Dan McGarry – Pacific Institute of Public Policy http://pacificpolicy.org Thinking for ourselves Mon, 01 Aug 2016 21:39:57 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.4 Anything less than defeat is a victory http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/06/anything-less-than-defeat-is-a-victory/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= Mon, 29 Jun 2015 03:40:20 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=8025 Last week’s Solomonic decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group to cut the baby in half and boost the membership status of both the ULMWP and Indonesia is an example of the Melanesian political mind at work. Valuing collective peace over individual justice, group prosperity over individual advancement, and allowing unabashed self-interest to leaven the sincerity of the entire process, our leaders have placed their stamp on what just might be an indelible historical moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coalition builder http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/06/coalition-builder/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= Thu, 25 Jun 2015 00:16:44 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7991 Vanuatu is going through yet another round of the find-the-numbers game. In the spirit of fun and learning, we offer this useful tool to allow would-be politicians to keep track, and maybe, just for fun, to build your own coalition.

Just drag and drop the parties and MPs you think can work best together, and see how the numbers work out. Can you build a coalition that will endure? It’s not as easy as it looks….


A hard choice, but a simple one http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/06/a-hard-choice-but-a-simple-one/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/06/a-hard-choice-but-a-simple-one/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 03:32:26 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7979 This was also published in a slightly different form in the weekend edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post.

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

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

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

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

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

It needs to be said that Jokowi, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono before him, would do more if they could. But the plain truth is that civilian rule of law does not extend to the Papuan provinces. These frontier areas are the under the hegemony of the Indonesian military. The wealth they derive from this island is such that they are content to conduct what has been characterised as a ‘slow-motion genocide’ in order to perpetuate their own prosperity.

It’s despicable, frankly. But nobody seems to have either the power or the political will to end this tyranny. One can argue realpolitik, and claim that Indonesia is moving in the right direction, but it’s clear that politicians in Jakarta allow these depredations to continue on Melanesian peoples even while they take great strides to protect their ethnically Asian populations.

In editorial pages across the region, commentators are writhing and contorting themselves to try to find a dignified, elevated expression of the pending decision: Should the Melanesian Spearhead Group recommend full membership for the United Movement for the Liberation of West Papua? Will they do it?

The answer to each question is agonisingly simple: Yes, they should; and no, they will not.

The MSG cannot move out of this morass if it won’t speak clearly about the situation.

Indonesia has already won this round. They won on the day that Voreqe Bainimarama reiterated that Indonesia’s territorial integrity was inviolate. They won doubly when he recommended them for associate membership in the MSG, a move that effectively kills the prospect of any dialogue concerning West Papuan independence in this forum.

The MSG operates on consensus. If there is no agreement, there is no action. Given the opposing stances that Vanuatu and Fiji have taken concerning the ULMWP, no compromise—let alone consensus—seems possible. And given the recent rise to power of Sato Kilman, widely considered to be Indonesia’s cats-paw in Vanuatu, membership for Indonesia is not out of the question.

Regional commentators and political figures wax poetic about the need for dialogue and inclusion. They ignore the rather inconvenient fact that West Papua’s MSG bid is a result of the fact that dialogue within Indonesia is not only impossible, it’s frequently fatal to those who attempt it.

It’s frankly infuriating to see the namby-pamby linguistic contortions that some of those involved have engaged in. Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare’s championship-level equivocation, advocating for observer status for the ULMWP and membership for Indonesia, simply closes the coffin and hands the nails to Indonesia. PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill’s ability to swallow his outrage over human rights abuses seems to increase right alongside his ability to attract Indonesian business interests.

But worst of all is Vanuatu’s deputy prime minister Moana Carcasses, who only last year made history with his presentation of West Papua’s plight to the United Nations. Now, he is reportedly professing that the issue is a difficult one, and that understanding and patience need to prevail.

Turned away, again.

Turned away, again.

Fiji, at least, is unapologetic, if shameless, in its stance.

The MSG cannot move out of this morass if it won’t speak clearly about the situation. There is a prima facie case for West Papuan membership in the MSG. If the fact that the chair is currently held by the New Caledonian independence movement weren’t evidence enough, then the words of support from MSG founding member Sir Michael Somare should suffice.

