Andy Ayamiseba and his wife in 2014

The long road home

Originally published by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, this 2013 appreciation of Andy Ayamiseba’s life of activism in exile is one of the few narratives of the compelling story of the Black Brothers and their seminal role the formulation of a modern Melanesian identity, and in keeping the West Papuan independence movement alive in Melanesia.

Andy died a few days ago. While he was loved, admired and supported in Vanuatu, he fought tirelessly to win a home he could return to. He died before the dream was achieved.


In 1983, Andy Ayamiseba and the rest of the Black Brothers band descended from their flight to Port Vila’s Bauerfield airport, to be greeted by the entire cabinet of the newly fledged government of Vanuatu. They were, by Melanesian standards, superstars. They had come to assist Father Walter Lini’s Vanua’aku Pati in its first re-election campaign, and to pass on the message of freedom for West Papua. So began a relationship that would span a lifetime of activism, a liberation dream long deferred, and ultimately, a first glimmer of hope for political legitimacy for the West Papuan liberation movement.

The Black Brothers were already widely known and loved in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Touring PNG in the late 1970s, the band members first met Vanuatu independence figures, including Hilda Lini, Kalkot Mataskelekele and Silas Hakwa. Students at the University of Papua New Guinea at the time, they returned to Vanuatu to play key roles in Vanuatu’s move to independence.

A generation later, it’s hard to imagine the immediacy, the passion and the dynamism of the time. Kalkot Mataskelekele, who would later serve as Solicitor General and on the Supreme Court bench before becoming the republic’s 6th president, was a young firebrand operating a pirate radio service from the bush north of the capital. Hilda Lini, sister to two prime ministers and the first woman elected to Vanuatu’s parliament, was a tireless organiser, working behind the scenes to promote what would become the Vanua’ku Pati.

In hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that the dynamism of this callow young political leadership would mesh and meld with the creative iconoclasm of the Black Brothers. But it had to wait before it reached its full fruition. In 1980 the Indonesian government expelled Ayamiseba and the other band members. Stateless, they sought shelter in the Netherlands. Hilda Lini had contacted them in 1980 during a visit to Europe, but it wasn’t until 1983 that they obtained refugee status and official residency. Finally able to travel again, their first destination was Vanuatu.

It was a triumphal entry. They were welcomed by Father Walter Lini’s government and a large crowd of adoring fans. Likewise, on their first visit to Solomon Islands, the roads were so packed that it took the group two hours to get from the airport into town. Their concert the next day was attended by 28,000 fans.

This week’s [2013] visit to Honiara will be somewhat more low-key, and yet perhaps more epochal than the original Black Brothers crusade. With funding and official support from the government of Vanuatu, independence leaders John Ondawame and Andy Ayamiseba are continuing their tour of Melanesian Spearhead Group members, soliciting support for membership in the sub-regional organisation. The West Papua National Coalition of Liberation, or WPNCL, is an amalgam of two previously divergent wings of the OPM (in English, the Organisation for Papuan Freedom) and a number of political groups advocating for West Papuan independence.

Having met already with the Fijian and Vanuatu prime ministers as well as the incoming chair of the MSG and head of the FLNKS, Andy and John are hopeful that their meetings with Solomon Islands prime minister Darcy Lilo will be equally fruitful. In an interview last week, Ayamiseba explained that he had met and befriended Lilo during his sojourn in Honiara in the mid-90s.

Should Solomon Islands decide to voice its support for WPNCL membership in the MSG, most of the political hurdles will have been cleared for what might prove to be the first crack of light through the doorway of political legitimacy for the cause.
Arguably, the critical opening came weeks before, when Sir Michael Somare voiced the opinion that the MSG is not an intergovernmental organisation, but an organisation of peoples, joined by culture and geography. The statement, made during a celebration of the MSG 25th anniversary, came as a surprise to some. In 2008, it was Somare who flatly blocked a motion to consider West Papuan membership in the MSG. (Admittedly, the motion was ill-timed and ill-prepared. Ayamiseba himself admits that his group had no prior knowledge, and were caught by surprise when it was tabled.)

