Hello from Whoville

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Dr Seuss’ stories are charming, heart-warming and a delight from start to finish.

Unless you’re inside one. Then they ain’t so fun.

In Senate Estimates this morning, Labor senator Penny Wong pressed government officials to recognise that Australia is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the international community in terms of climate commitments. She cited the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and South Korea, all of whom have joined a rising chorus of nations committing to carbon neutral goals.

Any sane person would applaud the senator for pushing this, and pushing hard. It’s shameful and downright irresponsible for the government to refuse to do more than ‘acknowledge’ the global trend.

For Pacific islanders, though, the exchange was infuriating. Both sides of it.

I admire Penny Wong. I think she’s a woman of deep principle, redoubtable intellect and remarkable political savvy. But today, I feel like she was ignoring us. Gesturing right over our heads, pointing at Europe, North America, Asia, and utterly ignoring Australia’s nearest neighbours.

Pacific island nations invented the Greater Ambition movement, goading the Paris Agreement’s adherents to move further and faster. We have been instrumental in every recent COP, driving our larger neighbours to accept the reality of climate change and the need to act decisively.

Pacific Islands Forum members have established themselves as confident and competent leaders on the world stage. That confidence has translated to success in other areas as well, including fisheries and regional security.

We got the Boe Declaration signed, which recognises climate change as the single great threat to our security in the region.

And we got Australia to sign it.

That’s no mean feat, given how much of the Canberra establishment sees us either as a blue wilderness, or corrupt and completely malleable. At our very best, we seem to be perceived as a client, lacking any agency of our own, whose importance is directly related to the cold calculus of geostrategic variables.

Every Dr Seuss lover loves Horton, who hears the Whos in time to save them from destruction.

But you know what? Living here in Whoville—aka the Pacific—ain’t so great. We only get noticed when we all yell, all at once. We’re ignored by everyone at first, then we’re heard only by the one character who’s even capable of listening. Only at the last minute are we heard by the others (one of whom is a kangaroo!!).

Only seconds before, that kangaroo was preparing literally to fry us in oil.

Art imitates life, folks.

With apologies to Theodore Geisel, “A country’s a country, no matter how small”.

And you know how the real-life story goes? We get ignored again and again. We watch developed nations arguing over our heads as if we were children in a pre-divorce household.

Except we’re not bloody children. And this house is all any of us have got.

If I were mayor of Whoville, I’d be a lot more stroppy. I’d probably tell Senator Horton, ‘High time you listened. We’ve been yelling for years. What took you so long?

And the kangaroo?

I’d remind the kangaroo that it signed the Boe Declaration, that if it cares a jot about its status in Whoville, and in the international community, it would honour its word, accept its responsibilities, and quit treating us Whos like children.

Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we’re stupid. You may not be hearing us, but we’re hearing every word from you. Even the ones you’re not saying.

Especially the ones you’re not saying.

The Real Question

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Rather than focusing on sour grapes, we should be asking the one question that matters in labour mobility

Wes Morgan this morning highlighted a new piece of analysis suggesting among other things that Australia should create a ‘Pacific visa’ programme similar to the existing one in New Zealand. This would allow climate refugees the chance to relocate—and equally important—find employment in Australia.

The thread goes on to explore a number of ideas and proposals for expanding access to travel, primarily through labour mobility programmes for workers in the Pacific, and for employers in Australia and New Zealand.

Many details that need to be clarified, but fundamentally, there’s only one real question that remains unanswered:

How big can it get?

For better or worse, few Pacific development programmes are as well-understood as the region’s labour schemes. They may not be the most-studied, but those who understand the importance of the schemes understand them well.

Stephen Howes at the ANU’s Development Policy Centre, was one of the first on board and is one of the most assiduous examiners of the programmes. His DevPolicy blog has done more to analyse and advocate for labour mobility than any other source that I’ve seen.

(I’m not saying anything here that he hasn’t said before, but if I misconstrue or neglect anything, that’s on me alone.)

We know that seasonal labour schemes work.

We know that they’re better than backpacker or domestic labour schemes in terms of bang for buck for farmers.

We know growers like them. In many cases, they prefer Pacific workers over all others.

We know they fit with Pacific communities.

We know they create mutual economic benefits. This is a huge deal. Australia is quick to tout the almost-finalised PACER Plus trade deal, but the reason it took so long is simply that there’s no compelling reason to move ahead with it. The trade in goods in the Pacific is so one-sided, no treaty in the world can save it. We’re just too small, too far from markets and too niche in our exports ever to matter.

But we do have people. And that’s a commodity that Australia and New Zealand need. They have for decades.

Slowly now, policy makers are coming to terms with the merits of a wider and more open Pacific labour market. Despite the Nats grumbling about paper work and arguing for a more libertarian approach, there is little opposition to a substantial expansion.

Just having a reliably COVID-free labour pool is reason enough. Australian and New Zealand growers need workers now, and we have them.

So the question, really, is: How many do you want?

Lowy’s Jonathan Pryke—himself a DevPolicy alumnus—teamed up with Leon Berkelmans in 2016 to ask what would happen if we removed all caps and effectively let anyone in eight Pacific countries work wherever? The answer was a net increase of US $25 billion in wages, an 85% increase in salary levels overall.

Of course, ‘all of them’ is not a politically viable answer to our question. But it sure doesn’t hurt to bear in mind that evidence shows that the larger the number is, the better off everyone is, on both sides of the pond.

As with any successful programme, everybody has ideas about how to fix it. With few exceptions, I think they should be avoided.

A recent DevPolicy post reported:

The value placed on RSE jobs, and the time it can take to get one, mean RSE workers and their families want to hold onto them. A common practice among RSE employers is to ask their experienced return workers and team leaders to act as unofficial recruitment agents and to select new recruits for them. This tends to result in the RSE employment opportunity staying within the extended family or village group, rather than spreading opportunities to non-participating households in other areas.

Some RSE employers also reward their experienced workers by allowing for inter-generational transfers of jobs within the family. The RSE employment opportunity is passed from an RSE worker parent to an adult child, ensuring the family retains access to a regular source of RSE income. This practice, while of benefit to the participating household, limits the potential for wider redistribution of work opportunities as people from individual families leave the RSE workforce.

It goes on to speak about inequities created between the cash-wealthy returned workers and under- or unemployed locals. They also cite unequal employment rates between communities and islands, with some over-represented.

That’s all true. But.

The problem, as they rightly note, is not that jobs are being unfairly allocated. The problem is the caps that exist on the programmes.

Market forces create inequality where scarcity of supply exists. That’s pretty much the central tenet of social democratic philosophy. But it doesn’t mean that we should revert to a managed economy in pursuit of fairness.

But there’s no need to argue the philosophical basis for this. The real reason why is that it wouldn’t work.

I’ve seen the lengths recruitment agents go to in approaching and preparing villages for participation. They spend months liaising with island-level structures, and have to provide comprehensive assurances to families and village leaders concerning the treatment and the behaviour of participants.