But ULMWP membership is unacceptable to Indonesia. And it has played its hand with care. Ensuring that even Australia did not remain on the sidelines, it prodded and pulled at everyone involved, and got the result that it wanted.

If the MSG is to retain even an iota of credibility, the only line that it can honestly take now is to admit that it cannot usefully function as a forum for discussions concerning Melanesian decolonialisation, because it lacks the strength to resist the overwhelming power of its neighbours.

It’s a fact: Melanesia is weak. There’s no shame in saying so. Indonesia is powerful—powerful enough even to give Australia pause. Indonesia has the will and the political and material resources necessary to ensure that West Papuan independence remains merely a dream for years yet to come. Likewise, armed resistance to an utterly ruthless military cannot succeed. The days of the OPM are past—if they ever existed.

The sooner we come to terms with these truths, the sooner ULMWP can begin developing effective tactics to counteract them. Those of us in Melanesia owe them at least that much.

http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/06/a-hard-choice-but-a-simple-one/feed/ 6
Three plays in two days http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/06/three-plays-in-two-days/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= Sun, 14 Jun 2015 23:06:55 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7932 Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post

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

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

The other gave us a new Prime Minister.

Rumours began swirling about a possible return to power for Mr Kilman during his April trip to Jakarta. On the sidelines of the Asia-Africa Conference, he unexpectedly announced that Vanuatu would soon open an embassy to Indonesia. This was quickly batted back by Joe Natuman and members of cabinet, who reiterated their strong pro-West Papua stand and stated that the minister had spoken without authority.
Yumi Stap Wea Yumi Stap Wea Yumi Stap Wea Widespread speculation has it that Mr Kilman’s Jakarta announcement served as an act of faith to Jokowi, who then rewarded him with the support necessary to topple the government. Given the remonstrations and blandishments that Mr Widodo has bestowed of late on Melanesia’s—and Australia’s—heads of government, this scenario is entirely plausible. It would seem to be quite important to Indonesia’s political and military establishment to make sure that any support whatsoever of West Papuan independence should exact a high price.

Mr Kilman’s long-standing willingness to stand closer to Indonesia than other Vanuatu politicians has been the subject of extensive and heated commentary in Vanuatu.

An informal scan of social media shows that the majority of the online commentariat is angry not only with Mr Kilman, but also (and in equal parts) with the faithlessness of their MPs. Special attention was paid to Morking Stevens, Tony Hosea and Samson Samsen, whose last-minute switch gave the Opposition the numbers they needed to carry the vote of no confidence.

And because no plot is complete without a twist, the Government-cum-Opposition took advantage of a seemingly insignificant bit of Parliamentary business to organise their own counter-motion. Because the whole saga unfolded during a regular session of Parliament, it could not be dissolved immediately—standard procedure for any new prime minister wishing to lock the proverbial door behind him.

And in a further twist, wrangling over cabinet positions among the victors meant that there was no time to elect a new Speaker of Parliament—again, standard procedure for any new government. This meant that the Natuman/Lini camp were able to lodge a motion of their own in short order and have it duly scheduled by an amenable Speaker.

Nearly universal disapproval was expressed that Vanuatu’s politicians appeared to be returning to their accustomed games while the country was still in the throes of dealing with cyclone Pam. Only yesterday, the final food shipments were sent to the Shepherd islands, and disaster response workers newly returned from Tanna report that circumstances there are still far from good.

To top off all of this drama, there is a third power play still in motion.

To date, politicians have for the most part allowed disaster relief and reconstruction efforts to proceed unobstructed. The result has been that senior bureaucrats have by and large been able to distribute what goods we have to the most needful without fear or favour. We hope this continues to be the case.

Last year, when Mr Natuman and Ham Lini joined with other veteran politicians to form their government, they characterised it as a return to the ‘old’ Vanua’aku Pati, which had unified the country at a time of need and provided a decade of solidity before the wheels finally came off. It is widely reported that Mr Lini in particular is anxious to protect his older brother’s legacy and to add his own to it. Indeed, the scuttlebutt was that one of the compromise positions was that Mr Lini switch places with Joe Natuman as a way of keeping the current cast of characters on the government side.

