Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Wed Jun 7 15:46:26 MDT 2000

Editorial in the latest issue of the 'NZ Listener' (June 10-16 issue).

Castaway island
By Finlay Macdonald, Editor

At this distance it's hard to say who the Fijians will have been most
bemused by, Don McKinnon or Tame Iti. The former, whose previous
attempts at addressing foreign crises include stating that East Timor
should be kept at the "margins" of the 1999 Auckland Apec conference,
now wears his Commonwealth Secretary-General's busby and puffs on
about not tolerating the violent overthrow of democratic governments.
The latter, on the other hand, appears to have some sympathy for
George Speight's actions and has also headed for Suva, no doubt
packing a tino rangatiratanga flag just in case. Both represent
modern responses to the legacy of colonial rule in this part of the
world, and both are entirely orthodox in their own way.

Iti stands at the activist end of Maori nationalism, whose other
spokespeople have also lent moral support for Speight. Ngapuhi's
Kingi Taurua, for instance, has been quoted as saying that not all
New Zealanders are against the coup; "We support any indigenous
people who are fighting for their independence." Lawyer Moana Jackson
and Act MP Donna Awatere-Huata have both offered justifications based
on perceived shortcomings in the (now-scrapped) Fijian constitution.
Others have made the typically mealy-mouthed observation that,
although they did not condone the use of armed force, they could
understand the reasons behind it (oh really?).

All of this sounds exactly like the response by some Maori in 1987 to
Rabuka's military coups. The rights of indigenous people to self-
determination and freedom from colonial bondage - hard to argue with
at a moral level - were taken to be emblemised by the Fijian actions.
Even when an Indo-Fijian academic was kidnapped and tortured by
soldiers in 1990 and, with six others, charged with sedition and
unlawful assembly (following a peaceful prayer meeting at which a
copy of the racially discriminatory republican constitution was
symbolically burnt, the action which incited the kidnapping), there
were those in this country willing to side with the Fijian regime.

The words of the academic, Dr Anirudh Singh, are instructive: "This
is how the regime always deals with any public criticism or
opposition. It claims that indigenous culture and tradition are under
threat ... or the chiefs are being insulted ... or their land is
being taken away. The mischief-makers provoke hostile and racist
feelings." Ring any bells?

The very notion that the indigenous Fijian situation - a majority
already protected by law against the real or imagined economic and
political ambitions of an Indian minority, the descendants of
indentured labourers imported under the Raj by the colonial
administration around the turn of the century - can be compared to
that of New Zealand Maori, a minority in a population dominated by
the descendants of white colonists, is completely absurd and an
insult to everyone who has ever cared about or fought for human
rights. One racism is not better than another.

However, there are perhaps better parallels to be drawn, as Maori law
lecturer Caren Wickliffe argued on National Radio's Mana News
recently. It is entirely possible, she suggests, that Indo-Fijians
are unfortunate bystanders in a power struggle caused by massive
changes in the indigenous population - urbanisation, an emerging
Westernised, educated business and political elite, eroding respect
for traditional rule (some forms of which were colonially imposed,
anyway). In that sense, the similarities are with the urban Maori
movement and its battle with entrenched iwi-based authority, best
illustrated in the vexed Sealords case. There is, indeed, a rich
irony in Britain's threats to excommunicate Fiji from the remnants of
an empire that planted the seeds of the present unrest.

Anyone confused (and who isn't?) by the New Zealand experience should
therefore be wary of making simplistic assumptions about Fiji. Coups
are about power, and power these days is usually about nothing more
honourable or noble than money and influence-peddling. In a country
where the army still abides by its oath of allegiance, television
stations are not ransacked for broadcasting unpalatable opinions and
policemen are not shot in the back by armed mobs, it is unlovely to
see the likes of George Speight admired or even tolerated by anyone.

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