Australian politics, society & culture


Manus in the balance

Life outside the detention centres on Manus Island

Policemen from the mobile squad with their car. © Vlad Sokhin / Panos Pictures
Cover imageFebruary 2015Medium length read

In December 1928, settling into village life on Manus Island, the anthropologist Margaret Mead sent a gleeful letter home to the United States via the boat that visited every three weeks.

She was living in “a primitive Venice, the streets are waterways, the houses set on high posts”. She struggled with the language and its “hard phonetics”, but was getting there. Manus was “as delightful a place as we could have found in New Guinea”.

Mead was just 27 and almost famous. Her exploration of adolescent sexuality in Coming of Age in Samoa was about to spark a sensation that would endure throughout her long career and after her death. She would become the most famous anthropologist in the world. Her legacy has been venerated, excoriated, relegated and, just lately, excavated in Lily King’s best-selling novel Euphoria.

Manus was the site of Mead’s second field project. She had hit the jackpot with the villagers, “gay and open-hearted people … with a good material culture and an elaborate economic life”. She was less taken with the two dozen whites living at Lorengau, the Australian government station.

She captures them in sharp sketches. The reclusive, disgruntled district officer; the profiteering storekeeper and his wife, “who talks like a gramophone”; the shadowy “blackbirder” (Pacific vernacular for “straight out-and-out kidnapping and slavery”) now making his pile from pearl shell, and the owner of the only refrigerator on the island. Prisoners were being enlisted to build a road to his house so station staff might “have a pleasant little walk over in the afternoon, after tennis, for some good beer”.

This community nourished the young scholar’s dim view of many of New Guinea’s colonisers. “Such flimsy structures of a hundred or so white men govern and exploit this vast country – find gold, plant great plantations, trade for shell, hide their failures in other lands, drink inordinately, run into debt, steal each other’s wives, go broke and commit suicide or get rich – if they know how.”

Imagine if Mead were to return to Manus today. I do, often, wrestling with my own field notes, gathered over a ten-day stay on the island – a mere blink for an anthropologist but a luxury, these days, for a foreign journalist.

What would she observe of the latest waves of expatriate occupiers, the functionaries of Australia’s asylum-seeker detention centre? And what would she make of the monumental changes – let alone the exotic collection of more than 1000 asylum seekers – they bring to the island?

She would surely, again, find a parable in the road. A year-long rush hour sparked by Australia’s detention-centre building program has gouged holes the length of the main thoroughfare of Lorengau, today the capital of Manus Province, and torn up tracks into villages where the Transfield buses shuttle local shift workers in and out. “Only the kids and old mummas are left,” one old mumma remarks. There’s money coming in, but attention to crops, ceremony and community has disintegrated.

Trucks ferrying earth and equipment splatter pedestrians with dust or mud. School children, mothers loaded with infants and crops, and old people hauling supplies from the market are pushed off the road.

Last June a schoolboy, Kisawen Pokas, was run down and killed on Lorengau’s main street by an allegedly drunk PNG police officer, part of a notorious riot squad flown in to secure Australian operations.

Under the deal with PNG, Canberra is required to pay the squad’s costs, but has demonstrated no similar obligation towards the bereaved family. Instead, the squad members took up a collection, donating 10,000 kina ($4680) towards the fee for storing the boy’s body in the mortuary and the haus krai ceremony to bury him. “They came and they held us, they were very sorry,” says his mother, Siwa Sinek.

The craters outside the courthouse are so deep that one morning a heavily loaded local bus nearly tips over. The commotion moves the circuit judge to suspend proceedings and order the town works department to fill the holes by 4 pm.

Australian officials have promised to fix the roads – when it suits them. They are again – still? – primarily concerned with building the infrastructure to service their interests and comforts. It’s a perpetual complaint in PNG, underlined in a 25-year-old warning in this year’s batch of declassified cabinet papers. “Australian investment and commercial activity in PNG, while being officially encouraged, is yet often perceived as exploitative, too heavily weighted in Australia’s favour, detrimental to national, environment or customary land owners’ interest,” counselled the then foreign minister, Bill Hayden.

