Jun 04, 2020 Last Updated 12:26 PM, Jun 3, 2020

Some 400 people have arrived on Vanuabalavu – a remote island on Fiji’s eastern sea borders – as they prepare to bury one of their favourite sons who became the country’s sixth prime minister.

They are the first of many people that Mavana village expects to host for Laisenia Qarase’s funeral, planned for tomorrow (Wed).

A delegation from the Fiji Government is expected to arrive later today aboard the government boat, the Veivueti.

Mourners underwent body temperature screening when they boarded last night, as Fiji’s medical officials continued their efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The body of Qarase will be flown in by chartered plane tomorrow, and driven to Mavana by road for a church service before burial. He will be accompanied by his widow, Leba Qarase and close family members.

Qarase was chief of Mavana, bestowed with the traditional Tui Kobuca title.



He rose to national prominence in 2000, when he was handpicked by then-military Commander Frank Bainimarama to head an interim government after the elected government of Mahendra Chaudhry was ousted in a coup in May of that year.

Qarase went on to contest and win the general elections of 2001 and  2006, before he was ousted by Bainimarama in a coup on 5 December, 2006. Prosecuted for a corruption- related offence when he was on the board of Fijian Holdings 16 years earlier, Qarase was jailed for a year in 2012.

Ironically, Qarase was instrumental in the creation of Fijian Holdings as the main investment vehicle for Fiji’s indigenous community.

Following his release, and barred from contesting the 2014 elections, the 79-year old banker plunged himself into the affairs of his home island, successfully uniting what used to be two divisive districts into forming one united investment company.

Vanuabalavu Vision Limited was registered in 2018, and now has a paid up capital of $3.5 million and an asset portfolio valued at $10m.

Qarase died Tuesday last at a private hospital in Suva after suffering from a mild stroke.

Smart Aid Not More Aid

An honest and critical appraisal by donors, recipient nations and other stakeholders is critical if the region is to take advantage of every donor dollar and show growth that truly impacts Pacific people’s daily lives say some of the region’s leading development thinkers and workers.

The “poor performance” of aid to the Pacific has again been in the spotlight. Development Economist and the ANU’s Development Policy Center Director, Stephen Howes  has demonstrated that based on annual DFAT performance reports, aid to the Pacific achieves less than aid to other regions. Howes cautions against increasing aid to the region, saying this will further erode aid effectiveness.

Carolyn Hunt an engineer and infrastructure adviser with 22 years’ international development experience says she has seen wastage of aid money firsthand.

Writing for Australian media, she said while the  governments of many Pacific island nations gladly accept aid funding, there is often little buy-in to assist with the implementation of aid projects, and that “decades of aid has done little to filter down to the way most Pacific islanders live.”

The blame she attests, does not rest entirely with aid recipients. “Infrastructure projects funded by donors in the Pacific are notoriously devoid of well-thought-out motives, good planning and follow-up maintenance programs and are all too frequently of poor standard. Donors often give scant attention to follow-up surveys, value-for-money considerations, reciprocal and tangible inputs by recipient governments, and to holding recipients accountable. The general attitude by donors and by recipients is to build it, watch it decay, then rebuild it – all with aid money”.

Shamima Ali, who heads the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center (FWCC), says such conclusions call for a different way of doing development in the Pacific. FWCC has received direct Australian aid for almost two decade, and Ali was the recipient of the 2018 Mitchell Humanitarian Award: “There are issues around corruption and wastage but if the Pacific people were to have a greater say in programming and aid we received, we can then be held entirely responsible for it.” 

She adds that any development assistance given to the Pacific needs to take into consideration the cultural and religious beliefs and contexts within which Pacific lives exist, including the gendered rules under which people live.

In her analysis, if development assistance shows poor returns, it’s often because of a poor knowledge of the Pacific by some of the expertise provided by donor partners, who she says, are often young persons who have done “some gender studies courses at University level”. Overcrowding in the funding field with numerous donors funding an existing area of work means donor dollars are dispersed in a “haphazard manner” Ali says.

