Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading group Summary: October 12th, 2020

Article Discussed: Mitchell, J. (2011). ‘Operation Restore Public Hope’: youth and the magic of modernity in Vanuatu. Oceania81(1), 36-50.

Greg Watt

Mitchell (2011) investigates the dynamic relations between youth, kastomary leaders and the state in Port Vila, Vanuatu, through their perspectives during incidents leading up to, and precipitating in ‘Operation Restore Public Hope”. Outrage and anger concerning irregularities in lending practices by the Vanuatu National Provident Fund exploded into widespread rioting in January 1998, with extensive looting and violence. Actions undertaken by police and state authorities proved ineffectual, and calm was only restored through the instrumental efforts of kastomary leaders. However, despite many rioters handing themselves in, a combined police and VMF action was subsequently carried out. The dawn raid executed in paramilitary fashion, involving blitzkrieg actions, beatings of detainees, and culminated in the apprehension of around 500 people.  

Mitchell (2011) maintains that the event illuminated significant social tensions, where traditional space is contested with urbanised modernity. Two aspects are prominent; firstly, the contesting strategies of kastom leaders and state authorities to define and maintain social order, and, secondly, the contested nature of everyday life in urban situations. In the former, the manifested authority of kastom leaders exposed the impotence of the state, which responded forcibly to “recapture public ritual, law and hope while constituting their right to do so” (Mitchell, 2011). The latter aspect concerns the interaction of customary practices with newer interpretations and the creation of novel social norms. Their juxtaposition is made more significant because of generational perspectives, where “young people are important new actors, and urban settlements are important new features of the postcolonial Vanuatu which is characterised by a deepening engagement in global processes” (Mitchell, 2011). Powerless to counter the force of police and VMF, young detainees resorted to the invocation of traditional sorcery to counter what they perceived as unfounded and unfair actions of modern authority. In the end, it is ironic that the actions of state precipitated an entirely contrasting outcome to their purpose and did little to bring modernity to Vanuatu. Instead, the measures resulted in young ni-Vanuatu mediating newer social norms with traditional kastom.  


  • gregwatttraveller

    Greg Watt is an advocate for authenticity in tourism and travel. Greg has previously lived in Papua New Guinea, has had an involvement with tourism in Vanuatu for the past thirteen years and presently has a close association with a community-based tourism project on Tanna Island (seven years). Greg is a doctoral candidate at Auckland University of Technology, and his Master’s thesis was titled “A Pro-Poor Tourism Case Study: Efate Island, Vanuatu” which looks at ways that poor Ni-Vanuatu can benefit through tourism. For a more detailed look at Greg’s involvement within development and tourism have a look at his blog articles which can be found at https://watt.nz.

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