Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Towards a Pacific Syria

[This is a comment I've put on social media and sent to a few journos]

Will 2019 be the year that Papua New Guinea becomes the Syria of the Pacific, splitting into warring fragments and suffering the interventions of superpowers? If this idea seems fantastic, think about the event that's due to be held on June the 15th in Bougainville.

On June the 15th the people of Bougainville will get the long-promised chance to vote on whether they want to secede from Papua New Guinea. Bankrolled by multinational company Rio Tinto, the Papuan army waged war on Bougainville from 1988 to 1998, after islanders closed a huge, polluted copper mine.

15,000 Bougainvilleans died during the war, mainly as a result of a Papuan blockade that prevented medicine and food reaching their island. The blockade was Rio Tinto's idea. Bougainvilleans laid down their arms in return for partial autonomy and a vote on independence.

Bougainvilleans are likely to vote overwhelmingly for independence from Papua New Guinea. But the final decision on secession will be made by PNG's parliament, which is likely to be strongly against the idea. Papuan Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has predicted that not a single MP will back Bougainville.

Papuan politicians fear losing Bougainville's mineral reserves, and worry about the signal that the island's secession would send to other parts of their country, like Enga province, which has a massive gold mine and suffered uncontrollable violence during last year's general election

If Bougainvilleans are denied independence, they are likely to once again take militant action to win it. & other parts of Papua New Guinea may well follow. PM O'Neill has already granted partial autonomy to Enga, New Ireland, and East New Britain, in an effort to placate secessionists there.

The Papuan state is dysfunctional. Last year civil servants went for months without pay. Police cannot maintain order. The army is politicised. Power is drifting from a Port Moresby-based elite to leaders in the resource-rich provinces. And China, the US and Australia are all watching.

China has funded ports and other infrastructure in parts of Papua New Guinea with mineral reserves, so that wealth can be exported without being routed through Port Moresby. Beijing's largesse might be seen as an investment in the break-up of Papua New Guinea.

Australia and the US have responded to China's interest in Papua New Guinea by announcing they will establish a naval base on Manus Island. The superpowers are being drawn into a contest over a collapsing state. It is not hard to imagine them backing different warring factions.

In the late '90s NZ organised the talks that led to the detente between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville's secessionists, and the promise of a referendum. If Bougainville votes for independence, will Ardern's government back the island, or join the US and Australia in siding with Peter O'Neill and the Papuan state?

Friday, January 04, 2019

Niuatoputapu in Matamata

On New Year's day we were saddened but also honoured to drive to Matamata, where doubly exiled & gravely ill Saia Unga lies in his daughter's living room, surrounded & comforted by a sea of loving family members. Saia is one of the last of the technician-adventurers that Tonga deployed to its remote islands to run radio communications bases in the '50s & '60s.

The first of the photos I have posted here shows Saia's friend, the legendary poet Kitione Mamata, standing by his radio post on Niuafo'ou in 1968. Saia was stationed for 20 years in a hut in Niuatoputapu, the other main island of the remote Niua archipelago; the two men would gossip & joke with each other across waves of static & ocean.

I got to know Saia Unga in 2013, when I lived across the road from him in Nuku'alofa. I remember the old man lying in a hammock hung from a mango tree beside his front fence. A beatific smile was written across his face for hours, as he gazed at a map of distant Niuatoputapu.

The contribution of men like Saia 'Unga & Kitione Mamata to the transformation of Tonga should not be underestimated. As technicians on islands that lacked cars & electricity, they were regarded with something like awe. Some used their status to educate, & to agitate.

During his years on Niuafo'ou Kitione Mamata befriended the islands' low-ranking inhabitants, & wrote a series of kava songs that expressed, in the elliptical style of language Tongans call heliaki, their poverty & alienation. Radio brought these songs to the whole kingdom.