Today the agents of Australia’s interests enlist cheap local labour to assist the effort and appease residents. Many are happy to have one of the 1000 jobs the enterprise has created, though there are rumblings about the gulf between their pay – K4 ($1.90) an hour, many tell me – and that enjoyed by the fly-in-fly-outs.

Big planes fly in every day from the PNG mainland to land on the runway Japanese soldiers built during their World War Two occupation. Aboard are executives in tropical mufti and labourers in fluoro. They disembark into the cloying heat clutching iPads, conspicuous among locals hauling fruit, vegetables and betel nut as their precious cargo.

If not for the men with Middle Eastern features – some under guard (asylum seekers) and some not (interpreters) – it might be the transit hub for any of the big mines scattered through PNG, though there is no commodified treasure here. The island’s stocks are ephemeral, the product of geography conspiring with distant agendas, and not for the first time.

Most of the new arrivals are facilitators, one way or other, of Australia’s Regional Resettlement Arrangement, which pays PNG to host the detention and processing of asylum seekers turned back from Australian shores, and thereafter to provide a homeland for refugees. They are, according to critics of the deal within and outside PNG, the instruments of neo-colonialism. Some use the term re-colonisation.

“I’ve heard the word ‘prostitution’,” says Dr Bill Standish, a specialist in PNG politics at the Australian National University. “The deal is for an extra $450 million or so of aid, as if Australia could buy PNG’s compliance to a scheme which some elite members see as immoral and shame-making. The educated elite are proud, and aware that the government is experiencing fiscal problems, which in itself is an embarrassment. Most intellectuals are in government employment, and may feel unable to speak up.”

Not so the outspoken governor of PNG’s northern Oro Province, Gary Juffa, who in December told ABC Radio that under the deal “we are basically allowing ourselves to grovel at the feet of Australian neo-colonialism”.

Manusians have both suffered under and capitalised upon foreign intrusions in the past. Whether they ultimately gain or lose from this moment is a question a new generation of anthropologists is positioning to explore. They’re led by a team from Barnard College and Columbia University – Mead’s alma maters – but are working in partnership with Papua New Guinean anthropologists and legal scholars.

“The Manus Island detention centre calls the sovereignty of Manus Islanders into question, as well as the sovereignty of Papua New Guinea more generally,” says Dr Paige West, a professor of anthropology and the project leader with immigration specialist Dr JC Salyer. The deal raises the question of whether “postcolonial societies and states are going to be coerced by their former colonisers to bear the burden of the global refugee problem”.

They see Manus as a window on what might come as climate change bites, vulnerable populations move, and destinations of choice bat them away. “The social, political and economic situation on Manus gives us an idea of what the next 50 years of international relations might look like.”

In 1929 Mead left Manus, not anticipating that she would ever return. But from 1953 until her death in 1978 she was back and forth, having found herself in the anthropological box seat to observe the island’s extraordinary cultural transformation in the wake of World War Two: “faster, more complete and more startling than anything recorded before”.

In 1956, in her second Manus book, New Lives for Old, she argued that three accidents of history had thrust the faraway island onto the world stage.

The first was her random decision to study the people of this fragment of the Bismarck Archipelago, “40 miles long and half as wide”, and the popular interest in the subsequent 1930 book, Growing Up in New Guinea. Her then husband and collaborator, Reo Fortune, suggested Manus precisely because it was so little known.

Second, and rather more significantly, was US General Douglas Macarthur’s choice of Manus as a major American staging area equivalent to Pearl Harbor. More than a million troops passed through Lorengau’s Seeadler Harbor, which was said to be the finest natural anchorage in the Pacific. More than $US260 million was spent on wharves and airfields, but six years later it was just a “junkyard of rusty equipment”, according to a dispatch in the Toledo Blade.

