There was no social distancing evident as tens of thousands of Vanuatu citizens marched through the capital to celebrate the nation’s 40th Independence Anniversary at the end of last month. Vanuatu is one of just eleven countries (at the time of writing) to record no coronavirus cases, so joyful celebrations were unfettered by crowd limits or stringent sanitation protocols.
Vanuatu gained its independence from Britain and France on July 30, 1980. Reflecting on that time, independence figure Pastor Sethy Regenvanu said 40 years ago there were many factors that separated them, but that the people of Vanuatu had always been independent as “before white people came to Vanuatu” we were…relying on our subsidence agriculture and our way of life, culture and customs.”
The 40th birthday celebrations began with the solemn handing of the Vanuatu flag from the family of first Prime Minister, Father Walter Lini, to successive Prime Ministers or their families, in chronological order, ending with the recently-elected PM Bob Loughman.
Loughman received the baton as the country meets the twin challenges of COVID-19 and Cyclone Harold-induced economic trouble.
Vanuatu is due to ‘graduate’ from Least Developed Country (LDC) status at the end of this year. Loughman is determined to pursue the process (which has been delayed three times already) despite the stresses of COVID and cyclones. LDC status is designed to support countries facing deep obstacles to economic advancement. Graduation means that while they may still receive aid, they should no longer need maximum concessionary treatment from development partners.
An ESCAP paper last year suggested Vanuatu’s successful graduation is a significant achievement which would require a well-informed transition strategy, and “marks the start of what will be a potentially more challenging phase of the nation’s development journey.” The paper says attaining funding assistance will be based on maximising impact and leveraging private sector investment.
Pre-COVID and cyclone, Vanuatu’s economy was projected to grow by 3.4% but the forecast now is a contraction to 0.6%. In an update just released, the Ministry of Finance says growth is expected to remain positive because of Government’s TC Harold recovery efforts, the Economic Stimulus Package and donor support, plus implementation of infrastructure projects and the 11th European Development Fund. Medium term projections are also robust, driven by agriculture and industry.
Vanuatu’s strong fiscal position and successive years of budget surpluses means it should be able to fund its US$37 million stimulus measures from its own reserves. While tax revenue for the first half of the year is down 1.8% on the same period in 2019, revenue from the honorary citizenship program was up 32.3% over the first six months of last year, netting Vt 7,094.2 million (US$62,000). This means the 2020 target has already been exceeded.
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The Presbyterian Church Chairman of Vanuatu’s Christian Council, Pastor Alain Nafuki, has thanked COVID-19 for enabling the country to focus hard on identifying the best way towards prosperity for the country for the next 40 years.
Pastor Nafuki says God has allowed the country to face the double impact of category 5 Cyclone Harold in the north of the country and the globally devastating virus which is bound to change the current lifestyles of communities around the world.
“Already I can see that COVID-19 is likely to change the country for the better, as well as for the worse, for the next 40 years”, he says.
Asked to give an example of what worse scenario he is fearful of, he replies, “economic injustice”.
However he believes with over 90% of the country’s 230,000 people identifying as Christian, their faith will become their safety net for the next 40 years.
“I am thankful that despite our tough challenges, the Government is also facing its responsibilities head- on, equipped with its Christian faith, in line with the Nation’s Motto of ‘Long God Yumi Stanap’, or ‘In God we Stand’.
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Red, Green, Yellow and Black are the four colours that distinguish the Flag of the Republic of Vanuatu from other national colours.
Red symbolises blood that binds the human race.
Green represents the fertile greenery of the islands.
Yellow stands for Christianity - the light that was shone by the pioneer missionaries who braved the once dark islands to bind the people for Christ.
Black confirms the black volcanic soil that nourishes the land to provide organic food for the inhabitants.
Vanuatu this month celebrates its 40th Independence Anniversary from Britain and France, the colonial rulers that jointly administered the 83 islands for 74 years from 1906 until midnight of July 29th, 1980.
