Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

As goes Tahiti, so go many 'paradise' colonies

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Tahiti is more associated with honeymoons in resorts than with a people struggling to free themselves from the colonial yoke.

Even so, on May 17, the territory of French Polynesia, of which Tahiti is the most populous island, was re-inscribed on the United Nations' disapproving list of "non-self-governing territories.'' The resolution requires France to move swiftly toward setting French Polynesia on the path to self-determination. France boycotted the proceedings.

Only 12 days earlier, however, elections in its scattered French Polynesian imperial outpost brought a heavy defeat for the territory's long-standing pro-independence leader, Oscar Temaru. Victor Gaston Flosse vows never to let another flag fly over the presidential palace.

Self-determination, the French government sniffed, "cannot be exercised against the will of the concerned populations.''

The UN's ''non-self-governing'' list dates back to 1946 and originally consisted of territories reported as dependencies by the colonial powers themselves. In the decades that followed, most became independent, were annexed or were officially acknowledged as, in effect, enjoying political autonomy. Sixteen territories around the globe, mostly minute islands in the Atlantic, Caribbean or Pacific, remain in the queue for decolonization. In the Pacific, they include Tokelau, Pitcairn Island, American Samoa, Guam and New Caledonia.

Each year, a UN committee meets to deliberate on their status and to pronounce its verdict on the appropriate steps toward decolonization. When consulted, however, independence has not been the preferred option for many Pacific islanders. In two UN-supervised referendums, held in 2006 and 2007, Tokelau -- population 1,411 -- narrowly failed to obtain the required two-thirds majority to end its status as a New Zealand dependency, though the results were close. The 47 inhabitants of Pitcairn, still home to descendants of the Bounty's mutineers, have no desire to end British rule. Politicians from American Samoa repeatedly ask to be removed from the UN list.

The Pacific territory with the most realistic chance of decolonization is nickel-rich New Caledonia, a French colony since 1853. In the 1980s indigenous Kanak leaders pushing for independence managed to get their islands re-listed as '"non-self-governing.'' Violent conflict on the island, which has a substantial French-settler population, ended in 1988 only after the authorities in Paris agreed to a referendum on independence to be held 10 years later.

When that time came, in 1998, Kanak leaders agreed to a further delay of 15 to 20 years, meaning the scheduled referendum must be held before 2019, perhaps as early as next year. Many of the French-settler politicians, loyal to the motherland, hope further compromise can again avoid a potentially polarizing electoral contest.

Temaru's successful bid to have French Polynesia officially listed as still a colony was inspired by the New Caledonian experience. In the past, Paris has threatened to pull the economic plug on any territory that chooses independence, explaining why many Tahitians prefer some form of loose autonomy while remaining under the French umbrella. At times, however, the government in Paris has shown signs of growing weary of its costly Pacific dependencies.

For New Caledonia, France agreed to restrict the franchise for the scheduled referendum on independence only to those who had lived in the territory for 20 years. This excluded the many '"metros'' who circulate from mainland France for short stints in public-service jobs. With support for independence hovering at around 40 per cent, that restriction of the franchise could be enough to swing the referendum result in favour of independence.

Temaru hopes for a similar arrangement. If independence eventually comes, then, it will probably be with some sort of French blessing.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2013 A11

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