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Published On:August 9, 2018
Posted by Staff Report

Support for New Caledonia independence on the wane

As New Caledonia approaches a referendum on independence from France, regional support for it gaining full sovereignty has faded away.

But outright backing for New Caledonia to complete its decolonisation is still there from Vanuatu and the region's churches.

Political bodies are cool about it while opinion polls in New Caledonia suggest it will remain French.

With less than three months to go to the vote, the Pacific Islands Forum has declined to comment on the impending decision.

In 1986, the United Nations acceded to the Forum countries' wish and returned New Caledonia to the list of non-self-governing territories in 1986.

Speaking in New York at the time, Fiji's delegate Winston Thompson put the Forum's case.

“We support the United Nations in its continuing task to see all live in freedom. We, the people of the multi-racial South Pacific, stand ready to welcome an independent multiracial New Caledonia to its rightful place in this community of nations,” he said.

Vanuatu's foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu said in 1986 the Melanesian Spearhead Group, or MSG, was set up by Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands to assist New Caledonia's Kanaks become independent.

But now the secretariat of the MSG, which also includes Indonesia as an associate member, is reluctant to formulate the body's stance.

However, speaking for Vanuatu, Regenvanu said its support for the pro-independence FLNKS endured.

“Our prime minister convened a meeting for the leaders of the different factions within the FLNKS in Port Vila, Vanuatu, for the purpose of assuring them of Vanuatu's support and also trying to assist them to overcome emerging differences among the different organisations within the FLNKS,” he said.

New Caledonia's tension and unrest of the 1980s was contained with two accords involving the territory's rival pro- and anti-independence sides as well as France.

They deferred any decision on possible independence by first ten years and then another 20 years - until this year.

Regenvanu said getting to the referendum in November was also an achievement of the MSG.

And he said Vanuatu would honour its outcome.

“We will accept that result as a result that is internationally supervised.”

The United Nations will send observers while New Zealand has offered support with electoral observers which, according to its foreign ministry establishment, New Caledonia has noted.

The Pacific Council of Churches, however, said holding a referendum had become pointless because the Kanaks had become a minority.

The Council's general secretary Francois Pihaatae said they would lose and they knew it.

And he said ever since the late 1940s the French strategy had been to keep its colonies.

“Give back the sovereignty and independence of all those colonies, including Maohi Nui, including others. Just follow the process of the UN. Give back the sovereignty. We don't need to vote for it, and we deserve, the Kanak deserve their sovereignty, deserve their independence,” he said.

As a settler colony, New Caledonia's population mix has changed over time, and 160 years after the territory's annexation by France, the indigenous Kanaks have become a minority in their own land.

Voting in the referendum is restricted to long-term residents but finalising the special roll has been an ardous process.

Polls suggest a majority will vote to stay with France, which means that Paris will continue to be responsible for defence, internal security, the currency, the judiciary and foreign policy.

The Reverend Pihaatae said he feared the referendum win for the anti-independence side would trigger a backlash from the losers.

“There will be unhappy people, especially the native people from Kanaky. We are encouraging the leaders to take care of the young people,” he said.

However,Regenvanu said a no-vote in November was not the final point of the Kanaks' struggle.

“We are conscious of the fact that is only the first of three referendums, so there will be opportunities. It is not the end of the road, it's part of the process of decolonisation,” he said.

The rival sides have been busy rallying their supporters.

No French party is in favour of decolonisation while a number of French politicians have come out for New Caledonia to stay French.

Hundreds of millions of dollars is being transferred from France each year, sustaining the message that this adds to the economic well-being which New Caledonia's Melanesian neighbours miss out on.

Regenvanu said his country, a former French colony, preferred independence.

“While we may be a least developed country, I'd much rather be in a free independent country than a colony,” he said.

173,000 people in New Caledonia will decide on November 4th whether the Pacific will get its first new country of the century.

For the Pacific Islands Forum, little will change because two years ago it admitted New Caledonia as a full member - independent or not.

SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS

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