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'Operation restore public hope': youth and the magic of modernity in Vanuatu.


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). Since Independence selected kastomary practices along with Christianity, have been pivotal in creating a national identity among the dispersed and culturally diverse Islanders (Trnka, this collection). In Vanuatu, articulations of kastom and social categories such as youth have been informed by those colonial encounters and are now shaped by postcolonial contingencies and processes of global capitalism. Kastom in Bislama, the lingua franca, refers to the hybrid set of discourses and practices that encompass the cultural knowledge, sociality, and social processes that are unique to ni-Vanuatu. Kastom 'evokes not so much the totality of ancestral practices as a particular selection of such practices for the present' (Jolly 1996:176). Kastomary practices, often glossed as custom or tradition, were discouraged, disparaged if not outlawed during colonialism but they were also crafted through those colonial processes and have an excess of meanings and epistemological entanglements (Comaroff and Comaroff 1993; Thomas 1994).

I became aware of both police violence and the resurgence of interest in sorcery while working with a group of young people from Blacksands, one of the newer urban settlement areas, during my fieldwork in Port Vila between 1996 and 1999 and during four subsequent research visits (Rio, this collection). In my research I found many young people to be critical of the frequent changes of government, allegations of financial mismanagement, and the lack of educational and employment opportunities available to them. These failures of the state, according to some young people, are compounded by the use of police force that is directed at those living in settlements. Young people are important new actors and urban settlements are important new features of the postcolonial Vanuatu which is characterized by a deepening engagement in global economic processes including off-shore banking, tourism, real estate development, donor aid and economic restructuring (Rawlings 1999). The youth who are problematized and the urban settlements that are increasingly pathologized signify the 'indeterminate character of margins' (Das and Poole 2004:4) where the political and disciplinary practices that constitute the state are worked and reworked. The first-ever State of Emergency was a pivotal event which raises questions about the extent to which Melanesian States such as Vanuatu are 'implicated in the reproduction of violence' (Dinnen 2000:8). A discussion of youth and urban settlements is an essential starting point to understanding how the everyday is caught up in the seemingly extraordinary events such as the riot and its violent reprisals.


Youth are increasingly identified with rapid shifts in postcolonial economies and societies and as a critical factor in understanding the changes, conflicts and cleavages in many parts of the world (Durham 2000), in Solomon Islands (Jourdan 1995), in Papua New Guinea (Gewertz and Errington 1996; Sykes 1999) and across the Pacific region (Herdt and Leavitt, 1998). The marginalization of young people has been characterized by their exclusion from the world of work and wage (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999) and their increasing alienation from gift economies (Sykes 1999). In Vanuatu, regional experiences are an important factor in shaping national discourses about youth. The specter of raskolism (Kulik 1993; Sykes 1999) from Papua New Guinea has permeated representations of youth as a potentially destabilizing force to be disciplined and subdued. Certainly youth as a social category is part of the project of modernity and generates multiple meanings. The subject positions of young people are not fixed as either victims or perpetrators of disorder but rather they may occupy various positions at different times as the riot and its aftermath suggest. While youth were often depicted as simply opportunistic in their contributions to the chaos of rioting and looting, their participation in and their views of the riot and its aftermath were far more complex. The violence experienced and perpetrated by youth was related to their everyday marginalization as much as it was to the singular experience of civic unrest evidenced in the riot. While this paper is concerned with young people who live in the urban settlement areas such as Blacksands and Ohlen, youth in Port Vila are heterogeneous. There are a number of key differences among them including their educational levels, islands of origin, family circumstances and their religious, gender and emergent class affiliations.

Life in a settlement on the margins of town and on the margins of the wage economy is a defining feature of many young lives. Since independence in 1980, Port Vila has become home to increasing numbers of ni-Vanuatu. Migration to town is complex but it is most often framed in terms of finding work. In Vanuatu, recent and rapid urbanization, as in many parts of Oceania, has resulted in urban settlements that are often overcrowded and without access to basic services (Goddard 2005). While settlements are generally believed to be transitory and temporary, research that I conducted with young people in Port Vila under the auspices of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (1998) found that many young people were born in town and are growing up in crowded settlements. People in the settlement where I lived struggled to pay for their rented rooms and food, as well as for school fees for their children. Unemployment is a widespread problem in town. Access to gardens has offset some of the ill-effects of unemployment as gardens supply household food and augment income. However, the increasing difficulties of obtaining permission from the traditional landowners, real-estate developments, and the rapid growth of Port Vila are all contributing to reduced access to gardens. The intense commodification of land around Port Vila, which was previously used for subsistence and inexpensive housing, is an important new development. The growing and visible disparities between low-income settlement areas and the wealthier areas of Port Vila add to the volatility of the urban situation (Rio, this collection).

