13 Apr 2011

Questions over Indonesian claim to have over 11 million Melanesians

7:13 pm on 13 April 2011

There are questions over Indonesia's recent claim that it has more than eleven million Melanesians in the country.

The claim was made by senior Indonesian officials last month when the country was granted observer status at the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

They say apart from the indigenous people of Papua region, Indonesia includes many Melanesians in Maluku, Nusa Tenggara and other provinces.

Johnny Blades filed this report:

The Melanesian population of Papua region is estimated at just 1.8 million based on figures in Indonesia's 2010 census.

Yet even though the Melanesian diaspora is known to have reached other parts of Indonesia, the figures in Jakarta's claim exceed conventional wisdom.

The US anthropologist Eben Kirksey doubts the accuracy of the claim:

"The island of New Guinea is conventionally included in Melanesia but islands in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago are generally not. And I think this claim has to be thought about in light of the recent demographic data and in that context the claim that there's eleven million Melanesians in Indonesia seems quite an exaggeration."

Indonesia specialist Richard Chauvel of Melbourne's Victoria University says the claim is linked to a former diplomatic strategy of Jakarta's:

The first time that I came across it was in the context of Indonesia's struggle with the Dutch in the 1950s and early 60s about who owned West Papua. The Indonesian counter argument to the Dutch one about cultural difference was to say that not only were the West Papuans Melanesians, but there are also Melanesians in Maluku and other parts of East Indonesia and that Indonesia is not based on any assertion of cultural similarity.

But he says this strategy can't be used so easily in Indonesia.

The use of Melanesia in the domestic sense and particularly by West Papuans using Melanesian to distinguish themselves from other Indonesians is something that's highly contested in Indonesia, and one which the authorities in Jakarta view with - if not downright opposition - ambivalence. So to then step over the border into the Pacific, so to speak, and argue of course we have a lot of Melanesians, we have eleven million of them is a nice juxtaposition.

Yet because ethnological definitions can be very fluid, anthropologist Jim Urry says it's hard to draw clear lines for who is Melanesian.

What are you going to call a Melanesian, how are you going to identify them? Skin colour, genetics, language... I mean, the language of nationalism likes us to have neat packages and the world isn't neat. Melanesia was once defined by sort of geography and skin colour which is a sort of racist thing. But anthropologists tend to think more in terms of language and culture.

Whatever the definition of Melanesian, the Melanesian Spearhead Group under Fiji's chairmanship has accepted Indonesia's claim.

Fiji's interim foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola says Indonesia is home to the largest Melanesian population in the world, larger than the population of all the five current MSG members combined.