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Anything less than defeat is a victory

Originally published on the Pacific Policy Blog.

Last week’s Solomonic decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group to cut the baby in half and boost the membership status of both the ULMWP and Indonesia is an example of the Melanesian political mind at work. Valuing collective peace over individual justice, group prosperity over individual advancement, and allowing unabashed self-interest to leaven the sincerity of the entire process, our leaders have placed their stamp on what just might be an indelible historical moment.

Last week marked the first time the indigenous people of West Papua were not entirely defeated. And that, in itself, is a victory.

Thousands gathered to celebrate in Timika and elsewhere in the western half of the island of Papua. Praise for Manasseh Sogavare’s depiction of the decision as a ‘test‘ of Melanesia’s respect for human rights was widespread. Domestically, his role in the decision seems to have bolstered his standing as a statesman and leader.

But a more dry-eyed look at the process reveals a cost that will undoubtedly prove quite high for proponents of West Papuan independence. David Robie’s depiction of Papua New Guinea and Fiji’s stance on the issue as a ‘betrayal‘ is starker than many others, but it’s not wrong.

Voreqe Bainimarama’s disingenuous insistence that Indonesia’s territorial integrity cannot be challenged begs the question of the legitimacy of Indonesia’s continuing occupation—one which, notably, the UN has still to answer. Likewise, Peter O’Neill’s insistence on ‘mandated’ representation for the Melanesian peoples of West Papua would be laughable if it weren’t so callous. The whole reason that the people of West Papua are seeking legitimacy through the MSG is because they are disenfranchised at home.

Sato Kilman took advantage of the clouded complexion of the domestic political scene to keep his proverbial head down, sending only a senior administrator to the Honiara summit. In fairness to him, from a tactical perspective he really had no choice. From a strategic perspective, his handling of the issue could only leave him weakened. Social media commentary in the Solomons was particularly unkind, portraying Vanuatu’s PM as lacking the nouse to stand with Mr Sogavare, letting down West Papua ‘at its hour of greatest need.’

Indonesia’s victory, especially here in Vanuatu, has clearly been sullied by the persistence of the issue, and by its ability to galvanise Melanesian public opinion regardless of political affiliation. Even those closest to Mr Kilman were forced into ‘softly-softly’ rhetoric, claiming ardent-but-pragmatic support for the people of West Papua.

In practical terms, raising Indonesia to associate member status—above that of the ULMWP—goes a long way to ensuring that the MSG will remain inert in the face of pressure to take a stand on independence. In moral terms, the extent of the ULMWP’s victory should not be underestimated.

West Papua is certain to become a core platform item in Vanuatu’s 2016 election campaign.

Merely by playing a part in the conversation, they have mobilised hundreds of thousands of sympathisers at home and throughout the region. Support for independence is undoubtedly stronger and more uncompromising in Solomon Islands now, and it’s becoming more and more overt in the Papuan provinces as well. West Papua Media released a photo recently, apparently showing thousands of people in Timika celebrating the ULMWP’s ascendancy last Friday.

And, in a pattern that we’ve seen again and again, increasing oppression seems to be offering diminishing returns for Indonesia. In spite of the military’s desire to undercut Joko Widodo’s efforts to enact at least modest reforms, repressive tactics have not stopped the ever-increasing flow of coverage coming from the afflicted area. Informal and traditional media sources reported hundreds of arrests in the run-up to the vote, but that did not prevent the ULMWP from gathering what they claimed were 150,000 signatures on a petition legitimising their status as representatives. Nor did it prevent spontaneous scenes of jubilation when their membership was announced.

Equally important, Indonesia was not able to achieve an unalloyed victory in Vanuatu. In order to succeed, they needed to demonstrate that the cost of support for West Papua was losing office. While they did succeed in hamstringing one of the strongest proponents of West Papuan independence at a critical moment, the resulting furore has made the issue of independence into a political litmus test. No politician would now dare to declare anything short of unalloyed support for independence. West Papua is certain to become a core platform item in Vanuatu’s 2016 election campaign.