Urban settlements in Port Vila are becoming pathologized as sources and sites of youth transgression and crime in everyday discourse, documents and media. These discourses are informed by a colonial logic that discouraged Islanders' migration to town and the longstanding idea that urban settlements are an anathema to the modern nation. Such views conceal the changing social formations within Vanuatu where the population has rapidly increased. The population which currently stands at 243,000 (2) has almost doubled since Independence in 1980 (Bazeley and Mullen 2006). The absorption of this dramatic increase in population in rural areas is usually attributed to the 'natural' capacity of the 'non-monetarized traditional' sector. This depiction downplays the social and political dimensions of this complex process and how relationships between the town and villages and state and its citizens are being reconstituted.

When I first conducted research in the large settlement of Blacksands, many young people referred to themselves as Sperem Pablik Rod (SPR), which literally means 'hitting the road." This drew criticism from various fronts including kastomary leaders and church authorities (Mitchell 2004). SPR had a surplus of meanings about joblessness and not having money in town where desire for consumption is ignited in new and different ways. On my last research trip in 2008 young people used the trope waet pej (white page) to describe their lives by ironically referring to the empty pages of their non-existent agendas or appointment books.

Waet pej speaks to their unemployment and even more directly speaks to the changing economic, bureaucratic and temporal aspects of everyday life in a globalizing Port Vila. Never have so many young people been exposed to formal schooling and groomed for jobs that do not seem to exist (Lattas, Rio, this collection). Young people with whom I talked were preoccupied with their failure to find wage work. Those who did work were often dissatisfied with their jobs in the service industry and trade stores, expressing concern over their low wages and poor working conditions. As the service economy expanded in Port Vila, young women seemed to be better suited than young men for the new service jobs that were generated. Exclusion from the world of wage and consumption has shaped the political and social consciousness of young people and informed their participation in the protests and the riots connected to the VNPF.


Kastom is a vibrant, contested and imaginative part of the lives of many of the young people in the urban settlement in which I conducted research. The settlement which was predominantly Tannese was however comprised of many new migrants and long-term residents as well as youth who restlessly circulate between the villages of the archipelago and Port Vila. Kastom broadly defined to include everyday practices connected to food, gender, comportment, and rituals is important. In my work with young people through the Vanuatu Young People's Project (1998) and in subsequent research undertaken by the Project (2008) young people were asked whether or not they had participated in some kind of kastom activity in town. Over sixty percent of the 1000 young people interviewed had experienced some kind of kastom ceremony. The types of kastom in which young people participated were varied but they all served to locate young people in webs of meaningful relationships and to connect them to gift economies. Young people's attitudes to kastomary practices are also tempered by their religious affiliations. Many of the newer Pentecostal churches and some of the more established churches, such as Seventh Day Adventists, actively discourage the practices of kastom among young people. Such churches have attracted large numbers of young people who, following the directives of their church, associate kastom and all activities related to magic and sorcery with the pre-Christian past or the taem blong daknes (time of darkness).

Kastom is also perceived differently by young men and women; young women generally believed that kastomary chiefs strongly favoured young men and that young women often face unfair treatment at local levels (Cummings 2005). In contrast, many young men whom I met in the urban settlement welcomed the involvement of kastomary leaders in their lives in town to mediate their conflicts with the law and with the police. Youth, unlike many young women, felt they would be more fairly treated by chiefs than by police and the judicial system. They described the kastomary process of being disciplined for transgressions as one of 'straightening." Johnston, a young man living in an urban settlement, believed that intervention by the kastomary chiefs allows young people to realign themselves with their kastom values and practices. For him the value of knowing kastom was as follows: 'When you learn kastom, you walk straight and when you come to town there is no trouble because you know your kastom. If you do something wrong you know it's wrong.' Many young people felt that, in contrast to the capacity of kastom to remind youth of important social values, the police exacerbated the worst tendencies of young people and exposed them to forms of violence and humiliation that were deeply harmful and destructive. Jonah and other young men also explained 'the police keep accounts' that cannot be erased while kastomary mediation of wrong doing allows forgetting on all sides once retribution is made. As Jonah told me 'the existence of police and court records means that such transgressions are never fully settled and those records may prevent young people from getting on in life'. Most of the crimes which young people commit are related to property in a town where the differences are deepening between life in the settlements and life in the better parts of town. Some young men and women living in the settlements come into contact with the police when they are accused of stealing and often become targets of police violence. Young people such as Sam, who lived in Blacksands and with whom I regularly talked, believed that if you are a 'nobody' you get beaten up by the police (Reed, Rio, this collection). Sam's observation alerts us to the ways in which marginality is constituted and enforced.