But structural defects in Vanuatu’s parliamentary system are such that the opposition needed only to suborn a relatively tiny number MPs in order to bring down the entire house of cards once again. Kevin Spacey has nothing on us, it seems.

To top off all of this drama, there is a third power play still in motion. Nineteen MPs, including the new Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil, face bribery charges in Magistrate’s court. While few expected any serious penalties to result, Mr Natuman’s contentious and unprecedented attempt to treat political bribery as an actual crime is approaching its climax.


It has not escaped MPs’ attention that this latest no confidence vote was scheduled for the day before several politicians—widely considered to be of negotiable virtue—had their much-anticipated day in court.

That gambit may fail, now. But the way in which it fails will be just as important as the fact that it does. If the Public Prosecutor is once again cowed into a failure to prosecute public figures, or worse, to withdraw the charges completely, then we can only conclude that our politicians have successfully created a culture of impunity for themselves.

If, on the other hand, key witnesses withdraw or change their testimony, then the potential still exists, in theory at least, that there might be enforceable legal limits on the elected officials’ behaviour. Given that the hop-scotching member for Santo Rural, Samson Samsen, was widely rumoured to be a key witness for the Natuman government, this is arguably the more likely outcome.

In any case, this particular show has been rescheduled. Correctly citing parliamentary privilege, the court has moved the appearance to the 23rd of June, after the current session of Parliament.

If there is any cause for optimism to be found in last week’s theatrics, it comes from the disadvantaged youth at Wan Smolbag. They, at least, have learned to work closely together to tackle some of the very difficult issues we face as a nation. And tickets are free, so the cost of the drama is much more affordable.

On be(com)ing happy http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/05/on-becoming-happy/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/05/on-becoming-happy/#comments Thu, 28 May 2015 21:00:51 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7835 Yesterday, during an interview for a documentary film about climate change, I was asked how Vanuatu came to be known as the Happiest Country in the World. On the face of it, the title is quite apt. Wherever you go in Vanuatu, you will find smiling faces, warm welcomes and open hearts.

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

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

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

‘There’s nothing left.’

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

The penny began to drop when I visited Cildo (pronounced SEEL-doe) and his parents in Erangorango, in the foothills overlooking Port Vila. Cildo is a sturdy, plain-spoken, twelve-year-old boy originally from Malekula. His family home had been utterly destroyed by a massive tree which fell at the height of the storm, injuring his father and barely missing Cildo and his mother. I interviewed him for UNICEF, as part of a series of videos taking stock of the effect of the storm on children in Vanuatu.

Cildo was remarkably matter-of-fact:

When the cyclone came we went inside and ate, then we all went into one room. Then a tree fell onto our house, and we all sat in the remaining corner until morning.

That’s it. Plain facts, delivered without inflection or stress. And when I took his photo standing in the ruins, he flashed the brightest smile.

It was only a couple of weeks later, as I was reviewing all the shots I’d taken in the days following the disaster, that I realised his secret: You don’t need a reason to be happy.

Cyclone Pam Aftermath Coming home Tanna visit

Transactionality and causality are so deeply ingrained in the western European psyche that it comes as a revelation that actually, happiness does not need to be pursued. It can be found wherever you happen to be standing.

The rootless and sometimes purposeless nature of consumer societies often stand in the way of such realisations. For my part, I spent the better part of my childhood coping with damage that never should have happened, and spent my young adulthood as a half-formed Angry Young Man. I was ruled by surges of anger, righteousness and cynicism, until circumstances finally forced me to conduct an existential stock-take.

By the time I arrived in Vanuatu in 2003, I was ready to learn. And before eighteen months had passed, I knew that this is a place where I could be happy. I could be happy, not because things are better here; in many ways they’re not. I could be happy because I no longer needed a reason.

Back in 2010, I wrote:

I’ve been stuck in cyclones, got malaria, dengue, been hospitalised from the after-effects of prolonged dehydration, had more parasites in more places than anyone really wants to know. I’ve been stung by things straight out of a Tim Burton movie. I’ve had death threats and constant, insanely unreasonable demands on my time and my pocketbook.

