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PNG is not Pasifika – we are not so much of the ocean

Writer and polemicist Martyn Namorong at Goroka Airport in his prize-winning sulu


PORT MORESBY - Last year in Goroka I attended a party at a hotel. Although hundreds of kilometres from the sea and high in the clouds of the Papua New Guinea highlands, it was a Pasifika themed party.

Luckily I had taken along my sulu on that work trip and so, wearing my sulu and a bula shirt, I was pretty much 100% Pasifika for the night.

(It also turned out I was the only Pasifika-dressed party goer, so by default won the prize that was on offer.)

My Goroka experience provided a glimpse into how PNG wants to be Pasifika but doesn’t behave as such. Not just in fashion, of course, but in terms of common values and more importantly the customs (kastom) that define this region and its people.

My first observation of why I think PNG is not a Pasifika nation is that of how we perceive our physical environment.

One really gets a sense of Pasifika as the ‘liquid continent’ when taking off from Honiara, Nadi or Nuku'alofa and noting how tiny are the islands and how vast the ocean. From Port Moresby, you can look to the horizon and see land stretching to the peaks of the highlands.

This is an important contrast because it gives Pasifika people a sense of their place in the world. Do we Papua New Guineans see ourselves as people of that liquid continent of which wrote Tongan-Fijian writer and anthropologist ‘Epeli Hau'ofa?

In the current context of regional integration, do we see ourselves as part of the Pacific Islands Forum's agenda as people of the Blue Continent with a Blue Economy. Is PNG's economic future on land or in the ocean like other Pasifika nations?

Questions about a shared Pasifika future are important because, while some policy thinkers at the regional and national level may think so, my view is that PNG doesn't share this common future with its Pasifika neighbours.

The first and most important reason I say PNG is not Pasifika is that it needs to and wants to industrialise to take care of its eight million people.

Indeed we are already extracting large quantities of carbon (oil and gas) from the ground selling it to the world. And we have coal which we might soon be exploiting.

Harsh as these words read, whilst we will feel negative consequences of climate change, these may not erase our nation from the surface of the earth like they might other Pasifika states.

So while industrialisation means increased carbon emissions and contributing to global warming and climate change, perhaps we can afford to do this because much of our land mass is 1,000 meters above the sea.

PNG is also not Pasifika because of the nature of the relationship the State has with Society which is different from other Pasifika countries. Regional integration is easier if nation states have shared values and principles of governance.

The relationship between State and Society in PNG is one I would describe as Paternalistic whereas Pasifika states tend to be more Maternalistic.

In PNG the economic relationship between State and Society is a predatory relationship. Waigani's predatory elite exploits the land and resources of the people, apparently in the national interest.

In terms of the provision of public goods and services, State tends to throw out its people to fend for themselves and be exploited without social safeguards or even access to justice.

'Epeli Hau'ofa
'Epeli Hau'ofa

Pasifika governments tend to take better care of their people and protect their interests.

There are other perhaps more controversial areas of contrast like culture, sovereignty, decolonisation, demilitarisation and West Papua but I won't delve there for now.

My view is that PNG has a very different development trajectory to that of other Pacific Island nations.

It won’t be easy to chuck PNG out of the regional space due to historical and geographical reasons but I believe PNG's place in the Pacific is similar to that of Australia and New Zealand.

We are a friend but we are not a member of the Pasifika family of nations.


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William Kep

Mr. Namorong. You are damn right. So true, PNG must not be in the pacific. We cannot be included in the pacific but rather in the south east asia region and the Asia region. Commercially makes a lot of sense. We are now stuck in a no man's land or sea in the pacific. we have to reclassify ourselves.

Patrick Kaiku

The Blue Pacific and the Pasifika is more than just "physical environment". Sure, the Ocean is not a common identity marker for thousands of Pacific Islands inhabiting larger islands such as New Guinea or Malaita or Guadalcanal.

Even peoples in the interior of New Guinea island provinces like West New Britain or New Ireland don't identify much with the ocean or sea environment.

What the Blue Pacific or Pasifika conception is basically celebrates smallness in global diplomacy.

The thing I get out of understanding the Blue Pacific and Pasifika is the importance of "collective diplomacy". This has been an effective approach by small island developing states (SIDS) lobbying with other like-minded states in addressing concerns that matter to them in international relations.

Read the Boe Declaration of 2018 and its emphasis on environmental and resource security. Surely these are concerns that connect Papua New Guinea with other small island states in the Pacific.

Collective diplomacy is indeed the beneficiary of the Blue Pacific and Pasifika concepts. We need not think of our country as a land-based country and insulate ourselves from the rest of the Pacific.

Two final points: first, in the Pacific Islands, PNG is the third largest Pacific Islands in terms of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ - behind Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.

So essentially PNG is a maritime state if you are comparing PNG's land mass (462,840 km²) with the total EEZ (2,402,288 km²). So the Pacific Ocean matters for our national security and other aspects of our relations with other countries.

Secondly, and finally, the Pacific Ocean and the states in this ocean have successful stories in their lobbying initiatives.

For instance, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, the 1985 Rarotonga Treaty calling for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, and the call for the banning of driftnet fishing in the Pacific. Blue Pacific and the idea of identifying with Pasifika goes beyond "physical environment".

PNG needs the Pasifika because it is the "numbers game" when it comes to dealing with global challenges. The problem with PNG is that it thinks it is too big it does not need others.

Philip Fitzpatrick

New Ireland, New Britain, Manus, Bougainville and Milne Bay appear to me to be distinctly part of Pasifika. A few places on the mainland have the same feel.

Those places will be heavily impacted by climate change just like all the other Pacific nations.

It is the highlands that are different. A lot of people up there can't even swim let alone catch a fish or climb a coconut palm. They are the hard nut inside the soft skin of Pasifika.

That makes PNG a hybrid nation. What is good for one bit is no good for another bit. That's a difficult thing with which to deal.

One day it may be possible to go swimming at the beach that runs along the base of the Great Papuan Plateau in Western and Gulf Provinces.

Paul Oates

A very thoughtful piece Martyn. You're right about PNG having a different perspective than say, many of the other Pacific states due to her size and the different ethnic make up of her population.

How will this affect her future relations with her neighbours is the first question that comes to mind. PNG is virtually a pivot point between Indonesia, where there is a common land border, Australia where there is virtually a land border and cross cultural ties, and the rest of the Pacific where New Zealand also has a metaphoric foot in two camps.

Australia is, as many have pointed out previously, woefully ignorant of our PNG friends and their perspectives. We at 'The Attitude', have consistently tried to rectify this is no small way over previous decades and will continue to do so.

PNG needs to recognise her role and start claiming her rightful credence at future regional conferences. It's quite clear that other foreign nations and one in particular, have sought to ingratiate themselves with PNG leaders but found things may not be quite as easy as it first seems.

PNG's weakness is at the moment, the notion that her leaders, who represent her people, are mired in corruption. That perception must be rectified.

PM O'Neill has previously and continually preached that he would introduce an anti corruption watchdog that has teeth and is properly and independently supported and maintained. If this were to truly happen, perhaps then PNG could rightfully assume her place in the regional sun.

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