While youth criticize the police and VMF, they are seemingly fascinated by the icons of police and military power. They copy and appropriate it by wearing army fatigues, army boots and watching action videos featuring military motifs. Jolly has argued the fascination with the military may be related to the lingering effects of the Second World War and the American military presence which surfaces in dispersed sites such as masculinity and military forms (2000:317). Young men whom I met in the settlement draw on a range of local and global cultural resources to fashion hybridized urban identities. Their preoccupation with the icons of power, kastomary practices and technologies of magic all shaped the responses of young men in the urban settlement to 'Operation Restore Public Hope.'


In December 1997, the Office of the Ombudsman issued a lengthy report detailing irregularities in the management of the Vanuatu National Provident Fund (VNPF). The report immediately generated outrage throughout Port Vila; anger surfaced and was sustained in the settlement of Blacksands. The crux of the issue was that Prime Minster Korman's Government officials had directed the management of VNPF to make the funds available for housing loans to a select group of people. This loan opportunity was not made known or available to 'ordinary' members. When the report revealed the existence of the housing loans, members of the VNPF also demanded loans for housing or the return of their money. Meetings were held in town and in the settlements to discuss the government's alleged misuse of the 'people's' money as outrage swept across a wide range of citizens including unemployed youth in the settlement. The funds which were misused were not from Aid Donors or foreign investors but rather represented the hard-won savings of ni-Vanuatu workers. Outrage was also intensified because the disclosures about VNPF occurred at a time when the government was frequently changing and allegations of financial misconduct among government officials were rife. Concern about corruption represents more than an attitude to the state as Larmour (1998:81) argued. 'It also involves a wider rejection of economic inequality, suspicion of trading minorities, anger at failures to distribute wealth, and a Christian sense of moral decline'.

The publication and widespread circulation of the damning one hundred-page document was a crucial point. This document generated feelings that cut across the emergent class , differences and the various sites of difference including religion, island, region, language, gender and generation. The importance attached to this document also signified the post independence generation's increasing levels of literacy and people's rising expectations of Government accountability. The subject of work, as discussed, is fraught for this young generation and their outrage with the Government's cavalier approach to workers' funds must be understood within this wider context of their concern about the future. The written report 'had to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come' (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:5). The reaction to the report suggests that while legibility became an important consideration it did not preclude the virtual possibilities such as those summoned by some youth through technologies of magic, as we shall see below. These juxtapositions inform the nature of modernity in Vanuatu

On the morning of January 12, 1998 a crowd started to collect in front of the VNPF office protesting and demanding that the workers' money be returned. After a number of hours of waiting for officials to respond a stone flew through the air and crashed into the expensive plate-glass windows of the bright modern building. A moment of stunned silence was followed by a volley of stones that shattered the glass. The long peaceful protest had ended; the riot had erupted. The 20 police officers who were present shot tear gas into the crowd but they were quickly rendered ineffectual and several of the police sustained minor injuries. The crowd grew quickly and violence spread to other areas of town, to the businesses and private homes of those people linked, in the Ombudsman's report, to the VNPF misuse. Calm returned to Port Vila on January 13, 1998 with the Government's announcement that it would meet the demands of the protestors. Many stores and restaurants remained closed due to fear as some looting had taken place. President Leye at the request of the Government declared the first-ever state of emergency in Port Vila. Though intended to last two weeks it was extended for an additional two weeks and to the northern town of Luganville (Santo). The Government and the Police Commissioner also entreated the kastomary leaders and chief representatives in Port Vila to help them restore order. These leaders were instrumental in ending the rioting and looting.

For several days, the settlement where I lived as well as others in Port Vila became temporarily stocked with stolen goods ranging from cement mixers to blue jeans. For a short time there was a carnivalesque ambience and an abundance of commodities in the settlement. Some young people left in the morning with empty bags and came back later with their bags brimming with consumables which were beyond the reach of most households. All of this ended quickly. The chiefs and chief representatives were not only central to the cessation of looting, but they also played a key role in having the stolen goods returned. A significant cache of stolen goods was recovered and returned and a large number of people turned themselves into the police at the urging of local chiefs and elders. The Commissioner of Police publically conceded the effectiveness of the kastomary leaders' actions saying that their involvement 'proved that the traditional way of maintaining our society is still very much alive' (Bong 1998; Rio, this collection). Dinnen and McLeod's (2009) recent analysis of policing in Melanesia makes the important argument that there is a large spectrum of policing and justice providers in Melanesia and any effective reconfiguration of justice or policing must take into account the diversity and efficacy of various state and non-state actors (Lattas and Rio, this collection).