And yet, and yet in spite of it all, I was happy. Further back, in 2008, on the event of the perfectly preventable death of a little boy, I wrote about his funeral:

To an outsider, it’s wildly incongruous to watch the mourners as they approach the deceased’s house, chatting quietly, even laughing amongst themselves as if on some innocuous errand. The only clue about their destination is a cloth draped across one shoulder, to wipe the coming tears.

At the very instant they reach the gate, the wails begin. They are contrived, it’s true, but utterly heartfelt. The display of pain and sorrow at a funeral is more than most people of European descent have ever seen. To hear women moaning and weeping during the vigil and the burial is an uncanny and deeply moving experience. Though ritualised, the depth and sincerity of the emotion is starkly undeniable.

And then, as quickly as it begins, it is done. Life goes on, there’s food to be cooked, children to be tended to, and laundry to be done. The laughter, the scolding and the [conversation] start up again, as they always do.

Everyone in Vanuatu understands the place of things, and the need for everything to be in its place. Respect for public display and private observance of all of life’s events is universal. If someone smiles and jokes with his friends and colleagues just days after his first-born son has died… well, that’s as it should be. The funeral is over, and though there will be other opportunities to look back and mourn over the next hundred days, life goes on, whether one wants it to or not.

But it took a decade—and a cyclone of historical dimensions—for the lesson finally to land: People in Vanuatu are not happy because of anything. They are happy because the alternative doesn’t bear considering. Living as they do in a Least Developed Country with little or no modern technology in village life, with death and disaster around every corner, and people with whom you might or might not get along tucked up nice and cosy next to you (and you’re on an island, remember; they’re not going anywhere)… well, the least you can do is have a laugh now and then.

Tanna visit Water for Teoumaville Inoculating Ifira

Vanuatu’s designation as the happiest place on earth was the result of research conducted by the New Economics Foundation, a UK-based think-tank. Their Happy Planet Index actually placed more emphasis on the happiness of the planet than its people. It is a measure of people’s well-being in proportion to environmental footprint. Vanuatu was included in the inaugural 2006 survey, but not in any subsequent studies.

Still, the title endures because it fits. And now, as we face the impact of the developing world’s environmental footprint in the form of rising ocean levels and storms of unprecedented severity, this ability to be happy in the face of adversity will no doubt serve us well.

But don’t for a minute let that lead developing countries to complacence. Just because we smile our way through the hardship doesn’t mean that life is easier here. It’s not easier at all; it’s just better.

And honestly, developed nations would do well to take a lesson from this. Disasters wrought by climate change are inevitable now. The damage is done. The storms will reach you too. You’d better learn to smile through adversity as well, because you might not have much else to smile about.

http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/05/on-becoming-happy/feed/ 2
An urban custom story http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/05/an-urban-custom-story/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= Mon, 25 May 2015 02:58:00 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7814 ‘Really,’ asks the King Rat, ‘how exactly are rats and humans different?’

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

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

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

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

Writer Jo Dorras’ scripts have always eschewed happy endings and pat answers to anything, but her story lines are often drawn with an almost fatalistic directness. If we can’t see how the play is going to end, it’s only because we’re not ready to admit it to ourselves. But although the stakes are just as high here as in her other scripts, and the moral landscape is just as bleak, this play’s structure is more playfully built, and the forces are more finely balanced.

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

This wouldn’t be a Wan Smolbag play if it didn’t feature the simple, ingenious theatricality that lies at the core of the company’s ethos. They are, after all, named for the small bag of props that was all they used in their early days. The set is spare and appropriately garish, and still provides room for top-to-bottom, end-to-end theatre. The actors revel in their space.

The comedic, chaotic pulse of daily life in Vanuatu is another thing that one comes to expect from Wan Smolbag, and this time it’s delivered in spades. Some of the character and casting choices are nothing short of inspired. Historically the company has avoided child characters because of the difficulty and demands involved. But this time, they’ve created some of the most rewarding bits of theatricality ever to emerge from this stage.

Albert Tommy and Michael Maki, each fully-grown and sporting full beard, play Jalz, a darling, naïve, infinitely suggestible boy of about nine years. The tension between their appearance and their astonishing appropriation of the tics and tropes of a young boy draw gales of laughter from the audience. By the time they are called on to unveil the seeds of venality in human nature, they are utterly believable.

