Freedom for Tahiti!


The militant response by the people of Papeete to the French government's first nuclear detonation in its current round of tests has forcefully refocussed attention on the key role that the Tahitian people, led by that country's independence movement, are playing in the struggle to eliminate French nuclear weapons from the Pacific once and for all. Green Left Weekly's NORM DIXON spoke to TEA HIRSHON, who works for Papeete's pro-independence radio station Te Reo o Tefana and is a spokesperson for Tahiti's main independence party, Tavini Huiraatira. Her message was blunt: French nuclear tests are possible only because France continues to control colonies in the Pacific, most importantly Tahiti. She called on the anti-nuclear movement to support the Tahitian people's demands for independence. Speaking just hours after France's first test, Tea Hirshon said that most Tahitians were in a state of shock and feeling very frustrated — a frustration that just 24 hours later exploded into the prolonged rebellion centred on Papeete's international airport.
"We are stunned. I cried and I know many other people cried because after all the actions that we have taken these past weeks, plus all the years that we've been fighting against nuclear testing, we had a little bit of hope that Chirac would defer his decision.
"What do they want? Do they want more radical action? What do we have to do so that they will stop?", Hirshon asked. She told Green Left Weekly that callers to Te Reo o Tefana had flooded the switchboard demanding militant action.
"I have been listening to the radio station since the test was announced. People have been calling non-stop to give their impressions. People are furious, people are wanting to go do something: to march in town, maybe kidnap the [French] high commissioner or [the conservative Territorial Assembly leader Gaston] Flosse. You have a whole range of different suggestions resulting from people's first emotional reactions."
Hirshon reported that members of the visiting Japanese parliamentary delegation had been arrested for distributing leaflets in town after the announcement that the test had taken place. A group of French pacifists had also been detained, she said. Tahiti's trade unions had already announced a general strike that would begin at midnight on September 5.
Hirshon's reiteration of the central role of the independence struggle in the anti-testing campaign comes at a time when senior members of the Australian government are bending over backwards to reassure the French government that its does not oppose its colonial policy in the Pacific. Unfortunately, some sections of the anti-nuclear and environmental movement in Australia have also played down or denied the link between French colonialism and the tests, refusing to take a stand on the issue.
Chanting what has become something of a Labor government mantra over recent months, foreign minister Gareth Evans told the right-wing French daily Le Figaro in July, "We welcome France's presence in the Pacific. We believe that it has played a very helpful and constructive role, not least in development assistance for many island countries." Asked if he considered France "a colonial power in the Pacific area", Evans replied: "I have not used that terminology and I am not inclined to. It might be thought to be a technically accurate description ... but that is not terminology that I feel comfortable employing because it distracts from the main issue."
Speaking on television on August 6, Evans made it clear that Labor shared with France a desire to limit any growth of support for independence: "I think both sides, despite all the sound and fury, are doing their best to quarantine it to the nuclear issue because both sides have appreciated that there are benefits to be gained from having a more balanced and sensible longer-term relationship".
Minister for Pacific island affairs Gordon Bilney echoed these soothing words when he said, "It is absolutely no part of our agenda to boot the French out of the South Pacific. There is absolutely no reason why we would want the French out ... and plenty of reason why we would want them to stay."
A special meeting of the Socialist International Asia-Pacific Committee was held in Sydney on September 1-2 to discuss the French nuclear tests. The SI unites the world's social democratic parties. At that meeting ALP delegates were central in scuttling a proposal from the New Zealand Labour Party calling for French Polynesia to be added to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation's list of non-self-governing territories.
Asked to explain the ALP delegates' actions, Senator Michael Beahan, ALP international secretary, told Green Left Weekly that nuclear testing and French rule in Tahiti were "quite separate issues". Raising the independence issue "simply confuses the issues and makes it more difficult to end nuclear testing. Tactically it give [the French government] a weapon to beat us over the head with, so it is a stupid thing to do."