Calm had been returned to the capital, rioting and looting had been ended, stolen property had been recovered and respect for kastomary leaders had been demonstrated. It was, then, surprising that the Minster of Justice on the January 16, 1998 announced the launching of 'Operation Restore Public Hope' on national radio. It was to target those who took part in the rioting and looting. The Joint Planning and Operations Centre of the Vanuatu Mobile Forces instructed senior prison officers to prepare for a large number of extra prisoners over the following two weeks. Yet another list was compiled this time naming some 500 people who had been allegedly involved with the rioting and looting. They were to be arrested without warrants and taken to police stations and to the Vanuatu Mobile Force barracks for questioning on charges of looting, unlawful assembly, receiving stolen goods and criminal damage to property. The circulation of this list, according to Amnesty International, contributed to the abuse of the extended powers granted to police and VMF during the Emergency (1998).

The police and the Vanuatu Mobile Force conducted early morning raids in a number of settlements as noted at the outset of this paper. In Blacksands they apprehended a large number of young men and took them to the police station where many of them were beaten during questioning. The raid was a chilling and terrifying event particularly because it was so unexpected, violent and unnecessary. The deliberate staging of the raid at dawn, the blackened faces of the police and VMF officers and their pointed guns were tactics designed to terrorize (Lattas, Reed, Rio, this collection). According to the police, about 500 people were apprehended for questioning during the 'operation' which continued until the end of January. Police estimated that several hundred people were held in Port Vila Central Prison around the weekend of January 24-25, 1998. However, police officials also conceded that the majority of detainees had voluntarily turned themselves in and that most were first-time offenders (Amnesty Report 1998:5). This again confirms the authority of kastomary and other community leaders and underscores that an intervention such as 'Operation Restore Public Hope' was unnecessary. This operation was, however, essential for the state to reterritorialize public space through structural violence and to signify its claims to define the parameters of center and margin as well as lawful citizenship. Deleuze and Guattari have argued that in analyzing the particular character of state violence it becomes important to distinguish between regimes of violence and specifically between those that are illegal and those that are lawful.

They argue that crime is different from state violence because:

It is a violence of illegality that consists in taking possession of something to which one has no 'right," in capturing something one does not have a 'right' to capture. But State policing or lawful violence is something else again, because it consists in capturing while simultaneously constituting a fight to capture. It is an incorporated, structural violence distinct from every kind of direct violence defined by a 'monopoly of violence," but this definition leads back to another definition that describes the State as a 'state of Law ..." State overcoding is precisely this structural violence that defines the law, 'police' violence ... (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 494-495).

While there is no denying the violence of rioting and looting it is important to differentiate it from the structural violence of the state intent on recapturing public ritual, law and hope while constituting their fight to do so.


Vanuatu is often described as a 'weak' nation with an underdeveloped political infrastructure and nationalism where island identity trumps nationalism and local loyalties signify the fragility of the nation state. Larmour has, however, argued that nationalism had been a feature of the struggle for Independence in Vanuatu when the Vanua'aku Pati pursued 'a classic nationalist campaign of mass mobilisation, provisional governments, and appeal to the UN' (1998: 89). Jourdan has argued that in the newly independent countries of Oceania the states are developing and stabilizing themselves through an ideology of nationalism that is crafted in various ways (2004:105). The recuperation of kastom has also been of central importance in building nationalism and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, through its well-established field workers' program, has also been instrumental in forging a national identity though an appreciation of the specificity of kastom throughout Vanuatu (Bolton 1999).

Prior to independence, Vanuatu was governed through a unique arrangement known as the Condominium replete with two colonial administrations, two police forces and three codes of law--British, French and Native (Rodman 1993a: 57). There are various assessments of the extent and nature of colonial penetration in Vanuatu. Premdas has argued, for example, that the modern European state was superimposed like a scaffold on the indigenous system and the state was 'the instrument of imperial domination' (1985: 147). In contrast, W. Rodman, who lived in Ambae, Vanuatu before Independence, saw little such evidence arguing that the authority of the dual administrations could be easily ignored or resisted by the villagers (Rodman 1993a: 58). While the colonial state apparatus may not have been visible or intrusive everywhere it is important to underline that the colonial regimes of state, plantation labour, churches and school fashioned subjectivities in particular and lasting ways (Dinnen 2000; Jolly 2000; Mitchell 2000; Widmer 2008).

Douglas has argued that from the vantage point of the islands in Vanuatu, the contemporary state 'is present mainly as an aggravation and an absence' (Douglas 1998:11) and it is widely seen to be divisive and corrupt. However, the contention that nationalism is weak and island identity paramount does not apply to members of the younger generation, particularly those growing up in urban settlements and those youth who migrate between towns and villages. They, as Jourdan has argued, are forging a new sense of national identity (2004). Ironically this nationalist identity is being achieved, in part, through an ongoing critique of the state and its failures. Urban settlements, which are comprised of many different island groups, are now important sites for the construction of a national identity among young people. A consideration of the agency of youth suggests that while young people are affected by social change, they are also initiating social change with their own acts of cultural critique and cultural production (Bucholtz 2002).