Arguably, West Papua is reaching a point in its political history similar to that of Black America in the years leading up to the march in Selma. Increasingly overt and untenable state violence is working against itself now. Indonesia can no longer avoid a painful but necessary confrontation with its own behaviour.

It may yet be years before a peaceful and practical resolution is even possible, let alone within our collective grasp. But Doctor King famously claimed that the arc of history bends toward justice. And here is evidence that it does.

For the indigenous peoples of West Papua, defeat is now unthinkable. And anything else, no matter how small, can only be victory.

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A hard choice, but a simple one

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog

There’s nothing complicated about the MSG’s decision on whether to include West Papua as a member, but that doesn’t make it easy

No matter how we slice and dice the issue of West Papuan independence, it always comes down to this: Do the indigenous peoples of a distinct and discrete land mass have the democratic right to self-determination or not?

The answer, according to international law and standards, is an unequivocal yes.

Even a cursory examination of history reveals that Indonesia has systematically ignored and subverted the desires of the people who share the island of Papua with their cultural and ethnic brethren and sistren in Papua New Guinea. They have oppressed these people using military force, and their policies in the region have from the beginning been designed to silence the voice of the indigenous people there.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s protestations notwithstanding, there is no free press in the Papuan provinces. Police and military continue to claim in the face of incontrovertible evidence that there is no cause for unrest. And still they claim that even advocating for independence is a crime. Attending a peaceful demonstration is considered grounds for arrest and incarceration. Political activity can get you tortured or killed. Virtually all of the independence leaders living in exile have faced systematic persecution extending across borders. After he escaped prison and fled for his life, Benny Wenda faced years of forced immobility because of a flagrantly erroneous Interpol ‘red notice’, which falsely accused Mr Wenda of arson and murder.

Just last month, Mr Wenda was denied entry into the United States following an interview with US Homeland Security personnel. No reason was provided at the time. Presumably, the terrorist watch-list, or a similar international mechanism, is being used to curtail his visibility on the world stage.

It needs to be said that Jokowi, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono before him, would do more if they could. But the plain truth is that civilian rule of law does not extend to the Papuan provinces. Continue reading

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CREDO

In journalism and in life, it helps to believe in a few things:

I believe in long answers to short questions. I believe that each question raises more questions. I believe that wisdom consists mostly of raising more questions than others do. I believe there is no higher vocation than trying to understand.

I believe that people confuse clarity with simplicity. I believe that sometimes things are perfectly clear, but rarely are they simple. I believe that simple solutions are never right enough to be useful.

I sometimes believe that it’s Us versus Them, but then I remind myself that Us is all of us.

I believe that short, pithy statements are all well and good, but useless if taken alone. I believe that, eventually, all slogans become lies.

I believe that faith unchallenged is weakness. I believe that unquestioning faith raises walls rather than breaking them down. I believe that unquestioning belief is a kind of blindness.

I believe that truth is often painful, but learning is a glorious thing. I believe that, just as we exult in the physical exertion of sport, we can exult in the psychic pain of learning and improvement. I believe that correcting someone is a sign of respect. I believe that it is respectful to believe someone capable of learning and worthy of our help. I believe that we should embrace correction from others.

I believe that we are wrong more often than we are right, and even if we’re not, we should act as if we were. Continue reading

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Three plays in two days

Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post

Right after Sato Kilman stage-managed the ouster of Joe Natuman’s government, Wan Smolbag debuted their latest Youth Drama group play. The title, Yumi Stap Wea (Where Are We?) is the same question several MPs must have been asking themselves in the whirlwind of changing allegiances.

One of the plays was tightly scripted, engaging and thought provoking. It avoided easy answers to long-standing problems in Vanuatu, and took a dry-eyed look at some of the key difficulties that we face as a country.

The other gave us a new Prime Minister. Continue reading

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About those $83m dollar houses…

The focus of today’s minute of hate appears to be the NPR story about how the American Red Cross managed to waste hundreds of millions of dollars and to build only six houses in Haiti.

It’s pretty scandalous, there’s no doubt about that. They appear to have been awash in cash, without a clue about how to spend it. From the reporting, it appears that (surprise surprise) parochialism and a refusal to engage local skills and knowledge led to mistake after mistake, and years of delay.