Third, from 1946, was the “presence of a leader with the political genius” to capitalise on the moment. The charismatic Paliau Maloat upset missionaries and Australian authorities by stirring up what they called a cargo cult but was in reality a seismic social shift. The Paliau Movement has yielded a couple of generations of influential Manusians, valued in PNG governance and business for the independent spirit that once maddened administrators and proselytisers. Village people abandoned customs and rivalries to live co-operatively in a society devised to bring them the kind of health and wealth enjoyed by the American soldiers.

“The astonishing thing about all this is that it seems to work,” Mead wrote in 1953. She feared that it would stall when the raw material of dumped American hardware expired, but by 1975 she concluded that “the tremendous leap ahead that the Manus people took is continuing, beset, as all such transformations are, by many difficulties”.

Now a fourth upheaval can be added to the list: Australia’s decision to use Manus as part of its offshore apparatus to dissuade, detain and process asylum seekers. For those recognised as refugees it will become home, like it or not, at least for a time. The people of Manus had as much say in this decision as the refugees, and are about as happy.

It started with the Howard government’s “Pacific Solution” in 2001, was revived by Julia Gillard in 2012, then dramatically expanded by Kevin Rudd in 2013 as the “PNG Solution” – wrangled privately with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill – and endures emphatically under the Abbott government.

This enterprise once again rouses the island out of its torpor, like some tropical Brigadoon, intruding on hard-wired village rhythms with money, activity and beguiling visitations. But Manus is no lost idyll. Climate change, population growth and deteriorating services have eroded hard-earnt gains.

Many locals embrace the pay-off to Manus Province, worth $37 million in desperately needed facilities such as schoolrooms, health facilities and roads. All up, PNG pockets $420 million in additional aid for projects around the country for its trouble. But at what cost?

Every morning I set out to explore this question. I hoist a huge umbrella, insurance against unpredictable downpours and wicked sun, and trek into town from my outlying guesthouse. I make appointments with civic, community and church leaders and hitch rides aboard the banana boats most islanders use to get around. The richest encounters occur en route, unscheduled. Manus people are charming interrogators and captivating storytellers.

There’s a linguist working through the task of translating the Bible into some of Manus Province’s 29 languages. A teacher-turned-artist who fossicks for materials along the shore was once married to an Australian and recalls his shock when his mother-in-law tried to embrace him – “that is not part of my culture, I had to learn that”. A barefoot philosopher with a PhD in education runs the gauntlet of a large crocodile to paddle to town and quotes tracts from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to me. Sadly I don’t meet the former diplomat who has returned to village life and converses in French with the raucous chauka birds. This is not the Manus of Australian headlines.

I visit Mbunai, one of Mead’s field sites. It’s a gorgeous, house-proud village with manicured plantings along a wide boulevard where rival clans came to live together from 1946. It is an epicentre for the faded Paliau Movement and followers still gather at the “parliament” daily to raise their nautilus flag, the shell’s swirls representing the entwining of people of all colours. Children are coached by teacher Kanau Kambou in the rules: marry, pay tax, wear clean clothes, take care of your health, look after your house, no fighting, love each other.

He’s trying to revive interest in the credo. “I want to balance what civilisation is, and what the Paliau Movement is.” Civilisation – “cargoworld” – has delivered two new challenges: the detention centre and climate change.

“When people from the village join in [work at the detention centre], the culture is dying out.” They are distracted. But the greater concern is climate. Fruits and crops come at the wrong time, if at all. The betel nut palms that power much of the economy (and the betel-chewing population) are in strife.

On the north coast, sago palms are growing to only half their old size. Food security is causing wide anxiety. Big waves push inland, sweeping away graveyards. Residents plant mangroves and build seawalls to preserve their shore.

