Asia-Pacific, Headlines

SOUTH PACIFIC: New Caledonia Mulls South African Model

Kalinga Seneviratne

NOUMEA, New Caledonia, Mar 12 1997 (IPS) - When in 1988 the indigenous Kanak people of New Caledonia decided to give up their bloody struggle for freedom, they were sure it would lead to the Pacific territory becoming a free country.

After all, they had chosen to sign a peace deal with their French rulers that would allow a referendum on independence in 10 years.

But now, with just a year to go till the scheduled referendum, some Kanaks are not sure independence from France is in their best interest.

When newly elected French Prime Minister Michel Rochard brokered the Matignon accord of June, it ended years of violence.

The signatories – Jean-Marie Tjibaou of the pro-independence Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socioaliste’s (FLNKS) and Jacques Lafleur of the pro-French Rassemblement pour Caledonie dans la Republique’s (RPCR) -both felt that 10 years was a long enough time.

The FLNKS hoped that they would be independent from France in 10 years and the RPCR was equally convinced that in 10 years, they could convince voters otherwise. Today, neither party seems to be keen on a referendum.

“If we go through this vote there is a risk for the population … we can go into a cycle of violence,” Rock Wamyton, president of FLNKS, told IPS in an interview.

The RPCR’s National Congress member, Jean Claude Briault agrees. “If the referendum is held there will be probably 60 to 70 percent of voters in favour of maintaining New Caledonia in the French Republic,” he said. “There will (then) be a part of the population which won and the other part which lost. We must avoid that,” he added.

The move by both parties to come to a South African-style power sharing arrangement has confused the electorate here and has perhaps made it almost impossible for the pro-independence campaign to win.

“If our leaders, FLNKS and RPCR, want no self-independence in 1998, but carry on for another 20 years or something like that, I don’t know how many years, then they must tell the people. The problem is they organise secret meetings, we don’t know what happened, the people are confused,” says Nicole Waia, manager of the Kanak-run Radio Djiido here.

Wamyton believes that 80 percent of the Kanak (indigenous) population support independence from France. However FLNKS decided two years ago to find a solution that avoids the referendum because the 1988 electoral rule, under which the referendum should be held, “is not beneficial to us”.

“When the FLNKS signed the Matignon Accord they wanted a referendum in 10 years because they were sure that within 10 years they will be able to convince the non-Kanak population to support independence,” said Pierre Chauwat, executive board member of USTKE, New Caledonia’s biggest labour union.

“But since then, the FLNKS has been in power and left out the people who voted for them. Now they realise by referendum they won’t obtain independence, so they are talking with RPCR.”

USTKE was a member of FLNKS when the Matignon Accord was signed, but pulled out of it in 1989 following Tjibaou’s assassination. Chauwat argues that FLNKS and RPCR should not try to work out a deal on their own and force it on the people through what they call a vote of ratification.

“You must not do things like that, you have to consult the people in debate and share together the position,” he said.

According to latest population surveys, 44.1 percent of New Caledonia’s population of 196,800 are of Kanak (Melanesian) descent, 34.1 percent European, 9 percent Wallisian (Polynesian), 2.6 percent Tahitian, 2.5 percent Indonesian and 1.4 percent Vietnamese.

“I think we can compare the model we are going to settle here with the model in South Africa,” says Wamyton.

But Briault thinks it will be more correct to say that South Africa reached a solution like in New Caledonia. With everyone having the same rights and two of the three provinces established after the 1988 agreement being ruled by the FLNKS, “we already have democracy”, he says.

The Matignon Accord divided the country into three provinces – North, Loyalty Island and South Province, – each with its own administration and budget. North and Loyalty Island provinces are now controlled by the FLNKS, and the South by RPCR.

Though the two FLNKS provincial administrations have been elected by the peoples’ vote, the leadership’s reluctance to push for an independence vote in 1998 and their willingness to enter into negotiations with RPCR about a possible coalition government, perhaps in “Free Association” with France, has angered many Kanak nationalists whose militant action in the early 1980s was instrumental in pushing France and the RPCR onto the negotiating table with FLNKS.

“For me as a Kanak woman, as a Kanak journalist, as a Kanak militant, how can I explain to the people, listen Kanak people, the strategy is changing?” asked Waia, adding that the FLNKS leadership is not making an effort to use the media like Radio Djiido to explain their strategy to the people.

Chauwat says that FLNKS has lost support among many Kanaks. “If you want people to support independence you have to state what is contained in independence,” he argues. “It’s just a word today and people are very scared when they hear it, because the right-wing parties have scared the people by saying , well if you become independent it will be chaos”, Chauwat added.

“This vision of Kanaks being not ready for independence is the vision of France,” argues Aloisio Sako, leader of Rassemblement Democratique Oceanien (RDO), a new political party aligned with FLNKS that has attracted strong support from among the younger Wallisians, an important minority group.

“They (France) say you can’t become independent because you don’t have doctors, engineers and so on. True, because France opened Kanak schools only in 1956,” Sako said.

“FLNKS says when we get independence it’s not Kanaks only, there’s Wallisians, Vietnamese, French. So we will have many Europeans who want to stay here, Vietnamese would want to do business. So independence means government of many colours.”

It is with this vision that Sako decided to throw in his lot with the FLNKS in December 1994. But two-thirds of the 18,000 strong Wallisian community does not support his party (and the FLNKS). “Because RPCR businessmen give jobs and build houses to members of our community.”

While FLNKS is facing an uphill battle in convincing the other communities that independence is for everyone, there are also deep divisions within the Kanak community on what really constitutes the path towards independence.

“Our struggle is a political struggle to achieve our independence. But we know that political independence must be built on economic rules,” argued Wamyton.

The Kanaks were denied education and a share of the country’s wealth since French colonised their country in 1853 and turned it into a penal colony. Today, FLNKS is using funds allocated to the two provinces they control to buy direct stakes in nickel mining and tourism. These businesses used to be solely under the control of the the RPCR, before the Matignon Accord was signed.

The challenge facing the FLNKS leadership today is to convince its socialist-oriented grassroots that getting into business is not a sellout of its socialist egalitarian vision for an independent Kanaky (New Caledonia).

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