Biak Massacre - 10th Anniversary Commemoration

Biak Massacre - 10th Anniversary Commemoration:12pm,
Sunday July 6th, City Square
Kulin Nations



Asia Pacific Network: 11 October 1998


What really happened on the West Papua island of Biak in July? A revealing account of the conflicting reports of the death toll and circumstances of a massacre that deserves to be ranked with the Dili massacre in East Timor.

By ANDREW KILVERT, recently in (West Papua)

IN JULY, a major massacre of unarmed protesters took place on the Indonesian-ruled island of Biak in Irian Jaya (West Papua). The massacre was similar in both style and in terms of numbers of dead to that which is now commonly referred to as the Dili massacre which took place in East Timor in 1991.

The difference being that the Biak massacre received almost no coverage in the Australian news media except for a few brief articles in major papers claiming that seven were killed and approximately 100 were wounded.

This gross understatement has been left to dissolve into the history of similar such newspaper stories, which despite being briefly important recede as quickly as they arrived.

In the days following the Biak massacre a tidal wave hit further down the coast in Papua New Guinea, killing 2000 people, this received saturation coverage and effectively swamped the small coverage of the Irian Jaya story despite the fact that the Indonesian military have been responsible for the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Melanesian West Papuans in their 30-year occupation of the territory.

The following is the story of Biak, a story which was not reported in the Sydney Morning Herald because there was a discrepancy in the reports of numbers of bodies washed up on the beaches.

An early report said 33, a later one from the Jayapura-based IHRSTAD accounted for 53 bodies and a later one from the Javanese-based human rights watchdog KOSOAIR, said that 70 bodies had washed up or been caught in fishing nets.

As Hamish McDonald, foreign editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, put it:

"In these circumstances we are going to hold off on publication for the time being."
Because the investigations which were carried out thoroughly, and which at times posed personal risk to those involved, did not correlate exactly, they were deemed "non-news".

Despite the fact that these accounts supported each other in many ways and that the difference in body count was due to the fact that the three different human rights organisations which looked into it were there at different times during the recovery of bodies, it was not printed in the Australian press.

In July 1998, the community of Biak Island joined in the independence demonstrations which were taking place around the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya in response to the noises about human rights coming out of the new president in Jakarta and spurred on by new dialog over East Timor.

They made flags and banners which were sown by the women and the boys and young men flew the flag from the top of the water tower. This went on for six days as people camped out around a campfire next to the market place.

On July 6, at 5.30 am, after bringing in an extra battalion from Ambon Island, the Indonesian army opened fire on the sleeping crowd.

As everybody was lying down asleep on the ground when the shooting started, they fired low and as the people stood up to run away they were shot in the legs.

Many of the people there were school children who were expressing the long felt outrage at the Indonesian occupation of their Pacific Island.

As they ran they were cut down and many crawled to the safety of nearby houses.

As the sun rose, the army formed themselves into small units which went from door to door looking for wounded people who had been at the rally. These people were arrested and many others who were identified as being involved were also forced down to the docks.

Others were simply gunned down in their houses in front of their families.

No one knows for sure but the common sentiment among the survivors was that about 24 people were killed during the initial shooting. After this, about 200 people were rounded up and taken down to the docks where they were made to lie face up in the tropical sun.

As they lay, groups of soldiers marched over their faces and stomachs. In the afternoon they were forced to crawl down the street to the police cells where the 200 people were crammed into the tiny cells in the searing heat.

For days they stood unable to sit and because of the conditions, forced to urinate and defecate whilst standing. Many of these people were school children.

When they began getting sick, several were released to act as spies for the military, to go out and track down the other "ringleaders". They reported every day and received beatings when their reports where not considered to be good enough.

Meanwhile, outside the cells there were people dying in their houses from untreated wounds. They couldn't go to the hospital because it was occupied by the army and was already overcrowded with wounded who were kept under guard and who weren't receiving medical treatment anyway.

The chemist shops in town were guarded by military intelligence spies. Occasionally in the streets a young person could be seen hopping around with bullet wounds however mostly the wounded who were well enough to recover were in hiding.

After being imprisoned for several days, 139 of those arrested were taken down to the docks and loaded onto two frigates, one of which had brought the army battalion from Ambon.

The frigates set off in opposite directions, one dumping the people in the ocean near Biak Island, the other dumping them offshore near Manokwari. There have been no reports of people surviving the ordeal and so there is no accurate information as to their last hours although it is fairly certain, judging by the bodies which were recovered , that they were dumped alive.

As the bodies began washing up on the beaches, there was silence in the Australian media, despite the fact that the information was readily available. So while the media reported on the withdrawal of troops from East Timor and the "discovery" of mass graves in Aceh - mass graves which were never lost in the first place, silence remained on the Biak story.

As families met their relatives off the planes from Jayapura and wept together covertly under the scrutiny and suspicion of the Indonesian military guards, the world and particularly Australians remained ignorant of what was going on so near to our shores.

When the first of the bodies began washing up on the beaches the military was quick to recover them, claiming they were the victims of the Papua New Guinea tsunami which occurred nearly 1000 km down the coast.

As others washed up this story became more ludicrous as many of them were bound at the wrists and ankles with ropes and one of them was wearing a Golkar T-shirt which is the shirt of the ruling Indonesian Government party.

Among the recovered bodies there was a woman still clutching a small child.

About two days after the initial killing and before the people had been dumped into the ocean, an Australian Army captain arrived in Biak to carry out an "official" investigation into the killings on behalf of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs.

This was only possible with the approval of the Indonesian high command. Despite this high level support, he complained that his investigations had been hindered at every turn by the local officials and that despite carrying out many such operations he had been subjected to an unusual level of obstruction in Biak.

This is interesting on a couple of levels: firstly it indicates the sensitivity of the Irian Jaya issue to the Indonesian officialdom, but it also suggests that there is a reservoir of accounts of similar events held by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs which has never been publicly released. And it certainly adds credence to the argument that the Australian Government has been involved in a cover up the events which resulted in the deaths of five Australian-based journalists in East Timor in 1975.

For me to write this story is a relief as I hope that others will know what has been happening to the people of Irian Jaya. It is also written in the knowledge that there are thousands of similar stories from this place which will never be heard, even by Australians who live so close and like to pride themselves on being members of the so called "information age".

Still now on Biak Island there are at least 20 people who are facing life imprisonment in Indonesian jails if found guilty of the charges of separatism and rebellion. They are:

Drs Filip Karma, Neles Sroyer, Thonci Wabiser, Melki Kmur, Celsius Raweyai, Agustinus Sada, Eduard Iwanggin, Demitrius Fainsenem, Andreas Marsyo, Hengky Wambrauw, Nehemia Ronsumbre, Marinus Ronsumbre, Klemens Rumsarwir, Bernadus Mansawan, Lamekh Dimara, Robert Iwanggin, Inseren S Karma, Joumunda C Karma, Adrianus Rumbewas and Nico Rumpaidus.

  • Andrew Kilvert is a graduate of the media course at Southern Cross University in Lismore and has an interest in Indonesian and Pacific human rights and environmental issues.
  • http://www.asiapac.org.fj/cafepacific/resources/aspac/biak.html

    Independent West Papua – Melbourne Community Benefit

    click for larger image

    Independent West Papua
    Melbourne Community Benefit 8pm,
    Saturday July 5th The Corner Hotel. $10/15

    In solidarity with a resurgence in demonstrations across West Papua for independence from Indonesia, the West Papuan Melbourne community is organising a massive weekend of celebration and protest.

    Members of the 43 Papuan refugees who fled to Australia by boat in 2006 will perform traditional and reggae and hip-hop inspired song and dance. Supported by Melbourne's most radical hip-hop, reggae and dub crews, Agency Dub Collective, Culture Connect, Chantdown Sound, Pataphysics, B12 Shot and A Mapmouth Exploder, the Corner will present a night of true Melanasian and Melbournian revolutionary culture. All proceeds to Australia West Papua Association.


    RAMSI immunity challenged after death of Solomon Islander in car accident

    By Patrick O’Connor

    30 June 2008

    The Australian media has maintained a unanimous silence on the recent death of a young Solomon Islands’ woman who was hit by a vehicle driven by a police officer deployed under the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). The failure to cover the story is all the more striking given the political furore it has caused in the Solomons’ capital, Honiara, with senior parliamentarians demanding that the Australian-dominated RAMSI forces be stripped of their immunity from the country’s laws.

    RAMSI’s immunity is emerging as a focal point for escalating opposition to Canberra’s indefinite occupation of the impoverished Pacific state. Under existing legislative arrangements, the officer involved in the fatal crash—who was allegedly drunk at the time—cannot be prosecuted in the Solomons, even if it is established that a crime was committed.

    Hilda Ilabae, a 26-year-old trainee nurse, was struck while walking home from a Honiara church with two flatmates and fellow nurses at around 9 p.m. on June 13. According to an eyewitness, a white utility vehicle veered down the road in a zigzag manner before colliding with Ilabae. “Two of them managed to jump off the road in time but Hilda was late and the vehicle hit her and dragged her to the side of the road into the nearby bushes,” the witness told the Solomon Star.

    The nurse died at the scene. A passenger in the vehicle—another RAMSI police officer—was seriously injured in the accident and later flown to Australia for emergency treatment. The officers, both Samoan nationals, were off-duty at the time.

    Under the Facilitation of International Assistance Act, the RAMSI officer can be prosecuted under Solomons’ law only if the Samoan government waives the immunity provision. The Facilitation Act was drafted by the former Howard government and ratified by the Solomon Islands’ parliament in July 2003, as more than 2,000 Australian soldiers, police, and officials landed in the country as part of efforts by the Australian ruling elite to protect its economic and strategic interests in the region against encroaching rival powers. Publicly defended as a humanitarian intervention into a “failed” or “failing” state, RAMSI also proceeded under the banner of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)—in order to provide a “multilateral” cover for Canberra’s operation. The Samoan police involved in the June 13 fatality are among a small number of police, soldiers, and legal officials from PIF countries other than Australia and New Zealand.

    Five years after the initial RAMSI deployment, Solomon Islands remains among the world’s poorest countries. While hundreds of millions of dollars in so-called Australian aid has been spent on Australian Federal Police salaries, prisons, and the court system, virtually nothing has been committed to health and education services, or to the alleviation of poverty and unemployment. At the same time, the influx of hundreds of highly paid Australian police, bureaucrats, “advisors”, and non-governmental organisation personnel has exacerbated social inequality.

    This is especially marked in Honiara, where RAMSI has created a “bubble economy” by pushing up rents and other costs of living. According to a report issued last April by Aid/Watch, a Sydney-based watchdog organisation, a small house in Honiara rented for between SI$600 and $1,000 per month (A$80-$135) before RAMSI arrived, but now goes for between SI$2,000 and $5,000 (A$270-$675). As a result, many public service workers—whose monthly wage often amounts to just SI$1,000 to $2,000 a month—are forced to live in squatter camps on Honiara’s outskirts, without power, running water or basic municipal services. The Aid/Watch report (titled “The Limits of RAMSI”) also noted the situation in Nggosi, an area in west Honiara that is now a RAMSI enclave, with monthly rents averaging between SI$15,000 and $40,000 per month. “You rarely see Solomon Islanders there now, except as a cleaner,” Robert Iroga, a well-known journalist, reported.

    For many ordinary people, the manner of Hilda Ilabae’s death symbolised the colonial character of RAMSI’s relations with the population. While the trainee nurse and her friends were walking home, the allegedly drunk RAMSI officer was driving a utility vehicle provided by the authorities. Getting around by car remains a “luxury” for most people, particularly with petrol prices rising. Inflation in fuel and food has hit the Pacific country hard in recent months. Many people are now unable to catch a bus, let alone drive a car, with the standard bus fare in Honiara rising by more than 100 percent in the last month (from SI$2 to $5).

