SRI LANKA REMAINS COMMITTED TO RECONCILIATION

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis and also published by the Asian Journalism Association magazine (South Korea) on 9 June 2014

COLOMBO (IDN) – Rejecting the resolution passed at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 27 to mount an ‘independent’ international investigation into alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapkase said that Sri Lanka would continue with its own reconciliation process that was started after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was defeated in May 2009.

The resolution, which was adopted by 24 votes to 12 with 12 abstentions, has been described by the government as a lop-sided vote where most of those voting for it were Europeans. “The EU votes as a block and the US had more than a dozen votes already in the bag while we started with none,” Rajapakse pointed out in a meeting with foreign media representatives in Colombo.

Two days after the vote, posters appeared all over Colombo claiming a moral victory and questioning the UNHRC mandate. It thanked the 24 nations that did not vote for the resolution including giant neighbour India. Government spokespeople have noted that these 24 nations were a better reflection of the views of the international community.

Continue reading “SRI LANKA REMAINS COMMITTED TO RECONCILIATION”

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CHINESE PRESIDENT LAUNCHES A NEW GLOBAL FINANCIAL ORDER

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis 16 January 2016

Shangai SINGAPORE (IDN) – Chinese President Xi Jingping officially launched on January 16 the much anticipated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) describing it as a “historic moment” while his Finance Minister Lou Jiwei said in an interview that the launch of AIIB marked a milestone in the reform of the global economic governance system.

The $100 billion China-initiated bank took just two years to set up after it was initially proposed by President Xi during his visits to Southeast Asian countries in October 2013. In October 2014, representatives from 22 countries, mainly from Asia and including India, and strong U.S. regional allies – Philippines and Singapore – a signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to establish the AIIB and Beijing was selected to host Bank headquarters.

Japan and the U.S. immediately began to raise concerns about the proposed bank questioning its commitment to transparency and good governance. But, their attempts were dealt a severe blow when U.S.’s European allies including the UK, began lining up to sign as “founder members” in March 2015.

By December 3q1, 2015 when the list closed, 57 members have signed up to be founder members, among them 28 Asian and Arab countries, 13 European countries including Germany and France plus Russia, Australia and New Zealand.

Upset at UK’s initiative in roping in European allies, in March 2015, the Obama administration even went to the extent of issuing a statement calling upon the UK to “use its voice to push for adoption of a high standard” at the AIIB. In May 2015 Japan even went further by announcing that they would funnel $110 billion over five years via the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) to fund development projects in Asia, but was vague on how it will be spent.

It is well-known fact that China and most developing countries are unhappy with the U.S.-controlled World Bank (WB) and European-U.S. dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Japan-controlled ADB. While China has been unhappy for sometime with the voting rights regime at the WB and IMF, developing countries have regularly raised concerns about the western powers, U.S. in particular, using these banks for political purposes.

President Xi reflected an upbeat mood in his opening address to the AIIB’s first Board of Governors meeting on January 16. “We are confident that when faced with the task of advancing world peace and development, so long as the international community has the will for consensus building and for win-win progress, we will be able to not only draw the big plan, but also turn it into reality,” he said.

He also said that the new bank would explore new business models and financing tools, and help member states develop more infrastructure projects that are of higher quality and at lower costs. The Chinese leader described the initiative as a Chinese attempt to make the international financial system more just and equitable.

“While developing countries make the mainstay of the AIIB membership, the institution also attracts a large number of developed members. Such a unique strength makes it a bridge and a bond to facilitate both South-South cooperation and North-South cooperation,” President Xi noted. ”The initiative to establish the AIIB is a constructive move. It will enable China to undertake more international obligations, promote improvement of the current international economic system and provide more international public goods.”

Chen Fengying, research fellow at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told China’s Xinhua news agency that the opening of the AIIB marks China’s “shift from a participant of the global governance system to a contributor to it,” reflecting a shift in the country’s ability to manage global economic issues.

Vietnam has also welcomed the new bank. Tran Viet Thai, deputy director of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies told Xinhua in an interview that as a founding member, Vietnam was actively involved in setting up operational rules of the bank. He added that since implementing opening up policies in the past decades, “this is the first time Vietnam has been directly engaged in setting up a bank which has significant role in the region and the world”.