I’ve spoken with many of the top agents here in Vanuatu, and every one has cited personal relationships between themselves, the local chiefs and church elders, workers and employers as the decisive factors behind their success. These take time, and cannot be easily discarded, much less remade.

And as we’ve seen above, growers feel the same. They know that their best workers offer a disproportionately high return on their investment. The top 10% of workers produce vastly more than 10% of the output. And they know that family values play a big role in a good work ethic.

That’s been the case pretty much forever, and while it’s largely been forgotten in the corporate and academic worlds, more than a few people will tell you, it’s how you run a small business. You build personal relationships and expand them through webs of trust.

Such networks are innate in Pacific societies. I’ve spoken with countless people, and virtually none have spoken poorly of those employed in seasonal worker programmes. Nor have they expressed jealousy about their earnings. Most speak in admiring terms, and see the programmes as something to aspire to.

There have, admittedly, been more than a few legitimate concerns raised about the stress on families where one member is away for months at a time, over a period of years. Most of the people whom I know in that situation see it as taking the good with the bad, and cope. In some cases, it raised fears about infidelity at home and abroad. In more than a few, those fears were justified.

But this is self-regulating. When enough is enough, either people part or the prodigal comes home.

One of the ways that employment agents have reacted to the strains of prolonged separation is to impose downright draconian codes on conduct on workers. No alcohol at all. No leaving the compound alone, and no leaving without good reason or on schedules outings for shopping or what have you. No fraternisation, with anyone, period.

I spoke with one man just out of quarantine last weekend, and that was the one criticism he made.

One of the most startling ‘fixes’ proposed recently has been the nationalisation of employment programmes recently mooted by Vanuatu’s Council of Ministers.

The idea as presented would put responsibility for selection in the hands of local area councils. Fees normally paid to agents would instead be remitted to the national government, which would administer the programme.

The stated reason is to improve government revenues, and to ‘depoliticise’ the selection process.

Few people believe either one. The scuttlebutt around town is that the plan is just a slap back against Opposition MP John Salong, who has been one of the government’s most consistent gadflies. John has been an agent since the RSE was in its infancy, and has been involved with the SWP as well from the word go.

Many have argued that Salong leveraged the relationships developed working on these schemes to mobilise the vote on his native island of Ambrym. I suspect that no one, not even John, would argue with that. It’s consistent with how rural MPs rise: They demonstrate they can deliver for their communities, then they get elected to government to advocate for more and better policies that help these same communities.

Word on the street right now is that the CoM decision to nationalise the programmes won’t fly. There’s already a significant backlash among back bench MPs who may not like John, but understand that if government can start picking off opponents like that, it jeopardises all of them.

So as the sun sets and we allow the turmoil of the day to subside in just one more shell of kava, only one question remains:

How many more workers can we get on the next plane?

In Conversation with Benny Wenda

Over the course of the last decade, Benny Wenda has emerged as the increasingly confident voice of West Papuan independence. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he has worked from exile in the UK to organise and legitimise the struggle of indigenous West Papuans.

We spoke to Benny Wenda via Skype on October 7, while preparing an analysis for the Lowy Interpreter, which was published nine days later.

Mr Wenda speaks several languages. English is far from his first. In order to ensure clarity on the page, some of his grammar and usage has been corrected, but every effort has been made to retain the intent and nuance of what he said.

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DM: I’d like to ask what role you think Vanuatu has had in the past, and what sort of role you think they will have in the future.

BW: Previous governments were already successful. You know, they were pushing the issue to the MSG and also to the ACP. So I hope that this new government can elevate this more. This is very important. I know that the Prime Minister is on it, and I hope they can continue to support until we get our independence.

DM: Have you been in touch with the current government, and if so, how has that played out?

BW: At the moment, I’m not meeting with the new government yet. Because Corona make it hard. Electronic communication is all we have. I’ve sent some documents to the Prime Minister’s office, but physically we haven’t met yet, and the Foreign Minister as well. I hope that I will meet them soon. But they are bravely speaking out in the United Nations. And I personally, and the people of West Papua, thank the Prime Minister and the people of Vanuatu.

This is really a critical time. But instead of thinking only of COVID-19, the government of Vanuatu is thinking of us as well, and highlighting this issue.

DM: This year, as usual, the Prime Minister in his address to the UNGA, expressed concerns about what I think he called ongoing human rights abuses in West Papua. In previous years, we have seen not just one but six Pacific leaders all lining up to talk about their concerns about the way Indonesia is treating people in West Papua. Why do you think that number has decreased? Do you think that’s just COVID, or are there other reasons involved here?

BW: Yes, I think one issue is the COVID issue. And they’re also changing the governments. For example, Tuvalu… Tonga also, the Prime Minister passed away. Also the Marshall Islands. All these leaders who spoke out in the last few years. We don’t have any bilateral [relationships with the new leaders], so it’s a little bit difficult. New governments need to catch up.

But we know through the Pacific Islands Forum communique that they’re already aware of the situation, and we hope that next year we can lobby more to say the situation has not changed to speak out on the issue.

DM: What are you hoping to achieve through the PIF? I know it was supposed to be held here in Vanuatu. It would have been a near ideal platform for the ULMWP to make its case—informally as well as formally. What can you reasonably achieve now with at best a virtual meeting this year?

BW: It’s really difficult to predict. But we hope that when they meet in Fiji, all the Pacific leaders will maintain their call for the UNHCR to visit West Papua. That’s our aim. I hope that Pacific leaders can talk about this in the coming weeks.

I know we’re facing this COVID-19 crisis, but the situation in West Papua is worse than it was. This is a humanitarian crisis as well.

Indonesia is misusing COVID-19 funds to conduct military operations up in the highlands. But they’re not distributing [assistance] widely in the community who are suffering from COVID-19. For example medical supplies. There are no medical supplies in the region.

The military are conducting operations in the villages. We’re worried that the military are spreading COVID-19 in the community. They shake hands, they arrest, they beat them up, they’re spreading it while this is happening.

DM: There was at least one incident that I can think of offhand in which a young man was shot, and the reason given was because he was breaking curfew, he was not respecting the COVID-19 regulations. And there was another case of a checkpoint near the mine where a woman was badly injured for apparently violating limitations on movement that were put in place under COVID-19 emergency measures. Do you think this is a pretence, or do you think these people were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time? Because we’ve only seen a few of them, but at the same time, they’re quite serious.

BW: Yes, this is happening in several places, in Timika, in Wamena and [indecipherable]. There are several places. Some these villages are not even infected with COVID-19, there are serious allegations that they’re trying to limit people’s movement. In the villages, they don’t have any disease. Unless the military come in and conduct operations.

Indonesia has restricted movement even where there are no cases.

In a place called Intan Jaya, there was a huge military operation conducted. That’s why 450 military personnel were sent directly. A pastor was killed, Jeremias was killed at a regional synod. And another in Nduga. These were pastors who were peace maker, but they were killed.

DM: How were they killed? Were they subjected to violence by the TNI? What happened to them?