In Vanuatu the category of youth is encompassed by discourses on tradition and generation and framed in terms of kastom and modernity. Kastom as noted provides a way to talk about a range of important subjects including culture, differences, personhood, politics and the past and present at both local and global levels. Definitions and evaluations of kastom 'are constantly debated' (Lindstrom 1997: 397), through discussions of youth and contemporary civic society that are often infused by nostalgia which dwells on the loss of kastom and the decline in inter-generational authority. In Vanuatu, urban space is conflated with modernity, disruption and wanton youth while the village is depicted as a place of kastom, stability and respected elders. Gable argues that our current preoccupation with youth reflects the way 'modernity is habitually theorized as a generational politics' (2000: 201) wherein youth are equated with modernity and disruption while elders are emblematic of tradition and stability. The experience of postcolonial Vanuatu suggests that there is collusion as well as conflict between generations and that modernity and nation-building are fraught for both the young and old.

Youth occupy an ambivalent space at the national level. They are considered simultaneously to be easily exploitable resources and yet they are also essential to the survival of a nation and deserving of care. Youth embody a nation's current stability as well as its future potential (Sharp 2003) and are frequently represented as a key indicator of the state of the nation itself (Griffin 2001). Youth who are largely represented as incapable of social and political consciousness, are inevitably described either as the most vulnerable victims of structural violence or as misguided hooligans who are complicit in their own marginalization (Sharp 2003). Among the young people whom I knew, the perceived failure of the state to deliver services, its use of force and its corruption were seen as a moral failure to follow the ethos of redistribution. Gulbrandsen's (2003), ethnographic work in southern Africa also connects critique of the state to the use of sorcery. He writes that discourses of the occult are embedded in the uncertainties of the everyday nature of urban life but extend beyond the material to the moral including the legitimacy of political leadership in the modern state (Gulbrandsen 2003; Rio, this collection). Rio (2003) too raises the moral issues embedded in changing social formations arguing that while sorcery is increasingly regarded as destructive it does serve to re-inscribe the ethos of redistribution and thus, counters the discourses of personal rights and possessive individualism that accompany the commodification of local economies and relationships.

Sorcery may serve as an idiom to address local power and privilege in 'weak' postcolonial states (Rodman 1993). Rodman linked the sorcery accusations made against high-ranking chiefs in Ambae to an unforeseen consequence of national and local leaders' attempts to promote kastom as a unifying ideology. Such sorcery accusations were used to counter the authority of chiefs in the island of Ambae following independence. According to Rodman, 'sorcery accusations are a leveling discourse, a protest on the part of women, the young and the powerless against the persistence of old forms of inequality in a new era of postcolonial politics' (1993:217). Decades after independence young people, whom I knew in settlements around town were concerned about the more pervasive power of the state as exercised by police and the perceived decline in the power of their kastomary leaders. Some young people believed that they had to use sorcery techniques to protect themselves from the excesses of the police in the settlements where they lived. Police violence was perceived to be a transgression of kastom and a demonstration of the limitations of the state and its claims on ni-Vanuatu. When suspects were interrogated they were forced to give the names of anyone they knew who had also been present at the riots. The friends who were named were subsequently arrested. Such state actions serve to fracture the sociality that is embedded in kastomary practices.

'Operation Restore Public Hope' demonstrated how ideas and practices connected to public space, law and ritual may be deployed in shaping the relationship between society and state (Larmour 1998). Linking terror and violent retribution to public hope suggests that the state was, in Deleuze and Guattari's terms, attempting to capture public space, law and ritual and hope. The state attempt at capture depends both on recognition and misrecognitions echoed in Dick Y's testimony who, after being arrested and brutally beaten at police headquarters reported: 'I said please stop, please stop ...! I'm not a stranger, I'm ni-Vanuatu!" (Amnesty International 1998:8). State violence forced Dick to affirm his citizenship in the face of unexpected state violence reminding us that the 'nation as an imaginative construct constitutes persons as legitimate subjects' (Foster 1997:5). Wittersheim has argued that contests over citizenship are the principal source of legitimacy in the postcolonial Oceanic states (1998:7). State violence constitutes citizenship because lawful violence is naturalized and rests on the claim that such violence is only directed against criminals in order to restore public peace. Dick is criminalized and his status as citizen becomes fragile. 'Lawful violence' exists 'wherever violence contributes to the creation of that which it is used against' (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 494-495). Dick's feelings of estrangement and marginality are integral to 'state overcoding' and the constitution of legitimacy and marginality.