In an article in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, the bank’s President Jin Liqun, stressed bridging the digital divide between the regional and global economies would be the bank’s top priority. The bank will focus on digital infrastructure including fixed broadband networks, cross border and undersea fiber optic telecommunication cables, wireless sensor networks, satellite services, new generation mobile telecommunication networks, cloud computing and big data platforms.

“The Board of Governors will formulate policies based on the demand of members to help break down digital barriers and cultivate a new pattern of economic growth,” Mr. Jin noted. Transportation, clean energy, urban infrastructure, agriculture and logistics are some of the other priorities.

Pierre Gramegna, Luxembourg’s finance minister, speaking at the Bank’s opening ceremony said that the AIIB would be a boost to the Asian economy. “I can assure you, President Xi Jinping, that your initiative has received a lot of positive support from many members of the European Union,” he noted.

“The AIIB would enable China to join the international financial system, which would also include its efforts for the Chinese currency Yuan going more international and supporting the Silk Road Economic Belt. It would also enable China to take more global responsibility,” argues Dr. Yang Jin an associate researcher of Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Suma Chakrabarti, President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) who was in the audience during the January 16 launch, said in an interview with Xinhua that the Silk Road project this bank will to develop will reduce time taken for exports between China and Europe.

“If we can get the infrastructure moving this will reduce the costs of imports and exports both ways between China and Europe,” he observed, describing the formation of the AIIB as a “healthy additional international firepower for the international system.”

*Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is ASEAN Correspondent of IDN, the flagship of International Press Syndicate, for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore.

 

The mindful way to Asean journalism

Published in Straits Times (Singapore) on 24 December 2015

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Lotus

While a new Asean community dawns, a “mindful communication” fad is sweeping across America which has its origins in a philosophy that shaped the Asean civilisations centuries ago.

Americans are now professing to be the new gurus of awareness training that the Buddha taught as Vippassana Meditation over 2,500 years ago. The University of Massachusetts has recently set up a Centre for Mindfulness. It offers a five-day residential intensive programme of “Mindfulness Tools” for a fee of US$625 (S$879). There is no acknowledgement of the Buddhist or Asian origins of its mindfulness practice.

A group of Asian communication scholars and media practitioners are now trying to reclaim their heritage from such appropriation. They gathered at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok this month to develop a “mindful journalism” curriculum for Asia that will bring in ideas and concepts from Buddhist, Confucius and Hindu philosophical traditions.

This project titled “Mindful Communication for Asean Integration” is one that I initiated in association with Chulalongkorn University. It took us over a year to get the support of Unesco’s International Programme for the Development of Communication.

The symposium’s two keynote speakers from Thailand put into perspective the current mindful communication trend.

Phuwadol Piyasilo Bhikku, a communication arts graduate from Chulalongkorn University and a former journalist, who is now a Forest Monk in northern Thailand, noted that mindfulness practised in the West is “a bit problematic” because it is used mainly on an individualistic level to de-stress.

He argued that it has to be accompanied with wisdom (panna).

“Without this moral wisdom, the practice will not be enough to drive us in the right direction to understand suffering and help society,” he added.

Renowned Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa warned that a fixation on mindfulness could lead to something negative, if the training is not accompanied by ethical aspects. “Learning about sila (ethics), greed, hatred and delusion is needed for mindful communication towards sustainable development,” he argued.

In teaching communications, it is also important for young Asians to know the historical contributions Asian civilisations made to humankind. If not, they would live with the delusion that Asia’s ancient wisdom is not relevant to shaping their modern lifestyles.

European colonial education has taught us that democracy originated in ancient Greece, but we are kept in ignorance of the people’s assemblies, known as Samithis and Sabhas, that existed in Vedic societies in India much before that.

And when it comes to mass media, we teach in universities across Asia that it originated with the Gutenberg Bibles printed in movable type in the 15th century in Germany. Again, we ignore the fact that six centuries earlier, the Chinese printed the Buddhist Diamond Sutra on the block type. In fact, it was the Chinese who invented paper and printing, and after the Buddhist cannon Tripitaka was written at Aluvihare in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC, it was the printed word that spread Buddhism across Asia.

Shouldn’t this historical fact be taught as the origin of the mass media?

