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  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.