And in their heart of hearts, what actor wouldn’t want to play a rat? We revile them, but they remain fascinating for their cleverness, their adaptability, their ability to squeeze themselves into any space, and the utter refusal to leave us alone. Danny Marcel and Richie Toka share the role of King Rat, a nasty, ruthless, obsessively lustful and perversely seductive creature who cannot accept that Rat is in any way less than Human. Though each actor takes his own road to ownership of the role, they are both a pleasure to watch.

Equally enthralling is Olfala Rat. Henchman, hatchetman, bagman, supporter and sycophant, this creature lives by its wits—which is pretty much the only way a rat can manage to grow old. Once again, Peter Pakoa and Helen Kailo take very different roads to owning this character, but each is enthralling. It’s especially nice to see Mr Pakoa back in a key role after years as a stalwart in the theatre company.

There’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ character in a Wan Smolbag play; every single one of them is remarkable in some way or other. And it’s a shame, really, to have to leave out a single name when praising the riotous, hilarious, satirical and achingly honest portrayals that grace the stage. There is not a false note in the night, from Edgell Junior’s charming, soulless rogue of a father to the unnervingly accurate severity of both Evelyn George and Joyanne Quiqui as the mother… all the way down to a charming, hilarious vignette from of aging Rastaman at a public meeting.

Somebody once said of a great actor that he would draw the audience’s focus even if he were third spear-carrier from the left. The same can be said of Wan Smolbag’s theatre company. Every single one of them knows exactly how to tease and squeeze the audience’s attention, pushing, prodding and snatching focus back and forth amongst themselves… and out of the anarchy, they weave a spellbinding allegory of life amid the refuse of living.

Who wants a rat for a brother-in-law? Come to the play and see.

Wan Smolbag’s Kaekae Rat runs on some Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays through the rest of May and June in Port Vila, and for a number of dates in Luganville. Check the posters around town for details, or visit the Wan Smolbag Facebook page. Tickets are on sale in front of the Post Office. Reserve early because shows usually sell out.