BW: It’s very clear that they were guarding their community. When the military came, they were clearly saying to the military that this is a congregation, we don’t know all those you are looking for. Jeremia, in Nduga, his congregation fled to the bush because of the military operation, and he’s trying to explain that. ‘This is the community, they are my congregation, they have nothing to do with the West Papua Army. These are ordinary people. But what happened? He was killed. Unarmed.

DM: Sorry, just to be perfectly clear: he was killed by armed forces?

BW: Yeah, in Nduga last year. In 2018. And this Jeremia, just two weeks ago, he was killed by Indonesian military in his village in Intan Jaya.

DM: Do you think that there’s any prospect for an end to this kind of low-level conflict in West Papua in the next two or three years?

BW: I’m sure that as long as Indonesia is deployed militarily, it’s not going to end. That’s why people in West Papua are calling for a referendum. That’s the only peaceful way to conduct this. Holding the referendum, rather than the military approach. That is not going to succeed. It won’t lead to peace.

In fact, people are calling for the rejection of special autonomy. And this causing more violence, increasing violence and demonstrations, because we know Indonesia, by military force they want to push the West Papuan people to adopt this. And that is worrying me, and that’s why I’m calling particularly to Pacific leaders to keep an eye on that.

DM: We all saw that some of the most popular demonstrations were relating to wildly racists behaviour by Indonesian people. They called, as you said earlier, they called West Papuan people—Melanesian people—monkeys and other derogatory terms. Since Vanuatu gave its speech at the UNGA, some of us have been subjected to the same sort of thing. Humans of Vanuatu (which I administer), the Vanuatu Tourism Office… those pages and many many others have been subjected to a stream of abuse. Do you think that this abuse is coming from the Indonesian population at large, or do you think that this is being directed somehow?

BW: This is state-coordinated and organised. We have evidence. Indonesia last year organised state-coordinated…. Indonesia paid US $300,000 to [a private company] to attack all the pages. They’re attacking social media pages across the Pacific because they know our solidarity is very strong.


That means Indonesia already lost the argument. It’s like screaming. Shouting like a child. They should be a big country and show leadership, but they don’t. They’re sitting in the same room, how could they lose their manners? That means they’re losing the argument.

DM: In their right of reply to Vanuatu, Indonesia stated that this country had an ‘obsessive and unhealthy’ fixation with what they claimed were Indonesia’s internal affairs. What do you think they meant by that? How could it be unhealthy?

BW: It’s the other way around. It’s a childish argument. A baseless argument. Indonesia is saying that this is their internal affair, but the Indonesian president spoke out about the Palestinian right to self-determination and independence. It’s the same thing Vanuatu is speaking about.

While the Indonesian president is ignoring what’s happening in West Papua, he’s speaking about Palestinian independence, Palestinian rights and freedom. That means he’s also intervening in the internal affairs of somebody else’s territory.

DM: Do you see a change in policy in Vanuatu? This year, there were concerns raised around human rights, but no call for self-determination. How do you interpret that?

BW: I think Vanuatu’s statement was based on the PIF Communique. It’s a collective voice. Vanuatu alone has called for self-determination, but now the collective voice is very powerful, it’s very important to push that. And then after the UNHCR visits… the communique talks about the root cause, what happened in 1969. I think that’s why Indonesia’s worried.

DM: Fiji and PNG have always been reluctant to show significant support for West Papuan independence. Do you see any change in that at all in this year and the coming years?

BW: I think now they can see themselves what’s really happening. Before, they thought Indonesia will solve this issue. But the evidence shows that it’s worse and worse. Worse and worse. These two countries have always been reluctant because they were confident that with Indonesia in the room, they will solve the issue. But it’s not. That’s why you can see last year’s collective voice. Nobody objected. Because they can see it. They know what happened. PNG is the immediate brother on the other half of the island, so you know they can see it.

DM: James Marape has been quite non-committal on the issue, and now he seems to be non-committal on the issue of Bougainvillean independence. How much do you think Bougainville’s issues will reflect on the struggle for West Papuan independence?

BW: I think the current prime minister is really confident. He’s brave. His heart… you can see he wants peace. He wants to peacefully transition Bougainvillean people in the future. He wants to see Bougainvilleans in a prosperous future. And I think the same could apply in West Papua.

He could use the one case the move the other. That’s my feeling.

But I think this is also a good example for Indonesia. Indonesia can see they don’t have to worry, because West Papua will be a close neighbour, just like Papua New Guinea is doing with Bougainville. I think it’s a lesson for the Indonesian government to learn.

DM: But Marape’s comments is recent days were that there was no legal requirement to give independence, and some people are reading that as a reluctance among the PNG political class to let Bougainville go. If he’s trying to hold the line on Bougainvillean independence, where is the incentive for him to support West Papuan independence?

BW: I think the Bougainville case is very clear. It’s through the Parliament. Parliament will decide whether they let them go. The majority has already voted for independence.


They already agreed to a cease-fire, but some of them, I think they don’t agree about some of the issues. So that will go back to the Parliament.

DM: Well, the two situations do look very similar, don’t they?

BW: Yes.

DM: And the future is uncertain on both sides. I think that’s a fair statement, isn’t it?

BW: Absolutely, but hopefully there’s a Melanesian way to solve these issues in both.

DM: Manasseh Sogavare, he was the one who engineered the accession—the joining of the ULMWP to the MSG and he did it as you said, in a very Melanesian way, by moving both pieces at the same time. By moving both Indonesia and West Papua at the same time, and basically trying to make sure that everybody was happy. But he did tell me in an interview after that, that it went to a vote, which is unusual in Melanesia, in the MSG. Normally things are done by consensus. But on that particular day, it was Vanuatu, the FLNKS and Solomon Islands who carried the burden. Given that kind of dynamic, do you think there’s a real prospect for movement at the next Forum meeting?

BW: I’m confident that our application for full membership [in the MSG] will be granted, because we have been lobbying for the last two years. It’s now up to the leaders. We hope that this is the time for them to grant us a full membership. And after that, you know we could engage with Indonesia in a peaceful manner. That’s what we’re looking forward to.

DM: So you think that the MSG is still a useful forum for the ULMWP?

BW: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because this is the forum where we can present our views to the leaders. In the last few years, there was just confrontation, you know, with Indonesia. But when we’re an equal partner we can engage peacefully and find a solution. That’s what we look for.

DM: Do you think that you’ll be able to get the same kind of consensus from the Pacific Islands Forum?

BW: I hope that that will happen. I hope that will happen.

DM: Well, I’m asking you for a realistic estimate. Because we all know that the realpolitik of the region and the subregion are such that it’s very difficult to get them to agree on the hour of the day or the day of the week, so with the friction that we’re seeing right now between the Micronesian nations who are threatening to walk out if they don’t get their choice for the chair, is there any hope of the ULMWP actually getting any attention at all?

BW: We’re confident that this communique will unify all the leaders to speak out about the issue, the situation, particularly in West Papua. I know the internal politics involved in the region you know, but we also are trying to push our case to bring it to their attention. That’s our aim. I know that COVID-19 also has made everyone reluctant, but I think we just keep positive and build this momentum. We’ll keep pushing.