In the west, Asian loggers are illegally stripping away forests, as occurs right across PNG. Some landowners pocket a fraction of the value of their timber, and communities are left with devastated landscapes.

A report by PNG consultant Firewall Logistics for detention centre contractor Wilson Security warned that Manus communities “are facing an unprecedented period of pressures relating to overpopulation, diminishing natural resources, cultural decline and social fracture. The [centre] is an issue that they could well do without at this time.”

Nonetheless, the detention-fuelled economy has Lorengau pumping. People flow in from villages and sinking atolls for a piece of the action. Profits in some businesses are up 200%, according to an independent study commissioned by the Australian government.

The island’s 60,000 population is growing at 3% a year, and Alois Kinol, the principal of crowded, broken-down Manus Secondary School, is delighted his students have the prospect of jobs, though he wonders, like everyone, how long they will last. For 50 years the province’s greatest wealth has been the remittances sent home by its educated diaspora, but today’s students are less motivated, more distracted, with fewer opportunities.

The town hugs the stunning sweep of Seeadler Harbor, where children splash around the rusting debris of war. Their parents are in the market, buying or selling. New money has inflated prices to a level that not everyone can afford.

Stallholders ply sweet potato and pawpaw (the soil is poor, and pickings are lean), reef fish and crazy-coloured lobsters, intricately woven bark baskets, and jewellery fashioned from the island’s luminous lime shells. Gasping green turtles lie on their backs in the sun, “K50” ($24) scrawled on their bellies.

It’s exotic, raw, intriguing. Locals have dreamt of capitalising on their spectacular diving, anthropological fame, war relics and coconut-fringed beaches to build a tourist market. But Australia’s campaign to persuade the world that PNG is a fate worse than the grimmest realities would seem to have torpedoed that.

Expats are light on the ground. There are plenty inside the fortified perimeter of the Lorengau Harborside Hotel, occupying avenues of dongas. They scatter at the whiff of journalists. But most live a 45-minute drive away, rarely leaving the detention precinct. Are they discouraged from mingling?

Security may be their concern, but on Manus, unlike elsewhere in PNG, I never feel unsafe – not until I’m offered a lift one dark night by a mobile squad officer. His Toyota has a PNG flag and an American superhero mounted on the hood. “Spiderman to the rescue,” he says with a grin. He is perfectly civil and, it emerges, bored. Manus is a sweet post, mostly quiet during his rotation. Not like home – the highlands – or Port Moresby.

But the squad is seen by many on the island as the blunt instrument of Australia’s “invasion”. I hear the term a lot, including from angry PNG military officers whose base has been taken over by the detention centre. The squad has gained notoriety in international media for its actions in and around the centre. Police tactics, and the failure of Australian authorities to control them, were criticised in a recent Senate committee report for inflaming last year’s riots in which the Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati died.

Less well known are their local casualties. In addition to the schoolboy Kisawen, there was Raymond Sipaun, 21, who died after a savage beating by police. As I reported for the Guardian, his father James, chairman of the Lorengau Catholic parish council, blames his son’s death “on this asylum seekers program in Manus … I am not against the law. My son was drunk. They could arrest him and lock him up, but not kill him.”

The squad has also been used to shut down local activism against Australian operations. Villagers were upset by the arrival of the Bibby Progress, a floating hotel hired by the Australian government at huge cost to temporarily house personnel. When their concerns about the impact on fisheries were reportedly ignored, they tried to cast off her mooring lines and were clobbered by police. The Bibby stayed a year.

Bored or busy, men with money living far from home inevitably stoke an opportunistic sex trade. There’s anxiety about the safety of the schoolgirls riding around with police. At Sunday mass, Father Justin Aminio instructs his flock to lock up their daughters.

In 1975, the year PNG gained independence from Australia, Mead again visited Manus. Aged 74, she is nostalgic in her last published letter, “conscious of the enormous sense of continuity as I look at old men whom I knew as children and see the grandfathers’ faces”.