    A report in the Solomon Star pointed to the tensions revealed by the fatal vehicle accident: “Later Friday night some of Ms Ilabae’s relatives and RAMSI people were involved in a confrontation at the hospital. RAMSI soldiers, along with Participating Police Force [i.e., RAMSI police] officers, were called to provide security as the stand-off was sorted out.”

    No doubt concerned to prevent the emergence of any public protests, senior RAMSI officials responded quickly. Special Coordinator Tim George issued a formal apology in letters to both Prime Minister Derek Sikua and the Ilabae family. RAMSI paid for the travel expenses of a reported 200 family members who went to the funeral in the family village of Talakali in Malaita Province. Participating Police Force Commander Denis McDermott, along with other RAMSI and police officials, also attended. Later however, McDermott suggested that the family’s demand for a compensation payment was a matter to be discussed between the Solomon Islands’ and Samoan governments, not RAMSI.

    Legal immunity and the Commission of Inquiry’s final report

    According to a report published on the People First web site, Manasseh Sogavare, former prime minister and current leader of the parliamentary opposition, said that the death of the young nurse was the eleventh fatality involving RAMSI officers.

    “We cannot allow officers of the visiting contingent to continue to be careless about the way they conduct themselves in this country,” he declared. “If they are here to require Solomon Islanders to behave lawfully, then they have a duty to lead by example. The records of some officers so far are appalling... As it stands now, the visiting contingent is a privileged group of people in Solomon Islands who are enjoying immunities that are totally unnecessary and given the change in circumstances it became a license to carelessness. The responsibility now lies squarely on the shoulders of the Solomon Islands government to immediately review the legal framework for deliberation by parliament. Failing this, the government will be seen as condoning these irresponsible behaviours and a party to them.”

    Canberra regards legal immunity as an essential component of the intervention, ensuring that Australian personnel retain a free hand to directly interfere in Solomons’ affairs whenever necessary. In Papua New Guinea, the Australian policing component of the so-called Enhanced Cooperation Program (an intervention force modelled on RAMSI) had to be withdrawn in 2005 after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that immunity was unconstitutional. Any forced withdrawal of Australian Federal Police from the Solomons would represent a major setback in Canberra’s efforts to assert its domination of a region that is marked by intensifying great power rivalries, characterised above all by Beijing’s growing economic and diplomatic influence.

    The Solomon Islands’ parliament is due to complete the required annual review of the Facilitation Act next month. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Sikua will simply ram through a formal approval of the RAMSI legislation without debate (perhaps under the cover of the country’s 30th anniversary celebrations of formal independence from Britain), or whether there will instead be a serious assessment of the legal basis for RAMSI’s ongoing presence.

    There is no question that the Rudd government wishes to avoid the latter possibility. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Canberra’s determination to secure the Solomon Islands’ parliamentary rubber stamp for another 12 months of RAMSI legal immunity lies behind the ongoing suppression of a final report issued by the Commission of Inquiry on the April 2006 riots.

    This official investigation was initiated by the former Sogavare government, which was in power from May 2006 to December 2007, when it finally succumbed to a sustained regime change campaign orchestrated in Canberra. The Howard government had targeted then Prime Minister Sogavare, who initiated the inquiry, as well as launching a filthy and slanderous attack on Julian Moti, an international constitutional lawyer and academic who was the central legal figure involved in establishing the investigation. Canberra was at pains to prevent any scrutiny of RAMSI’s role in the 2006 unrest, or any examination of evidence that Australian forces were stood down to allow the violence to proceed.

    Moreover, an examination of the Commission of Inquiry’s hearings, interim findings, and final submissions indicates that one of the likely findings of the final report is that RAMSI’s legal immunity be revoked. (See: “Why have the findings of the Solomon Islands Commission of Inquiry into the 2006 riots not been released?”)

    The question must be posed: Is this why the final report—which was handed to the Sikua government more than two months ago—has not been publicly released? There has been no explanation for the inordinate delay in its publication. There is no doubt that officials in Canberra have received a copy and have carefully perused its contents. Does the Australian government hope to first secure next month’s parliamentary renewal of the Facilitation Act before permitting the report’s release? And is it aiming to engineer a sanitised version of the final report for public consumption, censoring potentially damaging references to RAMSI’s legal immunity as well as to the intervention’s wider status under international law?

    The current Australian Labor prime minister has already made clear his contempt for the Commission of Inquiry. When he visited the Solomon Islands in March, Rudd was asked about the submissions that suggested Canberra bore responsibility for providing compensation for damages caused in the April riots. “Our view as Australia, is that RAMSI has acted entirely professionally and properly in discharging its responsibilities,” Rudd replied. “For RAMSI there is absolutely no case to answer... These matters will now be deliberated on by the appropriate inquiry into what happened in those riots. But from the perspective of the Australian government, there is no case to answer.”

    The parliamentary opposition has meanwhile stepped up its demands for the release of the final report. “The government’s suppression of the report is very suspicious,” East Honiara MP Charles Dausabea told the Solomon Star last Thursday. “It makes me very suspicious of what it might contain.”

    Dausabea, together with fellow parliamentarian Nelson Ne’e, were arrested by RAMSI police within days of the April 2006 riots and were accused of orchestrating the violence. The two men were imprisoned without trial and denied bail by Australian judges for eight months, only to have the charges thrown out of court once a magistrate had a chance to review the evidence. It turned out that RAMSI’s entire case rested on the bogus testimony of a multiple felon. “I spent some eight months in prison on the matter only to be found innocent by the court,” Dausabea said. “Therefore I demand that the government release the report within seven days [and] if not I will seek my legal counsel for the release of the document.”

    Perhaps the sensitivity of the question of legal immunity—along with the related issue of the suppression of the Commission of Inquiry’s final findings—may explain why the Australian media has ignored the killing of Hilda Ilabae.

    See Also:
    New Solomon Islands prime minister kowtows to Canberra
    [2 February 2008]
    Australian Labor government steps up vendetta against former Solomon Islands attorney-general
    [31 December 2007]
    Solomon Islands government rebuts Canberra’s child sex allegations against attorney-general
    [14 August 2007]
    The Howard government, RAMSI, and the April 2006 Solomon Islands’ riots”
    [21 February 2007]

    Violent boss has charges dismissed by right wing judge

    Magistrate: “Civil disobedience is merely a euphemism for breaking the law”

    By Socialist Party reporters Melbourne

    A boss who drove a semi-trailer through a group of protesters, endangering the lives of several people, walked free from court this week without so much as a slap on the wrist. Anthony Elliott, the owner of the Elliott Group of companies in Melbourne, had all 15 charges against him dismissed after a 4 day court hearing.

    The case related to a community assembly that was held outside the premises of Elliott Engineering on May 4th last year. The assembly was organised by Union Solidarity in support of 48 workers in the Latrobe Valley who were chasing Anthony Elliott for almost $1 million in unpaid entitlements.

    Elliott bought the engineering plant in the Latrobe Valley from Skilled Engineering and then shut it down after about 18 months. He locked the workers out and refused to pay them their full entitlements.

    The Latrobe Valley workers picketed their site for over 34 weeks in an attempt to stop Elliott removing the plant and equipment from the premises. The action in Kilsyth was designed to put added pressure on Elliott to pay the workers what they deserved.

    Some of the workers had worked at the Latrobe Valley plant for over 20 years and many were owed tens of thousands of dollars. But through dodgy accounting and the setting up of shelf companies, Elliott found a loophole in the laws and claimed that he did not have to pay the entitlements owed to the workers. This is nothing more than the theft of workers wages on a grand scale.

    On the day of the community assembly Anthony Elliot drove not one but two trucks through the picket line. The second truck collected four protesters who were forced to cling onto the bull bar of the truck or be run over and potentially killed. Elliott was only forced to stop the truck more than a kilometre down the road by a protester in a pursuing car.

    The police had witnessed the entire event on the day and pledged to ensure Elliott was punished with the full force of the law. Unfortunately the police were extremely unprepared for this case and the police Prosecutor Sergeant Murray Phillips seemed disinterested throughout the entire hearing.

    The strategy of Elliott’s defence was to spend half of their time trying to trip up the witnesses about specific details from the day and the other half attempting to discredit the witness’s credibility. Some of the witnesses were accused of collusion and another had his evidence dismissed by the magistrate simply due to a prior unrelated conviction.

    Anthony Main

    The other two witnesses, Dave Kerin from Union Solidarity and Anthony Main from the Socialist Party, were attacked at length for their political beliefs. In his summary magistrate Brian Clifford said that “Kerin told the court he was a teacher. I believe he is a teacher of civil disobedience”, and “civil disobedience is merely a euphemism for breaking the law”.

    Dave Kerin

    Clifford also said that “ringleader” Kerin had set up Union Solidarity as a vehicle to break the industrial laws and that he had perhaps stopped thousands of trucks dating back to his time in the BLF (Builders Labourers Federation). He said that the protesters were engaged in illegal conduct on the day and that they were “not afraid to break the law and ride on trucks”. “I believe that Mr. Kerin is an experienced bull bar rider” he said, “And I do not believe that he had any regard for anyone’s safety”.

    Clifford described Main as the most obnoxious person in attendance at the picket line on the day. He seemed more disgusted that Main had yelled at Elliott about the unpaid entitlements and called him a “dog” than the fact that several people were nearly killed by the truck.

    Clifford said that “Main gave evidence to this court saying that he is a strong advocate of democratic rights. Main is the absolute antithesis of that ideal and his credibility is therefore zero”.

    In his judgement Clifford implied that the rights of Elliott as a property owner were more important than the rights of the protesters or indeed the rights of the workers who are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said that the protesters were engaged in unlawful industrial action on the day and that they had unlawfully hindered Elliott.

    Clifford said that the protesters were in no danger and that Elliott had not contravened the law. “If there was any danger at all on the day it was the protesters who created it” he said.

    Not only did magistrate Clifford dismiss all the charges, but to flaunt his contempt for the protesters he asked the defence lawyer, Sean Grant, if he would like the court costs to be awarded against Main and Kerin! The magistrate and the defence lawyer shared a laugh when the defence replied “we would love to your honour but unfortunately there are no provisions to do that”.

    In this case it was almost like the witnesses were on trial rather than the defendant who had nearly killed several people. The magistrate contradicted himself many times in his summary and showed little respect for his own laws.

    Usually the ruling class, and their representatives in the judiciary, attempt to disguise the class bias in the legal system by pretending that the system is fair. In this case, however, the magistrate was very crude and open about the fact that he saw the rights of the boss to enter and exit his property as paramount to the safety of everyone else.

    This case, if nothing else, proves that there is one law for the rich and another for the rest of us. In the past workers have been jailed for much less than what Elliott did on the day. As one of the workers employed by Elliott in the Latrobe Valley said “The courts are no place for workers to win”. Socialists see the courts as an instrument of the state. They are there to serve the interests of the ruling class over those of ordinary people.

    The fight for these workers to get paid their entitlements is still continuing in the Federal Court. Unfortunately as this worker said “In this case even if we win in the Federal Court we loose”. This particular worker is owed in excess of $70,000 and will only receive about $20,000 if they win the case.

    The lesson that needs to be drawn by the labour movement is that we can not put any trust in the bosses, their courts or their system. The courts are not the best arena for us to do battle. This case shows the arrogance of the ruling class as they know they are in a much better position to win at this point in time. Unfortunately this is because most of the unions are happy to play by their rules.

    If we are to ensure bosses can not steal our money and then act violently towards us in the future we will need to take a very different approach. This approach will need to include mass action aimed at breaking the laws that are designed to keep us at bay. This is the only way forward.


    Blue King Brown-Stand Up

    Dedicated with love to all those that fight oppression

    A Dream Deferred

    by Langston Hughes

    What happens to a dream deferred?

    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore--
    And then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat?
    Or crust and sugar over--
    like a syrupy sweet?

    Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load.

    Or does it explode?