Part 3 of the interview will be published shortly. Subscribe to The Village Explainer to make sure you don’t miss it.

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In Conversation with Benny Wenda

Over the course of the last decade, Benny Wenda has emerged as the increasingly confident voice of West Papuan independence. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he has worked from exile in the UK to organise and legitimise the struggle of indigenous West Papuans.

We spoke to Benny Wenda via Skype on October 7, while preparing an analysis for the Lowy Interpreter, which was published nine days later.

Mr Wenda speaks several languages. English is far from his first. In order to ensure clarity on the page, some of his grammar and usage has been corrected, but every effort has been made to retain the intent and nuance of what he said.

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Dan McGarry: Over the last year and a half, there’s been an increase in the amount of popular uprising, and also in the level of violent confrontation, both by Indonesia security forces and in some cases by armed militants, who presumably are supporting the cause of independence. Can you tell me first of all what your sense is of where things are at right now, and where you think they’re going to go over the next year or two.

Benny Wenda: Thank you Dan. I think it’s very important. What’s happening on the ground now, the situation, over the last year is worse and worse—the worst in our history. The uprising is across Indonesia, it’s across West Papua. People are coming together because for the last 50 years people have been silenced. The [recent racism] has been a spark for 50 years of sentiment. Since then, everybody has been united in one spirit. Even civil servants in the Indonesian government. Because they called us monkeys.

‘Monkey’ – that’s not only West Papua, but across Melanesia. Because they’re black.

That sentiment has led more people to unite. And I think that Indonesia is scared. They’re scared that we’re united, and we’re politically united too, under the ULMWP. That’s never happened before.

That’s why Indonesia is also increasing its military deployment in West Papua. It’s almost doubled—doubled. It’s 16,000 troops last years, and now more. One particular deployment in the highlands is because of the West Papuan Army. Over the last two years, the armed groups have united themselves into the West Papuan Army. They are trying to unify themselves to show the world that we are unified, they’re fighters, not criminal groups as stigmatised.

But Indonesia has also used military force. They want to divide and conquer. That’s their colonial power, imposed over the last 50 years.

So this is why West Papuan people are coming out in demonstrations everywhere.

Seven West Papuan leaders were arrested last year.  They sent them to Kalimantan. That caused widespread sentiment among Indonesian citizens.

[Human rights advocate] Veronica Koman is now in exile in Australia just because she was speaking out the human rights situation.

Surya Anta was arrested just because of peaceful demonstrations.

This is a time bomb. Indonesia cannot hide this issue under the carpet. This is becoming an international issue. It’s across Melanesia and the Pacific and it’s also international.

In 2000, we began to lobby the Pacific Islands Forum, but because we were many factions, the PIF never recognised our agenda. But since we’re united under the ULMWP, they recognised us and adopted a resolution [asking UNHRC to arrange a fact-finding visit to West Papua]. So we know for sure that the Pacific leaders are listening to our cry for justice and freedom for the people of West Papua.

DM: It was noted at one point [in the 2019 PIF Communique] that the government of Indonesia had agreed to allow the UN Human Rights Commission to visit West Papua. To your knowledge, has that ever happened?

BW: No. They announced in the papers that it would, but it’s never happened.

DM: Why do you think that is?

BW: I think Indonesia is worried that as soon as the UNHCR visits West Papua—there have been a lot of human rights violations from the 1960s up to now, and they’ve been covered up. So they’re really worried that as soon as the UNHCR comes to West Papua, people will tell them the truth.

Telling the truth. That’s their worry.

DM: You talked about how some of these fighting forces have coalesced into… what did you call it, the West Papuan Army? Is that correct?

BW: Yes.

DM: Does the ULMWP then support this armed conflict in West Papua?

BW: Before there were different factions, three factions. But it was very difficult to consult, because geographically, it’s very difficult to communicate.

In Timika, sometimes they* create violence and they blame the West Papuan Army. We don’t know all the groups other than the West Papuan Army.

[*Wenda later expanded, saying the ‘they’ he was referring to here might well have been Indonesia security forces engaged in a so-called ‘false flag’ operation.]

But we want everyone united to peacefully engage with the international community and the Indonesian government. Particularly, I’m calling for the President of Indonesia to agree with me to holding a referendum to allow a peaceful transition. Just like the FLNKS with the French government, you know? The Noumea Accord, you know? They agreed to that kind of international agreement. And also the Bougainvillean and Papua New Guinean government.

This has never happened. There was one bill in the 1960s, the Autonomy Bill, and a second Bill from 2001 up to now. But they just impose what Indonesia wants. They’re not listening.

DM: Do you think that more armed conflict is inevitable, or is there a peaceful path to independence?

BW: I think the armed conflict is… you know, they’re a Home Guard. There’s nowhere to go, and they just defend their land. Defend their right to survive. Because Indonesia occupied their territory. Almost the entire population is controlled by the Indonesian Military. So they have a right to defend themselves. That’s their homeland. But what the ULMWP are leading toward is a peaceful solution. We are demanding that the Indonesian government resolve this peacefully. This is why we are bringing the case to the UN to review it. Because the UN was involved in the first place, and big powers like Australia, America, Britain and some other European countries are involved in [giving away] our right to self-determination. Under international law, our case is still active.

That’s why Indonesia is getting worried. When we get to that point, they worry, because they lose the political argument, the legal argument. That’s all lost. The only argument they’re holding onto now is autonomy, and also development.

But you cannot build development on top of suffering.

That’s why the people of West Papua are not demanding autonomy or development. They just want freedom.

To be free to leave. To go to their garden, to go fishing, just like the Melanesia way of life.

DM: So nothing short of independence is going to be sufficient in the eyes of the ULMWP?

BW: I’m pretty sure… I’m confident that something might happen. People power—my people in West Papua, they’re confidently coming out because their voices are being heard by the ACP, 79 countries plus the Pacific leaders already hear their voice. And I think that gives them confidence.

Now we’re members of the MSG, as observers. Indonesia is an associate member. This is one example that I want to tell you today. Indonesia is sitting in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and we are sitting engaged, face to face. And I know that Melanesian leaders want to give them advice to find a solution. But [Indonesia] are not. They are making the problem worse.

We are always there. We have the opportunity to speak there. They also speak there, and show their colonial attitude toward us. But that is weakness. There are five countries in the room. But Indonesia is not trying to reach a solution. They’re trying to wipe out our Melanesian population.

Part 2 of the interview will be published shortly. Subscribe to The Village Explainer to make sure you don’t miss it.

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Communications (in a) Disaster

Last week, the governments of Vanuatu and Australia announced a three year project to build out a national emergency communications network. Which is great. I haven’t seen any details on the particular technologies being proposed, but I suspect that High Frequency, or HF, radio will be the most likely choice.

HF relies on the particular dynamics of the ionosphere to quite literally bounce radio waves off it, allowing it to reach past the curvature of the Earth.

It also doesn’t require these:

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Which is probably for the best, after a cyclone.

