Indonesia defends claim to largest Melanesian population | Pacific Beat

Indonesia defends claim to largest Melanesian population

Indonesia defends claim to largest Melanesian population

Updated 15 February 2012, 12:39 AEDT

It's an assertion that can't be easily quantified - is Indonesia home to the largest population of the Melanesian race? Indonesia claims to be home to 11 million Melanesians.

.. that's the basis Jakarta used to justify its inclusion as an observer to the recent Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting in Fiji.

The statement has given rise to debate among academics and politicians as to what qualifies someone as being Melanesian.

Some say it is about how people identify themselves, while others - including the Indonesian Government - say it is about genetics and cultural backgrounds.

Presenter: Stephanie March

Michael Tene, Indonesia's Foreign Affairs spokesman; Dr Michael Ewing, linguist and anthropologist from Melbourne University; Dr Ray Anere, a research fellow with the National Research Institute in Port Moresby

MARCH: Indonesia is one of the Pacific's nearest neighbours.

The province of West Papua shares a land border with PNG.

Further west are the Maluku Islands and south, near Timor Island, is Nusa Tengarra.. all places Jakarta claims are home to Melanesians.

TENE: Our indonesian citizens in the Eastern part of Indonesia mainly come from the Melanesian ethnicity, and so certainly we have a huge number of our citizens which are from Melanesian ethnicity. As you know Indonesia is multi-culture, multi-ethnic nation.

MARCH: That's Indonesia's Foreign Affairs spokesman, Michael Tene.

Dr Ray Anere, a research fellow with the National Research Institute in Port Moresby, says Pacific Islander Melanesians view their links with people in Indonesia - other than those in West Papua - more tenuously.

DR ANERE: I think that realisation sort of is understood that although they are Melanesians they belong to a different country, and they come under a different national, political, social system.

MARCH: Many academics agree though that many east Indonesians do have genetic links with Melanesia.

EWING: Genetically there appear to be connections and we can see this through certain racial characteristics as well. Linguistically most of the languages of Indonesia are part of a language group called the Austronesian languages, but in various parts of eastern Indonesia, particularly in Maluku and parts of the area around Timor Island, there are groups of people whose languages are not Austronesian and they're usually classified being Papuan.

MARCH: Dr Michael Ewing is a linguist and anthropologist from Melbourne University who has done extensive work documenting languages in Indonesia's Maluku Islands.

He says while some Indonesian's have genetic links to the Pacific, they wouldn't necessarily view themselves as being Melanesian.

EWING: My impression would be they wouldn't have a sense of an identity with broader group like the Melanesians. With the communities that I was working in their identity is much more focused either on their particular village or the small ethnic group that they belong to or in addition to that they would have an identity as being Indonesians. But I think a pan-ethnic identity that would cut across areas of eastern Indonesia into Papua New Guinea and parts of the Pacific is something that most people there are not particularly aware of.

MARCH: Michael Tene from Indonesia's foreign affairs department says it doesn't matter how someone views their ethnicity, it is how it influences their lives and culture that qualifies them as being Melanesian.

TENE: It is not whether they are identifying themselves of certain ethnicity it is fact of life you just cannot put label on it. It is a fact that they have certain type of culture, certain features of their physical features, certain aspects of traditions, way of life I think this issues of questioning whether they're Melanesians or not it is rather absurd.

MARCH: Mr Tene says Jakarta's inclusion in the Melanesian Spearhead Group will strengthen and preserve Indonesia's Melanesian culture.

TENE: In Indonesia we cherish the traditional cultures, we encourage the preservation of local cultures. I think that in certain part of Indonesia and we share similarity with the other Pacific countries. It will be a very good way of participation in the MSG and that will help strengthen and open ways to promote connectivity, to promote greater contact, exchange of various activities in which they can share experiences .

MARCH: Do you think people with Melanesian ethnicity in Indonesia care whether or not they are recognised in a grouping along with Pacific neighbours?

TENE: Well again, like I said this is a part of promoting closer cooperation. If they haven't been connected, if there is no greater connection, then people may not know about one another, and how we can promote, how can they connect if there is no avenue?

MARCH: The decision to include Indonesia at the recent meeting prompted outrage from pro-West Papuan independence groups.

Some were concerned Indonesia would use its presence to quash support for West Papuan independence among MSG member nations.

TENE: The future of West Papua, as far as the Indonesian Government is concerned, it is final in terms it is part of Indonesia, that they are part of the Indonesian nation. Of course there are many challenges ahead that we have to face in Papua and particularly with regards to the empowerment of local people. Our participation as an observer in the Melanesian Spearhead Group is not simply about the issue of Papua, Indonesia is part of the Pacific.

MARCH: Does Indonesia want to suppress any support for West Papuan independence that may come from the Melanesian Spearhead Group?

TENE: We are not talking about suppression. Certainly what we are doing is we will answer any questions that arise about that some quarters would like to ask and even you know we can exchange experience, what are our difficulties what are our challenges? And perhaps the things that we have experienced may also be of value to others and we can also learn from the experience of other countries as well so that we don't have to re-invent the wheel in effort to create prosperity in the eastern part of Indonesia including in Papua.

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