The Pacific's changing politics

Wednesday, September 2, 1992 - 10:00

Tu Galala. Social Change in the Pacific
Edited by David Robie
Bridget Williams Books/Pluto Press
233 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

Tu Galala — the title derived from a Fijian phrase meaning "sovereignty, freedom and self-determination" — is an essential primer for anybody interested in recent political developments and issues in the Pacific region. Each contribution is packed with useful information and thought-provoking arguments.

David Robie, a regular Green Left Weekly contributor and author of the outstanding book on Pacific liberation movements, Blood on their Banner, has collected an impressive range of essays from grassroots campaigners and movement leaders from throughout the Pacific. Topics include the place of the Pacific in the New World Order, militarism, the environment, mining, Indonesian colonialism, conflict between chiefs and commoners and human rights. A section is devoted to detailed discussion of recent events in particular countries including Belau, Fiji, Kanaky, Tahiti, Western Samoa and Tonga.

While being an excellent and in-depth introduction to Pacific politics, it also challenges activists in the Pacific solidarity, environment and human rights movements to re-examine their analyses in the light of recent developments.

Since 1975, when the fledgling Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement gathered in Fiji for its first conference, the issues facing progressives have become more complex. At the time, clear-cut demands for a nuclear free zone, independence for the region's last colonies and justice for indigenous minorities in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii dominated the agenda. They were

issues around which unity could be achieved with relative ease.

Today, while those issues remain important, developments within Pacific countries — the Fiji coups, the democracy movement in Tonga, the fight for Bougainville's independence from PNG — have also moved to the forefront and a more sophisticated understanding is called for.

As David Robie and Delia Abcede explain in the book's introduction: "Corruption, the mismanagement of resources, abuse of power, curtailment of freedoms exist in many island states — practised by indigenous island leaders and governments against their own people. The indigenous ethnocentric framework of freedom or self-determination alone is too limiting in addressing these issues of power, privilege and poverty, degradation of natural resources and other commonly occurring conditions affecting the lives of Pacific islands people now and in the future."

Such a discussion is not merely an academic exercise. Fijian Richard Naidu in his contribution recounts how a section of the NFIP movement — "to whom the word 'indigenous' became an all-obsessive mantra" — accepted the military coups in Fiji. Rabuka claimed to be protecting the land rights of "indigenous" Fijians from the inroads of Fijians of Indian descent.

Tongan sociologist and novelist Epeli Hau'ofa is cited to warn that "traditional" and "indigenous" practices and structures are manipulated by island ruling classes: "It is the privileged who can afford to tell the poor to preserve their traditions. But their perceptions of which traits of traditional culture to preserve are increasingly divergent from those of the poor, because in the final analysis it is the poor who

have to live out the traditional culture; the privileged can merely talk about it, and they are in a position to be selective about what traits they can use or, more correctly, urge other others to observe. And this is increasingly seen by the poor as part of the ploy by the privileged to secure greater advantages for themselves."

The emergence of privileged classes within the Pacific island countries, and their links with the elites in other island nations, and especially in Australia, New Zealand, theUS and France, must be confronted by Pacific activists. The interests of ruling elites will determine how particular island nations respond to events like the Bougainville uprising, the coups in Fiji, demands for universal suffrage in "traditional" monarchies like Tonga and a myriad of environmental issues.

As often as not, decisions taken that are fundamentally at odds with the interests of the people of the Pacific will be cloaked in the rhetoric of self-determination, tradition and indigenous rights.

The contributors to Tu Galala warn that the time has come for activists to shed idealised or naive notions of these concepts or, as Jone Dakuvula argues in his essay, redefine them so that they are truly consistent with the principles of genuine and universal social justice, democracy and human rights.

From GLW issue 69