Defending the indefensible http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/05/defending-the-indefensible/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= Fri, 08 May 2015 00:33:44 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7676 A word of advice to Nauru: As the wise man famously said, ‘if you find yourself trapped at the bottom of a very deep hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN PICTURES – CYCLONE PAM http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/03/cyclone-pam-in-pictures-2/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/03/cyclone-pam-in-pictures-2/#comments Wed, 25 Mar 2015 23:24:46 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7332 Record rainfalls had already afflicted Port Vila even before cyclone Pam's effects were felt. Gale force winds still affected the town of Port Vila after cyclone Pam had passed. Yachts by the dozen were wrecked by cyclone Pam. A boy peers tentatively at the raging waters in normally placid Port Vila Bay. Wreckage strews the streets of Port Vila the morning after cyclone Pam struck the town. A shopkeeper desperately tries to keep the roof of his store from flying away. Even the morning after, cyclone Pam's winds were still dangerously strong. Marginal communities were the worst affected. This squatter camp was obliterated, leaving nothing standing. These children walked 10 kilometres back from the evacuation centre they stayed in when cyclone Pam devastated their area. A Mele village man surveys the wreckage wrought during cyclone Pam when a nearby river overflowed its banks, drowning the neighbourhood in mud. A Mele village woman walks through the wreckage caused by cyclone Pam when a nearby river overflowed its banks, drowning her neighbourhood in mud. Children from Mele village play in the wreckage wrought during cyclone Pam when a nearby river overflowed its banks, drowning the neighbourhood in mud. A woman from Mele village picks her way through the damage wrought during cyclone Pam when a nearby river overflowed its banks, drowning her neighbourhood in mud. A small boy looks at the destruction wrought by cyclone Pam when a nearby river overflowed its banks, gutting his house. A woman from Mele village surveys the damage wrought during cyclone Pam when a nearby river overflowed its banks, drowning her neighbourhood in mud. A board member of the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People stands defiantly in the wreckage of their offices. The building was half-destroyed by cyclone Pam. Children play marbles under the skeletons of immense trees in the Seaside neighbourhood of Port Vila. Digicel Vanuatu CEO Simon Frasier helps load a microwave antenna onto a chopper flowin in from Fiji to assist with the recovery from cyclone Pam, which damaged communications towers the length of Vanuatu. Members of the Vanuatu Mobile Force load vital supplies donated by UNICEF at Tanna's White Grass airport. Workmen survey the devastation wrought by cyclone Pam when it hit their trade school on Tanna island in Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days. A damaged and useless water tank is all that remains standing after Cyclone Pam destroyed a newly constructed trade school on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. A young Ni Vanuatu mother stands with her four children in the wreckage of a trade school that had opened its doors a mere ten dfays before it was destroyed by cycloone Pam when it hit the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. A young Tannese woman relaxes after helping her father and uncle clear the remains of an outdoor kitchen destroyed by cyclone Pam. A girl peers over the top of a 10,000 litre water tank in the Etas community near Port Vila. UNICEF, Oxfam and the government of Vanuatu collaborated to create this community water resource, serving nearly 2000 people. A man is carried out of the bush in a wheelbarrow. He suffered a compound fracture in his leg as he and his family members were clearing debris from their yard. Water donated by Save The Children is loaded onto the MV Sarafenua, a coastal vessel used on a relief mission to Vanuatu's Shepherd island group. Adelaide (11) and her niece Cathallia (11 months) at their family home in Teoumaville. This community of 3000 was without water after Cyclone Pam hit. UNICEF Pacific provided an emergency generator that restored the supply. Brush fires are used to clear the fallen debris throughout the town of Port Vila, blanketing the entire area in smoke. Ni Vanuatu volunteers hep construct a UNICEF/World Food Program transshipment facility at Port Vila airport in the wake of Cyclone Pam. This facility will be used to handle food, water and other essentials as they are transported to areas of need throughout Vanuatu. Vanuatu Prime Minister Joe Natuman and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at a joint press conference in Port Vila, on March 22nd. Ms Bishop spent half a day visiting the affected area and inspecting operations. Ni Vanuatu volunteers help staff construct a UNICEF/World Food Program transshipment facility at Port Vila airport in the wake of Cyclone Pam. This facility will be used to handle food, water and other essentials as they are transported to areas of need throughout Vanuatu. Air and ground crew of the New Zealand Air Force offload vital medicines from a C-130 newly arrived in Port Vila from Suva, Fiji. A man clambers over the remains of a giant banyan tree as he clear the debris from around Bauer Field airport in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Vanuatu Prime Minister Joe Natuman enters the National Disaster Management office at the launching of a flash appeal for $29.9 million needed to avoid a humanitarian disaster in the wake of cyclone Pam. More than 160,000 people across nearly two dozen islands face deadly shortages of food, water and shelter. The government of Vanuatu and UN agencies today launched a flash appeal for $29.9 million needed to avoid a humanitarian disaster in the wake of cyclone Pam. More than 160,000 people across nearly two dozen islands face deadly shortages of food, water and shelter. Smoke shrouds the island of Ifira near Port Vila, Vanuatu. Cyclone Pam downed countless trees, requiring intensive bush-clearing across the island of Efate. Nellie gathers firewood near her Aunt's home on Ifira island near Port Vila, Vanuatu. She was supposed to return to her father's home island of Malekula to go to school, but Cyclone Pam has made travel impossible. Instead of going to school now, she helps out at home. Cyclone Pam in Tanna ]]> http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/03/cyclone-pam-in-pictures-2/feed/ 1 Surviving Cyclone Pam http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/03/surviving-cyclone-pam/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/03/surviving-cyclone-pam/#comments Mon, 23 Mar 2015 03:04:49 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7322 Supercyclone Pam, bringing winds gusting to more than 300 Kph, swept nearly two dozen of Vanuatu’s central and southern islands bare. The destruction is difficult to conceive of, harder still to express. Let one tiny example stand for all: A brand new trade school, constructed to the state of the art, razed after only ten days in operation. Behind it lie the shattered remnants of a giant banyan tree. These trees are integral to Tannese custom; because of their monumental size and durability. Indeed, each of the storied twelve nakamals (sacred gathering places) of Tanna is located under a banyan tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditional knowledge and experience joined with information technology in saving lives. Begun in 2008, the government of Vanuatu’s universal access policy has resulted in mobile phone services reaching more than 90% of the population. As the cyclone approached Vanuatu waters, the government chief information officer and the telecommunications regulator negotiated free broadcast SMS notifications that successfully warned virtually the entire population. On top of that, better communications allowed for the identification of evacuation centres throughout the country well before the storm made travel deadly.