Retired Malaysian diplomat Ananda Kumaraseri believes that we need to “de-culturalise” the journalist to understand the mind. During a panel discussion, he argued that because today’s problems are created by humans, “we need to train journalists to direct their minds towards the roots of the problems (not sensationalising them)”.

Asia’s ancient philosophies are unique in that these reject the notion of complete adherence to divine intervention. Their teachings are about how to guide one’s minds to be aware of the surroundings. This helps develop compassion towards living beings and hones insight into their suffering. Journalism’s role should be to help alleviate or eradicate such suffering, not sensationalise it.

Chulalongkorn University’s journalism lecturer, Professor Supaporn Phokaew, believes that there is a fundamental flaw in the way journalism is now taught. “We teach students writing and speaking skills, but not listening skills,” she noted. “We need to introduce the teaching of deep listening skills; to practise mindful communication, (they) need to listen to people to relate to society.”

The challenge facing Chulalongkorn’s curriculum developers is to offer this concept of mindful journalism as an ethics- and virtues-based model that is secular in nature. Yet, its spiritual base cannot be ignored, which is the common heritage of Asia.

Ethics and virtues are indeed an important part of the Asian tradition, argues Professor Kwangsoo Park of Wonkwang University in South Korea. Quoting Taoist philosopher Chuangtzu, he argues that the adversary style of journalism could be transformed into a more cooperative and active problem-solving style.

With the West’s “fourth estate” model fast disappearing with the commercialisation of the media, Bhutan’s Royal Thimpu College dean Dorji Wangchuk offered his country’s “contentment” media model as an alternative to help build a caring Asean community.

“Bhutan is building a form of journalism that advocates contentment, community (harmony) and compassion,” Mr Dorji explained. “It will promote news as a social good and not as a commercial commodity – and will not thrive on conflicts, controversies and commercialism.”

These are but nascent strands of thought, but the hope is that they can be developed into a curriculum that will shape the minds and practices of future journalists from the region.

  • The writer was a radio and broadcast journalist in Australia who now teaches regional media systems at Nanyang Technological University.
  • S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian issues.

ENVIRONMENT: Pacific Islands Get Climate Change to Water Summit

By Kalinga Seneviratne and Evelyn Agato

BEPPU, Japan, 4 Dec 2007 (IPS) – It could have been a Pacific Islands summit on climate change. Of the nine heads of state attending the first Asia Pacific Water Summit (APWS), underway in this Japanese town, seven are from the islands and more concerned with global warming than anything else.

Hideaki Ode, spokesman for the first APWS, explained that 49 countries were invited for the summit but top representation came only from Kiribati, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tuvalu. The others made do with lower-rung ministers or officials.

It was thus that the concerns of the small Pacific Island nations, particularly climate change issues, took centre stage during a session set aside for Asia Pacific leaders, on Monday, as the summit took off.

Coincidentally, the water summit is running parallel to a major 11-day, United Nations conference, convened to device fresh approaches to global warming and climate change, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, that also began Monday.

“Past conferences on water-related disasters used to focus on water shortages, but the situation is changing in recent years because of global warming,” observed Japanese Prime Minister Yasuao Fukuda at Beppu, famed for its hot springs and health spas.

Small Pacific Islands are especially vulnerable to climate change, and President Emmanuel Mori of Micronesia said in his address to the APWS that “there is no longer doubt in anyone’s mind that the adverse impacts of climate change are real and already happening.”

Niue’s Prime Minister Young Vivian encouraged the countries that are still to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to do so now. He explained that it is the only means “to address the adverse impact of climate change on small island states and the low lying coastal areas of most developing countries.”
Kiribati President Anote Tong said that he was personally affected when rising sea water pushed in through a wall he had built around his compound. “Sea water was coming into one of our buildings so I had to move and live a little bit higher,” he explained. “Let’s discuss the long term issues but we have to get into action to address problems right now.’’

Water and sanitation issues were equally pressing for the small island states. A special session had a Pacific Island minister taking part in a TV show-style debate on water FINANCING, organised by the Asian Development Bank with Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands on the panel and the crown prince of Japan in the audience.

The Pacific Island leaders made the point that the issues were real and solutions were urgent with the deteriorating conditions of the region’s freshwater resources due to impacts of global warming on fragile island eco-systems.