“There is a great need for aid coordination in the Pacific.Even among funding agencies and organisations there is a lot of competition in terms of who is in which space, so there is much duplication and while this goes on, problems remain”.

Former Head of Parties to the Nauru Agreement, and Solomon Islands’ new Permanent Representative to the UN, Dr Transform Aqorau contends that ‘smart’ aid rather than more aid, is needed. “Aid has to be targeted. that we need is not aid for development, rather proper economic policies that empowers people to improve their social and economic conditions.

”Dr Aqorau contends if aid in the Pacific is performing poorly, its real destination needs to be looked at. “If 60 per cent or a good proportion ends up with Australian consultants and contractors, then it really begs the question of what is happening in our aid sector? If development assistance in the Pacific is failing, it’s the donor that has to be held accountable as most M&E [monitoring and evaluation] frameworks, transparency and accountability mechanisms are drawn up using Australian expertise.”

The discussion comes as submissions to the Australian International Development Policy Review have come to a close. While the FWCC has not made a submission, Ali says three priority areas could lift Pacific development; continued support for women’s development including around women’s oppression and violence against women, an area she says “DFAT has done good work in”, plus women’s political and economic empowerment. But Ali says Pacific women need to take leadership in implementing these programs. 

Both Ali and Aqorau place the building of Pacific expertise and capacity as extremely important factors. Ali says even when Pacific expertise is available, “people with poor understanding of the Pacific are brought from outside.”

She questions the re-emergence of international INGOs and contractors, saying in some cases development dollars are going to these organisations, and that local, regional organisations need more autonomy to operate without interference. “No aid is bad aid if it is properly thought out and if the interest of the Pacific people is at the heart of development… Pacific leaders and donors need to talk openly and donors need to tell Pacific people where they are going wrong. On our part we need some soul searching by Pacific Government and NGO leaders who are aid recipients. At the end of the day aid effectiveness and frameworks to guide it are a partnership between donors and recipients with both playing equal roles here” she added.

Dr Aqorau feels it is time the region went back to basics with the development assistance it seeks. “Education in the Pacific is not compulsory, so not mandatory for everyone. As a vision, our leaders should say we want assistance with achieving 100 per cent literacy and numeracy for our populations. No Pacific government has a policy that says it wants 100 per cent literacy or numeracy rates. Also it is rather ironic in some of our  villagers we don’t have running water. If you want to develop the Pacific let’s get the basics right before bringing in all these grandiose development ideas. People have gone back to digging wells and using nearby streams for drinking water and washing. We need to identify our basic needs and let the donors know what we want and not have the donors tell us what they need to do for us.”

Ultimately he says, Pacific Leaders should seek assistance which will help us move out of our aid dependence. “In the Pacific our regional organisations, an important part of our regional architecture are beholden to Australia and would never survive without Australia. It is the same with some of regional governments.”

“For the Pacific to retain its sovereignty while taking development assistance from its numerous partners, it should know what it wants. Has any government in the Pacific shown a real vision in what it wants for its people? The Pacific Framework for regionalism is rather fancy…. but look at the percentage of people around the Pacific with no clean water to drink and who need to improve their literacy. The Framework doesn’t address the critical development needs of the majority of people in the Pacific and requires a rethink if the Pacific is to truly grow.”

DFAT is a major donor for numerous regional organisations, including the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and The Pacific Community. The newly appointed head of the Secretariat of Pacific Community, Australian Stuart Minchin says the responsibility for aid effectiveness is a shared one. “From planning with our members, to donor contribution, to coordination and management, to implementation, to monitoring and evaluation and even he end user. Each plays a part in ensuring that development funds are effectively serving their intended purpose, and that the intended  purpose is in line with the development objectives, regional aspirations and national priorities of our members.”

Dr Minchin says the SPC has clear accountabilities. “We are ultimately responsible to our members- which obviously includes Australia. Each and every project/program is carefully examined to ensure it is in-line with the declared priority areas of SPC, that it is viable within our budget, that its outputs and objectives are clear and that it will have a measurable and positive impact.”

“We are an organisation that stresses the importance of innovation, and innovation requires some level of risk. But even the projects that don’t ultimately achieve the ideal results still provide valuable lessons that enable us to continuously improve,” he says.