    An Historic Non-Apology, Completely and Utterly Not Accepted

    thanks to the Angryindian

    The Maze of Rhetoric

    We hope our title is sufficiently unequivocal to convey our reaction to the events of Wednesday June 11, 2008. Maybe by example we can show how one must approach issues which require the utmost clarity. On the other hand, this probably won’t work, especially when it’s clear the predominant intention behind a communication is to obscure. Whatever… in any event, for us, sitting on a spiky metal fence is uncomfortable posture.

    We listened with attention to what Stephen Harper had to say yesterday, and we did not hear what we needed to hear. Instead, again we watched and heard one more opportunity being thrown away, this one with more ceremony than those preceding it. We watched and heard the studious avoidance of truth, in what we can only regard as the hope that the repetition of a lie will somehow substitute for reality, a concept now reduced to another mantra (as is nowadays the case for, for example, “truth” or “reconciliation”).

    To those surprised or appalled by our reaction, or to people who simply have no idea that there’s an issue here at all, let us begin by pointing to at least a few of the facts we had to keep in mind when listening to the statement of the current head of a political process that has, since it origin (Confederation in 1867), had the elimination of aboriginal peoples as its consistent policy:

    (1) the “settler” population of Canada has had, from the point of its inception, a qualitatively different relation with indigenous peoples than the remote colonial bureaucracy that preceded it: for England, the Indian Nations were allies (who, arguably, saved Canada on more than one occasion); for the newly-formed Dominion of Canada, they were impediments to expansion, like swamps and vermin. However, in the transfer of authority, the Dominion was honor-bound to respect them, their rights, and their historical status.

    (2) with legal and ethical limits placed upon their treatment of indigenous nations (so that, for example, the Dominion couldn’t just set out to slaughter them all, as became the policy in the United States), tactics had to be adopted that had the effect of extermination without giving its appearance (and the British empire had many models to emulate, particularly Tasmania). A simple but accurate characterization of the array of government programs, policies, and laws aimed at indigenous peoples and nations, then, is that they were a range of “carrots” and “sticks” deployed to turn those of us (if any) who survived these artifices from “Indians” into “Canadians” (or, after the era of multiculturalism began, “Indian-Canadians”). Residential school was only one of those programs, one that was heavy on the “stick” and light on the “carrot.”

    (3) church officials and government officials have, from time to time since the mid-1980’s, offered what they (and others) have characterized as “apologies.” These have not been apologies. An apology is not made an apology by the person offering it saying it is an apology; it is only an apology when those who have been offered it accept it as an apology. The fact that the rhetoric of pseudo-apologies has become more twisted as time has gone on should make all of us vigilant against immediately accepting what sounds like an apology without careful examination of exactly what was said, how it was said, and what was not said. And repetition is not an argument.

    So, what happened Wednesday afternoon? Stephen Harper described the history of actions undertaken by the government of Canada against the children of indigenous peoples, specifically, their forcible removal from their families and communities and their placement under the unsupervised control of four major Canadian churches. Various aspects of these actions, characterized as “abuse” (including physical, mental, and sexual abuse), were enumerated, followed by variations on the refrain of “for this, we apologize” (or “we are sorry”) and “we were wrong” (or “this should never have happened”). That it happened was attributed to bad, arrogant attitudes of superiority. Finally, when mention was made concerning where “we” go from here, the upcoming work of the so-called “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” was proffered as the most appropriate forum. Afterwards, this performance was, by-and-large, repeated by the leaders of the other political parties.

    The presentation was offered with every indication of honesty and sincerity. We do not doubt the honesty of what was said, for reasons we will give below. But for those who take honesty as evidence of truth, it would be good to remember what Marx once said: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Groucho Marx, that is.

    So what’s our problem? Actually, we have several: we did not hear an apology, we dispute characterizations that were made, and we do not believe the putative mechanism of resolution (the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”) will resolve anything useful.

    An apology has at least three characteristics (some people will say there are more, some will list more specific traits… this doesn’t matter for present purposes). The absence of any of these three characteristics immediately disqualifies a statement as an apology: a sincere expression of remorse for the behavior, the promise never to repeat the behavior, and the undertaking to undo, as far as possible, the damage done by the behavior.

    “Well,” we hear some say, “the first conditions was obviously met… we all heard Mr. Harper recount a comprehensive list of offenses, halting at each one and saying ‘Canada apologizes’ and ‘it was wrong,’ didn’t we?”

    Suppose, after beating his wife to the point of hospitalizing her, a man attempted to make amends in the following manner: “I’m sorry I gave you a black eye… it was wrong; I’m sorry I chipped your teeth… it never should have happened; I apologize for breaking your arm… it never should have happened; I apologize for bruising your ribs… it was wrong;” and so on.

    Does this sound odd to you? It does to us. Why would anyone choose to express his remorse in such a fashion? In “apologizing” to his wife, has the man adopted this manner of speaking, perhaps, to be more thorough (the list could go on and on…)? We think not. In this instance, the specificity of the list helps him avoid saying something, something more comprehensive, something more general, but in this case, something much more accurate: “I’m sorry I physically assaulted you. It was a criminal action on my part.”

    We don’t believe Prime Minister Harper adopted this obscurantist form of address to be more comprehensive; we believe he did so to avoid saying I’m sorry the Canadian government committed genocide against you. It was a criminal action on our part.

    (Of course, Mr. Harper was unauthorized to avoid saying something similar on behalf of the churches; they’ve been doing their own artful dodging for years.)

    Consequently, if we’re right the sincerity of what was said evaporates as an apology for residential schooling. Thus it was no apology at all, but bluff and continued evasion. We believe he said what he said honestly; that is, that he sincerely believed in what he was saying, but only because, for the governments and individuals he was representing (past and present), he had to craft an evasive statement that he could, in all sincerity, endorse. Did Mr. Harper, all on his own, come up with this muddied, tortured declaration right off the cuff, or perhaps just a few minutes before he came down the stairs with his escorts in tow? Well, since Indian Affairs Minister Strahl has been telling us for weeks now what Harper was going to say, we doubt it. We also doubt that the Conservative party didn’t have a team of lawyers, rhetoricians, and spin doctors, if not writing the statement, at least agonizing over every phrase, every word, every revelation in the evolving document, considering in detail every implication and weighing each possible consequence. Someone was even counting the number of words. No, what we saw was carefully considered, and when such a carefully prepared and comprehensively vetted document does some things (and not others) it is no accident.

    So then, is our “belief” about what Mr. Harper was evading correct? We had no trouble seeing through the Prime Minister’s tortured prose because we’re well aware of related issues (such as the ones we began this essay with) that are no part of what the average Canadian is supposed to know and what government and church officials know all too well: the United Nations Genocide Convention and Canada’s role in it.

    Take a moment and judge for yourself: go online (if you’re not online already) and find the text of the UN Genocide Convention. If you know anything about the internet you’ll have no trouble finding it; we give the text of Article II below:
    Art. 2. In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
    (a) Killing members of the group;
    (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
    (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
    (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
    (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

    Many of you will be reading this for the first time. You aren’t supposed to be reading it at all. We call attention to sections (b) and, especially, (e), which we call the “Slam Dunk.” If pressed we’d be willing to argue the entire list, but we don’t have to: the Article says any, not all. Even Mr. Harper in his statement comes perilously close to the Slam Dunk a couple of times:

    “…very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes…”


    “…it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.”

    Was he, in subconscious guilt, aping a phrase he had read a million times before with the understanding he must avoid it at all costs? … or, perhaps, intentionally teetering along the edge of a precipice, in order to mock the dozen or so of us who were waiting to see if he used the correct word? We don’t know. He creeps into another neighborhood (b) once again when he mentions:

    “…emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children…”

    but that’s as close as he gets to any of the other categories of acts constituting genocide in international law. It isn’t crucial, however; we already have the Slam Dunk.

    Well, isn’t there some way around this… this… embarrassing fact? No. One of the contributors to the current document wrote a book 14 years ago that established the genocide that was Indian residential schooling, and the absence of ways around it was thoroughly dealt with there. However, no one read it then and no one is going to read it now (although it’s still available in print form, and free on the internet at www.nativestudies.org), particularly when we’ve gone and spoiled the ending for everyone.

    But then, is there no “responsible” authority (not just a dozen or so Indians, and worse, Indian-lovers, who can read and add and reason) who can tell you, our present readership, whether our “interpretation” is right or wrong? (Over the years, time and again, work on this issue has been slighted by phrases like “X believes that the residential schools were genocide,” or “In X’s opinion, Canada and the churches are guilty of genocide,” like it was some disputable quirk on X’s part that is at issue. Well, it’s the United Nations “opinion,” as expressed in the black-and-white of the Convention, that Canada and the churches committed genocide, and the UN is the body that in 1948 got to say what genocide was.) Okay. In support of our “interpretation,” we call what all must agree is a “responsible” authority… the government of Canada.

    Also available on the above web site is a paper that provides more detail and references concerning Canada’s disreputable collusion with the United States in gutting a form of the genocide convention that would have been much more explicit with respect to the point we’re making. The current convention is a watered-down version of the proposals of Raphael Lemkin (the man who coined the term “genocide” in 1944), but even watered down it is sufficient. So sufficient that, when it came time to implement the Genocide Convention in Canada’s criminal code (which was what each nation of the United Nations was supposed to do), Canada omitted entire subsections of the UN Convention (by 1970, (b), (d), and (e) were gone, Canada telling anyone who asked that the laws against murder and manslaughter already banned genocide – reducing genocide, as they discussed in the early 50’s, to outright killing). No less an authority than eventual Prime Minister Lester Pearson had suggested that surgery had to be performed on the UN Genocide Convention, or otherwise Canada and its churches would be in violation of it… and, for heavens’ sake, Indians might someday learn to read!

    It’s true that even the Convention as articulated provided sufficient wiggle room to allow countries to adopt modified versions of it. But, as remarked by a commentator who first encountered the Convention last Wednesday, Canada’s excisions and elisions betoken a guilty conscience about what it had been up to. After all, this is what the US, with Canada’s aid, had forced through the conference dealing with this particular issue, and if it was good enough in principle for everyone else in the world, why was it inappropriate for Canada?

    Finally, sometime in the late 1990’s, Canada quietly, surreptitiously, and without ceremony removed genocide as a chargeable offense from its criminal code, leaving mention of it now solely in the provisions against hate crimes.

    We find it interesting how closely the vaporization of genocide in Canadian law coincided with rising consciousness in Native America on the distance between what international law said and what governments had done, and with a government-commissioned secret study that warned the Chrétien government that Canada was liable with respect to the “genocide issue” and recommended it bite the bullet and ‘fess up. As always, Canada provided itself with some explanatory “wiggle room” about why they did what they did, but we would certainly like to ask some direct questions of the officials involved, as well as examine documents and internal correspondence on these subjects (but see below). But, to summarize in a fashion both short and blunt, the history of Canada’s involvement in the creation and implementation of genocide law, nationally and internationally, betokens an overriding concern with its culpability and liability with respect to its treatment of indigenous peoples in general, and its operation of Indian residential schools in particular.

    So, Canada itself agrees that our reading of the UN Genocide Convention is correct, and that it accurately characterizes its behavior towards Native Peoples.

    Okay, you might say, Canada’s behavior is at variance with international genocide law… but didn’t implementing what they did, however maimed and deformed, into Canadian law remove all future problems? After all, aren’t their actions simply a version of what the United States, also worried about the possibility of being charged with genocide, undertook… adopting a limited version of the Convention, finally, at the end of the Regan administration, and then subjecting it to interpretation by American courts?