Several dozen people released from custody had sought medical treatment for injuries allegedly inflicted by the police or VMF officers (Amnesty Report 1998: 6). The Commissioner of Police, under pressure, ordered an internal police inquiry and Amnesty International conducted an investigation of police actions mounted in the aftermath of the VNPF riots. As a result of the investigations the acting public prosecutor brought charges of intentional assault against eighteen VMF and police officers, two of whom held senior ranks (McLeod and Morgan 2007). The Police Commissioner, according to Amnesty International, 'decided against his initial intention to suspend officers from active duty partly because, at the time, some 50 officers were already suspended over the reported illegal detention of Vanuatu's President and senior VMF officers in 1996" (1998:9). The Commissioner's statement indicates that the VMF was already playing a significant role in shaping the state of Vanuatu. Rio's article in this volume explores the connections between state and sorcery as well as providing insights into the changing nature of the state in postcolonial Vanuatu.


Alix, a young man from the settlement of Blacksands, told me about the way he experienced 'Operation Restore Public Hope' in the settlement during that Sunday morning pre-dawn raid. He, in fact, had confounded the VMF taking part in the raid and thwarted their efforts to capture him. Alix did so by using a sorcery practice, kastom blong kilem tingting which he explained has the power to 'kill or strike down someone's thinking, to quiet anger and to divert plans' (Lattas, this collection). Alix explained what happened to him on the morning of the raid:
 When they came in the early morning they put guns to our heads.
 When the police were arresting us--when I heard they were coming--I
 took seven young men to the nakamal ... I made a kastom ceremony
 (magic) for downing or killing the thinking of the police when they
 were walking around (the settlement). It worked--every young man
 (of the seven) the police took, didn't get a fine. There was not
 one man who swam in his own blood. You don't have one who has been
 fined until today. Kastom is strong. You don't have one who was
 injured. I took part in the riot--my name was on their list. After
 I hurried to make the kastom, the next day my name was no longer

The kastom practice was successful on a number of fronts--there were no beatings, no fines and no record. His name was also erased from the police list of suspects. The practice had protected the bodies of the young men. Lattas has noted the link between the body and sorcery practices arguing, 'the body provides another arena for re-enacting conflicts which are often rooted in the new political, economic, social and cultural division which Europeans and their institutions bring. Those new conflicts are played out as a struggle between life and death, and as a struggle to maintain one's corporeal integrity and identity' (1993:70). The need for protection was evident in the case of Gregoire from the settlement of Blacksands who shortly after seven a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, 28 January, 1998, was found in a semi- consciousness state at the main Port Vila Central Hospital. He had been arrested at work on Monday 26, January 1998 and apparently left at the hospital by VMF or police officers. When found Gregoire had developed shock symptoms from 'massive' internal bleeding: his injuries were consistent with being kicked hard with heavy boots (Amnesty International 1998:7; see also Lattas, Reed, Rio, this collection). The Amnesty International report further noted:
 Police internal investigations confirmed allegations that some
 prisoners taken to the police headquarters for questioning were led
 one by one into a small room in which officers switched off the
 light, placed the prisoner inside a circle of officers, and then
 pushed, beat and kicked him, partly in retaliation for the attacks
 on police on the day of the riot, and partly in order to exhort
 statements and information (1998:6).

Alix who is from the island of Tanna but had grown up in town has often been unemployed. He is young and has become increasingly interested in kastomary practices and adapting those practices to meet the exigencies of contemporary life in the settlement. He often works as a healer. The openness of Tannese knowledge production allows powerless men to challenge the powerful (Lindstrom 1984, 1990). The Tannese theory of knowledge production is inspirationalist and people perceive knowing how to know as a process not so much of individual creativity but of mediation (Lindstrom 1984). Alix is a self-styled healer and leader among the young people in the settlement and it is not surprising that other young men accepted protection through his occult intervention. The sorcerer's importance as a healer is documented and, even in societies which draw clear distinctions between beneficent magic and harmful practices, the two roles may be in the hands of one person (Stephens 1987).

Jack, a young man from Blacksands, told me that there is a history in using kastom blong kilem tingting as a technique to confound the state (Lattas, this collection). On his island of Epi, he explained, those who had joined in the secessionist movement at the run-up to independence were not persecuted as other northern Islanders were. The secessionist movement in Santo advocated the return of alienated customary land, self-help government and the restoration of kastomary practices as a basis of law and government (Wiesbrot 1989).

Jack explained that after the rebellion the police failed to go to Epi because some people there had deployed the technique to make the state 'forget' to come and arrest the rebels. According to Jack, the deployment of this kastomary practice in Epi protected people from the brutal repression but also reinforced the capacity of islanders to act powerfully and defensively. This technique is, it seems, indispensable for creating spaces of reprieve in contested places and times. While this sorcery technique may offer protection it can also have adverse effects by destroying people's ambitions to achieve particular goals and in failing to bring injustices to light. Knut Rio's paper in this collection demonstrates the ambiguities of this particular kastomary practice when it is, for example, used to divert the coroner's thinking and to derail his judgments about the violent death of a prisoner and when it was used to make the community 'forget'.


