PHIL FITZPATRICK – MELANESIA is an ill-defined concept. The word comes from the Greek and means ‘black islands’.
The term generally refers to a broad swathe of territory extending from West Papua south east to Fiji.
The area encompasses the two West Papuan provinces, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and the western half of Fiji.
The so-called ‘Melanesian Way’ concept claims a commonality of culture, social organisation, values and outlook, largely in flattering terms.
The idea has been variously criticised by a range of commentators, mostly because they believe it conveys a false utopian view.
In Papua New Guinea the Melanesian Way is credited, among other things, with the peaceful transition from colonial rule to independence.
In reality the peaceful transition owed more to Australian design. In Vanuatu the transition to independence was more traumatic because of the attitudes of its British and French administrators.
While the veracity of a distinct Melanesia in traditional terms is questionable, its modern regional manifestation suggests otherwise. This is nowhere more apparent than in the similarities in the problems of governance in the region.
Modern Melanesia is everywhere demonstrating a common inability to govern itself.
We are aware of the problems in Papua New Guinea. These include corruption, incompetence and the inability to organise a coherent political unity. Much of this is epitomised in the ‘bigman’ concept.
All these problems also characterise the other Melanesian states in the region.
In Vanuatu there was a breakdown in governance that required outside intervention. There was a secession movement on Santo which had the hallmarks of the Bougainville crisis. In a twist of irony, Papua New Guinea sent its own military contingent to help.
In Solomon Islands the same characteristics caused a complete breakdown in governance and a civil war between the people from Malaita and those from Guadalcanal. The Australia-led intervention known as RAMSI (regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands) encountered the same problems Papua New Guinea is now experiencing.
There is a consensus that, when RAMSI winds up, the Solomon Islands will revert to its previous condition of anarchy.
There was a crisis in New Caledonia, sometimes referred to as the Kanak insurgency. France, which regards its colonies as part of the provincial motherland, brutally supressed the uprising. The Kanaks continue to fight among themselves.
In West Papua, resistance to Indonesian annexation continues and is being brutally suppressed. There is no coherent and united opposition.
In Fiji there have been two military coups whose success probably owes more to Polynesian and Indian influences.
It seems that a defining characteristic of the Melanesian Way is disunity and a failure of effective governance. It is also a self-inflicting phenomenon. Blaming previous colonial or outside influences misses the point.
Both Australia and New Zealand have been involved in regional interventions in the Pacific. At best they have simply stabilised bad situations. They have not even come close to solving the underlying issues, and those issues persist.
Australia and New Zealand are dreading the prospect of having to intervene somewhere as large and complicated as Papua New Guinea.
This goes a long way in explaining their current heads-in-the-sand attitude. At the moment they just don’t want to know about it.
When you look at countries in Africa, it is difficult not to conclude that the whole post-war decolonisation process, so beloved of the United Nations, might have been a mistake.
Cutting barely developed countries adrift to sink or swim has been disastrous worldwide. It is analogous to setting minnows free in a pool of sharks.
In the Pacific region of Melanesia the only way forward seems to be the re-establishment of colonial ties in a much more formal and equitable way.
But who would listen to an argument like that?