    It’s true it was pure evasion, but it isn’t true that it lets Canada off any hook. Apart from the “guilty conscious” their behavior evidences, putting aside any question of legal liability that might or might not be attached, and forgoing any discussion of what jurists have long ago established concerning the priority of international law (e.g., that countries and government officials can’t exempt themselves from accountability to international law); instead of all that, just ask yourself: was it merely the failure of the corrupt powers of Rwanda (or Slobodan Milosevic) to exempt themselves (or himself) from the Genocide Convention that got them (or him) into trouble? Suppose the Genocide Convention was in force during the Holocaust… would Hitler’s declaring himself and his chums “immune” have rendered it inoperative? Is that the length the average Canadian is willing to have her or his government go to avoid having to deal with its genocide of indigenous peoples?

    It has taken us some time, but Mr. Harper’s statement:

    “…it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.”

    …must be amended to say:

    “…it was wrong for the government of Canada to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this. And it was a crime.”

    Bank robbers, thieves, drunk drivers… all criminals, in fact… don’t get to erase their crimes by saying “I’m sorry,” regardless of how sincerely they might say it.

    Genocide on the Table

    A television snippet from country-wide reaction on Wednesday featured Diane Blair crying out “It was genocide! Why not just admit it?!”

    A fair question, and one well-put. As we have seen, Mr. Harper could have used the term, and it was a deliberate act not to. What motivated him? Without too much thought we can see several reasons, grounds sufficient for us to have anticipated long before Wednesday’s circus that what we weren’t going to hear would be a genuine apology. To answer the woman’s question, first, keep on reading the Convention; immediately you will find:
    Art. 3. The following acts shall be punishable:
    (a) Genocide;
    (b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
    (c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
    (d) Attempt to commit genocide;
    (e) Complicity in genocide.
    Art. 4. Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.
    So we have Reason 1: rulers, public officials, and private individuals, criminals all, prefer to avoid being punished for their actions. It is very common, we think, for criminals to not want to be punished. In most cases, however, and unlike the case under consideration (i.e., the Indian residential schools), criminals are not in charge of the political, economic, legal, and journalistic controls of a nation. Journalistic control, of course, is particularly necessary if one is going to maintain the manufactured ignorance of multiple millions of Canadians.

    Reason 2: Canada has held other nations accountable to a standard of international law that it has itself evaded. That is hypocrisy. Canada wants to complain to China about its human rights abuses; it does not want its own abuses thrown back into its face.
    Reason 3: Assaults, rapes, and every other form of abuse expire in national law, perhaps even in international law, according to their Statute of Limitation. Genocide has no Statute of Limitation.

    Reason 4: Canada presents itself as a good world citizen, a paragon of virtue. However, a country that bears comparison with Nazi Germany is a paragon of virtue like Charles Manson is a boy scout leader.

    Reason 5: Speaking like a psychologist for a moment, abusers frequently tell themselves they have good grounds for the abuses they perpetrate. Often they repeat the lie to themselves with such regularity that they come to believe it.

    Reason 6: This is a reason the head of the United Church gave us in a public meeting in 2002: “genocide” is such a harsh word that the membership of his church would be upset by its use, however appropriate. Thus, it’s better to perform genocide than give it its proper name. So perhaps Canada is similarly just thinking about the tender sensibilities of its real citizens, and not those of its pseudo-citizens against whom the genocide was implemented.

    Reason 7: The lengths Canada has gone (first, to limit the definition of genocide, and second, to obstruct every way there might have been for indigenous peoples to even raise it as an issue) shows the fear that, if the governments and churches show “weakness,” Indians will treat them with the same rapacity Westerners show weaknesses detected in one another. That is, that Indians will behave like Westerners (the irony that this transformation is what the residential schools were trying to institute has not escaped our notice). It is to our credit that there is no evidence at all that we would behave in such an inhuman manner. More than for any other reason, the moves that have been made toward litigation have been motivated by the government and churches closing off any other ways of seeking redress. From the beginning, all the survivors wanted was a genuine apology, along the criteria we’ve mentioned at the beginning of this commentary.

    Reason 8: For us, Reason 1 and its first cousin, Reason 7 are is the overriding motivations behind avoiding the word “genocide.” But it takes not a moments reflection to appreciate that, once “genocide” is on the table, its application across the entire range of policies and programs affecting Native Peoples, historically and contemporaneously, must be considered.

    Let’s briefly look at some specific cases in light of Reason 8. So; how well does “genocide” fit the various incentives manufactured over the years for Indians to enfranchise themselves or to be enfranchised? Perfectly, we think. So; how descriptive is “genocide” concerning the 60’s and 70’s Scoops, where uncounted numbers of indigenous children were adopted out, some overseas, to non-Native foster parents? Flawlessly, in our opinion. (Sterilization? Who said that?) Or, can “genocide” accurately characterize the current status of suicide in aboriginal communities? It can and it does, we would argue.

    And on and on. Maybe some of you would prefer to argue the point, but that’s our point: the Indian residential schools were not isolated idiosyncrasies of a few members of a governmental department or two. Genocides involve a host of interrelated and interwoven policies and programs, the understanding of which requires sustained effort and the application of all 5 of the specific headings given under Article II. The Nazis, for goodness’ sake, made it illegal for Jews to own parrots!

    Bringing genocide to the table would take the churches, but more centrally the government of Canada, into the exhaustive examination of additional regions of its policies and programs with respect to indigenous peoples, regions that, up until now, it has successfully avoided (or at least, as it is now trying to do with residential school, managed to isolate from other policies). And, what is perhaps even more important, establishing that Canada’s policies toward indigenous peoples constitute an historic and ongoing genocide rules out Mr. Harper’s statement as an apology, since such would violate the second feature of a genuine apology; someone who is still doing it can’t be promising not to do it again.

    If Genocide, Why?

    So far we have only dealt with why what Mr. Harper said on Wednesday was not an apology (to summarize, he meticulously avoided using the proper term “genocide” to characterize Canada’s actions, thereby impugning the sincerity with which he had worked so hard to infuse his words). But at the outset we objected to more than the non-apologetic nature of his statement; we took exception with characterizations he made of the actions of the churches and governments.

    We don’t dispute his repeated assertions that “it was wrong.” For us, this was a no-brainer: genocide is wrong. Mr. Harper’s pathetic attempt to insinuate mitigating circumstances (“While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools…”), another evasion which disqualifies his statement as an apology (just try to apologize for killing someone while driving under the influence of alcohol by saying “I always do silly things when I’m drunk”), also boomerangs when we consider the irrelevance of the specifics of a genocide to decide upon its “wrongness.” After all, some Jews learned a useful trade working as slave labor in concentration camps; some made new friends; many lost weight; and some even had their metabolisms re-set, so that they were able to maintain a healthy weight for the rest of their lives! But when you make the moral decision that genocide is wrong, you don’t have to listen to sophistry that tries to turn the task of making moral judgments into an accounting of the “goods” and “bads” of a particular program.

    There are numerous other places we could be picayune. Calling residential schools “educational institutions” grated on us, for example. But in at least one more point the presentation descended much too far into pure fiction for us to leave it uncommented. With genocide now revealed as the accurate term to characterize the governments’ and the churches’ actions, the question of why arises. Even Mr. Harper, in evading the issue of genocide, still felt compelled to provide his listeners with an historical vignette of the underlying cause of creation and operation of the schools:

    “Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption that aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.”

    There you have it; the objective was to assimilate Indians, because we were believed to have inferior cultures (spiritual beliefs are an expression of culture, and thus redundantly included in Mr. Harper’s statement). This was “wrong,” “caused great harm,” and has “no place in our country.”

    We have no doubt about the “great harm” part of his statement; however, you should notice how it leaves the agents of all this misery unnamed. It was “the residential school system” that had objectives (and not people working for the churches and governments), and the “inferiority assumption” apparently just hung in mid-air during the years of operation of residential schools, unattached to anything identifiable as a human being wearing a frock or business suit.

    Are things any better when we supply warm bodies to this dodge? Well, inserting human beings into all this would at least make explicit that it was people who had the objectives of (1) removing Indian children from their forms of life and (2) insinuating them into mainstream culture, and that people had the (now more obviously racist) assumption that Indians were inferior. So now, our agreeing that this was “wrong” allows us to encapsulate and restate this part of Mr. Harper’s little history lesson into “people did harmful things to Indians because those people were racists.”

    But anyone who thinks we are satisfied with this rendering is much too used to bad movie scripts, where bad people do bad things because they are bad. As if the clergy and governmental officials responsible were all wearing black hats. Life is not so simple.

    First, the image that in Indian residential schools an “inferior” culture was being replaced with a “superior” culture (which thinking, thanks to the P. M., we now know has “no place” in Canada) is simply wrong. Indian children were not being taught to drink tea with their pinkies extended, speak with an affected English accent, or appreciate poetry and opera; they were being taught to perform as menials (domestics, farm hands, cooks, etc.) for members of the superior culture (and even the not-so-elevated members of that culture). If they were expected to learn anything in residential schools, it was to learn their place; to perform, without question and with dispatch, the commands of their betters. If this was assimilation into “dominant culture” it was into its lowest, most wretched, most disposable stratum, where the inhabitants moiled to eke out a marginal existence. It was alright that these serfs would be Indians; after all, our “betters” have never really concerned themselves with the color of their peons.

    Second, attributing this all to “the racists” (who, thank heaven, no longer have a place in Canada) erects a faceless, nameless straw man we’re all supposed to take a turn at pummeling. But this piece of misdirection insinuates that ideology determines actions, rather than actions determining ideology. This is too big a subject to go into here, but ideologies of race, race inferiority, and sub-humanity arise from the material needs to dispossess and expropriate, and not vice versa. Canada’s wealth has arisen from the willingness of the settler society to simply take what they want from indigenous populations (just ask the Lubicon, the Cree of Northern Quebec, and the Labrador Innu, for recent examples). It’s in casting about for some excuse to justify satisfying a material agenda that Canadians have had to create and then invoked the non-humanity of the real owners of Canada.

    Consequently, holding anonymous racists responsible for the woes of Indians and assuring us they no longer abide here is nothing but additional falsification on a heroic level. For banishing faceless and nameless spirits to some vasty deep does no such thing as long as the material need to do away with Indian rights and claims continues to abide here. Thus Mr. Harper’s history lesson is nothing more than another kind of bribe… like the forthcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Just let us insinuate a comic-book version of Canada,” it says. “We don’t have to name the ghosts in the story; we all know who they were anyway. We’ll just pretend they’re all gone now, so you can sleep better at nights. And we get to pretend there’s a clean and complete split with this admittedly reprehensible past.” But the past is present, and it seems, the future.

    Resolving Anything Useful?

    For a “clean break” the events of Wednesday leave an enormous number of loose ends (some thicker than the Atlantic Cable) flailing around, at least for us. Even several of the leaders of the other political parties, in their responses to Mr. Harper’s statement, noted on Wednesday that it was short on detail. That may be true; however, directly by Mr. Harper’s words and indirectly by implication the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been accorded the task of sorting out the remaining specifics.

    Is it up to the task? Not even in the cartoon world Mr. Harper has created, much less in the real world.

    As already mentioned the statement not only said things we dispute, it left unmentioned a host of issues we needed to see addressed. Let’s run through a few of the omissions:

    (1) Genocide. Is the commission going to bring this up? And so what if it does? Canada has already demonstrated it will simply ignore the charge if it’s made, and has been careful to eliminate any possibility of treating the matter in a serious way. Minister Strahl, for example, stated repeatedly in the run-up to Wednesday that nothing Mr. Harper would say would prohibit an ongoing, aggressive investigation into crimes associated with the residential school. But he knew, as we did, that the central crime had already been removed from consideration. Even if Indian after Indian stands before the commission and charges genocide, nothing will happen about it. Most of all, such repetition will only dispose the “average” Canadian, who is supposed to be getting an education on these things, into the familiar stupor of “there go those damned Indians again, always complaining about something.”