Australian Assistant Minister for Defense, International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke has told Islands Business that the Australian Government won’t apologise for making the Pacific its priority in granting development assistance. “This doesn’t come at the expense of other regions…South East Asia is also a priority, a different region with different features. The Pacific is certainly our first approach”.

Hawke expects Australia’s International Development Policy Review to suggest how to better collaborate with Pacific Island countries to measure outcomes. “We have heard through partners and NGOs about these measurements and making sure that when we spend money, we capture outcomes. Sometimes it’s harder than it sounds. Long-term programs have long-term benefits, so we don’t want to be too brutal about it. But we also need to ask hard questions of where money is best spent.

Minister Hawke says monitoring and evaluation frameworks are a partnership. “DFAT does not set them arbitrarily, we do work through our missions and partner governments. However governments do change and priorities do change, things do shift in program lives… we need to be honest when programs do succeed or when they are not working and can be.”

Sen is an independent regional development, governance and communications consultant.


The Chairman of Transparency International PNG, Peter Aitsi, expects the Marape government to establish an oft-promised anti-corruption commission to be set up by the end of 2020, paving the way for an improvement in the  country’s reputation, a boost for the economy and its people.

Last month (January), Papua New Guinea was once again listed as the most corrupt Pacific country, in Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index. PNG now ranks 137 out of 180 countries, putting it in the 20 bottom countries that were ranked as having the highest perceived levels of corruption.

By contrast, Solomon Islands is ranked 77th.

The head of TIPNG, Peter Aitsi, says corruption has a “significant impact on our country in many areas”, a reflection of a steady deterioration of the public service since independence.

“These are the government systems that should be in place for the public to be protected and for the separation of political influence over the bureaucracy,” Aitsi told Islands Business.

Perhaps the best example of corruption is the District Services Improvement Programme (DSIP), whereby each of the country’s 111 Members of Parliament is allocated money from the annual national Budget to spend as they see fit.


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Kiribati faces uncertain times ahead as the Government rules with a minority support in parliament for the first time in the history of the country, the coalition Opposition goes to court twice against the Speaker of Parliament, legislators engage in heated debates in parliament and both sides of the house lock horns over claims of the people’s support that have catapulted the atoll republic headlong into a whirlpool of uncertainties and uneasiness as the general election draws near.

The divisive issue was initially fallout from the Government’s sudden switch from support for Taiwan to mainland China on September 20 last year. It came to a heated head during parliamentary debate over the Government budget presented by Vice President and Finance Minister Dr. Teuea Toatu in November. The budget was defeated 26 against, 18 for and 1 abstaining when some Government backbenchers and one senior Minister crossed the floor, justifying their move by claiming that the Government’s explanations for switching loyalties were, at best, flimsy.

In explaining the Taiwan-to-China switch in a nation-wide broadcast on the Government-sponsored Radio Kiribati, Vice President Dr. Toatu gave three reasons: Taiwan’s refusal of the country’s requests for increases in aid, bypassing Kiribati in the Pacific high-level visits by Taiwan and failure to honour agreements.

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Massacre, memory and music

Yudha Korwa was just 17 years old when he was attacked by Indonesian soldiers during the Biak massacre on 6 July 1998.

“A soldier used a big gun and hit me hard on the head. I saw them kick my friend,” Korwa testified. “I saw Filep Karma shot. He was shot in the legs. He fell down and said ‘Help me! Help me!’ He was also yelling ‘Free West Papua! Free West Papua!’

“A soldier stabbed me in the chest. I ran…pulled the knife out and threw it away. I was bleeding and just fell down to pretend I was dead. The army kept on shooting. The bullets came from every direction like rain. People were dying everywhere.”

More than twenty years later, a group of musicians, artists and human rights activists from across the Pacific have collaborated to publish ‘We have come to testify.’ This book and accompanying CD share the testimony of survivors of the 1998 massacre on the island of Biak, West Papua. 

At the book launch in Melbourne on 27 November, survivors Yudha Korwa and Mama Babuan joined other West Papuan exiles to remember the assault on peaceful West Papuan protestors, which left scores dead and many others detained and tortured.

