Archive for March, 2008

The unrest in Tibet and the need for a reasoned debate

Posted in Tibet on March 29, 2008 by salul

In respect of the ongoing (and otherwise shocking and depressing) events in Tibet, I thought it was time for a few updates.  

One of them is the open letter/statement to Hu Jintao that has been circulated amongst Tibetanists and Tibet-related specialists since last Thursday, and which I myself have signed, despite the fact that my previously stated opinion is less than optimistic.  

Much remains to be said regarding both the ongoing developments and the manner in which public and specialist opinion is unfolding. For now, I will simply direct the reader’s gaze to the very informative insights and admirably well-argued viewpoint of Andrew Martin Fischer, a brilliant young analyst of the socio-economic context of contemporary Tibet.  

I also want to reproduce a slightly more extended version of my views regarding anthropologically-related reactions to the situation, which was recently posted as a comment within an ongoing dialogue/debate that is taking place over at the Savage Minds blog. It goes without saying that I welcome any comments or critiques on what is an otherwise complicated and highly charged issue whose longer-term consequences are no longer really predictable.

“I hate to weigh in on this by playing devil’s advocate, but I really think that those of us involved in the study of contemporary Tibet have to try – despite whatever moral outrage we may feel at ongoing injustices – to bring a little more analysis and a little less passion to the debate.

Insofar as this is meant to be a forum for reasoned anthropological debate, I hope that the following comment will be viewed in such a light, and not discarded as lightly as McGranahan has done with Patrick French’s “asinine”, but actually rather realistic and reasoned (if depressing or unpleasant) op-ed in the NYT.

So here goes, with apologies.

In both the original post and subsequent comments/replies by Carole McGranahan I detect the same passionate, but ultimately uninformative, discourse that spotlights the Chinese (and, by extension, the provincial and TAR governments in historically Tibetan areas of the PRC) as a monolithic entity engaged in a repetitive (by which read ahistorical), vicious and “cynical” cycle of suppression vs. a “Tibet” that is primordially represented by a morally virtuous Dalai Lama, rather than by the plurality of Tibetans living in Tibet.

While McGranahan seems to be very excercised by the Chinese government’s crude attempts at suppressing the political dimensions of the Tibetan struggle, she recognises that there are “all other sorts of issues” involved in the latest demonstrations. However, at no point does she actually go into detail regarding the perspectives and contexts of Tibetans in Tibet. With regard to the politically incorrect suggestion that international pro-Tibetan strategies of support may actually be causing more harm than good, she stresses that we must “give [Tibetans in Tibet] a little more credit than that, and acknowledge, perhaps, that they might just be pissed off at their situation…and with good reason.”

But again, she provides no further insight into current Tibetan sentiment, beyond the obvious, but insufficient, fact that Chinese rule has been oppressive and resented from the outset.

That Tibetans are pissed off is not at issue, of course. HOW and WHY Tibetans in Tibet – not the Dalai Lama, nor the Tibetan diaspora (who represent a valid but only partial and often distant aspect of the multifarious Tibetan realities within the PRC)- are pissed off, however, is a question that is not being properly addressed by focussing primarily on the Dalai Lama/Chinese government dichotomy.

The issue is not what degree of “ethnic” or tribal hatred is present in the current Tibetan struggle, but to recognise that there are a plurality of voices and reasons behind many of the groups and communities that have bravely expressed their fury in recent days.

While it may seem that I am splitting hairs, it actually does matter that we distinguish between those monks who originally demonstrated in Lhasa from those in other parts of the Tibetan world, as well as from the multiple groups of disaffected, primarily urban, primarily young, Tibetans who spontaneously followed up with their own shows of outrage in many different towns, communities and municipalities. As anthropologists are well aware, differences in social groups and contexts do matter, even when there are underlying threads of shared grievance. Hence, the Tibetans and circumstances of Dechen County (Yunnan), for example, are not the same as those in Gansu, or Qinghai or Lhasa, even though they may all be connected by various shared feelings of disaffection, exasperation and frustration, as well as by a profound loyalty to the figure of the DL.

Distinctions do matter, because they point to a witch’s brew of socio-economic (not primarily ethnic) circumstances that beg a far more sophisticated analysis than an outpouring of passionate, morally-charged solidarity for “the” Tibetan cause, as though such a singular thing can even be defined.