Beahan said that he was not sure if the Australian government had a "fixed position" on French colonialism in the Pacific but added, "We think that many of the things that they have done in the Pacific are constructive and good. We welcome them as Pacific neighbours, but we want them to be good neighbours."
These rosy statements ignore the fact that many people in "French" Polynesia vigorously oppose continued French rule of their homeland. France has maintained control by a strategy that in turn has repressed and coopted sections of the movements for independence and autonomy.
In Kanaky, France's other major Pacific colony, thousands of troops were poured in and a virtual civil war raged throughout the 1980s as a result of its repression and determination to defeat independence for the island. When Vanuatu won independence in 1980, the French government, in league with right-wing US forces, had a hand in an unsuccessful anti-independence revolt on Espiritu Santo. And immediately following the racist military coups in Fiji in 1987, France rushed in to provide economic and military aid to the brutal Rabuka regime.
Tea Hirshon told Green Left Weekly that those who argue that supporting independence will hamper the fight against French nuclear tests "are not looking at the issue in a real manner". While it may be "awkward" for some Australian politicians to take a position on politics in Tahiti, "the fact of the matter is that it is only because we are a colony that France is able to test here. The French government has tested, and is testing again, without any reference to the population of this country. None whatsoever! We have been completely abused. They are not doing it in France. They wouldn't dare do it in France."
Hirshon pointed to the example of the people of Algeria, who forced France to end nuclear tests in their country by winning political independence. "That's how we got them", she said. "We don't see any way of stopping these tests other than by Tahiti also winning its freedom."
Commenting on the Australian government's claim that France's role in the Pacific has been "constructive" and "helpful", Hirshon said it may be an example of "official language that governments play with because they may be about to sign an important commercial treaty or something like that". She agreed that both the Australian and French governments share common goals in maintaining economic, military and political control of parts of the Pacific: "They can control the region — Australia near its borders and France here. They have military exercises and surveillance of the sea together."
Hirshon told Green Left Weekly that the more than 100 parliamentarians from around the world, including 35 or so state and federal MPs from Australia, were welcomed by the Tahitian independence and anti-nuclear movement. She said the movement did not have a problem working with people who are anti-nuclear but not in favour of Tahitian independence, but she contradicted claims — made by many of the visiting MPs — that the large demonstrations held in Papeete over the weekend of September 2-3 were not also calling for independence.
"Our Territorial Assembly invited the visiting parliamentarians to a session, and they were told they can be anti-nuclear and do not have to be for independence. But the fact of the matter remains: [that assembly has] absolutely no power to decide on anything of importance, especially in matters of defence and national security. Absolutely none! When Chirac announced the resumption of nuclear testing, he said that these tests were going to happen in a 'territory' of France,meaning Moruroa. He made no mention of the people."
She pointed out that the large demonstrations the MPs participated in — estimated to be more than 5000-strong — were definitely pro-independence because "they were organised by the pro-independence political party, Tavini Huiraatira, which campaigns for independence for Tahiti and says that is only through independence will we be able to stop nuclear testing".
She said it remained unclear what was to become of the French test facilities after the end of the eight planned tests. France may well keep the facilities in readiness for a future resumption of tests. Without independence for Tahiti, France "can do anything it chooses", she said.
Hirshon said she believed that the anti-nuclear test campaign had boosted support for independence significantly. Territorial Assembly elections are due in March. "That is going to be the test", she said.
Hirshon appealed for support for Tahiti's independence from the Australian anti-nuclear, labour and social justice movements. "Our party, our movement is not based only on anti-nuclear issues,although the two issues are tied very closely. Above all, we say that we are entitled to have our independence. It is a basic right, a right to dignity for our nation.
"Although we have some autonomy, the form of government we have is not conducive to a healthy economy because France keeps the most important powers — transportation, foreign relations, finance, justice, defence — we do not believe we can develop our nation in the way that we want without of getting rid of this form of government. We would like to cooperate with the region much more than we do. We are isolated from the region in which we live because we are colonised by France."

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