Magic and sorcery are staples in anthropological literature and here I use both terms to denote practices influencing the course of events through occult means. Kapferer has recently defined sorcery as the 'imaginable formation of force and power that is to be expected in social circumstances that are disjunctive or in some sense discontinuous' (2003:14). Rio, in describing sorcery practices in Northern Vanuatu (North Ambrym), argues that sorcery 'manifests the human capacity for articulating the world in social terms' (2003: 133) and is integral to the formation and structuring of social and political relations. Sorcery is an important site for the exercise of agency and the linkages between sorcery and personal power in Melanesia have long been noted (Malinowski 1922; Patterson 1974-75; Stephens 1987; Zelenietz 1981). In Vanuatu, sorcery is often referred to as poison (posen) which flags it as a dangerous and destructive practice. However, magic and sorcery are also simply called kastom suggesting that they are part of a much wider set of cultural and social practices. There is magic and sorcery for just about everything in Vanuatu. As mentioned, these practices can be productive, protective or destructive. There is magic for making gardens, for making love, or for making someone sick. Poison (posen) is often used to explain illness and death--especially unexpected death (Patterson 1974-75) and I have elsewhere discussed the violence encoded in posen (Mitchell 2000). However, sorcery also has its more positive aspects evidenced in what I described above.

While earlier consigned to the realm of the exotic, the pre-modern and the traditional, sorcery practices in postcolonial states are now regarded as complex modern practices (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999, 1993; Englund 1996; Geschiere 1997; Kapferer 2003; Rio 2003, 2010). Sorcery does not imply a retreat to 'tradition' but is 'often a mode of producing new forms of consciousness of expressing discontent with modernity' (Comaroff and Comaroff 1993: xvi-xv). Sorcery provides a reading on how the global cultural and economic forces affect local relations (Geschiere 1997). Kapferer has noted that 'sorcery and magic possess internal dynamics that make them always already modern' (2003:20) and therefore offer insight into the workings of modernity. In postcolonial sites such as Vanuatu the hybridity of sorcery is due to colonial and globalizing processes where new meanings and practices are constantly being negotiated within the framework of older practices. Modernity and disenchantment are associated with colonial and postcolonial processes, the breakup of indigenous institutions, the penetration by markets and commodities, and changes in kinship or household based labour. However, recent analyses have suggested that the project of modernity is always multiple, plural and incomplete (Piot 1999) and it is from this perspective that the persistence of magic and sorcery can be understood (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999). The important task is to pay attention to the specific structures and processes through which diverse modernities are constructed and through which various kinds of magical and sorcery practices emerge (Kapferer 2003). Alix's use of protective magic which I described above suggests 'the dynamics of desire, the imaginary and fantasy' (Kapferer 2003: 9) that are integral to the social construction and force of magical forms.

The resurgence of interest in sorcery among young people in the urban settlements raises the importance of foregrounding the historicity of the discourses and practices related to sorcery. Tonkinson (1981) has traced the changing configuration of sorcery on the Island of Ambrym. Here it passed from legitimacy in the hands of the chief (where it was seen to be crucial to maintaining social order) to a status of illegitimacy when Christians painted sorcery as part of the darkness of what they called 'bad kastom' (Rio 2003, 2010; Rodman 1993). When sorcery was considered a legitimate force and was exercised by mainly influential men it was taught to apprentices in initiation rituals. Sorcery was part of the cultural knowledge that was transmitted to youth through initiation (Rio 2003:132) and changes including Christianity and education and a host of other factors have altered this transmission in many areas. As noted much sorcery practice derives its force from the fact that 'it fuses old practices onto the new, hybridises and is foreign and borrowed' (Kapferer 2003: 20). Migration to towns and the hybridity of urban settlements are intensifying such fusions in contemporary Vanuatu. However, colonialism spurred greater mobility of people and their sorcery objects and methods (Tonkinson 1981) which facilitated the circulation and commodification of sorcery techniques. At one time people believed that town offered an escape and haven from the sorcery of villages (Tonkinson 1981:5; Zelenietz 1981). Today sorcery has acquired new meanings and power from new urban contexts. Because sorcery is intertwined with discourses on power it may be a response to new inequalities and relations of domination that are more keenly felt in town where inequities are all too visible (Geschiere 1997: 9; Lattas 1993).