    (2) The Cover-Ups. Once “wrongs” are correctly identified as “crimes,” can anyone else see that Canada and its churches have been covering up the crimes of the residential schools for quite some time now? The pattern of responding to charges made by former prisoners of Indian residential schools was predictable and familiar: stonewall, then impugn the testimony and motives of the victims (“those troublemakers just like to make noise, or they’re looking for another handout”), then admit that maybe, just maybe there was a “bad apple” here and there in a gigantic barrel of nice apples (“some bad things may have happened, but it was all done with the best of intentions”), then throw a sacrifice (preferably one already dead) to a dissatisfied and growing crowd of lawyers, and then go back to stonewalling (“Hey, enough already! The issue has been settled!”).

    Canada and the churches have worked long and hard to avoid admitting anything (in 1998 it was estimated that the Anglican Church, for one, had spent the overwhelming bulk of their budget for dealing with residential schooling on advice from publicity agencies), much less general and specific criminal acts. As anyone paying attention could probably guess, here the government has long ago moved to limit its own possible damages from colluding in knowingly hiding crimes and hindering investigations, so that, for example, while it’s illegal in Canada to destroy documents needed for criminal investigations the people who do the destroying can’t be charged with anything (the “Naughty-Naughty” Principle).

    But the churches have long looked out for their own, with known pedophiles in their ranks given a “time out” and then transferred to a new assignment without the inconvenience of having to face a criminal charge. By the way, isn’t this what Becket and King Henry were arguing about back in the 13th century? Eventually, didn’t English law come down on Henry’s side? We have to agree with Henry on this one.

    The victims of abuse at residential schools have had to endure not only the original abuse, but the vituperation and calumny of criminals and those assisting criminals in evading disclosure and prosecution. And, for parliamentarians and bureaucrats, even if they’ve removed themselves from the possibility of formal criminal charges under the existing criminal code, justice demands an accounting and acknowledgement of the cover-up as much as it demands them of the original crimes.

    (3) The Secret Histories. Attention has been focused so much on church and governmental abuses that there is a clear and present danger that an additional unknown number of malefactors will slip through the cracks. It has already been acknowledged that, for example, in the 50’s the Canadian Medical Association asked for, and received, permission to study the distribution and growth of tuberculosis in “human” populations by giving unpasteurized milk to the children in residential schools. Around the same time, the Canadian Dental Association asked for, and received, permission to study the lifelong development and growth of caries (tooth decay) in “human” populations by giving “sham treatments” to Indian children in residential schools. Here, not only are the people who “authorized” these child abuses culpable, so are the people who ask for them. Both these cases, of course, took place long after the Nuremburg Protocols for ethical research with human beings had been articulated and accepted.

    Nor does it end here. The notorious Dr. Cameron, who, while in the pay of the Central Intelligence Agency, used electroshock and mind-altering drugs to experiment on innocent Canadians (a chapter in Canadian history immortalized, so to speak, in a CBC movie), also had some kind of involvement with Indian residential schools, mainly in the Prairie provinces. Rumors abound (since at least the early 90’s), but there has never been enough hard evidence to sustain charges. Doesn’t this bear investigation?

    In fact, with a captive population and a supervening authority at best indifferent to their well-being and without any mechanism of complaint or due process available to the victims, what could not have happened? On this subject our imaginations have already been far outstripped by what everyone admits actually did happen; what a broadly-thrown finely-gauged net might dredge up is, in our opinion, anybody’s guess. The (now, finally, at last) movement to start digging in church graveyards and remote, unmarked locations is merely the tip of an iceberg, one that could well nail, even for those Canadians at the utmost levels of denial, the concept of genocide to Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples.

    There’s more (Sterilization? Who said that?), but this is enough for now. These three loose ends, rather than “details” that can be dealt with summarily, are, we predict, Hydra’s Heads that will sprout hundreds or even thousands of additional inquiries if pursued with due diligence. We have a number of problems with the upstart commission, but our question here is: Is the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” equal to this task?

    This commission can (1) subpoena no witnesses, (2) compel no testimony, (3) requisition no document. It cannot find, charge, fine, or imprison. Thus far, the only ones lining up to testify are members of groups who have already testified (the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples generated thousands of pages of testimony from school survivors, a corpus, we must add, that has not in the slightest way entered into the consciousness of the average Canadian in the 12 years since its publication) and those who still maintain sufficient plausible deniability to publicly defend its inactions (the RCMP, for example). Those most obviously culpable have already stated their intentions not to bother showing up.

    Will, somehow, the victims of residential schooling show up dragging bales of documents proving abusive actions, abusive policies, collusion, cover-ups, etc. on the part of ministers, bureaucrats, clergy, professors, bag-men, pedophiles, and the full host of assorted miscreants? They’d better, for the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” won’t have them.

    Or maybe we just need to pray for our own version of a governmental or ecclesiastical “Valachi,” who will show up and rat out the Dons, all the way up to and including the Capo de Tutti Capi. However, not only is this an extremely thin thread upon which to hang our hopes for truth (and more importantly, JUSTICE); what “witness protection program” is going to protect him or her?

    “Truth” is an odd name for a body that can trade not at all in that particular commodity. “Reconciliation,” too, is an odd word for five years of allegations that can be either scorned or ignored, according to the tastes of those who are its subject. It invokes the same fantasy world Mr. Harper constructed, where Canadian and indigenous peoples are returned to that happy state of mutual respect and cooperation that existed before the bad old residential schools came along and ruined everything. In “truth,” however, there never has been any “conciliation” to “re.”


    We don’t know about you, but we’ve been unable to swing a dead cat since Wednesday without whacking someone telling us about how the “apology” has “closed a painful chapter” and signals “a new beginning in relations” between “Canadians and Indian-Canadians” (sic). Like someone tearing apart a picture of a former boyfriend or girlfriend, spitting on it, and walking away from the pieces tossed over the shoulder, however, we’ve been witnessing a made-up ceremony, one where the participants, for various reasons, are trying more to convince themselves they’ve dealt with all the serious issues rather than actually putting an end to them.

    Canada has, once again, missed a truly historic opportunity, putting paste on display rather than an authentic diamond, because the diamond, in someone’s estimation, would have been far too expensive. Already, after the patina of ceremony has worn off, there have been some rumblings, primarily around the fact the Mr. Harper’s statement was long on being sorry and short on being active. And as we pointed out at the start, a real apology promises to undo, as far as possible, the damage done. But now that the statement is revealed as just another evasion, we must caution against whatever action the governments of Canada would propose; as we’ve tried to make clear, the “action” Mr. Harper’s statement endorses, the “Truth” and “Reconciliation” Commission, is no action at all. And someone who steals your car, wrecks it, and is unrepentant about his/her actions is most definitely not the person you’d choose to repair it or replace it.

    But that person most certainly at the very least would be responsible to pay the costs of repair or replacement. If this be genocide, the role of Canada’s government (and churches) is to make it possible for us to once again make ourselves whole, nothing more and nothing less. How should we do this, how long it will take us, where do we start… these questions and more crowd in on us all. But they are questions we must identify, discuss, and answer ourselves.

    Those of you who saw clearly and immediately the farce that was being played out; those of you who felt in your heart of hearts that the whole orchestration was out of tune but couldn’t identify the offending instruments until now; and those of you who were misled until you brought the powers of your own intellect to the examination of this exercise in rhetorical excess; whatever your history is that led you to complete this overlong commentary; we invite you to join in the task of building what ultimately must replace this charade, some kind of response authentically committed to truth in this history and justice in its resolution.

    Roland Chrisjohn
    Andrea Bear Nicholas
    Karen Stote
    James Craven (Omahkohkiaayo i'poyi)
    Tanya Wasacase
    Pierre Loiselle
    Andrea O. Smith

    AMCRAN launch of 3rd edition multilingual series Anti-Terrorism Laws: ASIO, the Police and You

    Dear friends,

    You are warmly invited to the third edition launch of the publication series Anti-Terrorism Laws: ASIO, the Police and You.

    This series of publications is designed to educate the community on their rights and responsibilities under Australia's counter-terrorism laws. It is presented in four languages: English, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, and Urdu. The third edition covers new areas of law introduced since the first edition in 2004, including the association offence, sedition, preventative detention and control orders. This publication is essential reading, and provides a concise, simple, yet thorough coverage of the laws that all Australians should be aware of and understand.

    The booklets will be distributed at no cost at the launch, and will also be available from AMCRAN's website (http://amcran.org/) in all four languages after the launch.

    This project would not have been possible without the generous funding support of the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, the UTS Law Faculty and UTS Students Association.

    When: Thursday 17 July 2008
    Time: 10 am – 12 pm
    Where: Lansdowne Room, Bankstown Town Hall, Cnr Chapel & Rickard Rds, Bankstown

    Speakers include:

    Mr Peter Russo, Defence lawyer of Dr. Mohamed Haneef
    Dr Zachariah Matthews, President, Australian Islamic Mission; Board Member, AMCRAN
    Ms Marika Dias, Solicitor, Convenor of Anti-Terrorism Laws Working Group, Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic) Inc.
    Mr Geoff Mulherin, Director, Law and Justice Foundation
    RSVP by Friday 11 July 2008 essential: amcran@amcran.org

    For more information please contact Ayishah Ansari, Legal Convenor NSW, at legalconvenornsw@amcran.org.

    We look forward to seeing you at the launch.

    Yours sincerely,

    Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network

    Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network
    PO Box 3610
    Bankstown NSW 2200
    Tel: (02) 9708 0009
    Fax: (02) 9708 0008
    amcran@amcran.org | http://amcran.org


    "Don't believe the hype" - A Cyclone on the Horizion in Tonga

    You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing in Tonga. As King Tupou V Tonga prepares for his coronation in August 2008, the majority of the island’s population waits for a much more fundamental change in leadership: a shift of political power from the king to the people. The arrival of democracy to Tonga is inevitable. However, in what circumstances it arrives remains to be seen. One grassroots pro-democracy activist explained that “Tonga is currently at a crossroads waiting to see which of the two paths the monarchy will take: either they will hear the demands of the people and allow peaceful change or they will ignore the demands and people will be forced to take things into their own hands”.

    The Monarchy

    With regards to the political situation, there is a clear division between two classes within Tongan society. On the one side you have the monarchy and the nobility who owe their wealth and status to the population but for whom they have nothing but distrust and contempt. Their disdain for the people manifests itself in widespread corruption and within the ruling institutions the powerful abuse and manipulation the rules systemically. These practices continue to thrive despite being exposed by a number of organisations. Siosiua Pooi Pohiva of the Tongan Human Rights and Democracy Movement noted that,

    “Over the years they [the Human Rights and Democracy Movement] have uncovered numerous instances of politicians’ abuse of power though generally no form of discipline will occur”.
    At the worst the person in question may lose their post but they will reappear shortly afterwards with a new position within the ruling class.

    As for the activities of the royal family, their contempt for their ‘subjects’ is quite simply unbelievable. The list of economic follies and wealth accumulation off the backs of the Tongan people is endless. Soldiers have to endlessly patrol the palace, just in case the subjects revolt once more. The coming coronation highlights their level of disdain.

    • Tens of millions of pa’angaare being spent to rebuild town in preparation for the coronation which will be attended by many of the King’s acquaintances including Elton John and Sean Connery.
    • 500,000 pa’anga has been spent on a crown to replace the already immaculate crown of the King’s late father along with a custom made robe (believed to be worth 500,000 pa’anga).
    • Construction of a gold scepter (believed to be worth 50,000 pa’anga)
    • Custom tailored attire for the King to wear during the three balls, concert, rugby match and parade which will be part of the festivities.
    “All of this” one activist said “while whole families struggle to survive, splitting a tin of fish between eight people for dinner”.