The woman who is my Lorengau landlady impressed the formidable Mead and, reading between the lines, perhaps intimidated her. She has something of the same effect on me.

Nahau Rooney is the daughter of one of Mead’s old informants, “the most gifted Usiai leader” who moved his people from inland to the coast to be part of the Paliau Movement. In 1953 their community didn’t even have a school, but here was Rooney, a child of the revolution who had studied at universities in Melbourne and Port Moresby.

Rooney came back to Manus to prepare a constitution for the provincial government, and she asked Mead to write a paper to assist her. The duty weighed heavily on Mead, “writing to and for Nahau … because she has lived it from the inside”, but she was also excited to be distilling nearly 50 years of research and giving it back to the people who rightly owned it.

In 1977 Rooney was elected to the PNG Parliament and served as justice minister. She’s one of only seven women ever elected to the parliament.

Today she flits between leadership roles in Port Moresby and her family guesthouse in Lorengau. Most evenings we sit under the fan in the dining room, surrounded by drums and carvings, while Rooney listens to the 7 pm radio bulletin. We eat and talk – about Manus, PNG politics, the detention centre, climate change, feminism. “For many of us who have gone through the process of development to get to where we are today, it has been a long journey.”

I don’t ask about Mead, rationalising that my core interest is in present-day Manus. But I’m being gutless. In an interview in 1992, Rooney remarked, “I think most of us concluded that we gave more to Margaret Mead as an anthropologist and to her profession than she ever gave to us.” But she did “put our little island on the map”.

Rooney went on to criticise foreign anthropologists for exploiting local hospitality, for failing to reveal how village gossip would find its way into the world, for not declaring “they would profit professionally and personally by collecting these stories”. This is all rather discomforting for a journalist who might well be accused of the same sins.

Now it’s the detention centre that has Rooney riled. “All of a sudden everything is dropped on the island. And now we talk about it: men, women, family, leaders. Some things are good, some are bad, but still we have no say. That is the saddest thing about it.”

She’s worried about the corrosive flush of money through a community so unprepared for it. Alcohol abuse has spiked. Manus people have always had to work hard, catching fish, harvesting sago, trading one for the other, but shiftwork and cash come as rude shocks to individuals and families. Where was the groundwork to prepare people psychologically, financially, Rooney asks? “It was not even catered for.”

She and other leaders are deeply apprehensive about what will come next, when the deal outlives its expediency for Australian politics or when its rising odour in PNG overpowers the pay-off. What then for people who left classrooms and villages for jobs, whose expectations have so changed? Father Aminio anticipates the centre’s going will be worse than its coming. “People will want to kill themselves … they haven’t seen money before … now they’ve seen it.”

What is the transition plan? How might the detention infrastructure be used in some new industry?

For now, Manus businesses make hay and many useful things are gleaned. But the hardware doesn’t last. Where are all those wartime wharves today? Rooney asks. It’s the social changes, good and ill, that endure.

There is destabilising confusion around the fate of the refugees. Who are they? What are their stories? Ordinary Manusians have little access to that basic information. The locals are Christians, many emphatically so, with no knowledge of Islam.

Manus people were assured, Rooney says, that refugees would not stay beyond processing. “But to me, that is all bullshit.” All the while, Australia was building the $137 million compound a short walk from her guesthouse where refugees have been told they will live freely for an unspecified time as they learn Tok Pisin and prepare for their new PNG lives. The latest (leaked) advice is that they will then move to jobs and communities elsewhere in PNG.

“Please, Australia, don’t think that we are dumb,” says Rooney. “Everything is already agreed, determined and imposed.”

But whatever Australia thought it had agreed, it is also buffeted by the desperate resistance of asylum seekers and refugees – some of whom claim that locals will “cut everyone into pieces” when they are released – and by the wild dynamics of PNG politics. The storms build and merge and feed one another: the detainees’ distress escalated by their long incarceration, their accusations inflaming local hostility and embarrassment. Tony Abbott was reportedly surprised by Peter O’Neill’s announcement in October last year that the release of refugees would be delayed “due to a lack of understanding and support for refugee resettlement in PNG communities”, but the writing was always on the wall.

