Papua New Guinea is not Pasifika

Martyn Namorong in his Fijian sulu at a party in Goroka, PNG (Credit: Martyn Namorong)
Martyn Namorong in his Fijian sulu at a party in Goroka, PNG (Credit: Martyn Namorong)
Written by Martyn Namorong

Last year I attended a Pasifika themed party at a hotel in Goroka, hundreds of kilometres from the sea and 3,000 meters above sea level.

Luckily I had taken my sulu on that work trip, and so with a Bula shirt on I was all Pasifika for the night. It turned out later that I was the only Pasifika-dressed partygoer at the event, and by default the winner of the prize offered.

This experience shows that PNG wants to be Pasifika but doesn’t behave like it – not just in fashion but in terms of the common values, and more importantly customs (kastom), that define this region and its people.

My first observation that demonstrates why I think PNG is not a Pasifika nation is the perception of the physical environment. One does really get a sense of Pasifika as the “liquid continent” when one takes off on a plane from Honiara, Nadi or Nuku’alofa. You note how tiny your islands are and how big the ocean is. From Port Moresby, you can look into the horizon and see the land as it stretches to the highlands.

This is an important contrast because it gives people a sense of their place in the world. Do we Papua New Guineans see ourselves as people of the liquid continent that Epeli Hau’ofa wrote about? In the current context of regional integration, do we see ourselves as part of the Pacific Islands Forum’s agenda as a people of the ‘blue continent’ with a ‘blue economy’? Is PNG’s economic future on the land, or in the ocean like other Pasifika nations?

Another 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. Industrialisation means increased carbon emissions and contribution to global warming and climate change. We can afford to do this because much of our land mass is 1,000 meters above sea level (even on the other major islands –  Manus, New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville.) Indeed we are extracting oil and gas and selling it to the world. And we do have coal, which we might soon be exploiting. We may also feel the negative consequences of climate change, but they are less likely to erase our nation than they are other Pasifika states.

The other reason why I don’t think PNG is Pasifika is about the nature of the relationship the state has with society in PNG, as opposed to 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 as Pasifika states are more maternalistic.

In PNG the economic relationship between the state and society is a predatory relationship. Waigani’s predatory elite exploit the land and resources of the people – apparently in the national interest. In terms of provision of public goods and services, the state tends to throw its people out to fend for themselves and be exploited without any social safeguards or access to justice. Pasifika governments tend to take better care of their people and protect their interests.

There are other, perhaps more controversial, areas of contrast – for example culture, sovereignty, decolonisation, demilitarisation and West Papua – but I won’t delve into them.

My view therefore is that PNG has a very different development trajectory to that of other Pacific island nations. It won’t be easy to throw PNG out of the regional space, due to historical and geographical reasons. I believe however that 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.

A version of this article was first published on the PNG Attitude blog.

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Martyn Namorong

Martyn Namorong is the Coordinator of the Papua New Guinea Resource Governance Coalition, and a member of the PNG EITI Multi-Stakeholders Group (PNGMSG).

16 Comments

  • What we have been trying to do since the whiteman and now Asian came to this region called “Pacific or Oceania” is that we (Melanesian, Micronesian, Polynesian and Aborigines Australian) always try to see our ourselves through the definitions and images projected from the mind of the whiteman and Asian. Please see that we are the colonial definitions. We don’t have our own definitions about who we are, what we are, where we come from and where we are going. In fact, we are actually the “victim of definition” itself. Be careful, do not define Oceania through the ideas of whiteman.

  • I quite disagree with Martyn Namarong.
    Firstly, his view is formed based on his attendance of an “one off event” a Pacific Night in the highlands of PNG.
    No reference is made to the ethnicity of the peoples and their origins to substantiate this trend of thinking.

    Ethnically, culturally, Papua New Guineas can identify 100% no problems with the Solomons, ni-Vanuatu, Fijians. Even Samoans and Tongans customs, cultures, and languages can be identified 100% along the Papuan coastline, and onto the New Guinea Islands.

    Linguistically, a whole range of similarities in spoken languages of the Fijians, Samoans, and Tongans with the coastal communities of the Papuan coastline, and the New Guinea Islands. Pronunciation and meanings of spoken words establishes beyond any reasonable doubt the we are the same group of people that somehow got shifted around through early migration patterns.