I have no easy explanations for what is currently going on, nor am I insensitive to the very real, valid and deeply-felt expressions of disempowerment and frustration of Tibetans both inside and outside of Tibet.

But I do believe that recent scholarship on Tibet offers enough information and insights on the multiple realities of Tibetan life-worlds as to allow us to construct a more reasoned, and therefore probably effective, approach to the plight of Tibet.”


From my field diary: Of glass beads and property speculators

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on March 26, 2008 by salul
When I first left the Torres Islands, in February of 2000, I had been living continuously on Loh for almost one year.


During that time I witnessed several firsts, with the establishment of the first telephone connection probably having been the most iconic instance of the way in which technological changes were impinging on everyday life in this small island world. 

At right: the first public telephone in the village of Lunharigi (September 1999).



While the people of the Torres had been connected to the rest of Vanuatu through a very efficient network of tele-radios for almost 15 years prior to my first fieldwork stint, and were therefore no strangers to communicating abroad via wireless transmission, it was a very bizarre and unreal moment the morning I woke up to the sound of a telephone ringing in the middle of the village. On that first day no one quite knew what to do, but they quickly caught on and have become as efficient and proficient in its use as any other community on earth. 
Left: The same telephone pictured above nearly eight years later (yes, the natangora thatch has begun to rot away, but that’s still a good eight year life span for a humble thatch roof); note the hefty telephone diary in the hand of my good friend Hamson, who is sorting out various issues with contacts in faraway Luganville. 


The period 1999-2000 was also a time when VCRs and television screens had begun to make their first appearance in the Torres (the first functioning “video” machine was brought in 1997 by the local businessman John Hawelikwe, pictured in an earlier blog entry).

At right: Torres people watching musical videos from the Solomon Islands, Feb. 2008.

Admittedly, this last phenomenon was only present during those special occasions when someone managed to bring together a petrol-powered electricity generator, a VCR, a functioning television set and enough benzene to keep them running for a few hours (these days, DVD machines and television screens are slightly more numerous and are kept running more frequently, but their use is still limited by the fact that no TV signal or aerial is locally available).  

Upon my return to England, and my final year of doctoral work, I remember having had a recurring nightmare: I would visualise myself returning to the Torres Islands years later and discovering that they had been “touristified”, with numerous concrete bungalows dotting the once pristine beaches and local villagers having morphed into cheap guides for jungle hikes and touts for noisy aquatic sports. What was most shocking was that I would find them to be completely absorbed in trying to sell their islands to the highest bidder.

Joseph's bungalow


Left: One of two thatch-roof bungalows established on Loh Island since the year 2000; this one, belonging to Joseph Pele’s family, is soon to be torn down due to the swampy conditions of the ground on which it was built and its owner’s disillusionment at the overall lack of tourists visiting the Torres.


I realise that my primitivist (or modernist?) nightmare, and most of what I have said above can be construed as a rather flimsy form of exoticisation, in which I am describing the Torres as though they actually were a pristine, untouched and distant paradise, free from the perceived ravages of the modern cash economy. Naturally, this is not so. Indeed, I have intentionally highlighted these snapshots (the introduction of phones and videos) in order to better frame the final part of this post, which is to do with the way in which, this year, during my fifth return visit, I observed that Torres Islanders continued to make the best possible use of the very limited resources at their disposal.

In effect, about a year ago the people of the Torres Islands actually were approached by a rather sinister businessman, who, in league with a greedy local politician from the Banks Islands, represented the interests of a consortium of Australian real estate speculators (whose presence in Vanuatu has become too numerous and ominous in recent times). What this merry couple had in mind was nothing less than the wholesale purchase  -“lease”, in the current jargon, but for various complicated reasons it most often implies the definitive alienation of ancestral territory – of the small island of Linua, on which the airstrip connecting Loh with the rest of Vanuatu is located.

For a few months it appeared as though the Aussie speculator just might get away with murder. He regaled the three families who claim to have ancestral ownership of Linua with unsolicited gifts of large cooking pots, corrugated iron sheeting and fibreglass water catchment tanks – in effect, the modern equivalent of glass beads and steel axes. But then the Torres Islanders did what they have always done best: they gathered their wits and their chiefs about them, they held a number of highly charged village meetings, and they eventually decided that they were about to lend themselves to a nasty scam. Just in the nick of time they stopped the provincial secretary for land in the Banks and Torres from signing a lease agreement which had been fraudulently screwed around with to the benefit of the realty consortium, and told the prospective buyer to go away and never come back.

