Melanesians: a growing force in S. Pacific

Melanesia does not officially exist. You won't find it on any map. Yet to be Melanesian today is to be part of a defined group and movement, one that is increasingly making itself felt not only in the Pacific, but also in other areas.

The word Melanesian -- from the Greek ``mela'' or black -- was first used by a French explorer to the South Pacific in the early days of the last century to describe ``the islands of darkskinned people.''

Today, about 5 million Melanesians inhabit a stretch of the South Pacific from the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya on the island of New Guinea in the west, to Fiji in the east.

Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the newly independent state of Vanuatu, Fiji, and the French territory of New Caledonia all have large Melanesian populations.

More and more, these people are talking with one voice on such issues as a nuclear-free zone in the area, better economic conditions, and the right to decide their own future, free from outside interference.

At the moment, their chief adversary appears to be France. The Melanesians have, along with New Zealand and Australia, strongly condemned continued French nuclear testing in the Pacific. They are also disturbed by what they see as a French military build-up -- including the presence of a nuclear-powered submarine -- in New Caledonia. In New Caledonia itself, Melanesians are actively seeking independence from France.

There are other issues: Some Melanesians are concerned about the fate of nearly 1 million indigenous people in Irian Jaya, the western half of the island of New Guinea of which Indonesia gained control in the late 1960s. Vanuatu, which has been one of the harshest critics of Indonesia, describes the Indonesian presence as brutal.

Melanesians want recognition of their fishing rights. When the Solomon Islands recently seized a United States boat for illegal fishing in its waters, the move caused some alarm in Washington. But among the Melanesians it was firmly supported.

Vanuatu, with a population of only 140,000, has made itself the center of what is seen as the struggle for Melanesian independence. It has joined the nonaligned movement. It has disturbed countries such as Australia -- traditionally seen as the ``big brother'' of the South Pacific -- by forging diplomatic links with Cuba and the Soviet Union, and by hinting that Soviet military ships might be allowed port facilities.

Concern has been caused by what is seen as a leftward, more radical shift among some Melanesians. Members of a group fighting the Indonesians in Irian Jaya are known to have gone to Moscow while a number members of the of the Kanak Socialist Liberation Front fighting for independence in New Caledonia have been trained in Libya. Links have even being made with the Maori in New Zealnd and the aborigines in Australia.

Melanesians have been vocal in supporting the aborigines in their battle with the big Australian mining companies on the issue of land rights. The aborigines have meanwhile adopted the red and black colors of many Melanesian groups for their flag.

Though signs of an informal ``Melanesian club'' are emerging, there are difficulties. Economically many countries in the area are still heavily dependent on outside aid. Papua New Guinea, for instance, still relies on Australian aid for more than 30 percent of its budget.

There are also differences among the Melanesians themselves that tend to stand in the way of unity. On the island of New Guinea, more than 1,000 mutually unintelligible languages are spoken by the Melanesians there.

But, compared with 10 years ago, there has been a big change: The Melanesians are very much a power to contend with in the South Pacific, a newly emerging force in an area historically carved up among contending maritime and colonial powers.

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