Academic journal article Oceania

'Operation Restore Public Hope': Youth and the Magic of Modernity in Vanuatu

Academic journal article Oceania

'Operation Restore Public Hope': Youth and the Magic of Modernity in Vanuatu

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Just before dawn on Sunday, January 25, 1998 police officers and members of the Vanuatu Mobile Force (VMF) launched 'Operation Restore Public Hope' in urban settlements around Port Vila, Vanuatu. With faces blackened and guns pointed the police and VMF burst into the settlement to round up people suspected of taking part in rioting and looting several weeks earlier. Emlene, an elderly and respected Tannese woman, explained that she 'was shocked and terrified' to find a gun aimed at her as she arose to light the morning fire. She then watched with fear as young men from her family and community were apprehended and taken away for interrogation. 'Operation Restore Public Hope' was one of the key 'clean-up' measures authorized through the State of Emergency declared on January 13, 1998 after rioting had erupted in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, an archipelago of some 80 islands located in the Southwest Pacific. The riot was precipitated by the government's mismanagement of the Vanuatn National Provident Fund (VNPF), the workers' mandatory savings fund. During the State of Emergency, approximately 500 people were arrested amidst allegations of police brutality. 'Operation Restore Public Hope' which targeted youth and residents from the ever-growing urban settlements that ring the capital of Port Vila, became the focus of a police inquiry and an investigation by Amnesty International. In this paper I discuss the riot and its aftermath which included extensive police measures and the use of a sorcery technique by a small group of young men to deflect the violence of the police when the Vanuatu Mobile Force (1) descended on their settlement. While the police interventions that followed the riot were extraordinary, the police violence directed at youth who live in urban settlements has a more quotidian quality. An ethnographic understanding of both youth and magic in the context of modernity underlines the resiliency of cultural forms that have been of anthropological interest since Malinowski's and Mead's time, and the transformative capacity of young people's actions in the face of dramatic change in the contemporary Pacific. This paper contributes to an understanding of 'the points of intersection between local cultural practices and state institutions' (White 2007:1).

Magical practice is a major site of invention that 'builds its force on the gaps, exclusions and marginalizations of social processes' (Kapferer 2003:14) and it is to those gaps and margins that I draw attention by focusing on youth, the riot and its aftermath. I shall argue that the young people's use of sorcery to counter police violence tells us a great deal about the state of the nation. By exploring the violent civic unrest and the State of Emergency measures I seek to move analysis away from the commonplace depiction of the state of Vanuatu as weak or failed--a formulation which obscures as much as it illuminates (Lattas and Rio, this collection). Focusing on police violence and looking more closely at the riot and its aftermath reveal the various 'regimes of violence' (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) at work at both margins and center. Das and Poole have argued that the margin of the state offers a unique perspective for understanding the state, 'not because it captures exotic practices, but because it suggests that such margins are a necessary entailment of the state, much as exception is a necessary component of the rule' (2004:4). In what follows, I will show that the confluence of sorcery practices and police violence draws attention to the contested nature of everyday urban life; to the disciplining of young bodies in new urban spaces; to the complex relationships between kastomary leaders and the state; to their competing strategies to define and maintain social order, and to the changing landscapes of modern power in Vanuatu where magic and state practices of violence coexist (Rio, this collection).

Vanuatu has had a long history of contact, confrontation and negotiation with agents of modernity which included missionaries, French and English settlers and colonial officials (Widmer 2008). …

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