There’s a sense that Canberra is as in the dark as Lorengau on how it will play out. This impression also struck the advance Columbia team when they visited last June. The security may be formidable, “but the actual execution [of the program] seemed to be haphazard,” says JC Salyer. “They sort of threw things together, figuring out what they were doing as they were doing it. It created a lot of confusion.”

A key objective of the Columbia project is to inform policy and law to avoid similar chaos in the future. “PNG has an incredibly robust set of rules around the kinds of social and environmental assessments that have to come before mining or logging or oil extraction,” says Paige West. But there are no similar rules to guide this kind of equally disruptive project, “and this will not be the last time this happens”.

Bill Standish is dismayed by the “taken-for-grantedness” of Canberra’s tone, “assuming we can bribe them, that PNG has capacities it doesn’t have, that the PNG public will ignore the issue and the government will be compliant. In the postcolonial era, that displays a total lack of empathy, not just for the Manus communities, but also for the proud and more-informed sections of the PNG elite.

“I’m pretty sure the PNG government now wants to drop the Manus scheme and resettlement altogether, but hasn’t found a way to do it.”

Opponents of the resettlement plan argue it is unconstitutional to detain people who have not been charged with an offence in PNG, and a court challenge is underway.

There’s also concern that Australia is so beholden that it cannot comment on PNG issues, with profound consequences for business, aid, investment, human rights. “Not only has the Manus agreement thrown all other issues to the side but it has taken away all Australian leverage in the relationship,” ANU’s Professor Stephen Howes, a PNG and development specialist, wrote in the Australian in March 2014. PNG has lost nothing in Australia’s recent slashing of international aid.

Just before Christmas, Australia’s then immigration minister, Scott Morrison, visited Manus. At a ceremony at the new refugee “transit centre” he thanked local leaders for “showing good partnership with the people of Australia in allowing asylum seekers to be processed in their province”, according to a report in the PNG Post-Courier.

“Meanwhile, the locals were not given any chance to express their sentiments,” the report continued. “Governor Charlie Benjamin expressed dissatisfaction over the Australian Government officials and the PNG Immigration officials for intercepting the program and not allowing local leaders to respond to Mr Morrison’s speech.”

The people of Manus had no say in the deal that locked up asylum seekers on their island. They have no say now as it frees refugees into their community. But they will be judged by the world on their reception of these so-reluctant, so-foreign new neighbours.

There is considerable potential for the next chapter in the island’s story to go badly – for the refugees, for Manusians, for both. If it doesn’t, it will be to the credit of Manus people, and despite Australia’s failure to anticipate and ease tensions with more groundwork.

This latest accident of history washes refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar onto the shores of Seeadler Harbor, where retired teacher Kimai Naniy trawls the shallows and volunteers some perspective. “In our history we’ve had Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Germans, British,” he says. It’s always been a dynamic place. He hopes the refugees stay, but this is not a common view. More often people say they feel sorry for them, or they are suspicious of them, or worry they will take their land and over-burden meagre services.

The Manus I visit is gracious, good-humoured, proud, industrious. It is also bewildered, anxious, shifting, unfathomable. In the novel Euphoria, Mead’s character ruminates on the impossibility of ever truly knowing other realities. Her favourite time in the field is “that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion … And it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything.”

The lessons Margaret Mead learnt on Manus over 50 years are powerfully instructive as to the people’s resilience, creativity and determination to make the most of what they are dealt. As often as Manus has been surprised by history, it has surprised back.

Reporting on this story was made possible by an independently awarded grant from GetUp’s Shipping News project.

About the author Jo Chandler

Jo Chandler is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and author.