That tower, by the way, has just been reconstructed, but has yet to be reconnected to the company’s network. That’s seven months without service. Through no fault of the company’s, materials were delayed for months due to decisions relating to the COVID-19 crisis.

The kind of HF radio antennas (antennae?) we use in most commonly in Vanuatu look more like this:

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They’re smaller and cheaper than microwave antennae(s), easier to configure, and best of all, they can be unstrung during a cyclone, and then resurrected after the storm has passed.

Can be.

In 2004, cyclone Ivy bopped like a pinball down the length of Vanuatu’s archipelago. One of the first islands hit was Ambae. Where (because the Gods hate me, I guess) I just happened to be visiting.

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When we emerged from the debris the next day, comms were out. Turns out that no one at the provincial emergency operations centre remembered to take the HF antenna down. Fixing the broken antenna wasn’t a huge technical challenge. The hard part was convincing people (myself included) that I was qualified to do it. From a 2004 blog post:

I asked one of the provincial staff for a two-metre length of nylon rope in order to create a makeshift climbing harness. He disappeared, returning a few minutes later with quarter-inch nylon twine. We chuckled ruefully and made do. I doubled the twine, then doubled it again, and tied the resulting loop around the pole with a double prussic knot. A prussic knot slips one way only, so each of the knots would push against the other, tightening the bond as weight was put on it. I climbed up two metres, and tested, then re-tested my harness. Finally satisfied that it would hold my weight, I climbed up.

I wasn’t too concerned about the climb, in spite of the missing steps. It’s a fairly easy thing to shinny up a pole, and it was something I’d done more than once in my mis-spent youth. The trouble would come when I needed both hands free to heft the thirty metres of steel cable to a proper height.

After a little to-ing and fro-ing in the breeze, I managed to get myself set. I fed the free end of the re-spliced cable down to the men on the ground, and relying on them to take up the slack, I began to tug. I put what weight I have against the harness and heaved for what I was worth. It was gratifying to watch the antenna rise slowly above the trees. With the assistance of a well-positioned cleft bamboo pole, we managed to lift the antenna higher than it had been before. Last I heard, they had managed to contact Mota Lava, an island a few hundred miles to the north in the Banks group, as well as the neighbouring islands of Maewo and Pentecost.

And that, children, is how daddy restored comms to Penama province’s emergency operations centre.

(Post scriptum: I went back to the island about 4 years later. My patch job was still there.)

On the bright side, HF radio equipment is easier to secure—and repair if necessary.

On the not-so-bright side, it’s debatable whether it would have been repaired if I hadn’t just happened to be there. It took a week for flights to resume, and longer for the response to get underway, because—as with cyclone Pam in 2015—Port Vila got hit really hard too.

That said, an inter-island police network would be quite useful outside of cyclone season too, especially when trouble boils over from one island to the next.

But to assume that it will provide primary emergency communications in the wake of a cyclone, which is the most likely cause of disaster-related emergency in our neck of the water—well, it’s a bit of a stretch. The one thing we know about cyclones is that comms cut out right when you need them most.

The reason we objected to the end of Radio Australia’s shortwave service is precisely because it was far away from us. So when our communications networks are knocked ass over tea kettle, someone will still be able to reach us.

Short wave and High Frequency radio work. Digital, FM, Microwave and other point to point technologies require either a physical link or line of sight. They don’t do so well when the wind is blowing strong.

I suppose we could build out an inter-island fibre-optic network, though. That would be cool. And about a hundred million bucks.

That Sinking Feeling

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As I’ve been saying since 2016, this isn’t going to end well.

The global trend is away from order, away from rules. I fear we’ve shifted so far we lack the means to correct our global course.

Antonio Guterres rails against the four—sorry, five—horsemen of the Apocalypse abroad in the world today:

  1. The highest global geo-strategic tensions in years. 

  2. An existential climate crisis. 

  3. Deep and growing global mistrust.

  4. The dark side of the digital world.

  5. Oh, and Pestilence. Why does everyone but Brueghel forget Pestilence?

No one cares. Under his leadership, the UN has died on the vine. It’s not entirely his fault, of course. Like countless before him, being utterly nonthreatening is his stock in trade.

I’ve met him briefly. I got the impression he brings a lot of that to the job. It’s Sec Gen, after all, not Sec Gem.

The fact that he thought that TIME cover was a good idea is a monument to his ineffectuality. Whatever convictions he may have, his tenure at the UN will be remembered as the time when it largely ceased to matter.

Anyway, he doesn’t matter now. I’d like to think otherwise, but let’s be frank: what chance does the UN have of fixing any of the many crises afflicting us right now?

None. We can beat our breasts all we want about missed opportunities and the failure of international entente, but self interest has won.

Self interest, pace Homer Simpson, is the solution to—and the source of—all of life’s problems.

We’ll do stuff about climate change. Self interest dictates it. Investors, insurers and entrepreneurs will do what they can, and states will occasionally use it adherence as policy stick to drive protectionist or interventionist policies.

Heck, it’s possible that global conflict or economic collapse might decide the matter for us.

But even if it doesn’t, I’ve seen with my own eyes just how little Alex Hawke actually cares about climate. He can’t hide his disdain for what he calls ‘climate activists’. And more to the point, we’ve all seen just how little Alex Hawke matters to Scott Morrison’s political future.

And at the part of the point that angels dance on, we can all see just how little Scott Morrison matters to the coterie of business buddies who put the Coal-ition through its paces.

And right where the last angel stands is the coming civil strife in the USA. None of us really matter either.

Chinese belligerence matters, but not as much as the fall of the American Empire, especially since they seem intent on taking us all down with them.

Back when I was 17, I began to write a little ditty called the Fin de Siècle Blues, about a society watching their world fading in front of their eyes, and quietly beginning to accept that it’s never coming back.

I guess I better finish it. Because it is us.

It should be clear by now to Pacific leaders that not only do the things that matter to us not matter to them, we don’t matter to them. We are in fact descending past cynicism to nihilism, and nothing we say or do is going to stop it.

We still have agency though. I said on Twitter recently that lacking the ability to control the outcome of world events doesn’t mean we lack agency.

Control is dredging the harbour. Agency is learning to surf.

We’re going to pass 2 degrees Celsius. Probably 3.

We’re going to see military confrontation in the Pacific, and though I doubt it still, it might reach Melanesia.

I want to be wrong. Not only for my or my family’s sake, but for yours too. I’ll probably get through this. My kids almost certainly will. We live in a Goldilocks zone—a warm place moderated by maritime climate, far away from the worst of everything. What land we have will remain fertile long after Australia and much of Asia have become much less habitable.

If conflict reaches us, it will get here after it’s already swallowed millions. We’ll have time to brace—or hide.

Relatively speaking, we’re where you’d want to be to make it through the mess that’s coming. All we can do now is get ready.

So should you.

Nobody Knows

What does the future hold for us? That’s easy!

Just apply this handy little flowchart:

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With apologies to Leonard Cohen’s ghost, the one thing that everybody knows about Vanuatu politics is that nobody really knows what’s going to happen.