Political legitimacy for West Papuan independence in the Pacific has long been subject to the vicissitudes of Melanesian politics. While Ayamiseba’s group were the darlings of the Vanua’ku Pati, and by extension the government of Vanuatu, the association came at a price. They were expelled from the country following the party’s schism in 1989, forcing Andy to seek asylum, first in Australia, then in Solomon Islands. His friendship with then-PM Mamaloni notwithstanding, efforts to further the independence movement stalled.

Progress elsewhere in the world was also stymied by realpolitik. In 1986, even nations such as Ghana, which had objected to the manner in which West Papua was brought under Indonesian rule, were less than responsive to overtures by John Ondawame, who had officially joined the independence movement’s leadership following its reunification the year before in Port Vila.

Despite the fact that it clearly flouted international law in its annexation of the territory, no country outside of Melanesia offered significant criticism of Indonesia’s actions in West Papua. Not, at least, until new media and the internet began to break down the wall of silence that had been erected around the territory. But even in the face of clearly documented torture, assassination and political oppression, many nations are still loth to legitimise the independence movement.

In Vanuatu, arguably the home of West Papuan independence, the road to freedom has been a long one, as full of pitfalls and obstacles as Port Vila’s physical thoroughfares – and sometimes, just as poorly managed. When Barak Sope became prime minister in 2000, he brought together nine members of the West Papuan leadership and brokered an accord that would finally bring all independence efforts under one roof. Later that year, his delegation to the UN General Assembly included three West Papuans, two OPM members and one from the Presidium. There, in an alarming example of fervour trumping political savvy, they met with the Cuban delegation.

For all of his energy, support and contributions to Melanesian identity, Barak Sope’s political ineptitude soon brought his government down. His failure even to produce a budget caused significant domestic turmoil, which effectively forced West Papua onto the back burner. It wasn’t until 2003 that foreign affairs minister Serge Vohor welcomed back the Black Brothers, and facilitated the opening of the West Papuan People’s Representative Office, a front for the OPM.

International awareness and support were limited. Vanuatu continued to fumble the issue, balking at formal political support while continuing to express public sympathy and tacit approval. Elsewhere, tribal leader Benny Wenda’s escape from Indonesian custody and flight to the UK opened another front in the campaign. Indonesia did itself no favours when it abused the INTERPOL red list by issuing a warrant for Wenda’s arrest.

For several years, the movement seemed paralysed, unable to organise itself, beset by legal constraints and barely able to manage its own processes. Vanuatu politicians proved fickle, with VP president Edward Natapei voicing support but doing little. Ham Lini, whose personal commitment to the cause remains strong, was unwilling to expend more political capital on the effort after the 2008 MSG debacle. Sato Kilman, the next prime minister in line, wilfully ignored the advice of his own cabinet, supporting Voreqe Bainimarama’s move to allow Indonesia observer status at the organisation.

Quietly persistent, Ayamiseba and Ondawame continued their efforts. Its moral cause made clearer by stark images of torture and brutality circulated by West Papua Media and others, the leadership (under the auspices of the WPNCL) organised an international tour for Benny Wenda, whose travel restrictions were lifted following legal and media campaigns against Indonesia’s INTERPOL warrant. Even Wenda’s rebuff by the New Zealand parliament only fanned the flames of support. His invitation to speak to MPs inside Vanuatu’s parliament was the first of a series of small but significant breakthroughs. Notably, soon-to-be prime minister Moana Carcasses’ attendance at the event was the first public sign of his political break with Kilman.

A naturalised citizen of Tahitian descent, Carcasses perhaps felt the need to placate the nativist inclination common among Ni Vanuatu. Nonetheless, allowing himself to be photographed holding the Morning Star flag (a key symbol of West Papuan independence) symbolised a shift from sympathy to overt political support for the movement. In one of his first acts as prime minister, Carcasses met with Ayamiseba and Ondawame, personally assuring them of his government’s support in their MSG membership bid, and promising the creation of a West Papua desk in the department of foreign affairs.