    The Movement

    On the other side of the political divide is the pro-democracy movement. The movement began in the 1970s when a group of Tongans returned home after living overseas and were confronted by an abusive and opulent regime. They saw it as their responsibility and obligation to challenge and speak out against this malpractice and started to organise and agitate for change. Since those early days the movement has grown and now consists of six of the nine politicians who are popularly elected, the Public Service Association, the Friendly Island Teachers’ Association and is also believed to represent the majority of the Tongan population. The movements support is easily visible in Tonga, where a common bumper sticker proclaims Liliu 2008 - Poupou or Change 2008 - For Sure

    Of course just how much support they have is not known as the government refuses to hold a referendum, as it is aware that the result will only expedite their own demise. The pro-democracy movement is currently circumnavigating this obstacle by conducting their own survey to determine the level of support they have and to present the results to the population and the regime to argue for change.

    At the same time the movement is biting at the heels of the government, pressuring the government to keep their promise of political reform in 2010. Of course, state promises have been made for many years and movement activists have no illusions that democratisation will be handed down voluntarily by the establishment. But by concentrating activism around pressuring the government the movement is provided with a concrete rallying point and it serves to showcase to the public yet another example of the movement trying to meet the monarchy on it’s own terms.

    The Future

    The future of Tonga remains unwritten and uncertain. Yet those I have spoken to in Tonga have all been sure of one thing. Democracy, they say, is not a question of “if” but “when”. What is hazier is how?

    As the people of Tonga are aware, the island nation is currently at the crossroads. The powerful could choose to take notice of the overwhelming popular demand for democracy and instigate change. This path, according to Mele Amanaki, Secretary General of the Public Service Association, will lead to a referendum next year or in 2010 and will only prove what everyone in Tonga already knows. Following this, the power of government will be shifted from the monarchy to the people. Alternatively, the powerful will continue to defy democracy and the people’s demands. If this is the road the powerful take then the people will take matters into their own hands.

    Currently, the organised pro-democracy movement is providing an outlet for people’s anger at the establishment. However, if the organised movement is perceived to be wasting its time, people will channel their rage onto the streets and against the property of the ruling class. As was seen on 16th November ’06, when 60-75% of downtown Nuku’alofa was destroyed, both the pro-democracy movement and the government will be unable to contain the fury of the people. The vacant lots are a visible reminder of that day and night. Some in Tonga wonder whether at this time self-organised popular action akin to the struggle in Nepal in 2006 will occur. This uprising saw strikes, tax boycotts and marches sweep the country and as the security forces failed to regain control, the King had little choice but to relinquish power. Others speculate that political assassinations and direct action violence will force the monarchy to capitulate.

    Whichever direction the wind comes from in Tonga over the next few years, it’s easy to see that a storm sits over the horizon. Past the blue skies and tranquil waters of this south Pacific paradise lies the cyclone of rebellion. How and when it hits this country again is the choice of the elite. Democracy now will avert the worst of the devastation. The rest of us must continue to hope and to act, so that when the movement in Tonga finally does reach the end of this stage in their struggle, the democracy they win allows the people to decide their own destiny and to control their future; a real people’s democracy in the Pacific. The people of Tonga deserve nothing less.

    see also:

    Pasifika Unite Stand Up Fight back

    Movie: The Nu Face of Rebellion (Tonga 2006)


    To celebrate and remember the Lakotah victory over Custer at the battle of the Greasy Grass, June 25th 1876. And to honor all the warriors who took part in that battle.

    Thanks to LakotaRepublic


    The Tongan Riots

    The Tongan riot is part of a wider surge in class struggle in the Pacific since 2005. Since this date, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia and Tahiti have experienced major strikes, and Tonga and the Solomons have experienced riots. More unrest and IMF style riots are likely, as neoliberal market reforms imposed by the IMF and World Bank have savagely cut the living standards of Pacific people, while enriching island elites. Increasingly, island elites lack the resources to control their own population, hence Australia and New Zealand have sent in troops to prop up unpopular regimes and to repress popular movements. It will be interesting to see how this rebellion develops in the Pacific

    — Fydd

    "If a boat ends up on a reef you don't blame the reef;
    you don't blame the boat;
    you don't blame the wind;
    you don't blame the waves;
    you blame the captain."
    — Tongan Saying

    On Thursday 16 November 2006, riots erupted in Nuku'alofa, the capital of the tiny kingdom of Tonga. Tonga is an archipelago of 170 islands in the South Pacific, about 3,000 km northeast of Sydney and 2,000 km northeast of New Zealand/Aotearoa. After a pro-democracy march ended outside parliament, an irate crowd of possibly 2,000-3,000 took to the streets. As they rampaged through town, they tipped over cars, attacked government buildings, smashed windows, looted businesses and then set them alight. Many people who weren't at the demonstration joined the riot. Amidst the stores, offices and hotels engulfed in flames, the looting gleefully continued. Beaming youngsters darted in and out of stores laden with looted boxes and sacks of goods as blinding waves of fire fell onto the road. For many Tongans, it was like a Christmas give-away bonanza that had come early. By the night's end, the mob had burnt down a remarkable 80% of the Central Business District of Nuku'alofa. Six people were dead, and millions of Pa'anga (the currency of Tonga) damage had been done.

    Police stood by, powerless. The cops even asked looters for candles because of a power blackout! However, as the flames became too intense, the looters dispersed, and the government slowly regained control. The government granted itself tough emergency powers. The CBD was cordoned off. Armed cops and soldiers from the Tongan Defence Force patrolled the streets, indiscriminately arresting youth. The Tongan government, fearing that it was facing a revolution, quickly requested armed assistance from Australia and New Zealand to quell its unruly subjects. And so over 150 Australian and New Zealand troops and cops were flown in by their respective governments. After a few weeks, over 570 people were arrested, most of whom were beaten by soldiers and police.

    This article looks at the riot itself. It looks at the background to the riot (particularly the massive strike by government workers in 2005), the causes of the riot, the targets of the rioters, and whether it was a class riot or a race riot. Most leftist publications covering the Tongan riots focus on capital's and the state's response to the riots, and tend to overlook the actual activity of the exploited class in Tonga. Perhaps this is because they don't see much radical potential in riots.

    This piece doesn't examine why Australia and New Zealand sent in troops to crush the resistance, nor why they have "intervened" in the wider Pacific (both governments have also sent in troops to the Solomon Islands and East Timor). As well, I don't examine the increasingly important imperialist rivalry for control of the markets, resources and populations of the South Pacific between China, Taiwan, the US and Australia/New Zealand (often representing US interests, but not always; sometimes they pursue their own agenda in the Pacific). I recognise these imperialist aspects are essential to a broader understanding of Tonga and the Pacific, yet this isn't the purpose of this article. This doesn't mean I support Australian and New Zealand imperialism (or any other form of imperialism), also known as "peacekeeping," in the Pacific.1

    The main question that I explore in this article is whether the riot was a class riot or an anti-monarchy riot. The riot occurred just after the government, which is run by the King of Tonga, announced the stalling of democratic reform. People attending a pro-democracy rally were outraged, and went off and trashed government buildings and the business interests of the monarchy as a result. This strongly suggests, given the limited information available as to the actual motives of the rioters, that the riot was a "pro-democracy" affair. By pro-democracy, I don't mean direct democracy, such as that of workers' councils. Instead, I mean representative, parliamentary democracy.

    Yet, on closer examination, the riot can't be reduced to an episode in the ongoing struggle in Tonga between the rising urban capitalist class, who support representative democracy, and the traditional aristocracy, who wish to retain the monarchy. The riot expressed the class rage of many "commoner" Tongans who've been impoverished by years of neoliberal reform and oppressed by centuries of authoritarian rule. They've been enraged by how the Tongan "royal" family and aristocracy have greatly enriched themselves through privatisation. The riot had some limited anti-capitalist content, especially in the joyful practise of proletarian shopping (also known as looting). The co-operation between thousands of rioters to carry out such a mass shopping expedition is a form of class-based self-organisation or self-activity. The rioters acted for themselves, rather than waiting for representatives to act for them.

    Some have claimed the riot was a race riot against recent Chinese immigrants, who dominate the small business sector in Tonga. While the rioters did loot and burn many Chinese businesses, they also burnt down most businesses in Nuku'alofa, regardless of who owned them. Rioters initially targeted government buildings and the business interests of the monarchy rather than Chinese owned stores. Hence the riot can't be called a race riot.

    Background: Feudalism, Remittances, Monarchism and all that

    Tonga is one of the few surviving feudal monarchies in the world. The "royal" family and the aristocracy — made up of chiefs, who refer to themselves as the "nobility" — own about 75% of the land. The remaining 25% is owned by the government. The rest of the population are called "commoners," or more disparagingly "dirt eaters." Most "commoners" work off small plots of land, which they lease from the "royal" family, chiefly aristocracy and the government. "Royal" and "noble" landlords expect "commoners" to pay free tributes to them, normally in the form of food.

    Tonga is often seen as the "friendly islands," a peaceful island paradise of golden beaches and palm trees. Tonga is historically one of the most stable and conservative countries in the Pacific. Traditionally, most "commoner" Tongans have taken to heart the Christian doctrine of humble submissiveness. The church has preached "blind humility and unseeing allegiance [to the aristocracy and monarchy] will open the door to eternal glory." However, many Tongans are overcoming this indoctrination in recent years.

    The Tongan economy is based on agriculture. The majority of the population engages in some form of subsistence production of food. About 50% of Tongans produce almost all of their basic food needs through farming and fishing. The only significant industry is the processing of coconuts into copra and desiccated coconut. Tourism provides most of the hard cash. Manufacturing, which is dominated by small industries, only accounts for about 10% of Tonga's GDP. However, an increasing proportion of workers are being employed in manufacturing since the monarchy has progressively "modernised" and monetised the economy. In the 1990s, those employed in manufacturing rose from 3% to 23% of the workforce, while correspondingly those employed in agriculture and fishing decreased from 49% to 34% of the workforce.

    Yet Tonga can't be viewed as a simple feudal economy stuck in the past. It has, perhaps, a mixed feudal and capitalist economy. Most Tongans rely on remittances — money sent back home by relatives working abroad. Indeed, a whopping 31% of the Tongan GDP is made up by remittances, the highest proportion of remittances of any country in the world. Only Moldova (27% of GDP), Lesotho (26%), Haiti (25%) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (22.5%) come close (see "Gender, Migration, and Domestic Labor," Prol-Position News, 5 (2006)).

    Remittances help pay for Tonga's massive trade deficit. In 2004, Tonga imported $122 million and exported $34 million. According to I. C. Campbell, Tongans mainly use remittances to buy imported consumer goods and cars, and to pay for building "modern" houses with "modern" facilities. As a result, most "commoner" Tongans aren't living at a subsistence level. According to Campbell, in the late 1990s there were 17,000 cars in Tonga, which meant there was one car for about every five Tongans.

    Since the early 1970s, land shortages, unemployment and the search for a better life overseas have all contributed to a Tongan diaspora abroad. The major destinations have been New Zealand, Australia and the US. Today, about half of all Tongans live overseas. During the post WWII long boom and labour shortage, capitalists encouraged migrant labour from the Pacific Islands. In 1970, a scheme began whereby Tongans were allowed to migrate temporarily to work in blue-collar employment. Many migrated to Auckland, which has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world. Capitalists preferred Tongan factory workers because they thought they were hard-workers, sober, reliable, obedient and prepared to do the tedious work that others refused to do (see De Bres et al, 1974). Once the long boom collapsed, the New Zealand government no longer welcomed Pacific (a term which has increasingly replaced the old term "Pacific Island" in recent years) workers. Indeed, they forefully deported many through the infamous police "dawn raids" which began in 1974 under the Labour Government (see De Bres et al 1974 and De Bres and Campbell 1976). In the 1990s, a quota system operated, with stringent entry qualifications.

    Today, Tongans who live overseas work largely in unskilled and semi-skilled blue-collar jobs. For example, in New Zealand, Tongans predominantly have factory jobs, such as freezing workers/abattoir workers, or other blue-collar jobs, such as cleaners. These jobs are low-paid by New Zealand standards, but are relatively well-paid by Tongan standards. In 1996, the wage rate for unskilled labour in Tonga was 80c to $1 NZ per hour, while the equivalent rate in New Zealand was almost ten times that.