As the internet worked itself into a righteous froth over the incident, we witnessed the familiar refrain that international NGOs are bloated, useless appendages designed for no other purpose than to provide salaries for over-privileged and under-qualified nabobs.

One rather under-informed commenter offered the following:

UNICEF [USA’s] expenses of 52 million dollars in expenses related to management and fundraising (out of a 600 million dollars budget, and that’s one of the best managed ones out there)

They are actually complaining about an administrative overhead of 9%? Seriously? Continue reading

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On be(com)ing happy

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog

Yesterday, during an interview for a documentary film about climate change, I was asked how Vanuatu came to be known as the Happiest Country in the World. On the face of it, the title is quite apt. Wherever you go in Vanuatu, you will find smiling faces, warm welcomes and open hearts.

Even in the aftermath of cyclone Pam, which directly affected half the population and badly damaged dozens of their islands, Ni Vanuatu people still managed to smile and laugh. I confess that even after a decade living here, I found it astonishing that people would show such grace in the face of adversity.

In the badly affected Malapoa Waetwud neighbourhood, a man calmly described how he and his family would live off fallen fruit for a few days, then they’d dig up whatever hadn’t rotted in the ground; but after that, he wasn’t sure where the next meal was going to come from. On the southern island of Tanna, which was utterly devastated by 230 Kph winds, I sat with a group of mamas in the shade of the only remaining tree trunk in that part of the village, and we laughed and gently teased each other as we passed the time.

And it’s not that they were oblivious. On the contrary. Only half an hour earlier a village elder came up to me, looked me in the eye and spoke with brutal simplicity: ‘I nogat wan samting.’

‘There’s nothing left.’

It took me days—weeks to be honest—to understand how people could remain light-hearted in the face of the loss of everything of value in their lives. Continue reading

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An urban kastom story

Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post

‘Really,’ asks the King Rat, ‘how exactly are rats and humans different?’

Out of that simple spark rises a complex allegory of honesty and deceit, selfishness and survival, all found in the least likely places. Wan Smolbag’s newest play—one of three in this year’s season—is the most ambitious yet in terms of its story-telling. Director Peter Walker says the play has a bit of a Cinderella quality to it, but here, it’s the rats are riding in coaches.

Rats and humans have always lived together, we are asked, so how, exactly how do they differ? They have leaders and followers; they all live and thrive surrounded by refuse; they squabble and vie incessantly; and they lust and love—and confuse the two—just as (in)constantly.

So why is it such a big deal then, when the King Rat becomes obsessed with Veronik, a still-pure flower of a girl, living in semi-squalor in Port Vila? At turns charming and menacing, he and his cohort are willing to wheedle, extort, con and coerce anyone in order to win her hand. Despite King Rat’s constant moans of frustrated desire, the solution turns out to be a simple one: Just find enough money to satisfy the girl’s so-called parents, and nothing else matters. Not even the wishes of Vero herself.

The plot writhes from one episode to another as rat and human natures try to come to terms, and as their mutual motivations are unveiled, it becomes increasingly difficult to answer King Rat’s question. And yet… and yet, as Vero’s younger brother candidly confesses, ‘who wants a rat for a brother-in-law?’ Continue reading

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Defending the indefensible

A word of advice to Nauru: As the wise man famously said, ‘if you find yourself trapped at the bottom of a very deep hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.’

A word of advice to Australia: Stop handing Nauru the shovel.

In all honesty, it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm required to express an adequate level of outrage following the discovery that the government of Nauru were requiring Digicel, the country’s only ISP, to block access to Facebook. Initially, the blockage was denied, then described as a technical problem. Then, days later, the Prime Minister went on the record stating that it was an attempt to protect the island’s predominantly Christian population from the scourge of pornography.

Then a human rights worker stated that she had been told that the request to block Facebook originated from Australian authorities.

If her reasoning is to be accepted, then cutting off Facebook and social media was never aimed at Nauru’s indigenous population. It was designed to silence security staff and to stop inmates from discussing the pros and cons of accepting exile in Cambodia with people in the outside world.

The dismantling of Nauruan democracy is merely a side-effect of Australia’s failed policy.