“It was a really terrible situation over there,” Korwa said. “The Indonesian military opened fire early in the morning. The fire came from the air like rain, killing more than 100 people under the water tower. 

“We have faced killing, burning, raping from the Indonesian military. But today, we are standing here with a new generation, strongly fight to get our freedom. Today our message is that we will never give up, until we get our own freedom.”


The outlying island of Biak in West Papua has long served as a hub for political protest and Papuan identity. During World War Two, the Koreri movement on Biak resisted Japanese military occupation – today, the West Papuan nationalist movement challenges Indonesian occupation.

The independence movement regards the western half of New Guinea as a unified West Papua. In contrast, Jakarta has sought to divide the growing nationalist movement through plans to carve the region into three – so far, two separate provinces have been created as Papua and West Papua.

Long-standing West Papuan calls for self-determination were amplified in 1998, following the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship. As Indonesia began tentative steps towards democratic rule, West Papuans began agitating for independence in the period known as the “Papuan Spring.”

The year 1998 was a time of political and cultural ferment across Melanesia. The signing of the Lincoln Agreement in January 1998 brought a pause to the long-running conflict in Bougainville, culminating in the deployment of unarmed peacekeepers and the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement. In New Caledonia, the Noumea Accord of May 1998 set the French dependency on its current path to self-determination. Social tensions in Solomon Islands erupted into armed conflict in 1998, exacerbated by the war in neighbouring Bougainville, the spread of weaponry, that summer’s El Nino drought, and a 25 per cent drop in GDP after the Asian economic crisis. 

In West Papua, the long-repressed quest for self-determination burst into public view that year, with protests, rallies and the public display of the Morning Star flag. This banned symbol of West Papuan nationalism was first raised on 1 December 1961 however, early steps towards decolonisation for Dutch New Guinea were thwarted by Cold War politics, and Indonesia’s takeover after the 1962 New York agreement and the 1969 Act of Free Choice.

Indonesian President Suharto resigned in May 1998 in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis and rising domestic protest. Soon after, there were rallies for independence across West Papua, in towns like Jayapura, Sorong, Wamena and Biak. On 2 July 1998, the Morning Star flag was raised high on top of a water tower overlooking Biak town. During the next four days, hundreds of people gathered to listen to speeches and songs. Leaders such as Filep Karma called for independence for West Papua and recognition of Melanesian land rights in a region facing immigration from Sulawesi and Java.

Police initially tried to disperse the Biak protest with tear gas, leading to clashes with young Papuans and injuries on both sides. Then, after four days, the protest was crushed in a co-ordinated attack. Early on 6 July 1998, many protestors gathered at the water tower were shot and killed by Indonesian soldiers and police officers. Others were detained, with survivors reporting horrific examples of rape and mutilation in prison. 

Survivors also report that some dead and dying were loaded onto Indonesian naval ships to be taken offshore. In the weeks after the assault, at least 33 bodies of men, women, and children some bound or mutilated by torture washed up on the shores of east and north Biak. 

West Papuan and international researchers estimate that more than 200 people died during these events, though numbers are uncertain and human rights violations are denied by the Indonesian government. The police and military forces responsible for the attack have never been held to account by the Jakarta government or Komnas HAM (Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights).

Instead, protest leader Filep Karma was charged with treason and sentenced to six-and-a-half years’ jail (later released on appeal). Karma was arrested again for raising the Morning Star flag on 1 December 2004, the anniversary of the original 1961 flag raising ceremony. Karma was sentenced to another 15 years jail for treason and only released in 2015, after a decade in Abepura Prison.

Beyond the testimony of local participants, the events in Biak were recorded by other eyewitnesses. American anthropologist Eben Kirksey was transiting through Biak town at the time of the massacre, and his memories of West Papua are reported in his book ‘Freedom in Entangled Words.’ In 2010, Kirksey testified before the US House of Representatives about Biak and other human rights violations in West Papua. 

