REPORTER: Mark Davis
3-It’s a year of celebrations in Vanuatu as the country marks its 25th anniversary of independence.
But today is an annual highlight of the social calendar in Port Vila, the Queen’s birthday at the British High Com.
MAN: I’ve been here since 1969 and I’ve been to most of the parties since 1969 with the exception of the last three years when I’ve been rather ill.
Sick or not, few would miss this year’s party. It will be the last one – the British are leaving Vanuatu.
WOMAN: I cried already and I’m going to cry when the flag goes down. You see, I got my MBE from the Queen.
MAN 2: And this is probably the saddest day of my life.
You wouldn’t believe the day would come when the British flag would come down?
WOMAN: No, I wouldn’t and I blame bloody Tony Blair.
MAN 3: As for Elizabeth and me, we’re exchanging an island in the Pacific for an island in the Atlantic as we move on from here to the Escutcheon Islands.
For such an aid-reliant country, the closure of the British High Com is a reflective moment for Prime Minister Ham Lini but there are still other suitors out there. Over the last few years, Australia has tried to take on the role of the biggest brother with mixed results.
The French ambassador is staying put, intent on retaining influence in the Pacific. The Chinese ambassador is a keen observer, back in force after Vanuatu briefly flirted with Taiwan last year. And a new player, Indonesia, is now entering the game.
MAN: China’s moving in, Australia, the Indonesians. But they’re not the same, not the same.
Other countries have an interest here and are moving in – China, Australia. Other big countries are showing an interest in Vanuatu, do you welcome them in the same way as you would have welcomed Britain?
MAN: I’ll be very frank, no, I don’t, I don’t.
As the afternoon wears on, some of the diplomatic niceties wear off. Foreign affairs are taken very seriously here and a controversy has recently erupted around the issue of West Papua.
For 25 years Vanuatu had supported independence for the West Papuans and loudly condemned Indonesia as occupiers and killers. More recently, the welcome mat has been put out for Jakarta, an act which is dividing the nation and the government.
MAN: He is the one accepting these people. Moana.
You blame Moana?
MAN: Yeah, I blame Moana.
The finance minister, Moana Carcasses, is keen to strengthen ties with Indonesia and water down Vanuatu’s long support for the West Papuans. It could be a dangerous path for PM Ham Lini. Governments often fall here on foreign policy issues, and on a more personal level, families divide.
Across is room is his niece, Laura Lini. She isn’t speaking to him and moved out of his house a fortnight ago after he invited an Indonesian delegation to visit Vanuatu.
LAURA LINI: He knows about what I believe in and it is something that my family has always believed in.
Laura Lini has become the most vocal opponent of her uncle’s new affection for Indonesia and a founder of the Vanuatu Free West Papua Association.
LAURA LINI: I don’t believe that Vanuatu should ever compromise for its sovereignty to such nations as Indonesia.
Oddly enough, the Indonesian ambassador to Australia, Imron Cotan, is at the centre of the controversy. In the absence of any formal relationships, he has become Indonesia’s key negotiator in the wooing of the Vanuatu Government.
In May, demonstrations broke out on the streets of Port Vila when Cotan led a delegation to meet with the government. His car was stopped and surrounded in the main street with Laura Lini leading the pack.
LAURA LINI: There was a chief that was there who stopped the car. I took the West Papuan flag, put it around the car of the ambassador. I opened the flag and I said that, “Vanuatu does not need you here, go back to where you come from, Vanuatu people support the cause for independence for the West Papuan people.”
Laura and five others were charged with causing a civil disturbance, charges which were later dismissed.
LAURA LINI: And I said to the magistrate, “This is who I am – my name is Laura Lini.”
And my address is the Prime Minister’s residence?
LAURA LINI: Yes. Yes. And I also told him who my father was and what he believed in and I also believe in the same thing.
It’s no coincidence that emotions are running high on the West Papua issue in Vanuatu’s 25th anniversary year. In the 1970s both West Papua and Vanuatu were struggling for their independence. Vanuatu got there first and pledged not to leave West Papua behind.