President Tommy Esang Remengesau of Palau reiterated that no matter how large or small a country is its existence and livelihood depend on the availability of freshwater. “We simply cannot count on freshwater literally falling from the sky and solving our water management problems,’’ he said.

“Most of our water comes from groundwater because most of our people don’t have the roofing to catch rainwater. So they cannot store the rainwater,” Kiribati’s Tong told IPS in an interview.

“(Our groundwater supply) is impacted by coastal erosion because as the land mass becomes narrower (due to rising sea levels) the ability to retain groundwater will be substantially reduced,” he added, explaining how his country of low-lying islands, nine of them narrow atolls in the Pacific ocean, almost had to transport water from overseas recently. ‘’If there is no groundwater and rain does not fall, there is no water,” Tong said.

Nauru’s concerns were reported by its President Ludwig Scotty. His country is a frequent host to water shortages due to droughts. While initiatives and strategies to improve water resources management and protection of groundwater are going on, a lot more has to be done, particularly in the area of adaptation to climate change.

Latu Kupa, of the Pacific Water Association, addressing the small islands forum session complained that very often leaders in the region get together and say they cannot implement recommended policies because there is no political will.

Kupa said the Pacific Island leaders need to be applauded because it was for the first time that a majority of them has decided to attend an international meeting outside their own region to discuss environmental problems.

Kuniyoshi Takeuchi, director of the International Centre for Water Hazard and Risk Management, argued that Pacific Islands’ problem is also the problem of the international community, but warned against foreign remedies imposed on them.

He pointed out, for example, that the introduction of septic tanks has made groundwater unfit for drinking in the vulnerable island environment. Similarly, a Japanese company that planted pumpkins in a Pacific Island country, replacing traditional taro cultivation, ended up contaminating river water with fertilisers that killed coral reefs.

The leaders of Tuvalu and Palau used the opportunity to urge the international community to act with a sense of urgency to assist Pacific Island countries find solutions to their pressing environmental problems.

“We cannot stop natural phenomena but we can prepare to reduce its impact,’’ argued Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. His solutions were available within the regions, but international FINANCIAL assistance was needed to help implement them. “What is also important is people’s awareness and their education on ways to respond to climate change.”

Fiji’s finance minister Mahendra Chaudhry, speaking during a panel discussion on water financing issues, noted that in 2003 the South Pacific nations had adopted a water governance programme in response to rising sea levels, but implementing them has been a problem due to lack of financial resources. “We are starved of resources in terms of knowledge, governance and financing. I appeal to the FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS to consider soft loan options to the small island nations.”

Community Resilience Tops U.N.’s Disaster Relief Agenda

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Market

BANGKOK, 26 Jun 2014 (IPS) – The Bangkok Declaration on Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia and the Pacific adopted at the close of the 6th Asian Ministerial Conference On Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR) here today emphasised community-based solutions, and reflects a growing global desire to focus more on grassroots actions in the face of catastrophic climate change.

Organised annually in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), this year’s conference – hosted by the Thai government – marks the last time stakeholders from the region will meet before a global summit in Japan next year brings governments together to draft post-2015 plans.

Margareta Wahlstrom, special representative of the U.N. secretary general for disaster risk reduction, said in her opening remarks to the conference that an inclusive and participatory model is needed, which allows grassroots communities and local government authorities to work together as central players in disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts.

Her words found echo with Harjeet Singh, international coordinator of ActionAid’s disaster risk reduction and climatic adaptation project.
“We should not be developing solutions in boardrooms and conferences like this,” he told IPS. “We should rather work with communities, that know much better how they are effected. Most of the time they have solutions that work best for them.”

Speaking at a media conference later, Wahlstrom pointed out that East Asia serves as a model for the rest of the world, as its DRR policies over the last 20 years have led to significant reductions in fatalities as a result of natural hazards.

She said the conference is addressing the fundamental question of how to bring grassroots communities, who are already doing the hard work of mitigation and adaptation, into conversation with national policy makers in order to influence the development agenda.

In preparation for the 3rd U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Japan in March 2015, the Bangkok Declaration calls upon governments and stakeholders to enhance resilience at local levels by institutionalising integrated community approaches into local development.

In addition, it recommended the inclusion of volunteer and community-based networks and strengthening the role of women as a force in local level resilience building.

