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.

Living with depression is better than the alternative. Until it’s not.

Preface: People need to understand that, for a lot of us, no amount of affirmation is going to change how we feel. Depression is treatable in many cases, but not necessarily curable in any case. This means that sentimentalising the problem is emphatically the wrong approach.

It is for me, at least. It drives me up the fucking wall to have to listen to people tell me how good I am, how much better the world is with me in it, how if I just stick with it a little longer, things will get better.

Because here’s the thing: They may get better for you, but for me they don’t.

I cope better on some days than others. I’ve had a lot of practice. I find ways to experience joy in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. But that doesn’t mean the sorrow goes away. You may have trouble grasping this—lord knows I do—but you can feel good about yourself and be the same worthless person you were when you woke up this morning. There is no contradiction there.

People think that when we say, ‘it’s all in your head’ it’s therefore transient, ephemeral and mutable. It’s not. You can change what you think about it, but you cannot change the thing itself.

So if, in the course of reading this, you find yourself wishing me well… don’t. I’m not well. I never have been, and I never will be. But I have a life. It’s a good one, and I’m not stupid enough to fail to recognise that. So kindly refrain from reminding me.

Now, on to my confession…. Continue reading

SHAME

People’s attitudes toward women are ruining lives, and it’s sickening

A few days ago, I heard news about someone whom I’ve known for almost as long as I’ve been in Vanuatu. She was tied by her hair to a post and beaten senseless by her partner.

Save your anger. I don’t want to hear it. Your outrage is meaningless to me.
You did this. Every single one of you.

Admit it: you loved it when they posted a false report that a local woman had been arrested for prostitution. She was framed and shamed simply because she’d had more than one partner. And you automatically believed she was guilty.

You loved it when a local man was wrongly accused of sexual assault and consorting with prostitutes. He was outed because he refused to lie about someone else. The threat could only work because you were willing to believe the woman was a whore.

You downloaded and shared copies of the intimate photos taken of a young professional who was tricked into sharing them with a man who swore that he was single. His wife takes him back, and the woman he lied to is the one who’s punished. Every time she walks into a meeting, she has to ask herself, ‘have they seen them?’

Yes, she was naïve. Do you think that justifies years of anguish?

You blamed her. You blamed her for being treated cruelly by others.

Blame yourself. You heard your neighbours fighting. You heard that woman cry out. You saw her tears.

You. Not someone else. Not someone down the road or in the next yard.

You’re reading this and thinking I’m talking about everyone else. I am talking about you.

For months, you did nothing after your neighbour buried his wife under a nakatambol tree. You didn’t even ask where she was.

You let a girl jump to her death from a moving bus. You let her death go unpunished. And then to add insult to injury, you warned young women not to travel at night.

You didn’t lift a finger when that faith healer groped and sexually assaulted your daughter. Just changed churches and warned your daughter to look after herself. You were the one who sent her to him.

You let a pastor—a pastor—beat a woman in broad daylight in the main street of town, and you did nothing but stand around gawping.

Stop shifting the blame. Stop pretending that it’s not all men. Because it is all men. It’s all of us. Every single one of us. Yes, me too.

And you.

Not the other readers: YOU

When is it going to dawn on you that the way we treat our women is our national shame? What is it going to take?

My shame is real. I’ve known this woman for over a decade, and when we were neighbours, I made sure nothing happened to her. But I moved on and she didn’t. And I said nothing last week when she showed up with a black eye. I didn’t want her to feel bad. Now this happens, and I’m ashamed of my cowardice. I did nothing to support her.

No longer.

But anything I do won’t make one bit of difference if the rest of you continue being the callous, uncaring people that you’ve been. Don’t deny it. There is not an adult in Vanuatu who hasn’t turned a blind eye toward abuse. If you think you’re not part of the problem, then you’re a bigger part of it than you know.

You read that clickbait smear. You read that post, and you believed it. Even now, you’re twisting around, trying to find a way to defend your prejudice. You can’t. It was a pack of lies.

But you believed it because that’s what you think women are like.

I can’t even bring myself to care whether I’ve changed your mind any more. All I have to say is shame. Shame on me for letting a friend hurt so much. For letting so many suffer. Shame on me for letting you get away with it.

I don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight. But to my shame, I know I will.
And shame on you. It could all change tomorrow. But it won’t. Because of you.

If you really are sincere about wanting to make things better, read this again, and accept in your heart of hearts that I am talking about you. And for once in your life, feel a bit of shame for your role in this suffering.

Then do something about it. Every day. Until the job is done, and the shame is gone.

Coates is not wrong

Posting this here because Twitter doesn’t always lend itself to nuance. (I know! I was gobsmacked too!)

Ta Nehisi Coates gets a lot of pushback from all sides for his polemical stance. It is abundantly true that his view, while popular among intellectuals, is not widely shared. Few people see through his lens on American history with quite the same acuity as he does.

That’s not entirely his fault. Just because you agree with someone’s premises doesn’t that you necessarily have to accept all of their conclusions. His Case for Reparations is a classic example. The line of logic is nearly inescapable. It is possible to quibble around the edges, to thicken the mix by introducing other variables, but the essay stands on its own.

Like the statue in the park, it endures despite the pigeon shit and graffiti.

But I still consider actual reparations a political pipe dream.

I have read Coates more deeply than widely, so if I miss something obvious here, please forgive me. But people who object to The First White President seem to do so because of his insistence of seeing the entire Trump presidency in terms of race. They accuse him, in fact, of buying into the very world-view he abjures. In today’s New York Times, Thomas Chatterton Williams overlays the German idea of Sonderweg, or ‘special path’ on Coates’ narrative of blackness.

