Opinion: Tapestry of Pacific ambiguities: Political tensions against the backdrop of FestPac celebrations

PHOTO: Courthouse News

The focus of the Festival of Pacific Arts, or FestPac, is always culture, and the 13th iteration held in June 2024 in Hawai’i was no different. 

More than two dozen island nations sent delegations of dancers, singers, carvers, poets and other cultural artists to Oahu for the 10-day cultural performances, exchanges and presentations. The event was attended by tens of thousands and watched by potentially millions on livestreams and social media around the world. The size of each delegation ranged from a dozen to hundreds. 

Since its first inception in 1972, FestPac has been a space where Pacific peoples can showcase their cultures but also potentially discuss and address, sometimes in difficult ways, larger forces that are affecting them individually or collectively. FestPac was formed out of a worry over the loss of culture due to rapid changes in the Pacific resulting from colonisation and modernisation in the 20th century. 

These concerns were still very much present, but the 13th FestPac also highlighted new threats and fears that have been, sadly, all too common among Pacific peoples. Climate change, rising tides and warming waters already threaten the livability of many Pacific islands, and this was made clear from the statements made during the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony. 

But there were other issues that were very much present and had a direct impact on the festival and the lives of many of the delegates. As points of discussion, however, they were pushed to the edges of the Honolulu Convention Centre. 

Militarisation and colonisation remain powerful forces that directly impact the lives of many Pacific Islanders, and the systems of power that continue to dictate their realities. On Guam, this type of discussion is fairly familiar, as our relationship to the United States is heavily influenced by our strategic value and our unincorporated territory status. 

Much attention was given at FestPac 2024 to the empty hut in the corner of the festival village, which was assigned to Kanaky (New Caledonia) but remained empty after their delegation pulled out due to unrest in the islands. French attempts to change election laws to reduce the power of the iIndigenous Kanak people led to violence this year. Their empty hut became a space of solidarity where flags and signs were hung to show support. Ceremonies were held to demonstrate solidarity with the Kanak people who continue to struggle for self-determination. 

In truth, FestPac itself is a tapestry of political and territorial ambiguities, some of which remain clearly colonial according to the definition of the United Nations. Among the islands that participate in FestPac, six (American Samoa, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Guam, Pitcairn and Tokelau) remain on the list of non-self-governing territories that the United Nations reminds the world must be assisted in achieving a genuine level of self-governance. 

But beyond this, there are places in the Pacific where colonial relationships may persist, just under different names. Norfolk Island, where a little over 2,000 people live, is governed by Australia, which has reduced the island’s ability to locally govern in recent years. Rapa Nui or Easter Island has been one of the most visible and memorable delegations in recent FestPac cycles. Their island is home to only around 8,000 people and they are governed by Chile. 

In recent decades, there have been increased calls by the island’s Indigenous people to have more autonomy and cultural rights. Also attending the festival were several activists from West Papua who, in addition to seeking self-determination and decolonisation, also hoped to find cultural solidarity and identity as fellow Melanesian people alongside others from their region. 

The Indigenous peoples of Taiwan, the island sometimes called the cradle of the Austronesian civilisation, have been participating in FestPac since 2004, always with an asterisk. 

The island’s Indigenous groups, which share Austronesian culture and language connections with most of the other FestPac participants, receive their own hut in the festival village, and get to perform, but are not considered to be official members of FestPac. Their invitation and inclusion as a special participant remained at the discretion of the host country, but their full inclusion remains something mixed up in larger geopolitical dynamics, such as China’s claim to the island. 

These larger geopolitical dynamics, in which the United States, China and other countries are vying for influence in the region, absolutely impact FestPac. But this aspect was something well-known, but not widely spoken of during the proceedings. 

During the opening ceremonies, the delegation from the Marshall Islands recounted the history of nuclear testing in their islands conducted by the U.S, but the continuing systems of militarisation that have led to firing ranges over Litekyan and contaminated water from Red Hill in Hawai’i were relegated to certain “politically focused” corners of FestPac.  

In the closing ceremony, a coordinated demonstration took place during the speech of Hawai’i’s governor. Banners were dropped around the Stan Sheriff Centre with messages such as “Free Kanaky” and “Free West Papua” and “Cancel RIMPAC,” referring to a massive U.S military training exercise that happens every two years in Hawaii. After the banners were dropped, a short and powerful chant was recited. 

Some members of the Guam delegation, frustrated by the perceived lack of engagement with the large-scale forces threatening our islands and peoples at such a powerful gathering of Pacific peoples, used the opportunity to protest by chanting and shouting while the governor continued to speak. 

It was a divisive moment, causing divisions even within the Guam delegation itself. Some members saw it as an important moment to speak the truth, while others saw it as disrespectful and not the right time. When the governor finished speaking, the emcee took a moment to scold the Guam delegation, noting that these topics had a time and place at FestPac to be discussed but that it was not the appropriate moment. 

With the waters continuing to rise, with militaries on both sides of the Pacific rim growing and encroaching into our islands, and our quests for decolonisation not getting any younger, one can only wonder when will be the right time and right place for these issues to be discussed at FestPac