The decision to be made in Port Vila will shine a light on the MSG’s own integrity. Does this group exist to help the Melanesian people, or is their real purpose only to help others to subjugate the Melanesian people, cultures and resources?

The task of “Rebuilding our Melanesia for our future” cannot be achieved without directly confronting the predicament faced by West Papua. This issue goes beyond cultural concerns; it is primarily about addressing sovereignty matters.

Only through the restoration of West Papua’s political sovereignty can the survival of the Melanesian people in that region and the preservation of their culture be ensured.

Should the MSG and its member countries continue to ignore this critical issue, “Papuan sovereignty”, one day there will be no true Melanin — the true ontological definition and geographical categorisation of what Melanesia is, (Melanesian) “Black people” represented in any future MACFEST event. It will be Asian-Indonesian.

Either MSG can rebuild Melanesia through re-Melanesianisation or destroy Melanesia through de-Melanesianisation. Melanesian leaders must seriously contemplate this existential question, not confining it solely to the four-year slogan of festival activities.

The decisive political and legal vision of MSG is essential for ensuring that these ancient, timeless, and incredibly diverse traditions and cultures continue to flourish and thrive into the future.

One can hope that, in the future, MSG will have the opportunity to extend invitations to world leaders who advocate peace instead of war, inviting them to Melanesia to learn the art of dance, song, and the enjoyment of our relaxing kava, while embracing and appreciating our rich diversity.

This would be a positive shift from the current situation where MSG leaders may feel obliged to respond to the demands of those who wield power through money and weapons, posing threats to global harmony.

Can the MSG be the answer to the future crisis humanity faces? Or will it serve as a steppingstone for the world’s criminals, thieves, and murders to desecrate our Melanesia?

Yamin Kogoya is a West Papuan academic who has a Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development from the Australian National University and who contributes to Asia Pacific Report. From the Lani tribe in the Papuan Highlands, he is currently living in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

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