That’s neither kind nor accurate. Coates is not advocating a view of history defined by race; he is admonishing people to accept that America’s history is defined by a particular view of race. Or, if you prefer the more modest argument: Black American’s history is defined not by how they saw themselves, but how others saw them.

If this is sonderweg, it’s through a glass, darkly.

The difference between those two statements seems to escape many. The discourse around Coates’ writing is happening almost exclusively among the intelligentsia—which is only natural, of course; that’s who he is speaking to. These are the people to whom his arguments apply the least.

That last paragraph is a mea culpa. I’m as guilty as any in that regard. But I can offer two observations that support his thesis:

Everything I have seen of local politics—the way that people impose their world view on their immediate surroundings—in the American South supports what Coates says. From road works to mental health services to store hours to zoning by-laws, prejudice and race are baked inextricably into its formulations.

Back during the Dot-Com Boom, I explored the idea of moving to the States to work. I had a lot of American clients, they paid well, and offered some really ambitious opportunities. But I was constantly confronted with the realisation that buying the American Dream meant buying into this nightmare too, at least implicitly.

Even in San Francisco, that bastion of liberalism, the divisions run deep. Lost in the city while searching for a store, I was stopped by a cop. He told me he would escort me back to my car. “You’re gonna turn it around, and never come back here,” he told me, explaining, “The natives are restless.”

I did turn around. And I’ve never been back to San Francisco.

Is just one racist cop enough to convince me that Coates’ depiction of race as a guiding vision is valid? Of course not. That was just the most vivid example.

My second point—and historians might have a field day with this one:

Isn’t America the only nation in history to have fought a bloody civil war over slavery—in which the enslaved were the object, but not the subject, of the effort?

An entire nation ripped itself apart on behalf of the victims of monumental injustice, and neglected actually to enfranchise, or meaningfully involve, those it fought to free.

The United States of America is unique. Its history is defined, if not driven, by a peculiar and distinct view of race. And yes, Donald Trump is the First White President. It would be foolish to deny it.

That’s not all he is, of course, but it is what he is. And Coates is right: it’s useful and productive to look at him in that light.

Outside Influences

Something that’s been bothering me about ‘outside’ influences….
 
One of the common refrains that you hear whenever someone advocates for change–here in Vanuatu, and throughout the world–is that these are foreign ideas imposed by radically different cultures. In other words, they’re incompatible with the way of life we’ve enjoyed since we were created according to our particular culture’s creation story.
 
But most progressive ideas are not foreign ideas. They’re not ‘western’, and they certainly are not incompatible.
 
How do I know? Because I know my own culture. I come from a deeply conservative Irish background, and there is nothing in my heritage that drove me to protest nuclear proliferation, to oppose government corruption, to advocate for environmental causes, or to oppose violence against women and children.
 
I learned all those things on my own. Yes, I am happy and grateful to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants in all of these things. The people who pioneered these concepts in Vanuatu–Marc Neil-Jones, Wan Smolbag, Merelyn Tahi, Grace Molisa, Florence Leingkon, and now Stephanie Ephraim–are not western dupes. They are all the opposite of easily led.
 
People who have the strength to campaign for justice, who have the courage to belief that we owe our children a better world… they’re not stooges of the New World Order. They are your brother, your sister, your auntie, your dad.
 
Respect for kastom? Yes. Absolutely. As long as kastom means peace and harmony FOR ALL.
 
But when ‘respect’ means sit down and shut up and wait your turn (which will never come, because it’s always my turn), that’s not kastom. That’s just plain old wrong.
 
Our culture should stand strong against outside influences? Well… I don’t know. Culture–all culture, everywhere–is changing every day, every moment. Kastom and culture are who we are today. They are who we are yesterday, too. And tomorrow.
 
And each of those is different.
 
Oppose change if you must. But if you do, at least to honest enough to attack the idea on its merits, not merely because it’s ‘not ours’.
 
Nobody told Flo she didn’t have to take it any more. Nobody told Steph to get cussing mad. Nobody told Grace to denounce injustice. Nobody told Merelyn to devote herself to saving lives.
 
Their experience, their insight, and their activism is born out of the blood and soil of Vanuatu just as much as Independence was.

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?’

This won’t get better soon

It’s already become clear that the White House explicitly overrode a DHS determination that contended the ban didn’t apply to Green Card holders and other valid, vetted residents. The ACLU is reporting that some officials are not abiding by a number of stay order issued at courts in at least three locations.

As a legal instrument, at least one scholar sees this particular Executive Order as so incredibly flawed that it won’t stand up to a sustained legal attack by the ACLU, CAIR and others.

Most worrying though are the reports circulating that the drafting process bypassed the normal interdepartmental and legal review stages, and that DHS was only briefed on the content of the Executive Orders as they were being signed. This doesn’t sound like an administration that’s particularly worried about adhering to the letter of the law, or bringing a lot of people into the conversation. Not sure how that will stand up over time. Politics is often petty and vengeful, and the White House is already leaking like a sieve. It might be that their incompetence is what does them in. It may be that their unwillingness to share power will do it.

My personal feeling is that neither one will stop them. I think people severely underestimate the lengths that this administration will go to to see this through. When Donald Trump promised the people of America that he would never back down, that he would do everything to advance the cause… I think he was speaking literally. When Steve Bannon says that we’re at war with Islam, I think he believes it fervently. When Flynn and others portray their work as an existential fight, I think they’re sincere in that.

Left-leaning people and other opponents have mobilised quickly, but they’re expecting the administration to react the way they would react. They think that public shaming, legal action and political activism will drive Donald Trump’s administration back. I fear they’re wrong. They will be seen as traitors and subversives, and they’ll be treated accordingly, through formal and informal means. They don’t realise that their resistance will ultimately have to be physical. They should be reading up on their Thoreau right about now….

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

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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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