On that historical night, as a young reporter with an ancient camera taking black and white pictures, I could not understand why some civil servants were wiping tears from their eyes as the British flag was lowered for the last time at midnight to a melancholy tune from a lone bugle blown by a police man in British police uniform.
(Pacnews) A closely watched independence vote in the Pacific state of Chuuk, part of the U.S.-aligned Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), scheduled for next month has been postponed until 2022, the island's Attorney General has told Reuters.
Chuuk's proximity to Guam, an American territory with air force and naval bases, and strategic location in the Pacific had raised the profile of the proposed vote amid expectations it would likely turn to China if became independent.
The island state is the most heavily populated of the four members that make up the FSM and has harbored independence aspirations amid discontent over how funding has been shared.
Chuuk State Attorney General Sabino Asor said in a statement to Reuters that Chuuk would give the FSM more time to “correct some of the deficiencies” by rescheduling the vote to March 2022.
“Let's please wait and see," said Asor, who is leading the pro-independence campaign.
The independence movement has been complicated by debate over the legal mechanisms Chuuk could use to leave the FSM, an independent country backed by U.S. financial and military agreements contained in what is called a Compact of Free Association.
It is the second time the vote has been postponed.
“The people of Chuuk and the people of the FSM are one and the same, and as Micronesians are committed to our national values of peace, unity, and liberty,” the FSM government said in a statement to Reuters.
China has challenged U.S. influence in the Pacific in recent years by forging stronger economic ties with small island nations, and drawing countries out of their long-term alliances with Taiwan.
Though tiny in land mass, Pacific nations including the FSM control vast swaths of ocean, forming a boundary between the Americas and Asia.
Jian Zhang, associate professor at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Micronesian states were ideally located.
“It is in quite a strategic area, both close to U.S. bases, which could provide China an ability to monitor and deter military activity,” Zhang told Reuters.
While the canceled vote will please U.S. interests, which have warned Chuuk against independence, the FSM is also subject to a wider diplomatic tug-of-war.
Parts of the agreement with the U.S. start expiring in 2023, raising the prospect that the island republic could shift its relationship towards Beijing, which has recently ramped up investment and diplomatic resources there.
In December, the FSM government disclosed details of at least US$72 million worth of funding pledged by China for road construction, government building works and other projects after a state visit to Beijing by FSM President David Panuelo.
Four months earlier, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the FSM.
“I'm pleased to announce the United States has begun negotiations on extending our compacts.... they sustain democracy in the face of Chinese efforts to redraw the Pacific,” Pompeo told reporters at the time."
Bougainvilleans have voted overwhelmingly for independence in referendum results released this evening.
The Bougainville Referendum Commission led by former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, announced that 176,928 of a total 181,067 people voted for independence, or 97.7 per cent.
Just 3043 people voted for "Greater Autonomy" according to the Commission.
In a statement today the Commission said:
"We thank the two governments of Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, and the people of the Bougainville for their outstanding participation in this historic process – one part of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. We recognise the Referendum has been a national event, and so also acknowledge and thank the people of Papua New Guinea.
As an electoral process that aspired to meet international standards, it is for observers, scrutineers and the media, and indeed the people themselves, to determine whether the conduct of the Referendum was inclusive, accessible, free and fair. We thank in particular scrutineers, and observers from here and overseas for bringing transparency and credibility to the process, and we look forward to their reports over the coming days and weeks.
However, as the mandated independent body appointed to conduct the Bougainville Referendum, it is our conclusion from what we witnessed ourselves throughout the process – through enrolment, polling and scrutiny – was an orderly process, following the laws and regulations provided, and was peaceful.We witnessed voting that was informed, free of fear and accessible.
Some of the numbers also tell an important story:
The Commission also states: "We wish the two governments all the best in taking forward the Referendum result through a process of consultation, and on to the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea for final ratification as part of the ongoing peace process."
The Commission intends to retun the Referendum Write to PNG's Governor-General in Port Moresby this Friday.