On July 30, 1980, a new and feisty nation entered the world stage led by Father Walter Lini. Under Father Walter, this tiny country made a big splash. It virtually led the nuclear free Pacific movement and championed the liberation of New Caledonia and West Papua in particular.
Walter Lini, now dead, was the current prime minister’s brother and Laura Lini’s father.
LAURA LINI: I think I’m only taking up what my father has left off and I believe strongly on these issues and I do want to make people know that these issues are important and they’re important for Vanuatu.
No other country has taken up the West Papuan cause like Vanuatu has. Events like this one have long infuriated Indonesia.
Last December chiefs from every corner of the country gathered to raise the West Papuan flag and condemn the 1969 annexation of West Papua. But Vanuatu has caused more grief for Indonesia by being the only country that has consistently raised the West Papua issue at the UN and other forums. But that may be about to end.
REPORTER: So West Papuan issue is now a negotiable one with Indonesia?
HAM LINI, PRIME MINISTER: Actually, yes, we can – we believe strongly that maybe by a good dialogue we can get agreement.
It’s an uncomfortable issue for the PM, but his support for West Papua is now on the bargaining table.
REPORTER: So you are signalling a change in Vanuatu’s policy on West Papua?
HAM LINI: Actually we’re still will support about West Papua, but how to handle that maybe can be looked towards a change.
REPORTER: Is there a political risk for the PM and for other members of their cabinet?
BARAK SOPE,INDEPENDENCE LEADER: Yes, yes, that’s an issue that they have to face in the January election.
Not all members of Ham Lini’s government agree with the recent policy switch. Veteran politician and independence leader Barak Sope is one minister who believes the West Papua issue is hot enough to bring down the government.
REPORTER: And this is probably the only country on earth where West Papua is actually… A domestic issue.
BARAK SOPE: A domestic issue. Yes, it is, it is.
Governments sort of – people get elected.
BARAK SOPE: Because of that, yes.
Which is extraordinary.
BARAK SOPE: Yes, because, I mean, when you go around – when you go out to the rural areas and people ask us “What is your foreign policy?” And then when you explain it even if you don’t mention it, someone in the audience will say, “What about the your position on West Papua?” Because it’s part of the election campaign.
If you look at all the platforms of all the parties, I’m sure – West Papua turns up somewhere. Yes, yeah, it’s written black and white.
Independence can be a relative concept. 25 years on from the heady days of Father Walter Lini, the government relies on foreign aid more than ever, and Indonesian money is as good as anyone’s.
The finance minister, Moanna Carcasses has a practical view on what Vanuatu can offer donors in return.
MOANNA CARASSES, FINANCE MINISTER: First thing we can offer them is, you know, we have a voice, important voice in the United Nations, and that’s one thing that we can offer to them and I think Vanuatu has been good using that weapon, if I may say that, wisely.
Ham Lini doesn’t have the firebrand nationalism of his brother, he doesn’t need it. The key skill of any prime minister today is attracting largesse from international friends. Vanuatu has mastered the art of playing upon the obsessions and interests of other countries.
The Chinese – fixated on defeating Taiwan in any forum and gaining a foothold in the Pacific.
The French – fretting about the loss of their language and the possible loss of more Pacific colonies. Australia – in a panic about failed states in the Pacific and the possibility of terrorists lurking within them.
The British – still chipping in a little for auld lang syne. The price asked of Vanuatu is generally fairly painless. But the latest international suitor, Indonesia, is asking for a much higher price… the abandonment of a fellow Melanesian people.
MOANNA CARASSES: We have to think about Vanuatu, that’s one thing, and I think the wall are changing, the attitude are changing. In 1980s the attitude was the colonisation are strong, strong, strong. Now I think they are changing, the rule is changing at the moment. But we are caring about our brothers over there.
Until recently Dr John Ondawame has never had any trouble making connections here. There’s no answer. A West Papuan, he moved here two years ago to lobby Vanuatu full-time to help win back his country’s freedom. But today’s task is far less ambitious. He just wants his flag back, taken by the police when the Indonesian ambassador was in town.
DR. JOHN ONDAWAME: Maybe I go there to the police office to pick up my flag, Morning Star, but I’m not sure that the officer in charge is gonna be there.