Further evidence of the 1998 events was gathered during the Biak Tribunal, a citizens’ investigation of the massacre held at the University of Sydney in 2013. The Tribunal was headed by eminent jurist John Dowd, a former Attorney General of New South Wales. The hearings recorded vivid testimony from eye-witnesses and survivors (available at www.biak-tribunal.org).

Today, ‘We have come to testify’ carries this information to a wider audience through text and song. 


Until his death in June 2019, Ferry Marisan was a central figure in the collective project to memorialise the 1998 tragedy in Biak. Marisan’s death robs West Papua of one of its leading cultural and political figures. Graduating in anthropology from the University of Cendrawasih in Jayapura, Marisan worked with the Institute for the Study and Advocacy of Human Rights (ELSHAM), the leading human rights organisation in West Papua.

Born in Biak, Marisan was sent as a key human rights investigator in the months following the 1998 massacre, gathering testimony from survivors. He later served as a key participant in the 2013 Biak Citizens’ Tribunal.

But Marisan was also a leading cultural figure in West Papua. His combination of scholarship, performance and human rights activism followed a path travelled by Arnold Ap – the famed cultural leader who formed the band Mambesak with Eddie Mofu and Sam Kapissa in the late 1970s.

These early leaders of the Papuan cultural renaissance are now dead. Ap was imprisoned by the Indonesian authorities for alleged sympathy with the outlawed Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) and was killed in April 1984, supposedly while trying to escape from prison. Kapissa died of “food poisoning” in 2001. Many West Papuans believe he was poisoned by the Indonesian military, like other cultural leaders such as chief Yafet Yelamaken who died of food poisoning in 2002. Chief Theys Eluay, leader of the Papua Presidium Council, was murdered by Indonesian special forces soldiers in November 2001, shutting down the Papua Spring.

The Indonesian government has long attempted to silence cultural expression that doesn’t fit within Indonesian national ideology. But a central feature of Ap and Marisan’s work was to collect and perform songs in local Melanesian languages using music to unite the disparate cultures of a nation with more than two million people. They collected songs that fuelled a sense of West Papuan identity, from coastal and mountain communities, from east and west, songs that celebrate a connection with the land.

After Ap’s death, Marisan continued this work through the bands Black Paradise and Eyuser string band. Their songs tell of the beauty, the culture and the history of West Papua, and the longing for merdeka (freedom) that underlies today’s movement for self-determination.

This tradition continues in the project ‘We have come to testify.’ The book is accompanied by a spoken word and music CD, where testimonies of survivors are combined with original songs produced by Australian musician David Bridie, artistic director of Wantok Musik. 

Bridie told Islands Business that his collaboration with Ferry Marisan began some years ago: “In the early 2000s, we recorded the record ‘Spirit of Mambesak’ and then he took over from John Rumbiak as director of ELSHAM. He was a joint musician and human rights defender. I met him again at the Biak Tribunal and from the beginning of the process, he said ‘let’s turn these words into songs.’ So, Ferry not only wrote songs for this record but wrote some music that sits underneath as a soundscape as the words are being spoken.”

Highlighting regional concern over West Papua, the words and music on ‘We have come to testify’ are performed by a range of Pacific artists. West Papuans Ronny Kareni, Sixta Mambour, Ferry Marisan and Mama Tineke Rumkabu are joined by musicians including Radical Son (Tonga / Kamilaroi), Tio Bang (Vanuatu) and Marcel Meltherorong (New Caledonia / Vanuatu). 

Tragically, Ferry Marisan died as the CD and book were being finalised.

“I spoke to him the day before he passed,” David Bridie said. “The record was about to come out and I was really proud of it and he said he too was really proud. The following day, he passed away from diabetes. His musical legacy is really strong. He always saw himself as following in the footsteps of Arnold Ap. His was a life that ended too short but he left a massive contribution.” 

Today, with agitation for independence in Bougainville, KanakyNew Caledonia and West Papua, remembering the past is an important part of building the future. More than twenty years after the Biak massacre, young people are again protesting in the streets of West Papua. The message of ‘We have come to testify’ resonates even more strongly.



The book and CD can be ordered through Wantok Musik at www.wantokmusik.org


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