Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The fall of the nation of Turaga?


The jailing of Vira Leo, a kastom chief from Vanuatu's Pentecost Island, will perhaps mean the end of an intriguing social movement. Viraleo created a utopian community on Pentecost's isolated east coast, complete with its own currency, bank, and alphabet.

Like Walter Lini, Vanuatu's first Prime Minister, Vira Leo was born into northern Pentecost's Raga people. But where Lini tried to create a unitary state out of Vanuatu's many communities, Vira Leo wanted his 'Turaga Nation' to secede from Vanuatu.

Chief Vira Leo made the village of Lavatmanggemu the capital of his 'nation', and gave it a school he called the Melanesian Institute of Science, Philosophy, Humanity, and Technology, where scholars learned to write in Avoiuli, a script Vira Leo based on traditional sand drawings.

Vira Leo also made Lavatmanggemu the site of his Tangibuni bank, which held pigs' tusks, as well as banknotes designed by the chief. Vira Leo gave an Australian journalist a tour of the bank, and explained how it was protected by kastom magic.

Vira Leo's downfall began in 2015, when he led an attack on a neighbouring village, whose people he accused of poaching sea cucumbers from the waters of his nation. Houses, a shop, and a church burned; a police expedition arrived from Port Vila; the raiders were arrested.

Vira Leo showed his flair for publicity, when he insisted in leading his followers into a Port Vila court in traditional kastom dress, rather than the expected Western attire. His gesture was reported around the world, and slowed the progress of his case.

In the interviews he gave between court hearings Vira Leo presented himself as the champion of kastom, but many ni-Vanuatu criticised him as the creator of a violent cult. Al Jazeera ran a fascinating report from his decaying capital.

In 1980 Jimmy Stevens, a former bulldozer driver known as Moses to his followers, briefly established a state called Vemarama on Santo Island, with the support of French plantation owners and American anarcho-capitalists. Papuan troops invaded, on behalf of Walter Lini, and Stevens was jailed.

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