A member of the outlawed OPM movement in West Papua, he was imprisoned then exiled in Sweden and 10 years in Australia before coming here.
DR. JOHN ONDAWAME: Many days they have been keeping my flag. Clearly very mad.
Until recent times the West Papuans have had more success in Vanuatu than any other place on Earth. But now things have turned frosty. He’s a bit shocked today that he can’t even get his flag back. But a tug-of-war over a flag is a minor part of a much bigger game that’s being played.
It seems that Vanuatu is doing more than just playing the West Papuan card to draw in Indonesian aid. Talks are progressing for Vanuatu to sponsor Indonesian’s entry into two regional associations which have proved most troublesome to Jakarta in the past.
Discussions between Ambassador Cotan and Moana Carcasses have revolved around Indonesia becoming a member of the MSG – the association of the Melanesian nations and the Pacific Islands Forum.
MOANNA CARASSES: So strong that Indonesia should be part of the forum because it’s a part of the Pacific. I don’t see why Indonesia shouldn’t be part of it. And because Indonesia is part of Melanesian, because there is Melanesian there, should be part of MSG.
AMBASSADOR COTAN: The inclusion of West Papua into Indonesia has been sanctioned by the UN resolution.
Both the Melanesian group and the Pacific Islands Forum is meeting in the next couple of months and the Vanuatu Government is in the middle of making its decision on whether it will sponsor Indonesia inside.
Barak Sope is outraged that his government is even talking to Indonesia, let alone sponsoring them into regional forums and he believes the majority of cabinet shares his view.
BARAK SOPE: My view of West Papua is for them to get total independence.
REPORTER: This has been the view of Vanuatu for 25 years? You and Father Walter were always strong on this.
BARAK SOPE: Yes, yes, that’s where I won’t change now, just because I’m in a coalition.
Over many years Sope has raised the West Papuan issue at the UN and was a friend of murdered West Papuan leader Chief Theys Eluay.
BARAK SOPE: Theys came here during 2000 with the delegation and he also was part of the Vanuatu delegation of the United Nations, the year 2000 and then when he went back he got killed, was killed. So this is why we’re saying how can Indonesia say that they’re looking after the West Papuans while they’re killing them?
MOANNA CARASSES: I think Indonesia want first to show that they are not the beasts that they used to be, there is a change of approach and attitude. And they come to Vanuatu saying that “We have something to offer you, we have trade to offer you, commerce, and we can do business together.”
BARAK SOPE: Whatever is coming to Vanuatu from Indonesia is almost nothing. A few cars, some tractors or something like this.
Are you disappointed then? Are you disappointed?
BARAK SOPE: Yeah, I’m totally disappointed in not receiving – just because receiving a couple of cars and 200,000 people have – Melanesian people have been killed for their freedom.
A church function provides a little light relief for Prime Minister Ham Lini. For the PM and his family, politics, although unspoken today, are never far away. Laura Lini sits on the other side of the field, away from the family and resolutely in opposition ever since she confronted Ambassador Cotan.
HAM LINI: Actually since she took part in that action that was made, she didn’t come back to my house to say anything. I only met her on Saturday when we were there but we haven’t talked about that. But that may be she’s doing what… her father was had a very strong belief on that.
REPORTER: How do you feel about this? Of course Father Lini was your brother and he was very strong on West Papua, do you feel a family commitment to this or you think it’s time to move on?
HAM LINI: As I said, I think maybe it depends on situation but now maybe it’s time to look differently.
Although she’s now lost access to her uncle’s dinner table, Laura Lini has been working overtime with the traditional chiefs of Vanuatu. The chiefs still exert enormous power here and they have a strong attachment to West Papua, regarded by many as the home of Vanuatu’s ancestors.
LAURA LINI: If he comes out to say publicly that he’s going to have dialogue with Indonesia, and that will be a problem with the chiefs because the chiefs have come out publicly to say that we don’t want to have anything to do with Indonesia. And politics, when it involves chiefs, it can become very – quite messy.
There are many West Papuan support groups around the world, but few have this much clout. Having the daughter of the most revered political leader in the country’s history helps, and not many groups would have the leader of the opposition dash over from parliament when he hears they’re meeting.