In a tragic turn of events, not less than two of the fatalities on Tanna were the result of an evacuation centre losing its roof at the very moment a family was making the dash to safety. This is a reflection of the enormous strength of the wind, which reached a sustained speed of well over 200 Kph in this area.

Vanuatu was more than fortunate to have survived the initial shock of this terrible weather event. Arguably, it has done so more effectively than most other nations could.

The country’s resilience has also been remarkable. Power began coming back on in the capital within 36 hours. Considering that there were scarcely 200 contiguous metres of transmission cable intact after the storm, the local utility’s speed of recovery should provide an invaluable case study for first responders in other natural disasters.

Digicel Vanuatu CEO Simon Frasier helps load a microwave antenna onto a chopper flowin in from Fiji to assist with the recovery from cyclone Pam, which damaged communications towers the length of Vanuatu.

Digicel Vanuatu CEO Simon Frasier helps load a microwave antenna onto a chopper flowin in from Fiji to assist with the recovery from cyclone Pam, which damaged communications towers the length of Vanuatu.

Both Digicel and Telecom Vanuatu Ltd, Vanuatu’s two national telecommunications providers, were offering limited mobile and 3G services within four hours of the eye passing the island of Efate. Telsat Pacific, a Port Vila-based ISP, lost its main communications tower to the storm. The wind tore a 1,500 kilogram anchor block out of the ground and flung it into a building 5 metres away. Three days after the storm, a replacement tower had been jury-rigged from salvaged parts and core services were back. This has allowed many aid organisations to sustain their communications at a key moment in time.

Digicel, which suffered the loss of four inter-island communications towers, restored 70% of its national network within five days of the storm, and 100% within ten days. I experienced directly the all-hands-on-deck approach the company took when Digicel Vanuatu’s CEO, Simon Frasier, personally escorted me and a colleague onto the Port Vila airport tarmac, and then grabbed one side of a Tanna-bound microwave antenna and helped load it onto a chopper. You can’t buy this kind of commitment.

To complement this, the international NGOs, the UN agencies, military from the UK, Australia, France and New Zealand, and hundreds of well-meaning volunteers have all played a critical supporting role in ensuring the survival of over 130,000 vulnerable people.

But—and I cannot emphasise this enough—none of this will have been sufficient if we don’t get the next phase right.

The logistical challenge is greater than anything this nation has faced since World War II.

Nearly two dozen islands, once among the lushest and most abundant in the world, have been denuded, leaving about half the nation’s population with little or no food and clean water, and at risk of starvation unless supplies reach them now—and continue to reach them consistently for the next three months at a minimum. Countless schools will have to be rebuilt. Medical services will be required. The logistical challenge is greater than anything this nation has faced since World War II.

The World Food Program and UNICEF are assisting with the flow of foodstuffs and other essentials into the country, and countless NGOs and aid organisations are lending a hand in this monumental undertaking, but ultimately, the success of this endeavour rests with a small core of individuals in Vanuatu’s (rather inaptly named) National Disaster Committee.

One Vanuatu official was heard commenting that the National Disaster Management Office had once been considered the orphan child within the government departments. Its staff of four performed a mostly symbolic role. That all changed a couple of years ago, when the government realigned itself, integrating climate change preparedness in its national strategy. With a ministerial portfolio assigned to the task, it finally became possible to gain some traction in cabinet. Today, the director of the climate change department is at the head of the NDC, and his minister is second only to the PM in the national disaster management hierarchy.

Vanuatu’s ability to mobilise quickly and to assess and adjust more or less on the fly has ensured that, so far, we have not become what government officials characterise as ‘another Haiti’, in which agencies and NGOs simply materialised in the sky above the airport, landed and began disbursing goods and services without regard to what was already there or even, in some case, with what was actually needed.