Wendy Pond spent years in the Niuas, studying the region's insects, esoteric religious traditions, & poetry. In a classic essay she analysed & decoded Mamata's songs, & celebrated their proletarian defiance of Tonga's ruling elite. When I talked the elderly Wendy Pond several years ago, she insisted that Tonga's pro-democracy movement had begun in the Niuas, with Mamata's songs.

Even in retirement, under his mango tree in Nuku'alofa, Saia retained the independent streak that he & Mamata had shown as young men. He ostentatiously read Ko e Kelea, the paper of Tonga's Democratic Party, for example.

It was a pleasure to listen to Saia's stories about his Niuan homeland, under that tree in Nuku'alofa.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

'Time is the fire in which we burn'

My latest piece for EyeContact is about the Tongan avant-garde's residency in West Auckland, my son Lui's collage art, the difficulty in being satisfyingly bored in the West, & a time-travelling teddy bear.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

News from Takuu

Polynesians reviving their pre-Christian spiritual practices, like Tonga's Visesio Siasau & Tahiti's Moana'ura Walker, have sometimes had to hunt for details of rites & deities in old, unreliable texts & half-suppressed oral traditions. But what if a scholar could visit a Poly culture before it had hosted missionaries, & bring back an account of that culture? With his new book Richard Moyle has done just such a thing.

Moyle, who is an emeritus professor in the University of Auckland's Anthropology Department, has repeatedly made the long & dangerous journey to Takuu, a tiny, sinking atoll north of Bougainville where variants of Maui & Tangaroa are still revered as deities, & mediums still enter trances to channel otherworldly voices. With their homeland threatened by waves, the people of Takuu invited Moyle to document their culture & religion. Professor Moyle may not realise it yet, but Ritual Belief on Takuu: Polynesian religion in practice is likely to become a near-sacred text for some members of tropical Polynesia's burgeoning post-Christian movement.

Moyle has also documented Takuu culture on film: you can watch his footage of an island seance, for example, here.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Chart action

I'm grateful to Auckland Public Libraries for putting Ghost South Road in their list of top ten non-fiction books. Our tome rubs shoulders with Andrew Crowe's Pathway of the Birds, a book I'll be nagging someone to buy me for Xmas. Here's the list

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Sentinel myths

I've done a piece for The Spinoff on three myths about the world's most advanced civilisation, North Sentinel Island, and on what the benighted West can learn from the killers of John Chau. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Dogma and innovation

British journalist Brendan O'Neill has written a badly flawed column about North Sentinel Island for the spiked website. O'Neill argues that, in the aftermath of their killing of the uninvited missionary John Chau, the Sentinelese need to be 'civilised', so that they can experience the wonders of the West.
O'Neill claims that groups like Survival International, which campaign against forced contact with peoples like the Sentinelese, have forgotten the delights of modernity & learning, & the misery of life in the forest. But I'm not sure whether O'Neill's setting the Sentinelese a very good example of learning.
O'Neill defines the Sentinelese as a 'Neolithic' people. They are, of course, nothing of the sort. Historians & anthropologists use Neolithic to refer to Stone Age peoples who have developed gardening, & moved away from hunting & gathering. The Sentinelese are hunter gatherers.
Like many other commentators, O'Neill characterises the Sentinelese as suffering from a frozen culture, incapable of innovation. Similar claims have been made in the past for numerous other indigenous peoples, by outsiders advocating colonial projects.
The late John Chau was not much of an anthropologist, but one of the notes he scribbled before his demise includes a fascinating detail that refutes claims that Sentinelese culture is incapable of innovation. Chau described how an arrow with a metal head came flying his way. 
The metal on the Sentinelese arrow almost certainly came from the Primrose, a cargo ship that was wrecked on a reef off North Sentinel in 1981. The Primrose's crew were rescued by chopper just before Sentinelese could storm their vessel.
The Sentinelese have brought themselves into the Iron Age, by adapting metal from the Primrose for use on arrows &, in all likelihood, other tools. John Chau was probably killed by the material of his own civilisation, after it had been repurposed by an innovative island people.