That’s a deceptively simplistic statement, but it’s been the essence of government since time immemorial—or since I got here, at least.

Here’s the thing: There are too many variables for anyone to be across all of them all of the time. Events of the last week or two offer a textbook example of why even the tiniest bit of prediction is certain to hoist you like a petard.

Try to follow along here: Head of Government Business Robin Kapapa resigned his position and moved to the Opposition side. Hours later, a photo emerged on social media announcing that his allegiance had shifted to the so-called G10 bloc, and he remained loyal to government. The same day, another photo was circulated, showing him happily ensconced with the Opposition. It was accompanied by his letter of resignation.

Then his party Secretary General and President lined up behind him, adding their weight, if not their numbers, to the Opposition. Days later, it was announced that Mr Kapapa’s fellow party member from Tanna would be joining him in Opposition. Then he would not.

Then the UMP met to iron things out, and were photographed standing together in solidarity beside their government leader, the deputy prime minister. Then an amplification was circulated, saying that the party had settled its differences, but Robin Kapapa would remain on the Opposition side.

Tired yet? If so, then Vanuatu politics is probably not for you.

This is just another day in the life. The lack of polar political alignment makes the business of running the country a Byzantine affair at best.

There are 52 MPs elected to Parliament, each with his own ideas, agenda and expectations. There are dozens or even hundreds of backers and supporters standing behind each of them, and hundreds more attached to party apparati. There are hundreds more lined up behind failed candidates, including some who ran spoiler campaigns, with great expectations. There are corporate interests and investors, diplomats, cops, spies and whistleblowers. Every single one of them wants something, and every single one of them is trying to decide which horse to back.

Then there are the other politicians and their advisors. The experienced ones know better than to plan. They arrive knowing that their time is short, possibly a matter of months or even weeks. They know that, no matter what’s said at the cabinet table, things could change literally overnight.

As former Prime Minister Serge Vohor famously said, we don’t have one Prime Minister and 13 deputies; there is one Big PM, and 13 Small PMs. Everyone is doing what he can while he can. He knows better than to plan. Plans waste time and delay the returns everyone’s hungrily awaiting.

I’m not suggesting anything untoward here. Quite the opposite. Just getting on with things like disaster response, infrastructure development or even cost-saving initiatives is a dark art. Even those who have mastered it only manage to succeed at a minority of things they set out to do.

I’m loth to provide a single example, because it might put undeserved emphasis on a single person or activity. I hope it’s sufficient to say that no one is immune.

So with that proviso, let’s look at one really commendable reform that the 2016 government took on. Within weeks of taking office, the minister of infrastructure and public utilities announced a wholesale review of vehicle use. He commissioned a study(!!!), and declared that his reforms could save the government hundreds of millions of vatu annually.

The measures included establishing a Fleet Management Unit under the Public Service Commission to oversee the acquisition and disposal of vehicles. It instituted a single payer plan with local fuel suppliers. It installed GPS units on the majority of public vehicles. It placed a moratorium on short-term rentals without prior approval. It required that vehicle types and prices be justified prior to purchase. It instituted a tender process for vehicles at the end of their service life.

And then the savings rolled in and everyone did exactly as they were told and rainbows filled the sky.

Or not.

The fuel deal stuck, because it worked for those involved, simplifying billing and making it easier to chase payment. It didn’t necessarily stop drivers from filling others’ tanks from their allotment, but some of the more wanton abuses were stopped.

The GPS units did allow officials the ability to see where their cars were, and geo-block them or turn them off remotely after hours. Which was cool, and a little embarrassing to more than a couple of stranded drivers sheepishly calling back to base for a pick up.

Now, all G-plated vehicles are under the purview of the Fleet Management Unit of the Public Service Commission. Which is why there are so many publicly-owned vehicles that no longer sport a ‘G’ on the plate. Amusingly, it seems to have been the State Law Office that found the loophole. It doesn’t operate under the PSC and therefore vehicle acquisitions are its own business. Likewise, the Police, Vanuatu Mobile Force, the Public Prosecutor and constitutional bodies such as Parliament, the President’s office and countless others.

When the regs were implemented, the Speaker’s vehicle was plated RV2 (RV1 is the President’s car). In a deal brokered shortly in the previous parliament, the Opposition Leader was provided with a car. Its tactfully coded number plate, RV2A, was the subject of intense negotiation.

Since the vehicle reforms came into place, parliamentary vehicles experienced less, not more, oversight. Now the number plates go all the way to RV2Q.

People who used to avail themselves of protocol vehicles or rentals now have nice new cars of their own, as it were.

In early 2019, I conservatively estimated that the government was more than VT 700 million over budget for vehicle-related expenses over a 12 month period.

So what does this have to do with the unpredictability of Vanuatu politics? Well, nothing and everything. The minister tried—and partly succeeded—in achieving an actual policy objective. But he was ousted from government a while later. Although he later returned, it was in a different ministry, with a different set of policy objectives.

And here’s the thing: Everyone knew they only had to toe the line—for a while.

And they knew that before too long, they could bend the regs and ignore the intent of the reforms. The plan was flawed. It only promised improvements tomorrow, not today. And they only improved the government’s existence, not their own.

So if an MP seems unengaged with a particular policy brief, or disinterested in a project that’s going to take time and effort, don’t blame him. There’s no tomorrow in politics, and not much upside in playing a long game.

So how did some of the major policy wins of the past come about then? How did the Department of Strategic Planning, Policy and Aid Coordination stand itself up? How did the visionary Vanuatu 2030 strategy come about?

How did the telecommunications policy and the Universal Access Policy, which revolutionised communications in the country, come about?

How did the infrastructure push come into play?

Why haven’t we spent our passport money like a punter who hit big on the ponies?

Because while politics is lived day to day, a core group of hard-working professionals still manages to cling to the middle and upper layers of the civil service, and do right by the country as well as their minister. And there are in fact some politicians who care about this stuff. And a great many others who know better than to get in the way.

But these people know better than anyone how things can change. They know that priorities shift with the wind, and that even for them, their mandate may last no longer than the life of a mayfly.

They don’t survive by predicting the outcome of the next contest, or by hitching their wagon to a particular star. They survive by delivering quickly on the things that make their life liveable, and then spend what little time remains to them shepherding the long-term stuff quietly along. It’s a thankless—and often fruitless—undertaking.

They are heroes.

Now, don’t you dare blame politicians for this. They didn’t invent it. The sand is shifting under their feet every moment of the day. They know they have to deliver, and quickly, or someone else will be the one making the promises, and driving the car.

A lot of people try to make a living by pretending they know what’s going to happen in politics. But the ones who survive year after year aren’t the ones who are sure. The survivors are the ones who know better than to be sure about anything.

The good ones know: Nobody really knows.

Cops & Robbers

Strap in, folks, it’ll be a while before I get to the point. First, I gotta catch up on decades of corrosion within our government systems….

Despite everything else that’s happened throughout Vanuatu’s brief and stormy history, the courts have stood up as fair and authoritative arbiters of the law. Through decades of squabbling and sometimes disturbing rancour, the court’s right and ability to rule has been axiomatic.

