Friday, September 10, 2010

Beyond solidarity

Published in the Fiji Times - Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan, Thursday, September 09, 2010

In the hustle and bustle of the "Mother of All Festivals" it would have been understandable if most missed the arrival into Suva of the vaka (sailing canoe) O Tahiti Nui Freedom from Tahiti. On an epic journey that would take it from Tahiti to the Cook Islands to Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Philippines and eventually to Southern China as the crew seek to reverse the trail of the first Oceanic settlers.

The Fiji Islands Voyaging Society and the crew of the Uto Ni Yalo arranged a traditional welcome ceremony for the crew of O Tahiti Nui Freedom at Albert Park.

As I arrived to say the opening prayer for the ceremony, I received news that the president of the Tahitian version of the FIVS would also be present.

We were in for a surprise as this person was none other than Oscar Temaru, former President of French Polynesia and current President of the French Polynesia Assembly.

Of Tahitian, Cook Island Maohi, and Chinese ancestry, Mr Temaru has been a vocal campaigner against nuclear testing by France at Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls since the 1970s.

His main power base has been in the poor suburb of Faa'a on the outskirts of the capital Papeete on the island of Tahiti, where he was born and educated.

A few days later, I was fortunate to meet Mr. Temaru again, this time at the Pacific Conference of Churches Secretariat.

As we shared a few bilo of yaqona he told those present the challenges that they faced in merely getting O Tahiti Nui Freedom to sail. While the Uto ni Yalo is made out of man-made and natural materials, O Tahiti Nui Freedom was made in the traditional manner. The group behind the vaka and its epic journey struggled to make this dream a reality.

Struggle is nothing new for the people of Maohi /French Polynesia.

Mr Temaru, is a long-time fighter for independence of his people from France. He shared with us memories of his participating in independence marches in Suva as a young man in the 1970s. At that time the Pacific Conference of Churches was at the forefront of the movements for self determination of the islands in the region and for a nuclear free Pacific.

While many islands were able to attain self-rule, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and the Indonesian-controlled West Papua still struggle to free themselves of colonisation.

An early political influence was Jean-Marie Tjibaou, philosopher and former leader of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), who was assassinated in New Caledonia in 1989.

When asked by an Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter "Most people call this place French Polynesia. What do you call it?" he replied "This is French-occupied Polynesia. That is the truth. This country has been occupied."

Mr Temaru has been actively campaigning for Pacific Islands' support for Maohi/French Polynesia to be put back on the UN decolonisation list.

Speaking to Radio Australia in July this year he said he was enlisting the support of all those countries, "to get our country back on the list of non-autonomous countries at the United Nations. We want to be independent like them, and to control our destiny."

Countries that used to engage in the effort for a nuclear free Pacific and support the struggle for self-determination now have different priorities and alliances with former adversaries.

Yet the Church still has a responsibility to be the voice of the voiceless, bring good news to the poor, to set the captive free, provide sight to the blind, end the suffering of the oppressed, proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.

In the face of new types of oppression such as cultural and economic globalisation, the threat of climate change, violence against women and HIV and AIDS, it is important that we not lose sight of the other types of oppression that our brothers and sisters in the region face.

A few nights later, as I ducked out of the rain into the lobby of a local hotel, I bumped into Mr Temaru again. As the seasoned campaigner he is, he reminded me again of the important role the churches in Oceania have in leading the region to complete self-determination.

I took it to mean economic, cultural, spiritual as well as political self-determination.

In November 2009, Indigenous Peoples and church-based workers and organisations from Australia, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, and Thailand gathered in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the Asia-Pacific Indigenous Peoples' Hearing on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology.

Their declaration, issued to the nation-states and churches in Asia and the Pacific, the ecumenical movement and international community included the call to:

* Recognise Indigenous Peoples' sovereignty and ways of life consistent with indigenous cultural values. This will include the promotion of indigenous worldviews, knowledge, wisdom, and practices to meet the needs of all;

* Advocate for self-determination and food sovereignty;

* Respect and recognise Indigenous Peoples as custodians of Mother Earth;

* Strengthen solidarity among Indigenous Peoples and between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples based on non-discrimination, equality and mutual respect, social equity and peaceful coexistence;

* Advocate the re-reading of the Bible with a strong justice and peace orientation

Much of the conflicts which the people of Oceania find themselves in seem foreign to the Pacific way of life and churches have done a lot in seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis with mitigated results.

In the Pacific Plenary of the World Council of Churches 9th Assembly in Brazil, it was noted that the struggle for self-determination is still a priority for churches and people of New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Support from the ecumenical family needs to continue to enable these peoples and their respective churches to seek what is best for their own future.

As we of Oceania sail our canoes through the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, many of the same rough seas remain to be sailed through to reach the Islands of Hope.

Our best hope to reach these islands is if we move beyond empathy and solidarity and join in the struggle to help the "least" of our brothers and sisters.

We also need to not only light the way for others to follow but speak peace to the storm and calm the waves which threaten to capsize the canoes of those who sail with us.

Only then can we say that we are being the voice of the voiceless, bringing good news to the poor, setting the captives free, providing sight to the blind, ending the suffering of the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favour. "Be Still, Stand in Love, Pay Attention."

* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva.

This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.


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