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Jakarta Post

Insight: Not easy to be Melanesian in Indonesia'€™s Papua

  • Neles Tebay

    The Jakarta Post

Jayapura   /   Wed, May 13, 2015   /  01:10 pm

One does not need to ask if there are Melanesians in Indonesia, as there are Indonesians who identify as Melanesian. Those Melanesians can be found in the country'€™s two most eastern provinces, Papua and West Papua, at least.

But is the Melanesian identity of Papuans accepted or rejected in Indonesia'€™s pluralistic state, the official slogan of which cries '€œbhinneka tunggal ika'€ (unity in diversity)?

The identity is a given: Melanesian is not an expression of political ideology. It has nothing to do with citizenship. It is a human race which all indigenous Papuans, without discrimination, belong to.

Every Papuan is and should always be Melanesian by race, regardless of religious affiliation, political aspiration or citizenship.

Since Melanesia constitutes a race, it is created by neither any institution nor by any government. It is not established by any religious institution. It does not result from a long devoted prayer. It is a result of having Indonesian citizenship. Papuans themselves neither establish nor select it for their survival.

Indeed, Melanesian as a race is not gifted to any Papuan, either in Indonesia or abroad. It is important for the government to be reminded that the Melanesian race is not a gift presented to Papuans by the government after Papua was integrated into Indonesia in May 1963.

The Melanesian race has nothing to do with Papuans'€™ citizenship status. Like it or not, Papuans were always Melanesian, long before the integration of Papua into the Indonesian republic.

The identity, however, was denied.

Although Papuans are already Melanesians by birth, they question: Why has the government not recognized the Melanesian identity of Papuans, since 1963 until today?

Papuans'€™ experiences show that their Melanesian identity was denied by the government from 1963 to 2001. Papuans were banned from recognizing themselves as being Melanesian for 38 years.

For the government, the term '€œMelanesia'€ was mistakenly interpreted as an expression of separatism. A Papuan who recognized him or herself as Melanesian was immediately accused of being separatist and, therefore, treated as Indonesia'€™s enemy who had to be eliminated before destroying the nation'€™s territorial integrity. Many Papuans have been sacrificed for bravely recognizing their Melanesian identity in public.

Papuans were forced into a difficult situation where they had to choose between denying their Melanesian identity for the sake of their survival or recognizing their Melanesian identify with the consequence of sacrificing their lives. So Melanesian identity has been denied for the sake of the territorial integrity of the Indonesian republic.

Hence, a call for recognition.

The government has eventually recognized, although not fully, Papuans as Melanesian. The recognition can be found in Law No. 21/2001 on the special autonomy of Papua province. Yet Papuans do not feel that their Melanesian identity is fully respected.

The government began to focus its attention on Papuans'€™ Melanesian identity in 2013, when Papuans, especially those fighting for independence from Indonesia, began to get support from people and the governments of four countries in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG): Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.

Support for Papua was given on the commonality of being Melanesian. Melanesian countries, in a summit in Noumea, New Caledonia, in 2013, made a unanimous decision to support Papuans'€™ right to self-determination.

The support for Papua from all Melanesians in South Pacific countries is getting stronger, wider, and is taking root in Melanesian hearts. People from the four Melanesian countries have been manifesting their solidarity with the Papuans considered as their Melanesian brothers and sisters of West Papua (Papua).

Melanesians in the southern Pacific have been strongly encouraging their respective governments to welcome the return of Papuans to the Melanesian family by accepting West Papua through the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) as a new member of the MSG.

Sharing the same Melanesian cultural values, the government of the four Melanesian countries will decide this May 21 whether they recognize Papuans as Melanesians by accepting West Papua as a member of the MSG.

Considering developments in the Melanesian countries of the Pacific, one could understand the significance of the call for recognition of Papua'€™s Melanesian identity raised by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), through the party'€™s fourth national congress held in Bali in April.

The PDI-P even highlighted an obligation for the government to recognize the Melanesian identity of Papuans as an integral part of Indonesian cultural identity and expression of bhinneka tunggal ika.

The government should show recognition, as there has been no public acknowledgement in Indonesia on the Papuan cultural identity as being Melanesian during 52 years of integration.

President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo visited Papua and West Papua on May 8-11. During his visit, however, he mentioned nothing about Papuans'€™ Melanesian identity. We will wait and see.

Papuans, for their part, do not seem to look for recognition in Indonesia, because they are traumatized by bitter experiences that they have endured for calling themselves Melanesian. As a result, they are hoping that the recognition of their identity will come from the Pacific, particularly from Melanesian countries. Now they have full hope of official acceptance as a new member of the MSG on May 21.

For more than 50 years, the Melanesian identity has been seen from a political perspective. Political context decides the Melanesian-ness of Papuans. As a result, sometimes it is recognized but other times it is denied. Therefore, it is important to discuss Melanesia as a cultural issue rather than a political one.

The writer is a lecturer at the Fajar Timur School of Philosophy and Theology, as well as coordinator of the Papuan Peace Network in Abepura.

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