Symposium on the Significance of Land, Language and Culture
A symposium on ‘The Significance of Land, Language and Culture in a Multicultural Society’ was held on Sunday, February 17th from 3.00 p.m. at Mt. Albert War Memorial Hall in Auckland.
The symposium was organized to discuss the above topic with special reference to the Tamil people’s struggle in Sri Lanka and also to focus on the anti-terrorism bill in front of the Select Committee in New Zealand. Members of parliament, Matt Robson (Alliance), Keith Locke (Green), Marie Hasler (National), and Chris Carter (Labour) as well as Adhitya Kashiyap of United Future presented the views of their respective parties.
Prof. Margaret Trawick, anthropologist, with expertise on the Tamil people’s struggle for self-determination also spoke. Robert Newson of the Human rights Commission, who is a Maori, also spoke on the Maori perspective to land, language and culture.
The first speaker was Robert Newson. He spoke of two aspects in relation to the topic. Tangata whenua. Tangata is people, the tribe. Whenua is land. He spoke of his home being the place where he comes from and not where he currently lives. The land owns him, and he does not own the land. He said his struggle today may not be the same as that of the Tamil people but it has been in the past. Many understand mana to mean power. He interprets mana as deriving from manaki - to care and share. You give me mana because ‘I care for you’. If there is no land then where can one care for others. In the absence of land therefore there is no mana. He said it is his duty as tangata whenua to welcome all to Aotearoa. But he has not been given that chance. He asked how he could share the land with all if he does not have Tino Rangatiratanga, self-determination.
Prof. Trawick spoke next about the Tamil people’s struggle and the current peace process. She started by saying that like Maori and many other indigenous people land, language and culture are inseparable for the Tamil people. In the case of Eelam Tamils she said they suffered persecution at the hands of another indigenous people, the Sinhala people. She added that this persecution was not due to self-motivated acts of individuals but rather by a corrupt ruling class that controlled the government. On the question of how New Zealand can help she listed the following. New Zealand should remain neutral. New Zealand could offer itself as a neutral venue for peace talks. There could be fact-finding missions to the newly opened war zones in Sri Lanka, either as individuals or as government sponsored delegation. This is very important she added. Also of value will be concrete assistance in rehabilitation. Although New Zealand cannot do much, by starting a small rehabilitation project in the war zone it could set an example for other countries to follow she said.
Minister Matt Robson spoke next. Minister’s explanation of the anti-terrorism bill was most helpful. He started by saying that the New Zealand government recognises the gross human rights violations against Tamil people in Sri Lanka and that New Zealand recognises the conflict within the context of struggle as recognised by the United Nations, that the people have an inalienable right to their language and the right to live freely without persecution in the land that they live. This he said sadly has not been the case in Sri Lanka. He then spoke of the peace process and New Zealand’s support for Norway’s effort. New Zealand has played a role in the pacific in conflict reduction but he said it is difficult to do the same around the world. New Zealand however, remains open to other roles in the Sri Lankan peace process, he added. On the topic of the anti-terrorism bill he explained the difficulties of defining who is a ‘terrorist’. He acknowledged that it was wrong to rush amendments to the anti-terrorism bill because of the events on September 11th. He said the contentious area is deciding who is to be proscribed as terrorist. There is a lot of discussion going on in narrowing down the definition.
Keith Locke, member for Green party, in his speech criticised the anti-terrorism bill and said that it paves the way for a future government to act in bad judgement. He said that the bill places sole responsibility for deciding who is a ‘terrorist’ on the Prime Minister, assisted by one other minister. In his view this can lead to a dictatorship, he said. He said in national struggles atrocities are committed by both sides. But when it comes to proscribing, the USA has always proscribed the liberation movements and not the States involved. This he said is a biased act that is not peace making but rather war making. He added that New Zealand should use the model it used for Bougainville where it treated both parties as equals and invited them to New Zealand to hold talks. He also added even if this government does not proscribe LTTE, the bill instills fear in the minds of Tamils here. It will also lead to prejudices as seen in the recent coverage of the New Zealand Tamil’s support for LTTE in the Herald newspaper.
Chris Carter, a Labour party member of parliament thanked the Tamil community for their energy and hard work in New Zealand. He noted how 50 years ago Sri Lanka was held up as a model country ready for independence and how tragically it has failed to live up to that promise. He expressed hopes that the peace process will end the tragedy. He added that New Zealand rejects terrorism but those who supported the struggle in a peaceful way will not be criminalised he said.
Marie Hasler, member for National party spoke next. She noted her interest as a young girl in Srimavo Bandaranayake becoming the first woman prime minister in the world. She also thanked the Tamil society for inviting her and said that it kindled in her an interest in Sri Lanka. She said she was born in Ireland and can fully understand the persecution of minorities. She said most New Zealanders are sympathetic to the plight of Tamil people. However, the event on September 11th has created greater awareness for security in New Zealand. She said National party will support the general thrust of the anti-terrorism bill. She said the bill makes it clear who a ‘terrorist’ is. She added that there will always be some subjective aspect to that.
Adhitya Kashiyap, of United future, asked if anyone has seriously attempted to understand why someone commits a ‘terrorist’ act. He said New Zealand should not follow the Band-Aid policy of the USA without understanding the causes. Those who are branded ‘terrorist’ by the western world are ‘heroes’ to two thirds of the world population, whose issues are not covered by the mass media, he said. He said Tamil people have struggled for 50 years without a forum to highlight their plight. India went in to resolve it without understanding and burnt its fingers.
During the panel discussion, Matt Robson commented that there is no proposal to proscribe LTTE in New Zealand given that a peace process is underway. Marie Hasler also said that there is no reason why LTTE will be regarded as a ‘terrorist’ in New Zealand, particularly with the peace process going on. Keith Locke commented that even if LTTE is not proscribed immediately there will be continuing pressure on the New Zealand government to proscribe LTTE because the government is expected to take advice from the security council. USA and UK who are permanent members of the Security Council have proscribed LTTE. On the financing of liberation struggles Matt Robson added that he will not be afraid to support organisations in New Zealand that are supporting liberations struggling for peoples rights even if some other organisations that they are supporting are branded as ‘terrorist organisations’, because New Zealand will always support the right of people here to support such struggles.
The chairperson Malathy Naguleswarn asked the New Zealand people to take serious note of the outcome of the December 2001 election where the Tamil people of Sri Lanka voted unambiguously for a mandate that stated that LTTE is their sole representatives in negotiations with the government. She also asked New Zealand to stand apart from the rest of the western world as they have done with respect to their anti-nuclear position and the South African anti-apartheid position. Then, like the gratitude shown by the South African people, all of Sri Lanka’s people, both Tamils and Sinhalese, will show gratitude to New Zealand for promoting peace she added.