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Spirituality part of Pacific struggles for human rights

Two Pacific human rights and democracy activists delivered messages of challenge and hope in New Zealand last month.

At a public meeting in Christchurch sponsored by Christian World Service Lopeti Senituli discussed the movement for democracy in Tonga and John Rumbiak discussed the campaign for human rights in West Papua. (Lopeti and John are pictured here).

A leader of the Human Rights and Democracy Movement (HRDM) of Tonga, Lopeti says pro-democracy forces cannot win a full frontal war with the government of Tonga. They are, however, winning small battles.

Among the victories he noted was a pro-democracy protest march in October 2003 that was the largest the country has ever seen. Also a recent judicial review overturned three of eight restrictions the government placed on freedom of expression earlier this year. This means the banned newspaper Taimi o Tonga is again available in Tonga.

“The judicial system of Tonga is one of the best in the Pacific Islands region and so far the government hasn’t touched it,” Lopeti says.

Though his movement advocates democracy, it doesn’t seek to end the monarchy. Currently the king appoints 12 of the 30 members of the legislative assembly, nine are hereditary nobles, and nine are elected.

The democracy movement wants all 30 members to be elected. Six would be nobles, six would be women, six would be Tongans living overseas, and 12 would be selected from geographical districts in the islands of Tonga.

“Historically the nobles in Parliament always voted with the king. Over the last three years this has changed. There is no way the king and the government will accept a general overhaul of the system but piecemeal change is happening that could lead to major restructuring.”

Lopeti says it is important for people in New Zealand to make their concerns about the situation in Tonga known. While the government puts on a public face that it does not care what outsiders say, the criticism does get through.

Church support for Tongan democracy movement is mixed. The Catholic Church has consistently supported the HRDM since it began in 1992. Support from the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga has depended on the leadership.

“When Sione Amanaki Havea was president of the church he spoke very clearly in support of democracy but we haven’t seen his successors speak out. Individual members of the church support the movement and the current chair of HRDM is Rev Simote Vea, who is Methodist.”

While Lopeti could speak with cautious optimism, John Rumbiak had a darker tale to tell. Currently in exile because of death threats for his human rights work, John warns West Papua is a time bomb waiting to go off.

The Indonesian government has a policy of isolating the province from international humanitarian organisations and diplomats, he says, and the international community is acquiescing to it.

“Infant mortality in West Papua is 117 per 100,000. That is more than double the average in the rest of Indonesia and one of the highest in the world. HIV rates are the highest in the country.

“One million Indonesians now live in West Papua. This compares to a population of 1.5 million Papuans. The military has brutalised the people with rape and murder, people have been displaced for mining, and the health of Papuans has been deliberately neglected.

“The US sees the Indonesian government as a moderate ally in the global war on terror. The British government says it wants to help but British Petroleum has interests in a West Papuan gas field that is the biggest in Southeast Asia.”

Despite this grim outlook, John says the human rights movement has declared West Papua a zone of peace.

“We urge people to practice forgiveness and commit themselves to peace as the nexus of struggle. This spirituality is not merely Christian. It has various foundations including animist.

“Our current aim is education. We want to explain the gap between migrants and natives in a way that avoids hatred. We want to cultivate a culture of peace.”