The particular technique Alix used (kastom blong kilem tingting) described above is nuanced, opening the possibility of reconciliation when anger cools. As such, it stands in stark contrast to the excesses of the police who at the behest of the state sought to punish and humiliate residents of the settlements. The excessive use of force in this particular raid was widely criticized, for the chiefs had already intervened on behalf of the state to bring an end to the rioting and looting. The chiefs had also facilitated the return of many of the stolen goods. In this context the police action was excessive and undermined the authority and integrity of the kastomary leaders. While the subject of sorcery is enmeshed in social, political and moral concerns, it is crucial to understand how the discourses and practices of the state itself are encoded in magical formulations (Taussig 1997). The state is emblematic of the modern quest to reorder the chaos of disparate groupings into a nation state. While the nation state may apparently be modern, the magical nature of national discourses and symbolic gestures has been noted by a number of authors (Comaroff and Comaroff 2007, 1993; Kapferer 2003; Rio 2010; Taussig 1997, 1993). The power of the modern state emanates 'from the magical force of hegemony forged through state constructions of nationalism, where populations achieve an immediate unity with objects that Frazer called sympathetic magic' (Kapferer 2003:17; Taussig 1997). In short, the representations of state power relations are themselves constituted out of the power to create symbolic and imaginary worlds. Such powers can be refracted and appropriated.


This paper has examined the confluence of police violence and the exercise of a nuanced sorcery technique by a group of young men in order to confound police authorities and to protect themselves from violence. Such an action was rooted in modernity and demonstrated the complex agency of young people who criticize not only the failings of the state but its use of force. The subject of the political consciousness of marginalized youth within the context of police violence calls for more complex readings of youth, the state and the project of modernity in Vanuatu. Youth and urban settlements occupy the shifting and indeterminate margins of the state. Those at the margins are subject to various kinds of violence including discursive violence evident in the ways in which youth in settlements are routinely pathologized and in the violence unleashed through police measures that causes bodily harm. Youth and urban settlements offer challenges to the state in postcolonial Vanuatu. Youth too exercise strategies of violence which are, as I argue, different from the structural violence of the state which has the power to constitute categories such as youth, marginality and criminality.

The explosion of civic outrage over the Ombudsman's report on government wrong-doing highlights the importance of new urban spaces and new regimes of violence. Dissatisfaction and the difficulty of everyday life also fueled anger over the mismanagement of the VNPF fund. Some young people living in settlements around Port Vila are challenging the meta- narratives of the state and the singular construct of modernity through their participation in public violence and its resolution and through their imaginative gestures such as their deployment of kastomary measures. Diverting the plans of the police through the use of kastom blong kilern tingting is one of many ways to be modern in Vanuatu. This strategy highlights the gaps in the state claims to define and to protect the public good and underlines the nature of police violence. It also suggests that some occult technologies such as the one used to confound police authorities may suture the body politic as well as rupture it (Rio, this collection).

The designation of the state of Vanuatu as 'weak' suggests that the current limitations of such a relatively new state reside in its failure to fully embrace modernity and nationalism. Such preoccupations serve to divert attention from what may be more pressing sites of conflict within the modern state. The depiction of Vanuatu as weak or failed undermines the hold of the colonial past and obscures the ways in which practices of the state are being reworked in the contemporary context of a growing, urbanizing young population, amidst local struggles and within geo-political and economic imperatives (Lattas and Rio, this collection). 'Operation Restore Public Hope' destabilized the idea of the personal, benign and benevolent nature of the state and revealed the range of contestations that characterize both everyday and extraordinary events. Kastomary leaders were instrumental in quelling the rioting and looting and in the recovery of the stolen property but their authority, efficacy and conciliatory gestures were overridden by excessive police force. The effective intervention of kastomary leaders did not displace but rather accentuated the need for the state capture of public space, law and ritual and 'public hope' through punitive measures.

'Operation Restore Public Hope' subjected many people to disciplinary and regulatory violence and while these post-riot measures may have been ostensibly aimed at rebuilding the nation state's 'public hope' they injured the bodies of its citizens and wounded the social body. Alix's claim 'kastom is strong," Dick's cries 'I am not a stranger, I'm ni-Vanuatu' and Gregoire's injured body dumped at the hospital gates challenge the state's claims of restoring public hope. So, too, do the artifacts of police violence such as the blackened faces of police authorities, and the darkened hallways of the interrogation rooms designed to forestall recognition of the agents of state violence. The various lists of names that circulated and the document that chronicled wrong-doing are also artifacts of the VNPF episode and its violent aftermath. Those documents demanded recognition and transparency. However, the opaque operations of retribution and the state's bid to capture 'public hope' suggest that contests over citizenship are waged on the margins which are as virtual as they are actual.


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Jean Mitchell

University of Prince Edward Island


(1.) The Commissioner of Police heads the police force of approximately 600 officers including 200 members of the Vanuatu Mobile Force, a paramilitary unit with responsibility for both internal and external security issues or dealing with situations requiring the use of force (U.S. Department of State2004:2). They have served in UN Peacekeeping missions in East Timor, Haiti, Sudan and Bosnia, in the Peace Monitoring Group and Transition Team in Bougainville, and in the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government, 2010:4).

(2.) This figure is taken from the 2009 National Household Survey, conducted by the Department of Statistics, Government of Vanuatu.
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