Papua Island has always been supported by South Pacific countries, such as Papua New Guinea (PNG), Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and many more. Therefore, the diplomatic relations between West Papua and the Melanesian States never met any problems so far. Unfortunately, it is not that way between the countries and the Indonesian Government.
Even though Indonesia has established formal diplomatic relations with those South Pacific countries, both bilateral and multilateral relations between them often experience positive and negative dynamics. These dynamics tend to be the result of Indonesia’s fluctuating domestic politics which ultimately affects the pattern of Indonesian behavior in its international interactions.
Diplomatic Relations between Indonesia and South Pacific Countries: Challenges & Potentials
One of Indonesia’s internal issues that significantly affect the dynamics of Indonesia’s relationship with South Pacific countries is the issue of separatism in West Papua. The separatist groups in the province often press the UN to hold a West Papua Independence Referendum. The pressure is carried out through various campaigns and propaganda of human rights violations committed by the Indonesian Government in Papua.
South Pacific countries that share similar race and cultures with the Papuan (Melanesian) people often provide sympathy and support for the West Papua’s independence effort. Thus, the Indonesian Government needs to be wiser in resolving this issue.
One of the solutions has been done by Indonesia in promoting the diplomatic relations between West Papua and Melanesian States as well as Indonesia as a country itself is by holding a cultural festival. Culture is believed to be an effective way to connect among people or groups, and it has already been proven. Some cultural events, such as Melanesian Cultural Festivals really helped improve their on-and-off relations.
How the Melanesian Cultural Festival Began
Melanesian Cultural Festival was initiated by MSG (Melanesian Spearhead Group), an organization consisting of representatives from South Pacific countries like PNG, Fiji, New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Indonesia joined the organization in June 2015 as an associate member and a representative for the Province of West Papua.
The event has been held every four years since 1998 and is aimed to preserve the Melanesian cultural heritages. Papua New Guinea was the first country to have held the festival. Since Indonesia joined MSG in 2015, the event was also held in the same year to celebrate both occasions. It was held in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, on 26 October 2015—Indonesia participated as well as hosted Melanesian Cultural Festival for the first time.
The festival’s theme was “Celebrating the Cultural Diversity of Melanesian World”, and Indonesian representatives were not only Papua, but also other eastern parts of the country, i.e. Sulawesi, Maluku, and Nusa Tenggara. The event was fulfilled with several cultural products such as movie screening of some movies about Eastern Indonesia produced and directed by local filmmakers.
The festival also offers an interesting cultural exhibition showcasing how the Melanesian race influences the Eastern parts of Indonesia.
How Important Melanesian Cultural Festival is
Speaking of the importance of the Melanesian Cultural Festival, it is very meaningful to Indonesia and Papua. Melanesians have formed Indonesian diaspora and enriched the diversity of cultures in the country. Therefore, the regular event plays a big role to strengthen the connection among the Indonesian Government, Papua—especially West Papua Province and other Melanesian countries.
It is from the Melanesian Cultural Festival; Indonesia can also benefit from tourism. The festival generally lasts for seven days, which means the tourists can stay and visit the festival longer to enjoy eastern cultural products, including music, handicrafts, accessories, foods, and costumes.
Most importantly, the festival has also supported Indonesia to represent its unique identity to the world. It is also important to preserve Melanesian cultural heritages for the future generation.
What Happened in the Latest Melanesian Cultural Festival?
The latest Melanesian Cultural Festival was held on 1-14 July 2018 in the Solomon Islands and estimated to have cost US$15 million. The event took place at the well-known National Art Gallery.
The theme of the 2018 festival was “Past Recollections, Future Connections”. There were about 2,000 attendees from eastern parts of Indonesia and other members of MSG. Different from the previous event, West Papua was honored by joining to become a member of observers, following East Timor. The spectacular event presented traditional dance performances, art and crafts, traditional music, movie screenings and discussions.
Promoting Diplomatic Relations among Indonesia, West Papua, and the Melanesian States
Back to diplomatic relation issues, Indonesia is suggested to prioritize persuasive diplomacy towards South Pacific countries. When referring to profit and loss calculations, the provision of supports to the Melanesian countries does not only positively affect the issue of West Papua, but also on the long-term relations, where island nations in the South Pacific have potential resources that Indonesia can develop and harvest in the future.
In addition to that, increasing Indonesia’s diplomatic capacity in fighting for its interests can be enhanced through a focus on providing support on economic issues through the Melanesian Spearhead Group’s Grand Vision for the year 2038, namely “Prosperity for All.” That can be implemented at an early stage through the MSG Corporate Plan for the period 2018-2020.