To conclude: I do not celebrate the technological and socioeconomic exclusion, geographical remoteness from urban centres and lack of access to basic services that the people of the Torres Islands have to cope with every day. I believe that they have as much right to these and many other artefacts of contemporary metropolitan life as any other person. But I could not but be overjoyed to witness the highly intelligent and careful manner in which this very small and potentially vulnerable society has managed to consistently administer itself in the face of potentially destabilising and unpredictable extra-local agents and phenomena for decades and, indeed, centuries. 

Whether or not they eventually choose to build bungalows and “touristify” their island home will ultimately be up to the people of the Torres Islands. As for me, I sleep better these days, because somehow I doubt that they will ever enter into such a pact without having first guaranteed that it is established on their own terms, and according to their own very subtle but effective standards of behaviour, values and expectations.

The small pleasures of the Melanesian forest

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on March 25, 2008 by salul

Small pleasures of the Melanesian forest

All entertainment aside, it is worthwhile advising, for those colleagues and friends who work in North and Central Vanuatu, that I once again came down with malaria, for which radical treatment was necessary (mefloquine+primaquine). As of now I am having a blood smear analysed at an advanced immunology facility because it appears that I may have contracted a doxycicline-resistant strain. If this were the case, it will be important to put the word out through the Vanuatu Ministry of Health. But hopefully it will not be. I will be posting an update soon.

From my field diary: 2008 goals

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on March 24, 2008 by salul

Since I am on something of a roll here (I’ve been sick as a dog this weekend, but now recovering) I may as well keep these long-delayed entries coming. This is the first in a series in which I want to reflect on the nature of fieldwork, with specific reference to my most recent experience in Island Melanesia.So what was I up to? I had not been to Vanuatu for almost 20 months, and wanted to make the most of this period. There were three overall goals that I was aiming to address during my visit to North Vanuatu.hukwe

  • To inquire further about the Torres sukwe (graded society) and lehtemete (the most elaborate form of ritual dancing), especially in respect of the nature of the spirits that come into being during the status-alteration ceremony in which new men are inducted into the hukwe and ranked members acquire greater prestige.
  • To address the history and situation of the Church of Melanesia (Anglican) in the Torres Islands, and to study local perceptions about the power and purpose of the Melanesian Brotherhood (Irareta Tasiu). tasiu on lohThe cover of the Brotherhood’s prayer book and brother (tasiu) Tenseley, at Towia Household, Loh Island.
  • To record the life stories of middle-aged and elderly people with whom I had not yet had in-depth interviews, in order to round off my knowledge of the recent social history of the islands.Fred and Pita
left: Fred Vava and jif Pita Wotekwo
I had an additional fourth goal, which was to try to get back to Big Bay and continue to pursue my research in respect of the social history of this area of North Santo.
Matantas kinship
above: A surprisingly anthropological rendering, by the firstborn son of the Tavue family, of his father’s lineage; Matantas, Big Bay.
Incredibly, I managed to fulfill all of these goals, with the indispensable help of William Collins and Thomas Jimmy, fieldworkers for the VKS from Torres and South Santo, respectively. For the first time since writing up my PhD thesis I feel I have managed to obtain a really full picture about the history and life worlds (including, yes, cosmology, with all that the term implies) of the Torres people. In addition, the research that we carried out in Big Bay last week was absolutely perfect, especially with respect to the kinship systems and recent social history of the overall region, and has helped me to obtain enough data to write several different papers.
However, rather than engaging in academic hocus-pocus here, in the coming days I want to use this space in order to decant a number of personal reflections regarding fieldwork and current events in North Vanuatu. Stay tuned.