Arriving as it did on the heels of a surprisingly warm and supportive reception by Bainimarama and other Fiji government officials, the independence movement appeared finally to be seeing the light of day. Outspoken and unambiguous support for membership from the Kanaky leadership was not nearly as surprising; they’ve formally supported independence since the 1990s. Nonetheless, with the FLNKS assuming the group chair shortly, Kanaky support could prove crucial.

At the risk of counting chickens, it seems that the only remaining piece to fall into place is Papua New Guinea. Wenda’s visit to PNG earlier this year did manage to cement some amount of popular support, but achieved few tangible political results. The tea leaves are few and hard to read, but it’s hard to imagine that Somare’s rather startling shift away from outright opposition would have been made were it to cause discomfort in the PNG political establishment.

One of the more popular songs Ayamiseba wrote for the Black Brothers is ‘Liklik Hope Tasol’, a ballad written in Tok Pisin whose title translates to ‘Little Hope At All’. Its narrator lies awake in the early morning hours, the victim of despair. Only the vision of the morning star and the first birds breaking the pre-dawn hush provide the impetus to survive another day. The song, with its clear political imagery and simplistic evocation of strength in adversity, is clearly autobiographical. It is, arguably, the anthem which has animated Ayamiseba’s lifelong pursuit of freedom.
Andy Ayamiseba is old now. While his encroaching frailty complements his unassuming, soft-spoken manner, it masks a dynamism and fervour that only appear after numerous conversations. Once lit, however, that spark provides a glimpse of the man that was, the jazz-funk rebel, walking in his exile hand in hand with equally youthful –and equally naïve– leaders, themselves burdened with defining their respective societies.

What beggars description, though, is the determination required for Ayamiseba and his West Papuan brethren to spend their entire adult lives in pursuit of legitimacy, with only the slightest glint of light to show for that effort. May 1st marks the 50th anniversary of West Papua’s original declaration of independence. Barring any more political missteps or forays into ill-considered revolutionary activity, the coming year might be the one in which its political aspirations begin to be fulfilled. Says Ayamiseba, “You cannot stay blind and deaf for 50 years.”

Post Scriptum. Andy Died February 21 2020. He lived to see the formation of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, the umbrella organisation representing the chief members of the independence movement. He looked on proudly as its members march triumphantly into the MSG headquarters to lodge their membership application. He was there when Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu and Prime Minister Charlot Salwai opened the official ULMWP office in Port Vila.

But he never went home.

Searching for JJ

Some people spend their lives in endless, often fruitless pursuit of an Academy Award. Those people are not from Vanuatu.

Vanuatu woke up today to a rather startling piece of news. Tanna, a movie filmed entirely with amateur indigenous actors on location in and around the kastom village of Yakel, was a finalist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Then it rolled over and went back to sleep.

When I got the news of the nomination, I began a full-court press to get a reaction from the cast.

That turned into an adventure.

I confess it freely: My heart skipped a beat. Not just because of the inarguable beauty of the film. Not just because it is woven of the same stuff that persuaded me to make a new life in the South Pacific so many years ago.

Mostly, it was because I wanted to see the look on Marceline’s face.

Marceline plays a key role in Tanna’s tragic story. She was nine years old when the movie was made. Significant parts of the film are viewed through her eyes, and her innocence is the gateway to unutterable grief before the credits roll.

I met Marceline on her very first day outside of the island of Tanna. She had never seen a town as big as Port Vila (POP. 50,000) before, and it was exhausting. When she and some of the cast showed up at our radio station late in the afternoon, she was done in. I asked her a few questions in Bislama, and received monosyllabic answers in return. Before the interview was even halfway done, she was full length on the leather couch, sound asleep, her head in cast-mate Marie Wawa’s lap.

Marceline’s world in Tanna is not a fiction. It’s not a memory, either. The scenes you see in Tanna are still playing themselves out today. Her clothing might be a little more natty than what you saw in the film, but grass skirts are still the going thing.

My heart went out to the little girl as I watched her struggling to come to terms with a place that had car after car after car, a place that was noisome and dusty and loud.

I started to take her photo at one point, but immediately relented when I saw her begin to flinch.

