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Ambassador’s Journal: My Musings About the Pleasures, Problems, and the Politics of South Pacific Islands

Ambassador’s Journal: My Musings About the Pleasures, Problems, and the Politics of South Pacific Islands

  • 20,000 islands out in the vast Pacific have, over time, accumulated and nurtured traditions of togetherness — the Pacific Way — where society is considered more important than the individual.

Chances are high that the morning news served with the first cup of coffee of the day troubles you as much as it informs you. The main content of newspapers, TV, and social media are stories of conflict, destruction, senseless crime, and outrageous behavior. In a world of 24/7 news coverage, this adds to the daily stress at the workplace. Now may be the time to take a serious look at the Pacific Way and bring sanity and order to life. The same prescription is valid for all nations.

There are almost 20,000 islands dotting the Pacific, and they have also been described as a “sea of islands.” Rarely do people wonder about the South Pacific positioned in the shadow of Australia and New Zealand. But these are distinct countries and peoples. Isolated communities have, over time, accumulated and nurtured traditions of togetherness where society is considered more important than the individual. Welcome for those who have crossed rough seas and weathered storms to land on their shores could be warmth and generosity with handouts of essential clothing, bedrolls, and food. The Pacific Way is therefore rooted in local traditions and includes such forms of behavior as mutual respect, inclusion, consensus, flexibility, and compromise. The readiness to forgive and move on is a Pacific trait worth emulating. 

Hollywood productions of the South Pacific are full of stunning color visuals with lush tropical greenery, waterfalls, streams, and blue skies. The 1980 movie, “The Blue Lagoon,” comes to mind. Incidentally, many Hollywood celebrities are said to swear by bottled Fiji Water, described as one of the purest spring water collected from an artesian well in a tropical forest. The challenging environment that the people of the South Pacific endure is not to be underestimated. And contact between Western civilizations and the people of this region has not always been pleasant or comfortable. 

The remains of the “meal” which included British missionary Thomas Baker preserved at Fiji’s National Museum (photo by Gitesh Sarma). Top photo inset, an Indian family in Fiji. (Courtesy, courtesy Jon Apted, Humans of the Fiji Islands).

In July 1867, a British missionary, Thomas Baker, led a group of Fijian followers to convince the local chief to convert to Christianity. The expedition was unsuccessful in achieving this aim, and the visitors, Baker included, were killed and consumed. Today, visitors to Fiji’s National Museum can see the remainder of that meal, the leather soles of his shoes, preserved in a glass display case. Fortunately, this story had a happy ending worthy of the Pacific Way. Baker’s descendants traveled to the village in 2003 and took part in a reconciliation ceremony with the indigenous people.      

Fiji may be among the most remote Indian communities anywhere. Hindi has official status in the country’s constitution. The World Hindi Conference was organized in Nadi, Fiji, in mid-February 2023. Mahatma Gandhi dispatched Manilal Doctor as his representative to Fiji in 1912 and C.F. Andrews three years later to study the miserable conditions in which Indian indentured laborers were living in that country. Over time, the arrivals from India outnumbered local Fijians. With this came political aspirations. 

Against this backdrop, Sitiveni Rabuka became the chief architect of military coups in 1987 to counter Indo-Fijians’ ambitions to play a more prominent role in national politics. Indo-Fijians were sent scurrying to Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere until there was such a drastic drop in their numbers that they could not think of coming to power on their own. Last year, Rabuka led his newly formed political party, People’s Alliance, to victory in Fiji’s elections and formed a coalition government with the National Federation Party (NFP), representing Indo-Fijian interests. Rabuka apologized for the coups, and his government recently announced the addition of a new national holiday, ‘Girmit Day,’ to mark the arrival of Indian settlers from 1879 onwards.      

Those fortunate to have had contact with the people of the South Pacific would say that there is a strong case to learn from them to forgive and move on to make the world a better place. The Pacific Way may be a good way to make a fresh beginning.

A 2018 WIN-Gallup poll rated Fiji among the happiest countries. More acceptable lists and surveys show Nordic and European countries right on top. But a beaming smile at the Fijian immigration counter on arrival and departure is a lasting impression on every visitor entering and leaving the country.           

The small island states of the South Pacific pursue their respective foreign policies under the watchful eyes of Australia and New Zealand, with China being increasingly visible in this region. Foreign relations can be practiced in the Pacific in the delightfully old-fashioned way. In 2004, Vanuatu’s then-prime minister Serge Vohor most likely punched China’s Ambassador on the shoulder to settle an argument when the latter complained about Taiwan’s flag flying high in the country’s capital. Vanuatu has made amends by forging a robust relationship with China, while Beijing has gifted a Parliament building, Prime Minister’s Office, and other projects. 