Tibet riots

Posted in Tibet on March 24, 2008 by salul

Without a doubt the most depressing news that I encountered upon leaving the Melanesian islands this week was to do with the recent riots in Tibet. I do not want to burden this blog by adding a long personal opinion to the huge number of comments and analyses that have been cropping up for the past week in respect of this issue. Suffice it to say that, on the whole, I concur with Patrick French regarding the overall negative effect that pro-Tibetan groups have had on the relationship of the CCP with Tibetans living in Tibet (and it is worthwhile remembering that the overwhelming majority of existing Tibetans happen to live within the current political boundaries of the PRC).While I would not go so far as folks such as Brendan O’Neill, who stretches the China-bashing argument just a bit much, I am afraid that I take a rather less than optimistic view of the possible outcome of the current crisis. Certainly I am as surprised as some very well-informed analysts about the organizational skills demonstrated by Lhasa-based monks at the outset, as well as the eventual fearlessness that many Tibetans demonstrated in making public their frustration with the regime.But in the end I hold to the same conclusion that I came to when I came to at the end of my first 9 months’ in the TAR; namely that China is not a democracy and will not react to the sort of pressure that Western activists and governments are used to, that there is currently no realistic way of leveraging any demand for Tibetan independence and that, ultimately, it would take a non-Tibet related nation-wide collapse of the very system of governance of the PRC in order for the Tibetan nation to seriously contemplate the possibility of total independence.All this, however, is a moot point when one considers another frequently overlooked but critical fact, which is that we rarely ever look beyond the revindications of the diaspora in order to listen to and understand just what it is that ordinary Tibetans in Tibet have to say about their livelihoods and their aspirations.

Back from latest fieldwork in Melanesia

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on March 24, 2008 by salul

With apologies. I have been away for a couple of months and have neglected my endless blogging promises for far too long. The original trigger to abandon my office was the opportunity to present a couple of papers at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the ASAO in Canberra. That turned out to be a very productive and stimulating event. However, my excursus quickly morphed into a perfect excuse to carry out a bit of ethnographic fieldwork in the Torres Islands and Santo, Vanuatu.

Loh Island panoramic (Feb 08)

 That is where I have been for the past couple of months. And what a stint of fieldwork it was! Full of extraordinary insights and novelties, in addition to a Torres homecoming that was moving beyond description. Even after nine years of return visits and follow-up discussions with my Torres friends, there are always new layers of meaning and complexity to reflect upon. It can never really be otherwise, as any good ethnographer would have to admit.

But for once I feel that I have managed to round off all of the basic information regarding the kinship system, ecological and agricultural cycle and, most importantly, the cosmology and ritual of the islands to the point where I will confidently be able to write about them at length in my long-delayed book. This alone has made this trip worthwhile beyond measure. But there was more to it, including the renewal and extension of a new field project across Big Bay and the North Santo region, as well as a re-encounter with my Malakulan friends from Atchin, which led to a hurried planning session to go back to Malakula and check up on the intended and unintended impact that has resulted from the academic re-introduction of ancestral information by way of a recent project coordinated by my friend and colleague, Haidy Geismar, of NYU, with Anita Herle (Cambridge) and Numa Fred (VKS Fieldworker, Uripiv, Malakula).

Today and in the following days I hope to gradually expound 0n all of these themes, so as to not leave any remaining readers of this blog in the dark. Meantime, enjoy a few pics. 

Approaching Loh


  Approaching Loh Island. Notice the two white sand beaches. Lunharigi village is located just behind the larger of the two. Note also the narrow mangrove lagoon separating Loh from the small island of Linua, where the airstrip is located.            TitusBelow: Titus Joel, a brilliant, energetic and extremely bright man and the most experienced fieldworker of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in the Torres Islands.



dawn lightLunharigi at dawn


Lunharigi and Kwurengretakwe villages in early morning light. 




Lengwe mi salul



Lengwe mi salul. My house in Lunharigi village. It may not seem like much, but the roofing is 100% natangora. That is high-quality thatch, and its manufacture implies many hours and days of communal work by many people. It is, in fact, the basic element that gives makes a house a house. Perhaps the best example of the structural firmness of the roofing is the fact that it experienced minimum damage from cyclone Fune this past January (the walling, admittedly, is a bit crap, because it was originally put up in a rush…but that only gave us a good excuse to get to work on it and upgrade it during this last visit).

John Hawelikwe

This is John Hawelikwe, a dear friend and one of the founders of the hamlet of Likwal, which is located on the north shore of Toga. John is an extraordinary individual, having become the first businessman in the Torres Islands in order to prove that it could be done. This was in the early 1990s. He continues to be the most successful and respected merchant in the Torres group. Indeed, perhaps the only businessman who could be explicitly identified as such. During this last visit I was finally able to take down his life’s story in great detail, and am enormously grateful for the insights that he has given me regarding the history of this small place throughout the twentieth century.

I hope to do them justice – his and all of the other biographies that I have recorded through the years – in the coming months and years.