One of the stars of the movie Tanna, nine year-old Marceline, smiles during the gala premiere of the movie at Tana Cine in Port Vila. Tanna opens to the public tomorrow.

How in the world was she going to be able to deal with the strobing tumult of the red carpet? The cast members were en route to the Venice Film Festival, following Tanna’s selection in the prestigious Critic’s Week. The film went on to win the People’s Choice award and the Critic’s Award for cinematography.

On their return, I caught up with the group at the airport, shortly before they headed back to their island. Marceline seemed perfectly at home in her skin, a changed creature from the shy and hesitant child I’d seen only a couple of weeks before.

“How did it go?” I asked her in Bislama. “When all the photographers were taking your photo all at once, how did you manage it?”

She shot me a worldly, knowing look, and said, “You get used to it. After a while, it’s no problem.”

The next time they came to Port Vila, it was for the Vanuatu premiere of the film, at our only actual cinema. Marceline and the rest of the core cast members were there, all dressed up in their ceremonial regalia.

This time, when I pointed the camera at her, she gave me a smile as wide as a river.

Starring in one of the most notable films of the year doesn’t quite have the same cachet in Vanuatu as it does elsewhere. For one thing, people have to know about it.

We contacted the Cultural Centre, which facilitates contact with Tanna’s traditional villages. They told us that the phone number they had didn’t work anymore, but there was good news: JJ and Dain, producer and lead actor respectively, had moved up in the world.

They’d both left the island and found employment. As night watchmen with a local security company.

No number was available, but this is Vanuatu, after all. We decided to use the tried and tested coconut telegraph method.

The Cultural Centre worker told us that JJ—whom the world knows as the interpreter on Channel 4’s wildly popular Meet The Natives—was still around. He’d acted as ambassador/interpreter/facilitator between a group of Tannese men from a village that bestowed demigod status on Prince Phillip, and their hosts at different locations in the UK, including Prince Phillip himself.

JJ, happily ensconced at the Daily Post office after a day-long search for him.

JJ is a man about town. He’s gregarious, knowing, worldly and warm-hearted. He’s also a gifted promoter and knows how to keep himself in the story. An essential person, in other words, if you want to spend six months creating a film based on tragic events that are still vividly etched in the memories of the people of Yakel village.

Dain is utterly the man he portrays in Tanna. Laconic, deeply honourable and dignified, terse almost to a fault. And smouldering. Sadly, he’s also gone back to Tanna. He’d had enough of punching the clock.

And we won’t see Marceline until she transits through on her way to Los Angeles.

But we soldiered on throughout the day, fruitlessly searching for JJ, our last best hope. Our Modus Operandi was simple: Find a place he’d been seen, go there, and ask where we could find him.

Again and again, I said the magic words ‘Academy Award’. No bite. People smiled and said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’

‘It’s the highest possible prize a movie can win,’ I said.

‘Is it? That’s very good,’ they replied, in the tone a parent takes when a child brags about that shot they took at soccer.

Nobody had seen JJ, and nobody was particularly fussed about that, least of all JJ. We tracked down his dad, though.

‘Do you know where he got to?’ I ask.

‘Oh who knows with that boy? He goes where he wants,’ said Dad, half fondly, half peevishly.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the entire world wants to hear from him. We really anxious to get him down to the radio station for an interview.’

‘Okay,’ said Dad, nodding gravely. ‘How’s tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow’s fine. But today would be much better.’

We got back to the station, ran our nightly news piece on the difference between an American Oscar nominee and a Ni Vanuatu nominee. I put the finishing touches on this story and was moments away from filing…

Our receptionist said to me, ‘Boss, there’s a man to see you.’

‘Who?’

‘He says he’s from Tanna.’

JJ, at last. He came sauntering in with a casual smile.

I ushered him up to our studio and quickly into the interview. He was imperturbable.

‘Going back to LA is like going back to my home,’ he said with a grin. He’s not exaggerating much. JJ has been a key fixer on two significant television series, and the cast of Tanna have strolled down so many red carpets that they’re beginning to think that’s what a building entrance looks like.

The lesson we take from the day is almost Zen. The movie star who works as an occasional night watchman can wander around town all day without a care in the world or a penny in his pocket, and sleep better at night than Meryl or Leonardo have in their lives.