    Despite these remittances, Tonga is a poor country. It has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the South Pacific. There are a tiny number of wealthy citizens, as the aristocracy make up less than 1% of the population. The gap has widened considerably since the introduction of neoliberal reforms in recent years. Agricultural output has fallen below its 1980 level. Unemployment is high at 13%, and only a quarter of school leavers can find work. Many attempt to emigrate. In 2003, the Gross Domestic Product per capita was $US2,200. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently claimed that the Tongan economy was on the verge of collapse. Since 1991, GDP has fallen 1.1% per year, compared to a growth rate of 3.1% in Samoa during the same time. So as living standards in Samoa have steadily risen, they have plummeted in Tonga.

    Josh Liava'a, a "key pro-democracy campaigner," has said on Niu FM (an Auckland radio station):

    • We have people living right in the middle of the rubbish tip, and they share the food with the dogs, the rats, the rodents, the flies and the mosquitoes...There is the no other country in the Pacific that has got that horrendous living condition and situation like some of our people are experiencing in Tonga.

    This is one of the more important factors in causing an upsurge in class struggle in Tonga in recent years.

    Neoliberalism and privatisation has enriched the "royal" family and the aristocracy enormously. Perhaps fearing their days are numbered with the ever-increasing encroachment of capitalism into Tonga, "royalty" and the chiefly aristocracy have broadened their portfolio. In the past, their wealth was based on owning land. Today, they also own many businesses, including key strategic industries such as electricity and telecommunications. For instance, the King has amassed a personal fortune because he owns Tonga's electricity company, its beer company, one of its mobile phone companies (Tonfon), a cable television company and the rights to Tonga's internet domain name. Princess Pilolevu owns lucrative geo-orbital satellite slots, which were originally given to the Tongan government for its own communication needs. Hence the Princess turned the government's satellite entitlement into her own private satellite communications business, Tongasat. In 2000, the new King George Tupou V, then a prince, tried to sell the genetic information of Tongans to an Australian biotech company. Overall, the "royals" and aristocracy are seen as nepotistic, corrupt, arrogant, aloof and greedy. The current King George Tupou V, who was educated at Oxford University and the Sandhurst military academy, has openly shown his contempt for "commoners."

    Yet it's not only the "commoners" who have been alienated by the greed of the aristocracy. The business elite also think that the aristocratic class has unfairly looted the wealth of Tonga. They are bitterly disappointed that neoliberalism has enriched the traditional elite of Tonga rather than themselves. This is worth remembering when the pro-democracy movement is considered later in this article.

    Tonga's "royal" family, established in the 19th century under the tutelage of British Methodist missionaries, wields almost absolute governmental power. The King appoints the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister for life. He also appoints the entire cabinet, the Privy Council and the Supreme Court. Parliament or Fale Alea has 30 seats, of which twelve are reserved for the appointed cabinet ministers, nine are selected by the country's 33 "nobles" or chiefs, who acquire their life titles by descent, and only nine ("the people's representatives" or "commoner politicians") are elected by popular vote.

    The Tongan aristocracy wasn't imposed by European imperialism. Indeed, Tonga is unique in the Pacific because it was never fully annexed by a European power (Britain had "protectorate" status, or control of Tonga's foreign policy, from 1900 to 1970, when Tonga gained full independence). Although the Tongan aristocracy has adopted many aspects of the European and Japanese aristocratic traditions, it has also strong indigenous roots. It seems that Tongan society before European contact in the 17th century was one of the most hierarchical societies in Polynesia, apart from perhaps Hawaii. Tongan society was broadly divided into three classes:

    • (1) the hou'eiki (chiefs), matapule (talking chiefs) and mu'a (would-be talking chiefs)
    • (2) the tu'a (commoners)
    • (3) the popula or hopoate (slaves)

    All titles were heritable. The high chief was known as the Tu'i Tonga, the ancient title for the ruler of Tonga. The Tu'i Tonga were omnipotent monarchs whose very touch rendered an object tapu (sacred). The distinction between commoners and slaves in practice was little, as chiefs could kill, beat or rob commoners without reason or defence.

    The 2005 Wildcat Strike and the Pro-Democracy Movement

    Resistance to the Tongan regime has been brewing since the 1960s, especially after Tongans returned home with new ideas from abroad. A popular pro-democracy movement emerged in the 1980s, but it has been a very mild movement until recently.2 Its main forms of protest have been petitioning the King and holding demonstrations calling for democratic reform. As the King has ignored these pleas, many Tongans have become frustrated with the ineffectiveness of these protests. Hence they have spontaneously turned to more radical forms of protest, including a wildcat strike and rioting in the last few years.

    In 2005, the largest and most successful strike in Tongan history took place. It lasted seven weeks, and involved 3,000 government workers. It was a wildcat strike: it wasn't organised by unions; instead, it helped found the Public Services Association (PSA), the union for government workers. Dr. Aivi Puloka, the president of the Public Services Association, has said.

    • Before the strike there was no PSA. There was no Trade Union movement. It was just a spontaneous reaction of dissatisfaction with the government...And public servants decided to walk out from work. How was it organised? It was just an announcement and everybody turned up. [Puloka interviewed by Smush and SLM].

    Strikes and unions are relatively new in Tonga; according to I. C. Campbell, the first union in Tonga was formed in 1976, and the country didn't experience its first recorded strike by wage-workers (by nurses) until 1980.

    The strike blossomed into a popular rebellion against the monarchy. There were daily gatherings of workers and their supporters in Nuku'alofa as well as large protests elsewhere in Tonga. The Tongan community in New Zealand also organised protests, including solidarity demonstrations outside the King of Tonga's New Zealand residence in Auckland. Some demonstrators rammed the gate of the King's residency and scuffles broke out with police and security guards. The strikers and supporters started to demand constitutional reform. Protests reached a peak with one demonstration of 10,000-20,000 people, almost one tenth to one fifth of the Tongan population and the largest march in Tongan history, calling for democratic reform. "Royal" owned houses were torched, government cars overturned, school classrooms wrecked and a petrol bomb thrown at a house owned by business partners of the current King.

    The government, fearing an uprising, needed to end the strike. The PSA, whose leadership is closely tied to the major organisation of the "pro-democracy" movement, the Friendly Islands Human Rights and Democracy Movement (HRDM), feared that the strike was threatening to escape its control. Hence it suited both the government and the PSA leadership to end the strike. After 45 days, the strike was won and pay increases between 60-80% were conceded to all "public servants" or government workers.3

    The strike caused divisions within the pro-democracy movement. In particular, the strike alienated some of the leadership of the "pro-democracy" movement who think that the monarchy and aristocracy have been inept in managing Tongan workers. The wage increase of almost 80% for government workers "threatens macroeconomic instability," according to Gaurav Sodhi of the Centre of Independent Studies (see Sodhi 2006). Some leaders of the pro-democracy movement, especially those tied to the business community, see the increase as "suicidal" and "unaffordable." They want a neoliberal state that reverses these gains (ie. cuts wages) and prevents rioting from occurring in the future. One reason why they want representative, bourgeois democracy is because they believe the current political set-up has made Tongan workers and peasants too rebellious.

    The emerging capitalist class in Tonga, as represented by the Tongan National Business Association, aims to further its own class interests at the expense of Tongan "commoners." They see the feudal monarchy as an unwieldy obstacle to the proper "modernisation" and "liberalisation" of the Tongan economy. Ideally, they would like to see the "royal" and aristocratic monopoly on land ownership abolished, government-owned land privatised, the guarantee that allows every Tongan over 16 to lease 8 acres of government-owned land removed, large-scale agri-business set up and tourist resorts built. This process would force many "commoners" off the land and into wage-slavery in Tonga or overseas. They also want to end strong "restrictions" on commercial agriculture such as "stifling" export licences for export produce. They want to "open up" the Tongan economy to foreign ownership (which is currently prohibited) and the injection of overseas capital.

    However, the pro-democracy movement shouldn't be confused with the Tongan National Business Association. For example, the HRDM seems to be a broad, and uneasy, cross-class coalition of workers, unionists, politicians, urban business elites (and expatriate capitalists overseas) and middle-class elements who've been university educated overseas. Information about the HRDM is sketchy. It appears, from the limited information available, that the HRDM's political aims are to get a higher percentage of "commoner" politicians elected in parliament and eventually a constitutional monarch along the lines of Britain. The Trotskyist World Socialist Website claim that its economic aims are to implement the demands of the IMF and World Bank.4 Yet it's possible that the WSWS may be confusing the HRDM's economic aims with those of the Tongan National Business Association. The Business Association are involved in the HRDM, but so too are social democrats such as "commoner" politician 'Akilisi Pohiva, who want to "share the wealth" of Tonga. Others involved in the broader pro-democracy movement don't support neoliberal policies, such as the People's Democratic Party, a leftist split from the HRDM.

    Yet overall it's important to note that the downfall of authoritarian, bureaucratic regimes in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia in the 1990s by popular movements often led to the formation of "democratic" regimes that instituted severe neoliberal reforms. That is, there is a strong relationship between the establishment of bourgeois democracy and neoliberal reform (see David Seddon and John Walton, Free Markets and Food Riots).

    The Riot. A Pro-Democracy Affair?

    Shortly after the strike, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died in 2006. He was succeeded by his eldest son, George Tupou V. Tongans expected some democratic reform under the new monarch, especially as the government formed a committee to do so following the 2005 strike. On 16 November 2006, the final sitting day of parliament for the year, a pro-democracy rally of several thousand marched to parliament in Nuku'alofa (population: c.35,000). They demanded that a vote on major democratic reforms take place before the house rose for the year. Yet parliament was adjourned for the year without having made any of the promised reforms. In frustration and anger, over 2,000 people spontaneously set off and rioted.

    The rioters were of all ages. Children and the elderly took part. A large minority were women. At times, whole families participated in the looting, wheeling away their goods in supermarket trolleys. It wasn't limited to a few criminal types. Yet most of the rioters were young males. Later news reports blamed the rioting on drunken youth. One Tongan American commented on the Aotearoa (New Zealand) Indymedia website "those who participated in the riots seem to have been rowdy deported misfits from the US. Ex-gang members and scum of society."

    The rioters weren't a mindless, drunken mob, indiscriminately looting and burning everything in sight. They targeted specific buildings and businesses. For example, they gutted the headquarters of the Shoreline group of companies, which runs Tonga's electricity company. Shoreline is owned by the King. They also looted and burnt down Tonfon, Tonga's major phone company, also owned by the King. So, it seems, they targeted buildings and businesses closely associated with the King and his government.

    In this respect, the Tongan riot resembled the "IMF riots" against neoliberalism that erupted in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.5 Like the IMF riots, the Tongan rioters deliberately targeted specific institutions that they perceived as responsible for their exploitation and degradation. The IMF riots typically targeted government buildings, symbols of international capital and foreign affluence, shopping malls, supermarkets and major retail outlets.

    The Tongan riot closely followed this pattern. Rioters attacked government buildings, smashing windows in the Prime Minster's Office and Cabinet Office in Parliament House, the Magistrates Court, the Public Service Commission, and the Ministry of Finance, and overturning numerous government cars, including police cars. They also targeted symbols of international capital, such as the only overseas bank in town, the ANZ bank, and the symbols of foreign affluence, such as the Pacifica Royale luxury hotel, which is owned by King's business associates, the 'Indian Princess' Sefo and Soane Ramanlal. Further, they looted and set ablaze major retail outlets and a shopping complex (including a supermarket) owned by the unelected, royal appointed Prime Minister Feleti Seveli (who has strong links to the pro-democracy movement, and was appointed by the King to appease popular discontent). Overall, most of the symbols of modern capitalism and foreign affluence were attacked, such as banks, cinemas and shopping malls, while more traditional forms of business, such as the Nuku'alofa markets, were left alone.