The document also stressed the need for strong ACCOUNTABILITY measures in partnerships between the community and local governments.

Thailand also managed to incorporate King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s philosophy of Sufficiency Economics into the document, highlighting the importance of a people-centered development model that could “reduce the impact of uncertainties and increase the self-immunity of local communities.”

Sufficiency economics, based on the Buddhist principles of moderation, self-sufficiency and sustainability, promotes a grassroots-oriented economic model that rejects greed, overexploitation and waste.

In the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA2) adopted here as the blueprint for the region’s input to the Japan conference next year, building community resilience to disaster risk management was given top priority.

In the consultation process for HFA2 from March 2012 to May 2013 the emphasis has shifted from reducing vulnerabilities to building resilience. This would involve devolution of authority from a central to a local government level and the use of multi-stakeholder platforms.

This is particularly relevant in the Asia-Pacific region, where – according to a background paper produced for the Bangkok meeting by UNISDR – the number of people exposed to annual flooding has increased from 29.5 to 63.8 million in the past four years, while the number of people living in cyclone-prone areas has grown from 71.8 to 120.7 million.

Invariably, poor people and low-income communities who live in areas most vulnerable to climate change – informal housing settlements and coastal areas, for instance – have been disproportionately impacted.
“We need to be innovative and think out of the box to reform governance [at the] community level,” Bangladeshi Parliamentarian Saber Chowdhrey said at the conference.

He argued that 2015 is poised to be a watershed year with three major international conferences addressing the post-2015 development agenda.

“The more growth we have, the more problems we create,” he noted. “As Asia grows we need policy coherence, ACCOUNTABILITY and transparency.”

Stefan Kohler, with the sustainable infrastructure group of the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) told IPS a key component to the whole process is community consultation.

“They are the ones who will be involved in using the (DRR) infrastructure created for them and [we] need to understand their requirements, so that [we] can feed it to the design process.”

Nepal, for instance, has been ranked by the U.N. Development Programme as the fourth most vulnerable nation to the impacts of climatic change.

While the country has been developing national action plans on disaster management since 1996, it is only recently that the government enhanced the role of local-level participation.

Addressing a workshop here, Gopi Khanal, Nepal’s joint-secretary of the ministry of federal affairs and local development, explained that the government has shifted responsibility for DRR management to the community level.

Through Ward Citizens Forums and 3,625 Village Development Councils operating under local government structures, the national government has created an information sharing system from national through district to village levels.

“Mainstreaming of risk management requires coordination between various levels of governance, and the sharing of FINANCIAL RESOURCES,” he explained.

Becky-Jay Harrington of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), who is based in Nepal, told IPS that this pilot scheme – currently implemented in seven of the country’s 75 districts – has channeled a considerable amount of state FINANCIAL RESOURCES to community-based action on disaster risk management.

The project’s total budget is 2.5 million dollars.

Another example can be seen in the Maldives, a country seriously threatened by rising sea levels as a result of global warming.

Mohamed Zuhair, the country’s national disaster management minister, told the meeting that the central government has given a lot of freedom to communities from far-flung atolls and islands to steer DRR activities, which in turn has influenced national policy.

He also believes that high-risk communities like his need to be innovative if they wish to survive.

“We have a private-public collaboration with the tourist industry to introduce green energy and collaborate in risk management,” he pointed out, adding, “While the Maldives has taken the initiative, bigger countries with more FUNDS need to take responsibility and contribute to these initiatives.

Experts say the shift towards civil society must be encouraged and built upon, as the world prepares for a decade of disasters.

South Pacific: Little Islands Take On Australian Dominance

By Kalinga Seneviratne

map

SINGAPORE, Aug 20 2013 (IPS) – A new Pacific islands forum will seek to challenge the dominance of Australia and New Zealand in a regional body. The new grouping’s approach is being billed the ‘Pacific Way’, and also the ‘green and blue’ way for its commitment to environmentally sustainable oceans as well as land.

The new Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) challenges the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), a 16-member inter-governmental organisation which includes 14 Pacific Island countries plus Australia and New Zealand. The PIF is headquartered in Fijian capital Suva. Fiji itself was suspended from the PIF in 2009 after naval commander Frank Bainimarama grabbed power in a coup in 2006 and refused to hold elections.

