Vanuatu remains mostly harmonious
The latest eruption in the arc of instability reverberated around the world: “Children traumatised by riots in Vanuatu,” declared Radio Australia. “Two die in witchcraft battles”, screamed London’s Evening Standard.
The image was of a nation in meltdown, with armed gangs bent on wreaking the wreckage that has become such a Melanesian cliché.
There is no lie like a media lie, so I doubted whether the happy isles I had visited in late February—a week before the disturbances—had so quickly become such a conflict zone. It was clear that a riot had taken place and that over a hundred people had been arrested. Yet I suspected that it was too easy to leap to conclusions about the causes—a closer look usually shows that Vanuatu is much more stable than its neighbours in the alleged arc of instability.
A few friends took time off from drinking kava to reassure me that, sure enough, strangers still sing out goodnight and that the children are still smiling. No “witches” were involved, and three people died, not two. The faces under the Nabanga tree at the Chiefs’ Nakamal might look a bit more strained than usual, but that is all.
In truth Vanuatu is more politically stable than in over a decade. The government, led by Ham Lini, has been in power since 2004, before which there were nine governments in as many years. The rabble from the island of Tanna who clashed with their long-time Ambrym foes had no political designs.
Unlike in Fiji, there was no coup attempt. The Vanuatu Mobile Force remains true to its government. And in contrast to the Solomon Islands, where social schism fired Keke’s armed insurgency, the various islands groups in gun-free Port Vila remain mostly harmonious.
Papua New Guinea, a nation 40 times as populous, faces a social and economic challenge immeasurably more complex than Vanuatu’s.
The economic trajectories of these two countries are a stark illustration of why Vanuatu cannot be lumped with the rest of the region.
While Vanuatu is predicted to graduate from official Least Developed Country status within seven years, Port Moresby is applying to the United Nations for a downgrade.
Indeed political stability is helping Vanuatu’s economy grow faster than any of its neighbours and quicker than since the turn of the millennium.
More jobs and higher spending power are likely to help quell complaints about the government.
It is tempting to suggest that the economic upturn is driving urban drift and that a battle for land pushed the Tannese and Ambrym communities into conflict.
But a similar clash occurred in 1999, when the economy was in a far more parlous state and before the housing boom.
The murder rate remains roughly constant, and at around three per year, it remains low for a country with a population of over 200,000. For the same number of Americans, 12 are murdered annually. In the United Kingdom, the figure is four. Australia’s rate is about the same as Vanuatu’s.
Murder is murder, and no country would welcome three at once. But the latest killings happened for a definite reason—even if it was peculiar. Apparently an Ambrym islander had used Nakaimas, or black magic, to harm a Tannese man. To an outsider it might seem prehistoric to slaughter your neighbour for putting a curse on you. But in Vanuatu magic is real. Because it grabs headlines and is difficult to understand, the international media pounce on it. It seems that when ni-Vanuatu people aren’t worshipping John Frum or land-diving, they are casting spells on each other.
But most people in Vanuatu aren’t so easily pigeonholed. They go about their lives in ordinary ways. And in any case the inhabitants of other nations regularly kill for peculiar reasons, such as one group of people being able to propel a piece of inflated leather across a field better than another: witness the Heysel or Hillsborough football riots. It is no excuse, but in Vanuatu, spiritual forces occasionally push people into acts almost as extreme.
As an example of the strength of spiritualism, I remember when I was working in the government and my boss one day evacuated the office so that a pastor could remove evil stones that had been placed under our office chairs. The following day we carried on our work, as if the incident were something as modern as a power cut or national holiday.
This uneasy mix between tradition and modernity is commonplace in Vanuatu. All nations suffer their ups and downs—and in Vanuatu, it just so happens that spiritualism is more important than in some other countries. Magic and custom seem as real to locals as money or football in the West. It would be a mistake to identify any conflict as a mysterious bout of Melanesian ‘flu’.
Disturbances in Sydney do not herald the emergence of a ‘semicircle of instability’, and they are rightly not considered reason to condemn the whole country. You wouldn’t avoid the Australian capital because of last year’s Cronulla race riots; and in the same way it would be silly to cancel a holiday in Port Vila because of the recent strife, where in the end only nine people were charged. It does not signal wider difficulties and did not affect many people.
It would be wrong to pretend that Vanuatu is guaranteed a stable future. Risks remain— such as the increasing split between a wealthy capital and the poorer islands. An influx of aid money and housing investment in Port Vila has sparked an unprecedented economic boom.
Many people in the outer islands continue to live at subsistence levels, while basic health and education remains poor. Sooner or later this schism must be addressed, or it risks boiling over into social conflict.
The Australian government’s travel advisory was of little help. By the end of March. Canberra was still warning travellers to “avoid protests and demonstrations as they may turn violent”. Yet so far this is just scaremongering. The children continue to smile and the sun still shines. The only arc is the course of the moon through the Nabanga tree on a starry night—and that is decidedly stable.