    The linguistic composition of the highlands of PNG could be an exception to this commonality of languages that exists even now between the coastal regions of PNG and the rest of the Pacific islands – due to extreme isolation of the highlands regions based on geographical huddles that left the interior communities isolated from the coastal and the offshore islands migration and interaction patterns.

    I totally disagree with Martyn Namarong’s analogy in attempting to link a one-off social gathering with something that is more profound in other established and documented opinion on this matter.

  • Thought provoking article. There might be some element of truth in your post but I would rather think that PNG has a cultural blend that is part Melanesia (Pasifika) and part Asia. The attitude of our people can be categorized into two major groupings attesting to that. First type of attitude cluster is that of our coastal peoples from Western Province to Sandaun on the mainland coastline and the maritime NGI provinces. Our people from these areas are generally less aggressive and more accommodating in their approach. The second cluster is of those who are generally from the hinterlands of the country. People from these parts of the country demonstrate more aggression and tend to be generally protagonistic in their attitudes. So why take the trouble of identifying these attitude clusters? The attitude clusters form the basis of the complexity of the society we have presently. Our successes, ills and woes form an integral part of our challenges as a nation going forward. Of course every country has its own unique set of challenges but PNG’s development charter is very much different from the rest of the Pasifika nations. Ours is one where cultural synergy is more a dream than reality and without a stronger uniting force the country could easily fall into fragmented parts. This scenario is not too dissimilar to the Chinese and other nations experience. Whilst we can still benefit from being a member of Pasifika there is also much much more that we can learn from Asia in terms of positioning ourselves well to unlock and then harness our potential as an economy. We must position ourselves well to make best use of our relationship with both sides of the ocean we live in.

  • I’m curious to know your definition of Pasifika Martyn? You allude to it in your text, but do you know the origin of this term and how it’s use came about? There are many labels for nations and regions in Oceania that are not of our languages or ways of identifying. I’m with Epeli – “we have to search for appropriate names for common identities. That are more accomodating, inclusive and flexible than what we have today.” Yes Pasifika may not be relevant for people from the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, particularly when the origin of Pasifika evolved largely from the Samoan and Tongan diaspora who migrated to Aotearoa and chose to identify themselves as Pasefika / Pasifika. Did the people of Papua New Guinea choose this name for themselves as their country or did our colonisers? What about Melanesia? An anthropological term which has derogatory racial connotations.

    What I admire about Pasifika nations is that most of the names of their Island States are of their own or closely related languages; Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau, Niue, Viti (Fiji) Hawaii, Rapa Nui, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tahiti etc. I vividly remember being in utter disbelief when my Tolai mother told me that the name of the island I was born on was called New Britain! It’s great that a ‘Pasifika’ party has sparked your questioning about nationhood and regional identity. I think it’s important to seriously consider and question the validity of continuing to have colonial associations and history associated with name of Papua New Guinea.

    Fossil fuel extraction and exploitation economy days are numbered. How will PNG’s economy survive then and support it’s people? Your tone in this article reeks of privilege and lacks empathy toward fellow Papua New Guinean’s who have already been impacted by climate change in the Carteret Islands, who relocated to mainland Bougainville over 10 years ago, with no financial aid from the PNG government.

    In regards to that Pasifika party in Goroka, maybe those who attended weren’t in a privileged position such as yourself to own a sulu or any other Pasifika clothing. Maybe that was the reason you won the prize?

  • There are some great observations in your article. However, your visit to only “one” region of PNG where you pretty much based your point of view of the whole of PNG from explains how limited some of your observations are. I still think PNG is part of the Pacific Island nations in many ways. We have much more in common than differences! Cheers

  • Article is misconceived.

    PNG is another decolonised country similar to its sister Pacific islands all connected through the same ocean. We either pursue our interest in the global arena in collective representation with the rest of the Pacific islands, or we use power of attraction to maximise on national interest similarly to other Pacific islands. In that same ideology/approach (PNG or Pacific islands ), we deal with our challenges as a region.

    The only distinction one could draw is that PNG has a huge land mass that gives essence to our land resources, and a huge population of diversity in cultural and traditional practice and foremost have the biggest market relative to its population.

