New Zealand's Maori nationalists and the coup in Fiji

By John Braddock
26 July 2000

The coup in Fiji, launched by George Speight and his band of armed thugs under the guise of asserting the “rights” of the indigenous Fijians, is notable not only for the opposition it has evoked among ordinary people at home and abroad, but also for the friends it has attracted elsewhere in the Pacific. One of the significant avenues of support has come from a layer of Maori “radicals” in New Zealand.

During the early days of the coup, three prominent Maori nationalists appeared in Fiji in to support the racialist coup. The trio, self-proclaimed representatives of the Tino Rangitiratanga movement for Maori “self-determination,” met with Speight inside the parliamentary compound in Suva, and then appeared with him at a press conference to declare the armed overthrow of the Fijian Labour government as “legitimate”. Speight, in turn, glowingly referred to the three Maori—Tame Iti, Anthony Sinclair and Piripi Haami—as his “brothers” and announced that they were all on the “same crusade” to secure the rights of indigenous peoples.

Iti, the leader of the group, is well known in New Zealand. With his face heavily tattooed in the traditional Maori moko style, he is frequently on hand at Maori land rights protests. Standing alongside Speight in Suva, he said the trio fully supported the “rights of indigenous people to regain their power and govern themselves”. This was endorsed by Sinclair, who said that he “applauded” the coup. Grossly misrepresenting the character of the events in Fiji, Sinclair proclaimed, “revolution is a very legitimate part of the democratic process. There's only one condition, you must succeed”. Comparing the situation in Fiji with that of New Zealand, Sinclair said that were the Maori population more numerous, similar actions as Speight's would be on the agenda there as well. Speight concurred, saying the Maori were “not as fortunate” as he. “If Maori were 50 percent [of the population] it would probably be a different picture over there.”

Following his return to New Zealand, Iti rounded up a larger band of supporters and returned to Fiji in another attempt to meet with Speight. This trip turned to farce when the group of 10 was refused entry by the Fijian army on the grounds that they were trying to interfere in the country's internal politics. They were held at the airport and put on a return flight to New Zealand, which was then forced to return to Fiji after a bomb scare. Iti and his supporters were marooned at Nadi airport for several days as Air New Zealand pilots, suspicious that Iti had initiated the scare himself, refused to carry them.

The support for Speight is significant because it lays bare the reactionary essence of the Maori nationalist movement in New Zealand—a movement which has, amid the deepening impoverishment of the Maori people, diverted their anger in an increasingly right-wing and anti-working class direction.

The Maori nationalists readily accuse anyone who opposes their own political program as “racist”, but their praise for Speight is an open endorsement of racism and chauvinism of the most backward kind. In the early days of the coup, Speight said of the Fijian Indians: “They have their own religion, they don't dress the same, they don't speak the same language, they don't smell the same.” He insists that Indians abandon their own culture and assimilate, and has made several statements to the effect that Indians should go back to India.

Speight and his supporters have incited pillaging, house-torching and other violence against ethnic Indian shopkeepers, small business operators and villagers. He and his gangsters are no different from the neo-Nazis in Europe, the extreme right-wing militia groups in the US or the Hindu chauvinist thugs in India. His proposal to implement a racist, undemocratic constitution that effectively disenfranchises nearly half of the population has been accepted by the country's Great Council of Chiefs and the military. Nor does Speight speak for ordinary Fijians, as he persistently claims. In fact, he is exploiting the disenchantment of ethnic Fijian villagers and poor who have been hit hard by the country's economic crisis and the IMF's policies implemented under Rabuka and continued under Chaudhry. He speaks primarily for a small segment of chiefs, entrepreneurs and small businessmen whose interests have been threatened by the economic changes. The next government, which will certainly have Speight supporters in prominent positions, will be compelled to implement economic measures that have a devastating impact on all workers—Fijian and Indian alike. Already, as a direct result of the coup more than 5,000 jobs have been lost, causing immense hardship for working people.

In a recent article entitled “The Wrongs of Indigenous Rights”, Tongan journalist Sione Masina describes the demand for indigenous rights in Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the platform of a native ruling class whose ambition is “driving a Pajero, living in a luxury home away from the village, being deferred to by one and all, international travel and amassing a fortune by fronting for business”. He scathingly refers to Speight and the social layer he represents as “racists, opportunists, businesspeople and sore losers from the previous government,” united in being “hungry for power”.

Far from resiling from the implications of supporting a fascistic thug like Speight, the Maori nationalists enthusiastically embrace him. They feel a close affinity with his political orientation and have an identical social base—a layer of grasping middle class activists, who see in the demand for “Maori rights” the opportunity for material benefits. Iti, like Speight, is something of a failed businessman. His most recent venture, an up-market ethnic restaurant in Auckland's Karangahape Road nightclub precinct, folded within its first couple of months. Always with an eye for making money, Iti has reportedly now begun charging $200 for interviews.

Following Iti's appearance with Speight in Fiji, spokesmen for the Labour-led government moved quickly to dismiss the antics of Iti and his supporters as the actions of a “minority” within the Maori leadership. The Minister of Maori Affairs before his recent sacking, Dover Samuels, urged “disaffected” Maori to not be “influenced” by Speight's attempt to assert indigenous rights through an armed coup.

However, sympathy for Speight among Maori political groupings quickly became evident. Early in June, union official and Maori activist Syd Jackson interviewed Speight on his regular program on Radio Waatea, which is owned by the Auckland-based Waipareira Trust—formerly headed by Labour MP John Tamihere—and the Manukau Urban Maori Authority. During the interview, Jackson and Speight engaged in a mutually friendly discussion, laughing at the plight of Fijian Indians forced to leave Fiji for New Zealand. Jackson jovially pointed out that this had “happened in 1987 as well”. Jackson also promised Speight that he would establish a support campaign for him in New Zealand.

Backing for Speight also emerged from among more traditional Maori tribal leaders. Chairman of the Ngati Te Whiti tribe in the Taranaki region, Peter Love, proclaimed Speight's actions as a “manifestation of the most potent grievances” that Fiji had inherited from colonial days. Another Taranaki tribe, Nga Ruahine, announced that they were considering occupying a block of farmland in protest at land leases, which they compared with the sugar plantation leases that sparked the Fijian crisis. Spokesman Hori Manuirirangi said that the 140 hectares, which were being sold at the time, were part of his tribe's last block of land “and we will die on our land if we have to”. Recently Manu Paul, chairman of the national Maori lobby group, the New Zealand Maori Council, said that the council recognised that there were many angry younger Maori who would, understandably, be attracted by Speight's methods.

Over the last two decades in particular, Maori nationalism has been promoted and hailed as progressive by the Labour Party, union leaders and various radical groups in New Zealand, such as the Socialist Workers Organisation. But the opposite is the case. All of these Maori leaders are organically hostile to any understanding that capitalism, not the European race, is the fundamental cause of the oppression of Maori people who, with Polynesians from elsewhere in the Pacific, make up the most impoverished sections of the working class. By promoting Maori separatism and thus dividing the working class along racial lines, the Maori leadership only serves to buttress the existing social order. Their enthusiasm for Speight's reactionary activities in Fiji is the logical outcome of the politics of ethnic division behind the program of “self determination” and “indigenous rights”.