As they witness the country’s lurching egress from democracy and social harmony, many Nauruans in public and private life must be asking themselves, ‘how did it ever come to this?’ Cutting off conversation and quashing dissent is simply not the Pacific way of doing things.

Managing this policy can only be a thankless task for those who carry its burden, but the fact remains that the world is watching with increasing incredulity as it slips further and further down that proverbial muddy hillside.

The only way out of this is to talk. To face up to the realities of the situation, to come back to the Pacific way, and to hash things out until there’s nothing more to be said. The lid will not stay on the pot, no matter what measures people may be willing to consider. As painful as the prospect may be, it is better to front up to the situation now than to allow it to fester any longer.

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Surviving Cyclone Pam

[Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog.]

Supercyclone Pam, bringing winds gusting to more than 300 Kph, swept nearly two dozen of Vanuatu’s central and southern islands bare. The destruction is difficult to conceive of, harder still to express. Let one tiny example stand for all: A brand new trade school, constructed to the state of the art, razed after only ten days in operation. Behind it lie the shattered remnants of a giant banyan tree. These trees are integral to Tannese custom; because of their monumental size and durability. Indeed, each of the storied twelve nakamals (sacred gathering places) of Tanna is located under a banyan tree.

Both the ancient and the modern were swept away with equal ease by Pam’s unprecedented power.

A broken guitar lies among the ruins of a newly built trade school, destroyed when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days.

A broken guitar lies among the ruins of a newly built trade school, destroyed when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days.

To everyone’s surprise, even amazement, only five of the island’s nearly thirty thousand inhabitants perished. The story is the same on all of the worst hit islands: On Efate, with the highest population, just a handful. Two more from tiny Emae, which took a direct hit from the eye of the storm. The list goes on. In all, only eleven people have been confirmed killed, and four of those had been in hospital in serious condition prior to the cyclone.

Nobody can say for certain just yet why the death toll has been so remarkably low. There are likely a number of contributing factors. The first is that the Ni Vanuatu people have had 3000 years to prepare. Historically, Vanuatu has received an average of 1.5 cyclones per year for as long as we’ve been keeping records. Local dwellings are designed with eaves nearly reaching the ground in order to prevent the roof from being blown away. The bamboo walls and natangura-thatched roof are flexible and sufficiently porous to withstand even the strongest winds. Some people hid in purpose-built traditional cyclone shelters. These are tiny, half-subterranean shelters dug into a hillside, walled with tightly woven bamboo. They are cramped, dirty and wet, but they go a long way to ensuring survival.

Had this been a ‘normal’ cyclone, it’s doubtful whether it would have made the news at all. Continue reading

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The fourth estate in peril

Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog.
This week’s Post Courier debacle, in which a lurid front-page spread purporting to show Asian sex workers in a Port Moresby nightclub was shown to be false, is only the latest journalistic misstep of many across the Pacific islands. As far back as 2012, accusations of plagiarism have been levelled at the author of the article. The evidence in some of these cases is compelling.

In this particular case, the paper published a front-page correction the very next day, admitting that the writer had published the photos without knowing their actual provenance. The very same cover featured another couple of photos of Asian women with their eyes blacked out, ‘reluctantly supplied’, they said, by one of the sources of their stories on sex workers coming to work in Papua New Guinea.

While the Pacific Freedom Forum welcomed the prompt correction, social media response was less forgiving. A large number of commenters decried the entire week-long series, claiming that it was a transparent ploy to sell papers on the back of public prurience.

The readiness of media professionals throughout the Pacific islands to treat untested sources, hunches and even rumour as reportable is a phenomenon that needs to be recognised and addressed. It’s difficult to measure the civic importance of having reputable news services, but it’s fairly safe to say that fewer Pacific islanders than ever see their media organisations as truly authoritative.

Complaints are rampant in social media and elsewhere about the ability of media services to reliably and objectively report ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ as one masthead famously stated. State-owned television and radio are determinedly non-confrontational. Even private-sector media are fighting what seems to be a rising tide of political and financial pressure.

It sure doesn’t help that elsewhere in the world there are fewer and fewer examples to hold up for emulation. Continue reading