We finish the interview, take a few photos—in which JJ demonstrates his ineffable cool—and when we’re done and walking to the door, he says to me, ‘They told me you would pay for my bus fare if I came down?’

Did Russia ‘hack the election?’ Yes and No

Here’s a quick summation of where we stand, based on public domain analysis and reporting, vis-à-vis the purported Russian ‘hack’ of the US Presidential election.

Anyone who claims that the Podesta emails were not real is delusional. There’s no real dispute over that.

Anyone who believes that Julian Assange isn’t biased against Hilary Clinton is also delusional. Mr Assange also shows a disturbingly willful blindness to find any problems with the state of civil liberties and human rights in Russia—this, again, is not really subject to controversy.

Anyone who believes that Assange can be certain about the origin of the Podesta emails doesn’t understand chain of custody. His de facto imprisonment in the Ecuadorian Embassy makes it physically impossible for him to objectively, empirically verify any claims of provenance. If this were evidence for the courts, he wouldn’t be allowed to testify as to the provenance of the emails.

Anyone who has examined the pattern of overt and covert activities as already detailed by public domain sources that has been judged with a high or a moderate level to confidence to originate from the Russian state would be foolish to deny that there isn’t a strong preponderance of evidence that yes, Russia conducted an anti-Clinton (dis)information campaign.

On-the-record print and TV interviews with avowed state-paid Russian trolls who profess a strong preference for Donald Trump constitute probitive evidence of a classic old-school dezinformatsiya effort. It’s something that both sides used frequently in the Cold War. RT’s overt anti-Clinton editorial slant is obvious, and strongly contributory. Assange’s frequent appearances on the channel are evidence of nothing more than a bit of narcissism on his part.

The fact that the APT28 modus operandi is consistent with well-documented spying activities against the Bundestag as well as the TV5 cyber-attack is a substantive plank in the circumstantial case. The fact that APT28 code was almost exclusively developed in a Russian language build environment, in the Moscow time zone is damning. The fact that that they used of bit.ly as an URL-obfuscator—and then committed a rooky OPSEC slip-up that allowed investigators to see what other individuals were targeted by the same account—is compelling. The fact that APT28 source has been found in the wild doesn’t diminish the likelihood that this particular use of it originated from the Russian state. The use of encryption keys and certs (e.g. the way the software ‘phones home’ securely) pretty much makes it impossible for third parties to use the code without significant—and obvious—re-engineering. There is no evidence of such changes. In fact, at least one cert used in the Bundestag hacks was re-used in this effort.

The evidence suggesting that Guccifer 2.0 is almost certainly not Romanian (as ‘he’ claimed), and is probably a Russian speaker, is not probitive, but it’s strongly contributory to a conclusion that the account is a sock puppet, probably linked to a Russian source.

The USA intelligence community lacks credibility. It has relied far too much on its own much-sullied authority to make its arguments. But its credibility is laughable, and its patent insincerity and systematic dishonesty is demonstrated by a mountain of evidence. The fact that their assertions are consistent with open-source evidence indicates, however, that they’re not lying about everything—this time. That does nothing to diminish the fact that they’re driving a clear agenda, possibly because they don’t trust Donald Trump and they feel he’s compromised, or at least willing to put personal interest before national interest.

Conclusion: It’s not necessary to believe the CIA/NSA/FBI to conclude that there is a concerted Russian effort to subvert the integrity of key aspects of American democratic institutions, including the US Presidential election. The Russian state has motive, means, opportunity and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that, in absence of any more compelling explanation, they have probably been at it for quite some time. Did they ‘hack the election’? No. Did they sway it? They certainly put a lot of time and resources into the effort. Did they change the outcome? Probably not. The single event that correlates most closely with an actual swing in the electorate is James Comey’s letter to Congress concerning the Weiner laptop. Did they help swing it? Almost certainly, yes. There’s a compelling argument to be made that if countless sources—with Russian actors prominent among them—hadn’t worked so hard to poison the Clinton well, the Comey announcement wouldn’t have been so decisive.