    So it seems to be a clear-cut case that the riot was a pro-democracy rampage. Protesters, frustrated with the autocratic, authoritarian King, as well as the lack of democratic reform, went off and attacked government buildings and the business interests of the monarchy. "Smush," an Indymedia activist from New Zealand who visited Tonga after the riots, has written,

    • After seeing downtown Nuku'alofa and talking to various people, I think the riot's roots lie in the people's deep frustration and anger with the government, the nobles, the King and the feudal system as a whole. The riots were targeting government buildings, companies owned by the PM, King and his family and outside the city centre some Chinese and Indian shops...In the city centre, most shops were looted and destroyed and many burnt down (ie. every shop was targeted).

    However, this explanation only tells one part of the story. Yes, the riot was caused by a lack of democratic reform. Yet it was also a class riot.

    Or a Festival of the Oppressed?

    Latu Kolomatangi, of the pro-democracy movement, has said of the class nature of the riot:

    • I think on that day [the day of the riot] it was the day of the poor people to get their share from the business people. Seeing people enjoying taking goods out of the shops and burning them made me think of the poor and how they get their share from the business people. For years they collect from the poor. Thursday [the day of the riot] is a day for the poor to take their share from them. [Kolomatangi interviewed by Smush and SLM].

    As such, the riot was a day of class revenge by the oppressed: they freely took from the businesses that had been taking and profiting from them. By mass looting, Tongan "commoners" went beyond mere calls for democratic reform. They organised themselves, and took freely what they needed from the stores. Claims that the riot was simply an "anti-feudal" riot are misleading as, like the IMF riots, the Tongan riot didn't revolve around the question of land ownership. It wasn't an explosion of peasant discontent over the lack of land redistribution; like the IMF riots, it was primarily an urban riot of the "urban poor."

    The looting was carried out in a carnival atmosphere. One news report said "Laughing and Looting as Tonga's capital burns." An eyewitness to the looting commented, "Most Tongans had smiles on their faces like it was Christmas come early." Footage of the riot taken by European tourists and posted on a website showed a large crowd going about mass, systematic looting. Once one store was cleaned out, it was set alight. What's overwhelming from watching the footage is the carnival atmosphere of the riot — the continual din of laughter, chatter and whooping.

    A classic analysis of a riot, namely of the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles, was written by Guy Debord of the Situationist International:

    • The Los Angeles rebellion was a rebellion against the commodity...Like the young delinquents of all the advanced countries...the Los Angeles blacks take modern capitalist propaganda, its publicity of abundance, literally. They want to possess now all the objects shown and abstractly accessible, because they want to use them. In this way they are challenging their exchange-value...Through theft and gift they rediscover a use that immediately refutes the oppressive rationality of the commodity, revealing its relations and even its production to be arbitrary and unnecessary. The looting of the Watts district was the most direct realization of the distorted principle: 'To each according to their false needs' — needs determined and produced by the economic system which the very act of looting rejects.

    Many aspects of Debord's analysis are questionable, such as his distinction between "real" and "false" desires, and "real" and "false" needs. Much of his analysis is dated, as it only applies to the era of "abundance" during the post WWII long boom. Also, looting shouldn't be glorified, as it's clearly a limited form of class-based self-organisation. To state the obvious, rioting is a temporary and spontaneous rampage, a venting of anger, that doesn't offer constructive alternatives. Looting fixes responsibility on the retailer rather than the producer, and is thus limited to the realm of consumption. However, Debord does make a case that looting is a distorted example of communist distribution in action, in that people were taking freely from stores according to their "false" needs.

    While it's true most protesters merely wanted representative democracy, their (nascent anti-capitalist) practice during the riot was sometimes ahead of their (democratic) theory. Significantly, most businesses in the CBD of Nuku'alofa were gutted, not just the interests of the "royal" family, aristocracy and Chinese community. The riot happened against the wishes of the leadership of the democracy movement. Journalist Mateni Tapueluelu told the NZ Herald, "They [the protesters] demanded that if the Government did not agree to political reform by 2008, they would do something — nobody knew what they meant," he said. "None of the leading activists or people's representatives were leading this: they tried to stop it but they couldn't stop it." For example, a prominent leader of the democracy movement, politician 'Akilisi Pohiva, went on the radio to urge demonstrators to stop looting and go home. Other pro-democracy politicians made similar pleas. Many figures in the democracy movement distanced themselves from the riot. Osi Maama, editor of the Tonga Times interviewed on the Newstalk ZB radio station immediately after the riots, commented "the thing is...a lot of people wanted to do these damages...[it was] nothing to do with political democratic movement."

    As an aside, not only did they burn down most businesses in Nuku'alofa, they also burnt down the offices of the HRDM. The HRDM had their offices upstairs in the Tungi Arcade, which was torched by the rioters. Perhaps by (intentionally or unintentionally) burning down their offices, the rioters recognised that a few democratic reforms or even overthrowing the monarchy and bringing in bourgeois democracy wouldn't really alleviate, let alone abolish, their class exploitation (although the situation is complex, as getting rid of an absolutist monarchy would probably help somewhat, open up some space for further struggle, and give Tongan "commoners" much confidence in their ability to change society). Or perhaps they just wished to burn down a shopping mall. Either way, their practice was ahead of their apparent adherence to representative democracy.

    Or a Race Riot?

    The Tongan riot, like the rioting in the Solomon Islands in 2006, has been portrayed as an anti-Chinese rampage. Small business, particularly retail establishments on Tongatapu island — the main island of Tonga — is dominated by recent Chinese migrants who arrived under a cash-for-passports scheme that ceased in 1998. According to academic Phil Crocombe, Chinese migrants own 72% of business in Tonga. It's difficult to find exact figures as to how many Chinese live in Tonga. Some say a few hundred, others a few thousand. Tonga is ethnically homogeneous, as Tongans make up 98% of Tonga's population.

    Many Chinese owned shops, especially the larger retail establishments, were looted and burnt. But Hu Yeshun, the Chinese Ambassador to Tonga, said in the People's Daily (China) immediately after the riot that "more than 25 percent of Chinese stores [about 30] were looted or burned yesterday, causing big losses to the owners." Yet since the riot set ablaze 80% of Nuku'alofa's CBD, the figure of "more than 25%" of Chinese-owned businesses being destroyed is disproportionately small. So if Yeshun's estimation is true, it suggests that rioters didn't go out of their way to destroy Chinese-owned stores, in contrast to what was reported in most capitalist media reports. Hence labelling the riot as a race riot is false.

    Indeed, Indymedia reporters talked to one woman, who saw the rioters refrain from setting alight a few Chinese shops. She said the rioters looked like they were going to loot and burn down four shops, some of which were operated by Chinese. But many people stood in front of the shops to protect them. They managed to persuade the rioters not to burn the shops because it would've destroyed people's houses too. Only one shop was looted and none were burnt. On another occasion, rioters only smashed the windows of a Chinese restaurant.

    Overall, while some Chinese businesses were looted, the rioters were driven by class anger rather than race hatred. The main causes of the riot weren't anti-Chinese racism. The main causes of the riot were, as I have argued above, anger with the Tongan feudal class system and the emerging capitalist system in Tonga, as well as frustration with the lack of democratic reform to the monarchical government. A small minority of Tongans dislike the Chinese, but racism doesn't appear to be too deep. Indeed, Smush has suggested that racism is more widespread amongst urban Tongan capitalists (who support the democracy movement) than Tongan urban and rural workers. Smush has written:

    I do think that there are some anti-Chinese exponents amongst democracy supporters, particularly in the 'business community.' They say they are angry at the King's 'undemocratic approval' of 400 Chinese immigrants over night. The suggestion of an 'ethnic conflict,' as presented by some of the mainstream/capitalist media, (a) downplays the widely held disgust with the current system (and therefore plays in the hand of the ruling class), and (b) is far from the truth because most Tongan people are friendly, or at least not unfriendly, towards Chinese immigrants.


    The Tongan riot was a mixed pro-democracy and class riot. Frustration with the authoritarian monarchy and its lack of democratic reform was the most obvious cause of the riot. That being the case, perhaps the Tongan riot will be just seen as an explosive episode in the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Tonga, and thus lacked anti-capitalist content. Yet in looting and burning most businesses in Nuku'alofa, rioters went beyond mere calls for representative democracy and the toppling of the hated feudal system. Dispossessed Tongans targeted institutions they thought were responsible for their impoverishment. As such, "black Thursday," as the riot has been called, was a day of class revenge. Not only is the old feudal establishment in Tonga worried that they might be soon overthrown, the leadership of the pro-democracy movement is worried that many dispossessed Tongans have become too unruly. The leadership of the pro-democracy movement will attempt to channel the rebellion into safe, bourgeois channels, such as parliamentary reform.

    The Tongan riot is part of a wider surge in class struggle in the Pacific since 2005. Since this date, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia and Tahiti have experienced major strikes, and Tonga and the Solomons have experienced riots. More unrest and IMF style riots are likely, as neoliberal market reforms imposed by the IMF and World Bank have savagely cut the living standards of Pacific people, while enriching island elites. Increasingly, island elites lack the resources to control their own population, hence Australia and New Zealand have sent in troops to prop up unpopular regimes and to repress popular movements. It will be interesting to see how this rebellion develops in the Pacific.


    Braddock, John. "Signs of social and economic crisis across Pacific Island states", 28 Dec. 2005, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2005/dec2005/paci-d28.shtml (and various other articles from that Trotskyist website).
    de Bres, Joris, Rob Campbell and Peter Harris, Migrant Labour in the Pacific (1974).
    de Bres, J. and Rob Campbell, The Overstayers (1976).
    Campbell, I. C. Island Kingdom: Tonga Ancient and Modern (2001).
    Capitalist newspaper, radio, web and TV reports of the riot.
    Debord, Guy. "The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy", Dec. 1965, reprinted in Internationale Situationniste, 10 (March 1966), http://www.bopsecrets-org.pem.data393.net/SI/10.Watts.htm
    "Gender, Migration, and Domestic Labor", Prol-Position News, 5 (2006), pp. 6-13, http://www.prol-position.net
    Lay, Graeme. Pacific New Zealand (1996).
    Smush and SLM, "Revolutionary not Evolutionary — Indymedia Activists report from Tonga", posted 25 Nov. 2006, http://indymedia.org.nz/newswire/display/72090/index.php, & "Abuse in Tongans Prisons", http://indymedia.org.nz/newswire/display/72115/index.php, posted 1 Dec. 2006 & "If a boat ends up on a reef", http://indymedia.org.nz/newswire/display/72103/index.php, posted 29 Nov. 2006 (all of these reports were Aotearoa Indymedia features).
    Sodhi, Gaurav. "Tonga Monarchy Needs Modernity", http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0611/S00125.htm, posted 8 Nov. 2006.
    Walton, John and David Seddon, eds. Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment (1994).


    1. I oppose these "interventions," but that doesn't mean I support Leninist "anti-imperialism," which claims people in countries dominated by foreign powers ought to form nationalist cross-class alliances to kick out the foreign enemy.

    2. Most involved in the "pro-democracy" movement don't even want the overthrow of the monarchy, but instead a power-sharing relationship with the King through more "commoner" politicians being able to be elected. The "radicals" want a British style system (a parliament with a constitutional monarch).

    3. Although in June 2007 the Tongan government has threatened to refuse to pay the agreed pay increases. In response, the PSA has threatened strikes.

    4. See John Braddock, "Newspaper ban exposes growing conflict in Tongan ruling circles," http://www.wsws.org/articles/2003/jun2003/tong-j06.shtml, posted 6 June 2003.

    5. The IMF riots mostly took the form of food riots in response to price hikes and food shortages caused by the imposition of IMF "structural adjustment policies," but they sometimes took the form of a political demonstration that got out of hand. The Tongan riot was of the latter category.