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION, (Translation): For me, the Indonesians in West Papua are tourists. They’re not from West Papua. So why would the Vanuatu government support a tourist who has come for a holiday, who comes to take money and then go?
But the most important person here today is not a politician, it’s a representative from the council of chiefs.
REPRESENTATIVE OF THE COUNCIL OF CHIEFS, (Translation): We can’t stand by and watch such suffering. This is not just me, but all the chiefs of Vanuatu. And I must say, when the chiefs are backing something, there’s no corner their influence does not penetrate.
On sacred ground on the outskirts of Port Vila, the traditional chiefs of Vanuatu are gathering. It’s an extraordinary moment for West Papua but John Ondawame is still fuming about his flag.
DR. JOHN ONDAWAME: They’re keeping my flag. I don’t like it very much and there’s already people died for – because of this flag so I won’t tolerate anymore. I will lose patience for that. I’ve had enough.
You’ve had enough?
LAURA LINI: You can see in the background we have some chiefs that are here and they’re at the moment waiting for the Prime Minister to arrive.
If the chiefs call a meeting, the Prime Minister will come?
LAURA LINI: Yes. Always? Always. They’re going to tell the Prime Minister today that the West Papua issue is now on the hands of the chiefs of Vanuatu. We will hear what the Prime Minister will have to say but I’m sure that he will be able to tell us this afternoon. Hopefully after today I will be able to go back to the house.
CHIEF VERA VENGLAT: Honourable Prime Minister, you have come, and we believe your understand custom. You follow our traditions. You heard the chiefs say they needed you and you came.
With the courtesies out of the way, chief Vera Venglat gets into his stride. As one of the wise men, Vera Venglat invokes the memory of the PM’s dead brother, Walter Lini, the father of Vanuatu, and in an anniversary year, the memory of what Vanuatu once stood for.
CHIEF VERA VENGLAT: What we are now discussing is based on what the father of Vanuatu talked about a long time ago. It’s about the issue of West Papua.
The PM looks increasingly chastened as the chief picks up steam.
CHIEF VERA VENGLAT: We can’t sit by and watch our brother countries suffer.
For 20 minutes the chief spells out his concerns about dealing with Indonesia. The ancestors came from West Papua, the blood that is spilt there is the blood of the chiefs of Vanuatu.
CHIEF VERA VENGLAT: And now our chiefs are standing up. Our chiefs have wisdom and feel their pain. Now they have sat down at the sacred fire.
Vera Venglat wraps up with a payment to the PM, an offering more valuable than the gifts of any foreign emissaries – sacred mats and kava to seal the deal.
CHIEF VERA VENGLAT: My talk will finish here and now we have bought this kava root here. We want the words of the father of independence to be brought up again. We need to open these discussions again so that our brothers can be free the West Papua. Thank you.
An extraordinary transformation seems to take place with Ham Lini as he commits himself to the freedom of the West Papuans.
HAM LINI: So I want the assure everyone here, although it might be a hard time and a long time, West Papua will be free according to God’s plan. And we in our small ways need to look for ways to help.
Lini is a man of custom, but he’s also a politician. He knows the chiefs have influence in every village in Vanuatu in a way that local members could only dream of.
REPORTER: He talks straight about West Papua?
MAN: He answered what we asked him. And he was all right. He talked straight.
The Prime Minister accepts the chief’s gifts and in doing so, accepts their speech and their commands.
MAN: We told him to come to the talk and he came.
REPORTER: And he must listen to you?
MAN: He must listen, because he’s a man who knows custom.
REPORTER: Can he disagree, does he have to obey or is he his own man?
MAN: He will agree.
REPORTER: Would there be trouble if he did not agree?
MAN: There’d be no trouble if he didn’t agree but there would be an enquiry to find out why.
With the Melanesian nations meeting this month and the Pacific Islands Forum soon after, the coming weeks will tell whether old friends or new will prevail upon Ham Lini.
GEORGE NEGUS: And Mark tells us it seems the chiefs have had a victory. A member of the Free Papua Movement will join Vanuatu’s official delegation to the Melanesian nations meeting in a few days time.