    Otherwise, I would say PNG is a unique and fortunate Pacific island country.

  • I have to agree with the comments by Matt Andrews and William Tondopan…we are Melanesian and The vast majority of the population of New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville, Manus and most of the coastal provinces live right on the coast, not up in the mountains..one thing I can say is the article is thought provoking but clearly lacks any substance.

    for instance you state “The other reason why I don’t think PNG is Pasifika is about the nature of the relationship the state has with society in PNG, as opposed to other Pasifika countries”..almost all Pacific Island Nations are comprised of one group..eg Fiji local population is Itaukei and so the Nature of relationship is uniformed..PNG has over 8 Million People with and a variety of Cultures…you cant expect the State to have a distinct relationship with its people..there is no such thing as one common uniformed approach government can have with society in PNG….People in Hagen are different from people in Milne Bay…

    and as for the Ocean…we have the largest coastline in the Pacific..

    when my family comes from Fiji to PNG..they say its just like fiji..but bigger

    take the NGI region…traditional cooking such as Lovo is very similar to mumu done in ENB and NGI….

    The tradition of placing gifts to people while they dance in Tonga and Fiji same in the Central Province..and finally the True Traditional Central Province Greeting of Rubbing ones nose when welcoming a guest is done by maori people…(find extacts from early missionaries in Central to confirm this)

    PNG will always be PASIFIKA

    • I believe that its the mind set that makes the differences due to the hostility that our country had went through and has experienced those hard times. This has had impact the way our forefathers think which has been passed to our younger generations. I would rather agree that PNG is largely comprises of Melanesia and Polynesia and perhaps few Micronesia. That is the fact. Perhaps, environmental factors (land mass), politic and social economic relations that we have are quite different which is affecting us in many ways, and off course developing withing individuals a different view of seeing things. That is why we have different mind sets to see things either in politics or in other areas of live.

      I think the work Pasifika in reality might have a totally different meaning to those who have started to initiate this name. They might have the intense of inclusive of Small Island States(excluding Australia and New Zealand), but in reality its either other Melanesian who distance themselves from the group, or the other.

  • I totally disagree to your conclusion that PNG is not a member of Pasifika family of nations. It is absurd and disturbing.

    Our identity is Melanesian and therefore we are part of the larger Melanesian race of people and grouping of islands. We share the same body of waters. Only major difference being our landmass and topography.

    If we are not Pasifika then who are we? Asians?

  • Namorong. Your article is somewhat thought-provoking. I sometimes question where we could place Papua New Guinea. Are we really a Pacific nation. Do we look like one or claim to be one? How about our brothers in Western New Guinea? Are they Pasifika. Maybe one day.

    Do you know if PNG tops the world in anything, it is the number of languages. You may write about this in your next article. If the govt properly promotes an area we top the world, it is fertile soil for tourism and foreign reserves.

  • Martyn, I cannot agree that PNG “can afford to” increase emissions “because much of our land mass is 1,000 meters above sea level (even on the other major islands – Manus, New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville.)”

    Is this a joke? If not, it’s an incredibly uninformed view of climate change – and the islands. Climate change has many, many impacts across all environments, not just the coast. The recent droughts and wildfires across the Highlands, for instance. Potentially devastating effects on wildlife and ecosystems at all altitudes (and ocean depths). With respect, I suggest you learn some more about climate change!

    And since when do the Highlands define PNG? The vast majority of the population of New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville, Manus and most of the coastal provinces live right on the coast, not up in the mountains. This kind of thoughtless comment simply fuels the fire of island provinces wanting to secede.

    Of course PNG should take care of its 8 million people. The old, tired view that that has to mean “industrialisation”, as in emissions-heavy industry, is not the only way. PNG should use its comparative advantages: its extraordinary cultural diversity, the brilliance and creativity of its people, its natural wonders. Post-industrial is the way to go.

  • 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 Southeast 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.

  • What is the definition of Pasifika? What are PNG’s similarities to other island countries vs the differences? The article has a certain selective bias choosing evidence that only represents the author’s beliefs making it somewhat one sided. A fair representation to the other side of the story would have given weight to his arguments.

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