In April 2022, the Solomon Islands signed an agreement with China allowing the Chinese to station their security forces in the country. Diplomats from the U.S. and Australia rushed to Honiara to register their concerns at this development, but the sense was that they could have been more active in monitoring and checking Beijing’s activities. On the other hand, why should not the Solomon Islands pursue an independent foreign policy when others elsewhere are being lauded for doing so? 

Notwithstanding their tiny sizes, Nauru, along with Palau, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands, withstood Chinese pressure and maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan. They have not been afraid to deliver counter-punches to China when necessary, while bigger world powers have been more conservative. The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) President recently opposed China’s proposal to set up a 10-nation security and trade arrangement pact for the Pacific and may consider making a switch to Taiwan. Nauru’s President, Baron Waqa, admonished the Chinese delegation’s leader at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in 2018, describing him as “very insolent” and a “bully” for attempting to address the gathering before Tuvalu’s President. 

In the 1980s, Nauru was one of the world’s richest countries on the back of phosphate mining. Things were good while they lasted, and eventually, the island nation was ravaged, making its land unfit for any productive use by its population estimated at 15,000. The country occasionally makes the news today for odd reasons. To the delight of plane-spotters, in end-March this year, a Nauru Airlines aircraft landed in the U.K.’s Norwich airport for maintenance work after covering almost 9,000 miles.      

There was a time when the Kingdom of Tonga also made news on account of its overweight monarchs. Late King Tupou IV, who reigned from 1965 to 2006, had recorded 200 kg or 440 pounds at one time. During his overseas travels, governments had to ensure special chairs were available to support the dignitary. German foreign office protocol was understood to be highly efficient in this regard. During the reign of currently reigning King Tupou VI in 2014, Tonga became the first country to push a landmark Seabed Minerals Act for regulating seabed mining activities. Still, this achievement may not have been deemed elsewhere in the world as falling into the breaking news category. In contrast, natural disasters in this fragile region are more favored by broadcasters. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, when Tonga’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted in January 2022, it set off a tsunami and a “sonic boom that circled the globe twice.”

The fortunes of Tuvalu, with a population of 11,000, changed in 1995 when it was allotted “TV” as its internet domain name. Some say that U.S.-based Verisign used to pay around $5 million a year to Tuvalu for the right to administer this domain name. The amount would have been substantial for this island nation, considering that the country’s national income was around $60 million. GoDaddy is understood to be now managing this coveted digital asset for Tuvalu.

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Kiribati ranks as one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change. Studies suggest that the island of Tarawa may be uninhabitable by 2100, with sea rise covering almost 50 percent of the island and 60 percent of its population. In 2014, there were reports that the Government of Kiribati had negotiated a lease of 5500 acres of land in Fiji to move its entire population in an extreme situation. Hopefully, such an eventuality never happens.

Individually and collectively, Pacific countries continue to pursue justice simply by being very persistent. The U.S. and France may have conducted over one hundred nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia from 1946 onwards. The Marshall Islands’ response has been to start legal proceedings in the International Court of Justice against nine states for violating their obligations regarding nuclear disarmament. 

Recently, in March 2023, Vanuatu convinced the United Nations to seek the International Court of Justice’s advice on the legal responsibility of countries to combat climate change. In welcoming this development, UN Secretary-General Guterres said climate justice was a moral imperative and prerequisite for effective global climate action. Let us all pray there is no extreme situation for Kiribati and other tiny island countries now or ever. 

From the unfortunate Christian missionary whose shoes adorn the Museum in Suva, we come to the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Samoa. The author of such classics as “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped” and “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” made this country his home and lies buried there. He earned the affection of the inhabitants of this island by respecting their rich culture and traditions and earned the title of Tusitala or teller of tales. Until his demise at the young age of 44, Stevenson remained concerned that the indigenous people of these island territories were ill-prepared to deal with the influx of outsiders and the influences they brought with them.           

We may be at a juncture when the South Pacific can be a provider of solutions. The world is ailing and in need of urgent course correction to combat climate change or douse conflicts. Those fortunate to have had contact with the people of the South Pacific would say that there is a strong case to learn from them to forgive and move on to make the world a better place. The Pacific Way may be a good way to make a fresh beginning.

Gitesh Sarma was simultaneously Indian Ambassador/High Commissioner to seven South Pacific countries — Fiji, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu — during 2014-15.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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