Bainimarama, now prime minister of Fiji, said at the launch of the PIDF earlier this month that people “have largely been excluded from the decision-making process,” and that the PIDF would do it differently.

“It has been no secret that Commodore Bainimarama has great distaste for the Pacific Islands Forum, especially over the hypocritical way that the Forum has treated Fiji since the military coup,” Prof. David Robbie, director of the Auckland-based Pacific Media Centre, told IPS.

“Attempts by the Forum to destabilise Fiji have backfired. For all the criticisms of the Fiji regime, there are positive moves to ‘open up’ the region for greater development partnerships with Asia.”

Bainimarama is riding resentment among Pacific island nations that the PIF is dominated by highly-paid Australian, New Zealand and other western expatriates, trying to impose developed country solutions on Pacific problems.

“We’re so sheltered away from the rest of society,” Kiribati President Anote Tong said in an interview with Radio Australia. “We’re a club of our own in retreat and away from questions from people demanding answers.”

At closed-door PIF meetings, leaders usually come dressed in suits, while at the PIDF meeting they were all dressed in the colourful short-sleeve Pacific-style shirts, and all discussions were in open forum.

For the first time in a major Pacific Island forum, business, church and civil society leaders sat alongside national political leaders, and spoke at the same forums. Such interaction is being projected as a ‘Pacific Way’ of consultation.

The PIDF is gaining support, said Robbie. “Bainimarama achieved a coup in successfully getting Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao to the PIDF in spite of Australian attempts to prevent him going. Having the East Timor leader there was an important bridge for Asia-Pacific relations.”

The launch of the PIDF reflects new realities in the region, where Australia and New Zealand no longer have a stranglehold on aid handouts. In the past decade China and many other Asian countries have begun to give aid to and invest in the region. The PIDF meeting was FUNDED by grants from China, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

The leaders of the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Nauru attended the meeting along with the deputy prime minister of Vanuatu and the vice-president of Micronesia. Senior ministers from most other Pacific nations and territories also attended.

While Australia and New Zealand sent observers to the meeting, special envoys came from China, Russia and a range of countries such as Chile and Cuba. Government ministers were sent to represent the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

A clear division between Melanesian and Polynesian nations of the Pacific seems to have opened up, with leaders of Polynesian countries like Samoa, Tahiti and French Polynesia boycotting the meeting.

Polynesians are believed to be a mixture of Malay and Taiwanese who moved into the South Pacific islands more than 3,000 years ago. Melanesians are of Papuan STOCK, and are believed to have moved from parts of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to other Pacific Islands like Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu more than 4,000 years ago.

The Polynesian nations have a tendency to side with Australia and New Zealand in regional affairs, but Melanesian nations make up about 90 percent of the Pacific Island population, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) is an influential grouping in the region.

Australia blocked Commodore Bainimarama taking over the leadership of the MSG spearhead group within the PIF in 2010 – a decision that seems to have backfired.

“MSG is the real economic powerhouse of the Pacific and is a serious challenge to the old Forum (largely dominated by the Polynesian islands and Australia and New Zealand),” Robbie said. “And now the PIDF is a new threat.”

In an interview with IPS from Suva, executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO) Emele Duituturaga said many now expect PIDF to give more value to Pacific expertise and to be founded on Pacific perspectives.

“More importantly the governing and secretariat structures will include all sectors, especially civil society, which the PIF has been overlooking,” she said.

“The new organisation should ensure that the process and structures that are put in place are inclusive,” she added. “It will be a mistake for the governments to just set it up and expect us to go along with it.”

Australia: Politicians Woo Sydney’s “Other Half”

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Sydney

SYDNEY, Jun 8 2013 (IPS) – With a population of over 1.2 million people spread across 14 government districts, the suburbs of western Sydney have long been perceived as the impoverished “other half” of Australia’s economic, FINANCIAL and political hub, serving as a de facto port of entry for incoming migrant workers.

Excluded from the city’s remaining three million occupants, the “Westies” – as Sydney’s affluent inner city and northern dwellers derogatorily refer to those who reside beyond the city of Paramatta – do not often come under the radar of mainstream political parties.

Schools and medical facilities fall far short of the standards of those in neighbouring areas and the region shows signs of having been forgotten by all but those who live there.

But today, both major political parties in Australia are wooing the western voters, who could well determine the outcome of the upcoming Sep. 14 election.

