RAROTONGA – In a far flung corner of the South Pacific a secessionist movement is stirring with its protagonists preparing for a major battle looming half a world away. And if Oscar Manutahi Temaru gets his way French Polynesia could one day become the world’s newest country.
Temaru has fought a 35-year campaign for independence and indigenous control of his country in a quiet, non-violent but calculated manner that has been largely ignored by the rest of the world.
However, the world is starting to take notice. Temaru is taking his fight to New York and staking his country’s claim in the United Nations General Assembly where he is drumming up support from the world leaders for recognition of French Polynesia’s right to self-government.
Paris is bristling at the thought of bidding farewell to the last vestiges of its colonial past, in particular to a group of idyllic, tropical islands that have served France well as an up-market retirement home for its citizens hoping to make ends meet on a state-pension.
French missionaries began arriving in these islands during the 1830’s, sparking a series of rebellions and decades of gunboat diplomacy that ended in 1880 with France annexing French Polynesia as a colony.
France labeled French Polynesia an “overseas country inside the Republic,” endowing it with some autonomy including authority over health, town planning and the environment, while Paris continues to control its justice, education, security, public order, currency, defense and foreign policy.
An unassuming Temaru has been careful not to position himself and his campaign against the French and has been supportive of French President Francois Hollande, calling him a “friend” and a “democrat in the best possible way.”
Hollande is seen as the lesser of two difficulties.
Earlier this year, then President Nicolas Sarkozy irked the Polynesian leader with five terms as president under his belt by telling reporters that Temaru’s plea for sovereignty was “no urgent matter.”
But for Temaru the immediate priority is getting French Polynesia back on the UN List of Non Self Governing Territories, which for islanders is effectively telling the world that politically, places like Tahiti are effectively a remnant of an antiquated neo-imperial empire.
The UN Special Committee on Decolonization reviews the list annually to keep tabs on the application of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514).
Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa all of the US; New Caledonia also of France; Western Sahara which falls under Moroccan rule and Tokelau which is governed by New Zealand are among the 16 non-governing territories currently on the list.
Passed after World War II, the declaration that accompanies the list uses emotive language to condemn colonization.
French Polynesia was on that list in 1946 and earmarked for decolonization but was removed by Paris a year later during a time when France was desperately attempting to hold onto its overseas possessions despite international pressure to divest itself of its colonies.
Temaru is not without support.
In March of last year, French Polynesia held an historic vote that came out in favor of the country’s right to be re-instated on the list, and since then Temaru’s movement has gathered paced.
Last month members of the Polynesian Leaders Group unanimously pledged their support for French Polynesia’s re-inscription.
Regional groups and island leaders – Pacific Conference of Churches, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Melanesian Spearhead Group – have all voiced support for Temaru.
At a meeting in Greece in September, the World Council of Churches (WCC) also called for French Polynesia to be reinstated on the list of countries to be decolonized and asked France to “fulfill their obligations and provide all necessary means for the economic, social and cultural development of the Maohi people.”
However, sources close to Temaru say he remains only cautiously optimistic as he expects some resistance from Australia and New Zealand to self-determination because both countries have forged much closer alliances with France since 1996 when Paris ended nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
Temaru insists nuclear tests and the struggle for independence cannot be dissociated.
Almost 200 nuclear tests were conducted by France in French Polynesia between 1960 and 1996, which the WCC said have been linked to cases of cancer among civilians and former military personnel.
Temaru argues that these tests — most on which took place in Mururoa and Fangataufa – created a deeply-rooted sense of mistrust between islanders and France. Many feel a 10-year compensation package agreed to by France falls in 2009 fell well short of what they’re owed.
Temaru believes that French Polynesia’s return to the list of countries demanding independence would give it more leverage in dealing with France.
Still, further resistance is expected from those in Paris who fear for France’s international standing. France was granted a seat on the G-8 partly because of its overseas interests that encompasses the thousands of square kilometers of islands and ocean making up French Polynesia.
Independence has also been met with some resistance at home where many expatriates and some Tahitians fear independence would result in the loss of French subsidies, devastating the local economy and causing public sector wages to plummet by half.
Among the critics is Enrique Braun-Ortega, a former government minister and businessman, who said French Polynesia did not have the means to even think about winning independence.
“Temaru’s latest attempt is a ploy to divert public opinion in French Polynesia, from the fact that his government is unable, and has been incapable for the past year and a half now, to begin to resolve our local economic crisis.
“It is also a means to hide his incompetence in getting his job done, especially in reviving our crumbling tourist industry with hotels closing left and right,” he said.
But for Temaru and his supporters, self-determination has connotations that he considers more important than local economics, including the spiritual, cultural and historical.
“We have to prepare, educate our people how important (it is) to us, to us as a nation to be able to control our own destiny, to be ourselves. We have so (much) wealth and (so many) resources in this huge Pacific Ocean. It belongs to us,” he said during the PIF.
For the time being at least, those resources and the people who depend upon them belong to France.
However, if Temaru is able to convince the General Assembly to support his country’s return to the list of Non-Self Governing Territories, decades of French political intrigue will end and the people of French Polynesia will have put Paris on notice that its days in this isolated corner of the South Pacific are numbered.