And that was why, in the latter part of 2015, former prime minister Moana Carcasses emerged from the court that had just convicted him of bribery and corruption, and told the ABC’s Liam Fox that he disagreed with the result, but he would respect it. He reiterated that sentiment later that day in a speech to government supporters outside the PMO.

Before the weekend was over, of course, other convicted members conspired to obstruct justice. Then-Speaker Marcellino Pipite, who had also been convicted, was Acting President at the moment. He seized the opportunity to exercise presidential powers and pardon himself and most of the others.

Citing the fear and uncertainty that surrounded the trial, he told a press conference, “no one must not touch this [decision] because it could disturb peace in this country.”

On his return, President Baldwin Lonsdale did more than touch it. He reversed it.

And everyone went back to court. The convictions were appealed, the pardons were appealed, and the revocation was appealed. When the dust finally settled, the MPs were in jail. With over half the government behind bars, the President decided to dissolve parliament and hand the matter back to the electorate.

Over decades of parliamentary ruckus, FUBAR administrations and often dangerous division within Police ranks, the courts have remained aloof, but engaged. Everyone, it seems, recognises they need to have a ref on the field—even if only to know who’s winning.

The courts remain intact today, largely due to the imperturbable and generally unmovable Chief Justice Vincent Lunabek, who has served his country longer and better than most. His anodyne presence has allowed him to weather countless storms.

Over the course of decades, consecutive governments have targeted office holders and the offices they occupy, de-clawing them and often rendering them inert in the process. The Ombudsman is now effectively a non-entity. The Auditor General, despite numerous attempts, has never properly been stood up. Finance has seen countless gifted individuals run out or coopted. The telecommunications regulator has been put in a box. The boards of many state-run entities have been coopted.

The Vanuatu Police have experienced the worst storms of all. Tempers never entirely subsided since an armed standoff between Police and our paramilitary Mobile Force in 2002. Accusations of corruption, dissension and even mutiny are peppered throughout its rancorous history. In September 2014, things had reached such a pass that Prime Minister Joe Natuman intervened personally, and instructed the Commissioner to “stop investigations” into mutiny.

He was later charged with, and plead guilty to, perverting the course of justice. Responsibility for the police force was subsequently moved from the Prime Minister to the Minister of Internal Affairs.

To his credit, Natuman likely knew he was overstepping. He didn’t deny what he’d done, and as far as I know he still maintains that he did what was necessary to end the rot within police ranks. He knew what he was doing, and paid the political price.

His conviction was the result of just one of what’s become a spate of criminal investigations. The embattled general manager of the Vanuatu National Provident Fund was investigated first by the Ombudsman, and later charged by Police. Last year, both Prime Minister Charlot Salwai and Opposition Leader Ishmael Kalsakau were the subject of criminal complaints.

Recently, Opposition Leader Ralph Regenvanu cited a long list of complaints, many of them alleging criminal activity, against government members.

Along with 3 other MPs, Salwai will go to trial on bribery and corruption charges in November. He also faces a separate charge of perjury. There’s no sign whether or not an investigation against Kalsakau, who is now minister responsible for police, is ongoing.

Shortly after being replaced as minister for Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Jotham Napat expressed his fears that there was criminal corruption going on inside his former ministry. Taking the bull by the horns, current minister Jay Ngwele immediately announced criminal investigation, not into his own doings, but projects championed by his predecessor.

Earlier this week, the Daily Post’s front page featured a troubling photograph: Ngwele standing proudly beside a team of smiling CID officers.

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Minister Ngwele standing with senior police inspectors and jailed former Public Works Director Samuel Namuri.- Vanuatu Daily Post

I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it to some who are currently involved in these tit for tat criminal investigations: This is not going to end well. When politicians start playing cops and robbers, they’re headed down a slippery slope.

Frankly, I’m shocked that those CID officers, whom I know to be people of integrity, would allow themselves to participate in a photograph that many will see as a political stunt. I suspect—I hope—they didn’t realise the impression it would create.

There is unequivocal evidence to suggest that more than one past minister has meddled directly in police operations. Most members of the Force do their level best to keep their distance, and some have expressed their discomfort off the record.

There is no evidence to suggest that the current minister has done so.

But the mere fact that the person who made the criminal complaint concerning another politician is now minister responsible for police has to be troubling. Senior officers may not be given even a hint of instruction, but might have briefed him on the evidence submitted to the Public Prosecutor, and whether they mean to do it or not, they’ll be sensitive to the slightest eyebrow twitch.

And who among them would have the courage to interrogate their own minister, search his documents, or perform any of the other investigative steps necessary to determine whether the complaint against him has merit? Who would dare to bring charges if it did?

Politicising prosecution is a dangerous game. If one party is unambiguously clean, then prosecuting the other side is a one-and-done proposition. But if both sides engage in questionable practices, and have done so for years, prosecuting them becomes a descent into disorder, where the ‘force’ part of Police Force ultimately becomes the dominant factor.

But here’s the thing: People broke the law. Other stand accused right now. The Public Prosecutor would not proceed if he didn’t think that a crime had been committed. The courts, as I stated from the start, can be trusted to administer justice.

Now that they’ve begun, things will have to play themselves out. We can trust the result. But can we trust politicians not to abuse that trust?

For politicians to directly involve themselves in these processes is untoward. To use them for political advantage is a tactic fraught with risk. The danger of politicising prosecution, and therefore the police, is real. This is precisely why we have Commissions of Inquiry. There has to be a discrete distance between politics and prosecution.

And right now in Vanuatu, that distance is closing.

We need to talk about alcohol

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Back in June of last year, I wrote an exposé documenting millions of dollars of waste on government vehicles and related expenses. Accompanying that article were a series of photos of wrecks involving public vehicles.

The part that I didn’t talk about was what led to these crashes, and to more than a few metaphorical crashes in politics and government over the years.

I’m talking about booze.

Before I jump in, I need to make clear I’m not getting all accusatory here. I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict myself. I had the good fortune of celebrating 30 years without a drink in January. But I haven’t forgotten the damage that it did to my life, and the choices I made.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I drank to self-medicate, to survive in what felt like an otherwise unliveable world. But I didn’t have the genetic predisposition to alcoholism that afflicts so many. I watched the members in my fast-living circle of friends stunting and even ending their lives because of alcohol, but I was able to walk away on the first attempt.

I watched others try and try and try, and the best they could ever manage for themselves was a brief respite from the cycle of drunkenness, remorse and depression.

Politicians in Vanuatu face insane pressures. Many of them don’t choose the life for themselves, but have it foisted on them by their community leaders. No matter what leads them into public life, many of them arrive unprepared for the non-stop cycle of pushing and pulling inflicted on them by their supporters, detractors, allies and rivals.

For a minister, the demands are unrelenting. From one minute to the next, there’s always someone wanting something. It’s not unusual to see people leave office indebted, or with almost nothing left for themselves.