The mantra here in Vanuatu is ‘no cowboys’. We all work together, or we don’t work at all.

Laundry dries on the wreckage of a house in Lamkail village, Tanna.

Laundry dries on the wreckage of a house in Lamkail village, Tanna.

Virtually all of the supporting governments, agencies, NGOs and well-wishers have accepted the wisdom of this course of action. They have accepted as well the key instruction that aid is to be provided fairly, equitably and universally. ‘We understand that every NGO needs to plant their flag,’ said Benjamin Shing, who is responsible for disaster response operations, ‘but people need to realise that any mistakes we make today will remain with us for a generation.’ The potential for resentment and even civil strife resulting from inequities in access to aid is something many, if not most, aid organisations often overlook in their rush to provide services.

Overall, the aid operation has begun to coalesce. Most organisations have been successful in fighting their natural tendency to operate independently, and the aid has—so far—begun flowing smoothly, and in sufficient quantity to ensure the survival of the nation’s most affected population.

We have successfully moved from the sprint phase, an all-out rush to assess the damage and treat the wounded, to the marathon phase, in which we spend months backstopping the food, water and shelter needs of half a nation. The stakes today are just as high as they were the day after Pam struck the country down. We are in a race against time.

http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/03/surviving-cyclone-pam/feed/ 9
The intelligence game http://pacificpolicy.org/2015/03/the-intelligence-game/?&owa_medium=feed&owa_sid= Sun, 08 Mar 2015 21:00:36 +0000 http://pacificpolicy.org/?p=7250 Some may express a lack of concern about evidence of intelligence agencies ‘hoovering up’ every single communication across the southwest Pacific. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t illegal and wrong. Comprehensive surveillance of the kind we are experiencing under the NSA’s regime of total information awareness is a threat to our freedom of conscience, expression and association. More the point, it’s just not how allies should act.

Samoan prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele recently offered a public reaction to the news that New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau, or GCSB, had moved in 2009 from occasional, targeted electronic surveillance tactics to ‘full-take’ collection. Mr Sailele showed his trademark forthrightness in asserting that the proper term for spying was ‘diplomacy’ and that it happened all the time.

This is a mischaracterisation. To conflate the sometimes confidential and always delicate role of the diplomat with someone rooting through literally everything you send over a wire is misguided, and does a significant disservice to diplomats. It’s a little rich, too, when someone who has ‘nothing to hide’ also has no problem with the physical intimidation of the Samoan media.

Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing: There is a world of difference between the intelligence gathering that allies conduct between themselves—often cooperatively—and the kind of thing of which New Zealand stands accused.

Intelligence gathering is a rather broadly-defined activity. It comprises:

  • Human intelligence – understanding the people and personalities relevant to your relationship;
  • Technical intelligence – understanding the tools and technologies of your counterpart;
  • Geospatial intelligence – literally, knowing the lay of the land (and sea) in areas of interest;
  • Open source intelligence – using publicly available materials to conduct analysis and better understand your counterpart;
  • Signals intelligence – usually, electronic eavesdropping.

As a by-product of the information age, governments are relying increasingly on signals intelligence in their spying and intelligence gathering. Part of the reason is political, and part of the reason is financial. When you calculate the political and financial cost of physically venturing into another country and breaking their laws in order to gather sensitive information, hacking, data interception and other technological tools seem pretty darn attractive.

It’s not a substitute, though, and although the prevailing wisdom is that a single satellite photo renders a walk-though unnecessary, many intelligence experts have expressed concerned for the loss of the detail and nuance that only comes about from being there. Not to put too fine a point on it, the USA might bomb fewer weddings if it quit relying exclusively on satellite images.

Until 2009, the Waihopai signals facility on New Zealand’s south island was used primarily to listen to the traffic bouncing off the satellites that service the southwest Pacific. It was a tightly-focused instrument, capable of listening in on particular phone calls and other communications. Then in 2009, as part of its commitment to the so-called Five Eyes intelligence agreement between the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Waihopai got a significant upgrade.

This upgrade changed the game completely. It reduced New Zealand’s role to being a more or less passive accessory to the American international agenda, and it integrated American assumptions about the primacy of signals