Historically home to the city’s manufacturing and industrial employees, the region has a distinct working class slant, with its 15 electorates voting solidly and predictably for the trade-union backed Australian Labour Party (ALP) for more than half a century.

Winds of change went unnoticed until the conservative Liberal Party (LP) bagged several seats in the 2011 New South Wales (NSW) state elections, prompting questions about what former ALP Leader Mark Latham famously described as the “aspirational classes” in the 1990s.

According to Gary Paramanathan, a community arts worker in the area, the desire to climb economic and social ladders has turned western suburbanites away from Labour’s working class movement.

For the past decade, western Sydney has experienced an annual average population growth rate of 1.5 percent, as Indians, Filipinos and Vietnamese – now the largest immigrant communities in Australia – flocked here to avail themselves of the country’s open-door policy for skilled workers.

An increasing number of Iraqi, Somali and Afghan refugees fleeing civil wars, government repression and political persecution in their homes are also settling down in the area.

In one suburb, Woodcroft, 25 percent of the population is Filipino while the suburb of Liverpool plays host to 5,000 Indo-Fijians, who arrived here during and after the 1987 coup in Fiji, which toppled an Indian-dominated Labour Party government.

In the last two-and-a-half decades immigrants have built a thriving commercial community here, including the famous George Street in Liverpool that is almost entirely dedicated to Indian clothing stores, RESTAURANTS and sweet shops, which attract customers from all over the city.

During these years the ALP championed the aspirations of migrant communities and helped to create the infrastructure necessary for them to succeed, including generous handouts in welfare schemes and support for union demands for better pay.

The realisation of those ambitions bred a fresh political consciousness, according to Philippine-born community media practitioner Annamarie Reyes, who has lived in the area for over 25 years.

Unlike in the 1980s, when immigrant communities basically struggled just to make ends meet, “many Filipinos now send their kids to university and become homeowners” as the dividends of years of hard work pay off, she told IPS.

“As a result, some who were once staunch Labour supporters voted for Liberals at the last elections,” she told IPS.
Perhaps even more shocking to the ALP than a betrayal by a loyal party base were the two Filipino-Australians who stood as candidates for the Liberal Party in two of the safest Labour seats in western Sydney. One of them – 30-year-old Jaymes Dias, from the division of Greenway – came within a whisker of beating out the ALP candidate Michelle Rowlands, who scraped by with an extra 1,409 votes.

Others say corruption and factionalism are partly to blame for dwindling support.

For the past three months the media in Sydney has been saturated with news about the ongoing court cases brought by the Independent Commission Against Corruption to probe corrupt dealings involving former ALP state power BROKER and upper house member Eddie Obeid and the Primary Industries and Mineral Resources Minister Ian MacDonald over the issuance of coal mining licences in the Bylong Valley.

This case has drawn public attention to the deep-seated corruption within the rank and file of the ALP and the union movement that supports the party.

Furthermore, “Labour stalwarts are the old leaders of the community, and hail mostly from the dominant population (Caucasian),” Filipino community leader Dr. Cen Amores told IPS, adding that the party structure is not welcoming to new and emerging community leaders.

On the other hand, “Liberal Party candidates are fairly young and reflect the changing demographics” in the area, she said referring to selections like 22-year-old Isabelle White to contest the western Sydney seat of Chifley, a labour stronghold.

With the election looming and the ALP trailing badly in opinion polls, Prime Minister Julia Gillard spent five days in March at a local HOTEL in Rooty Hills, in the heart of western Sydney, to drum up support for her ailing party and secure the nine regional seats that may well determine the next federal government.

But experts like Amores say that these desperate moves in the eleventh hour will do little to win votes.

Instead of hedging their bets with the ALP, immigrants are now paying closer attention to local council and state elections, Govind Sami, a former head of the Fijian Teachers Union and a minister in the government that was deposed in 1987, told IPS.

According to Asha Chand, a former journalist at the English language daily Fiji Times and now a journalism lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, this city has the largest population of Indo-Fijians in any city outside of Fiji. If immigrant communities play their cards right, they have the potential to shape local, and possibly national politics.

But that is not happening largely due to the fact that “political divisions based on race and ethnicity are still very much part of what the community has inherited from its past,” Chand lamented.