Many of these pressures are accessorised with bonhomie. Good food, friendly company and lashings of booze. Everybody has a good time, and it’s all free, just sign here. And there’s an ever-present chorus of supporters and hangers-on who want to eat from the Minister’s plate, egging him on through all of this, and ready to make consequences for him if he doesn’t get in there and smile and enjoy it, dammit.

This process reaches into the higher levels of the public service, too. Some Directors and DGs face similar demands, and not to put too fine a point on it, there’s a fair sized contingent in the upper layers of Vanuatu society who aspire to little more than having a good time.

Alcoholism is a workplace hazard for politicians and senior administrators in Vanuatu. There are mountains of evidence to attest to it. I’ll leave the images of fleets-worth of smashed vehicles to speak for all, because I don’t want to expose anyone to the malicious ridicule and gossip of our local keyboard cowboys.

Suffice to say that alcohol has been a significant contributor to reckless and sometimes downright violent behaviour. It’s shortened and sometimes ended promising careers, and it’s tragically shortened lives.

I haven’t said a thing about these people’s personal lives. Because it’s none of our business.

It would be a stretch to say that alcohol is the cause of countless questionable policies projects and decisions. It is not a stretch to say that it’s made many of them far worse than they had to be.

This isn’t a 1000-word subtweet. I am emphatically not targeting any individual. And I reject outright our hypocritical love of ridicule and public shaming where drunkenness is concerned.

Nor am I even anti-alcohol. It would be stupid of me to assume that the thing that almost ruined my life me will necessarily do the same to everyone else.

But it is ruining lives here. It’s shortening what should be promising careers. It’s costing us money. It’s putting policy-making at risk. It’s exacting a political cost that no one has ever stopped to tabulate.

My guess is that the damage done by this ritualised linking of drink to decision-making is easily commensurate to a moderate cyclone every odd year.

Moralising won’t get us anywhere. I’m not going to sit here in my digital pulpit and rail about the demon drink.

But if I were a politician today, I’d take note that people are trying to get me drunk, and to keep me that way. And I’d ask myself why.

Decolonising Social Media

Decentralisation and federation allow developing countries to be masters in their own digital house

The impact of social media on developing countries has received little attention in the popular press, with the exception of horrendous events such as the attempted extirpation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

These impacts are real and cannot be overstated.

Here in Melanesia, societies are at once more susceptible to gossip-driven scares and even mob behaviour, and more resilient in the face of it. It’s easier to set people off, and it’s easier to spread common sense.

The simple reason is that we are closer together. Your neighbour may drive you round the bend from time to time, but go far enough round the bend and you’ve done a circuit of the island. They’re not going anywhere, and neither are you. That’s the historical truth, anyway.

Social media has made the public sphere vastly larger and noisier, but the same rules apply, more or less.

Women are harassed, abused and faced with physical harm not just by their family and neighbours now, but by the entire online population.

Gadflies and conscientious objectors face opprobrium not just from the chiefs and other people of rank, but from masses of virulent and often anonymous attackers.

And anonymity/pseudonymity is a novelty that many struggle to come to terms with. While it’s freed the tongues of many who felt constrained from speaking before, a significant minority of them have used that liberty to behave horribly to others.

But in the midst of this chaos and rancour, a fascinating thing has happened: People are learning to moderate debate in real time. The pattern here in Vanuatu typically runs like this:

A person attacks another, making allegations that might or might not be true. One side piles on, either in concert with or in reaction to the original poster. Generally speaking, the conversational tide runs almost entirely in one direction, with few people showing the gumption (or the chutzpah) to gainsay the rest.

But then, slowly and sometimes softly at first, the first words of moderation appear. Before long, others find it in themselves to support this view or to supplement it with their own objections. Eventually, a trend begins to come clear, and comments with widely divergent views either peter out or are drowned out.

The process can sometimes be outright vituperative, sometimes not. Sometimes the right answer is found, sometimes the wrong one is reinforced. But even in the worst cases, where we see incitement to violence, to burn homes, expel people, exact vengeance or pour shame on a person or group, there are few if any instances of people actually acting on them.

In cases where people actually have done reprehensible things to one another, they were seldom discussed or organised over public social media channels. Slut shaming in cases of perceived infidelity are the one glaring exception.

The flow of discourse resembles nothing so much as a village meeting. I’ve attended more than a few, and they tend to follow the same pattern. If you walk in cold to the early stages of a contentious meeting, it can sometimes feel like the only possible outcome is open conflict. The tension is often palpable.

But as it unrolls, tempers begin to subside, and more nuanced and reasonable arguments begin to emerge. By the end of it, more often than not, the chief is able to find a ruling that will carry the room, and people part with handshakes and a sense of having accomplished something.

(I’m painting with a very broad brush here, so forgive the massive elisions in that description.)

We’ve been able to resist of the worst conspiracy mongering here. Even when Indonesian state actors conducted a Cambridge Analytica-style campaign to undermine confidence in the government of the day, the effect was minimal.

But it didn’t stop until high-level meetings were held with Facebook executives. Faced with a Prime Minister fully prepared to regulate them or see them leave the market immediately, they did the right thing.

That was only one victory among literally thousands of attempts. Dozens of user reports concerning this influence network received no response at all. Hundreds of reports of incitement and hateful comments went unheeded. In rare cases where a response was received, Facebook’s so-called community standards allowed imagery and language that were shocking to us—and to any thinking, feeling human. Images of dead and dismembered bodies, sexualised and clearly brutalised children… the list goes on.

Then, adding insult to injury, imagery of people in kastom dress were banned, because apparently a nambas or a nipple is beyond the pale, even though they scarcely raise an eyebrow here.

The push here became strong enough that Facebook’s head of Global Connectivity Policy met privately with the Prime Minister to dissuade him from moving ahead with a proposal to require them to register as a local company.

The Prime Minister’s rationale was that Over The Top services such as Facebook should be required to contribute to our Universal Access Policy, the same way all local telecommunication providers are.

But another, and I believe more compelling, argument is language. There is no business case for Facebook to provide support for Bislama, Solomons pidgin, Tok Pisin or any other of the thousand-plus languages in the Pacific islands. It’s just never going to happen.

The only way these languages—and our cultures and societies—get the respect and support they deserve is when social media networks become our networks. Without ownership of the content and of the management service, we are not masters in our own house.

Technology generally and social media in particular can accurately be described as a (re)colonising force. The imposition of standards, expectations and requirements that are not only foreign and new, but often beyond the capability of a great many people here doesn’t just bring development potential. More to the point, they’re largely impossible to alter to fit the local context.

Technology and social media are just as subversive as they are liberating.

And while our societies are generally better at self-regulation, we’re hardly perfect. The suffering and subjugation of women in the Pacific has always been a matter of concern. Social media adds slut-shaming, stalking, coercive talk and mobbing to their already tremendous burden.

The inexperienced have often been victimised by cons, scams and schemes, but they have only grown in proportion since the advent of the internet and social media.

Decentralisation and federation of social media services doesn’t fix everything. It doesn’t provide any guarantees at all. Except one: if we screw it up, it’ll be our screw up, not someone else’s.

And that’s what decolonisation has always been about.