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Don’t argue as if the world were sane

Glenn Greenwald, in every respect a reputable, diligent and ferociously smart gadfly, continually forgets to remember that few people are as sane and as willing to be led by evidence as he is. It’s his great failing.

Nowhere is it more visible than in his incredulity toward the CIA and the rest of the US state security apparatus concerning their claims of Russian tampering in the election process. He is dead right to mistrust the CIA’s every utterance. Lying, after all, is a large part of what they do for a living. Likewise, a politicised and partisan FBI is not a useful source for agenda-free commentary on Russia’s disinformation campaign.

But none of the above provides a sufficient basis to say that Russia has not played a direct and active role in the subversion of the American democratic process. Using the espionage establishment’s lack of credibility to refute the claim of Russian meddling is completely illogical.

We discount or discard the CIA’s claims precisely because we know that they’ve done far, far worse countless times in the past. We know they’ve planted or spun innumerable stories. To people living in vulnerable parts of the world, it’s simply axiomatic that Voice of America and USAID are tools of American influence. We also know they regularly use economic leverage to bring about certain policies, and they regularly plant stories to tarnish the image of any government that doesn’t toe their line.

Yes, they’re hypocrites and liars. Nobody disputes that. Yes, they’re guilty of exactly the sins of which Russia stand accused. But if anything, that realisation should reinforce the suspicion that Russia might be giving back as good as it gets. (Or better, depending on where you stand and how you feel about the success of the campaign to tarnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation.)

The sins of which the Russians stand accused are exactly the things that powerful countries do. They do it continually, shamelessly and cynically. It’s what they do. Continue reading

Weapons of the Weak

Radio New Zealand journalist Johnny Blades created a memorable image last week when he posted a montage of six heads of government from some of the smallest states of the world, each standing at the podium at the United Nations General Assembly.

The leaders of these six countries—Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu—all raised the issue of continuing human rights abuses in West Papua, and advocated for its right to self-determination.

These representations should by rights have emerged from the Pacific Islands Forum in Palau, but if rumour is to be trusted, the organisation’s larger economies are responsible for the Forum’s resounding silence on the issue.

In a tacit demonstration of the unwillingness to live within the Forum’s constraints, a half dozen Pacific leaders engaged in an orchestrated manoeuvre, a chorus of complaint against the clear pattern of systemic disregard for the human rights of indigenous West Papuans.

Talk may be all we can do about it, but at least we can do that. Continue reading

Advisors were never the problem

It’s always someone else’s fault. Even when we were kids, it was always little brother or sister who stole the cookies, spilled the milk or woke the baby. Then you went to school, and it was the kid at the desk behind you.

Then you began to work, and it was anyone but you. Now you’re on the national stage, and it’s not Vanuatu’s fault; it’s some insidious foreigner whose life is devoted to subverting your country.

It ain’t that simple. It never was that simple.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: foreign technical advisors are just that—advisors. They have no executive power, they do not make policy, and they perform their work at the pleasure of the administration of the day.

When we start blaming technical advisors for our problems, we’re no better than a child blaming a sibling for something they both did. Nobody is forcing us to take advice. Continue reading

We should spend more time on sport

Sport and athletic achievement are—when we keep drugs and money out of the picture—one of the few human activities with few if any downsides.

As we saw last week, they provide us with moments of unity and pride the like of which we don’t often see elsewhere.

Individual and simple team sports are low-cost ways of occupying our youth and providing them with invaluable lessons about hard work, achievement and excellence.

In other words, the very attributes that are so lacking when we bemoan the state of society today.

One thing is particularly clear: for whatever reason, Vanuatu’s athletes seem to operate at a higher baseline standard than countries many times our size. Our beach volleyball team came within a couple of rallies of an Olympic berth. Our rowers proved themselves worthy of standing on the world stage. Likewise our boxers and table tennis wunderkind Joshua Shing.

And now, our latest generation of football players is poised to showcase their achievement at football’s premier global event.

Who can read these facts and not ask, ‘How cool is that?’

