Hello from Whoville

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

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.

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.

Subscribe now

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.

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.

Subscribe now

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:

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:

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.

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.