Behind the leis and smiles

Wednesday, April 17, 1991

Blood on Their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific
By David Robie
Pluto Press. 313 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by Robin Osborne

A group of villagers declaring their people's independence by raising a flag on a homemade pole has become more common in our region over the past 15 years. The West Papuans have done it, as have the East Timorese, Kanaks, Tahitians and, more recently, the Bougainvilleans.

Yet while such people appear to have every right to political autonomy, their flags have seldom been allowed to fly outside UN headquarters in New York. Worse, most of the movements have been outlawed and their supporters persecuted and killed. Hence the title of David Robie's book.

At the time that many of the events analysed so ably by Robie were occurring, it was common to read of the contrast between the Pacific's name and its most un-pacific state of affairs.

While current conditions in, for instance, Kanaky (French New Caledonia), West Papua (Indonesian Irian Jaya), East Timor and Fiji have changed little, or even worsened, the region now seems positively calm by comparison to the Arab-Persian Gulf and Eastern Europe.

For this reason, Robie's work is a timely reminder that all is not well in an area which both Australian bureaucrats and tourists like to regard as our "backyard". The dramatic events and accompanying headlines may have passed, but the injustices remain.

Kanaky did not revert to being a holiday paradise when the bodies of the assassinated Éloi Machoro, Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwene (to whom the book is dedicated) grew cold. Nor did the majority of Fijian citizens enjoy restored democracy when Qantas flights resumed.

David Robie is a New Zealand journalist whose work from the Pacific has won a strong following in both commercial and alternative media. As Fiji's deposed prime minister, the late Timoci Bavadra observed, "He has a well-deserved reputation for reporting the South Pacific from the viewpoint of its own people — as opposed to the colonial myth!"

Robie's framework is clear: "Nationalist aspirations now define the politics of the South Pacific. And where such nationalism has confronted existing colonial structures within the region, the resulting struggles have had profound and tragic consequences."

As he notes, the "ugly side of Oceania" involves genocide, assassination, guerilla warfare, a military takeover and an abortive constitutional coup. "Yet these have largely been ignored by the world's media."

The more so now that "grander" events far afield have captured editors' attention. No matter that the Pacific Ocean covers about a third of the Earth's surface and is the home of societies with rich and diverse cultures.

Robie charts the heightened struggle against foreign colonialism, resolved in some places, continuing in others, from the independence nglo-French condominium) in 1980 and places the policies of the region's three major colonial powers — the USA, France and Indonesia — under a critical microscope.

The inclusion of Indonesia shows not only the wide range of people with Pacific characteristics but that territorial hunger and repression are traits of non-Caucasians as well.

Robie's findings make for important, if cheerless, reading. If only they were included in tourist guidebooks of the Pacific, more people might understand the reality beyond the fragrant leis and welcoming smiles of islanders.

Perhaps the cruelest irony is that the event which seems to most trouble Robie, and which ends the book, is the Rabuka-led military coup in Fiji, a country already independent and not especially poor by world standards.

He feels that the death of Fijian democracy was a blow to many Pacific nationalists, jeopardising the struggle of liberation movements and encouraging the involvement of such undesirable players as the Indonesian, French and Israeli military (all of which helped Rabuka's regime after it took over), the CIA and countries like Taiwan and South Korea, which have "suppressed movements for democracy and justice".

With all this happening in Australia's "backyard", Canberra has been remarkably silent, despite the early regrets expressed about the Fijian coup.

As the book confirms, the Pacific's peoples have relatively few foreign friends. Fortunately, David Robie is one of them, and this effort has pulled together many historical strands.

As the bibliography shows, many books have examined specific countries, but none has encompassed such a spread. While the societies are disparate, their sufferings are remarkably similar.
Robin Osborne is the author of Indonesia's Secret War: The Guerilla Struggle in Irian Jaya.

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