But there’s more to sport than just that. Look past the puffery and patriotism of competitive sports, and there’s an entire universe of personal discovery and growth.
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PIF-fle

The Pacific Islands Forum has come and gone, and people here in Vanuatu could not care less. There are few Pacific conclaves that generate less interest than this meeting.

In principle, nobody particularly disapproves of getting all Pacific leaders together once a year for a bit of a chat and maybe some minor course correction.

In practice, it seems clear that not all leaders are equal in the eyes of the Forum.

This year more than ever, the final communiqué simply side-stepped any views that didn’t suit the developed nation members.

The event might more accurately be described as the McCully/Bishop Forum.

The region-wide movement to disown PACER Plus was simply ignored in the final language. If Vanuatu needed any other excuse to walk away from this one-sided deal, their treatment in Pohnpei provided one. Scuttlebutt from the venue has it that France’s inclusion in the Forum was anything but a unanimous decision. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai exercised characteristic tact and diplomacy when asked about it, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to imagine how Vanuatu, one of the staunchest supporters of decolonisation in the Pacific, felt about bringing France into the Forum fold.

France was excluded from the Forum specifically because of its refusal to discuss issues of decolonialisation when the organisation was formed in the 1970s.

West Papua is perhaps the only topic that could dampen Vanuatu’s joy following its under-20 football team winning their way to a World Cup berth. And once again, the Forum has gone to excruciating lengths to make the least possible effort to stop the ‘slow motion genocide’ under way in PNG’s eastern neighbour. Continue reading

Silence an ‘indictment’: Chetwynd

Justice Chetwynd yesterday acquitted the men accused of intentional assault on Florence Lengkon, accepting the defence’s submission that they had no case to answer on those specific charges.

The people of Vanuatu, however, have still to answer for their silence.

Judge Chetwynd ruled that there was indisputable evidence that Ms Lengkon was struck once ‘forcefully’ on the head, and said that if that was the case then it is impossible that all three men could be guilty of landing the blow.

The Prosecution’s case rested almost entirely on a statement submitted by two police officers, who stated that co-accused Elton Worwor put them at the scene of the crime.

But the police officers didn’t ask some very basic questions during that interview, such as how Mr Worwor knew they were involved, whether he actually saw them strike Ms Lengkon, and if so, which of the three of them actually struck her.

Ultimately, the evidence was ruled inadmissible. The three men charged with the assault on Ms Lengkon had no case to answer, and they were therefore acquitted of this serious charge.

But… Justice Chetwynd paused meaningfully before continuing. He scanned the packed courtroom and stated that the fact that over 50 people could have seen what happened and not one of them stepped forward to identify the culprit is ‘an indictment’ on our society. Continue reading

Consultation means negotiation

Despite friendly advice from numerous people close to the process, it appears that the government is proceeding with its draft revenue review plan much as it has with past policies. Doing things the ordinary way wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this particular policy will have an extraordinary impact on the economic landscape.

Extraordinary policies require extraordinary efforts.

We accept in good faith the government’s promise to deliver a number of important briefing documents, explainers on key topics, and basic information about taxes and how they work. Good information is essential to any discussion.

And we have no reason to doubt the government’s promise to conduct public awareness events, either. They have committed themselves to holding public meetings at least in the municipal centres, and possibly elsewhere.

Some people have voiced alarm at the fact that draft legislation had been prepared even in advance of the CoM decision to proceed with the revenue review plan. This is common practice.

The mere existence of draft legislation doesn’t imply that a fix is in. The Family Protection Act existed in draft format for nearly a decade before it was finally enacted. The draft Cybercrime Bill is still—rightly—getting kicked back and forth. The Right to Information Bill has yet to see the Parliamentary floor, too, in spite of being in an advanced state of completion for some time.

No, the issue that is raising peoples’ hackles, in the private sector and at the grassroots, is the sense that a plan is being prepared, and that the only chance they will have to weigh in on it will be in an up/down vote.

Taxation is one of the most fundamental aspects of any democracy. Along with the ballot box, it’s one of the few ways that a citizen interacts directly in the administration of the country. And that’s why the people need to be presented with alternatives, rather than a simple yes-or-no decision. Continue reading