Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Frost Interview Munib al-Masri: 'The spring is coming'

One of the most influential Palestinians discusses his fears for the future of both Palestinians and Israel.


Reposted from Al Jazeera

Munib al-Masri is one of the most famous and influential Palestinians, but you may never have heard of him.
Often called 'The Godfather' Masri, on no fewer than three occasions, turned down the premiership of Palestine.
He has a fortune estimated at $1.6 billion, and is chairman of the powerful Palestine Development and Investment Company (Padico), a firm whose interests respresent an estimated one-quarter of the whole Palestinian economy.
Sir David Frost travels to the West Bank to meet Masri, considered the richest man in Palestine, where he takes Sir David around his palace in Ramallah, to Yasser Arafat's mausoleum, and to the massive wall erected by Israel, which turns Palestinians into prisoners.
Masri is known as one of the most influential power-brokers and philanthropists in the region. Considered a moderate, he is respected by Palestinians and Israelis alike.
"For 40 years, I have been working for the peace process," he tells Sir David, saying he fears for the future - for both Palestinians and for Israel.
"Enough is enough … and I think that it's coming, the Spring is coming, and the tsunami is coming, and the volcano is coming."
Walking beside Israel's 'peace wall' in Jerusalem, he says: "It humiliates me and it takes my integrity and my dignity when you are in your own land and you are stopped and you are checked. You feel sometimes like you are an animal.
"We are in a big jail. Gaza is a big jail, this is a big jail, Jerusalem is a big jail, every place is a big jail.
"It is not the values of the Jewish religion. They have good values and I hope they exercise these values on us. We cannot be occupied all our lives. Let us sit down and talk and listen to each other's aspirations and needs."
Masri confides that he has a deep conviction that cutting a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas represents the last hopes for Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu: "I would say, 'Mr Netanyahu don't miss the chance of making peace with Mr Abbas'."
A friend and confidant of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Masri says he supports Arafat's widow in her campaign to discover if her husband was poisoned: "Many people, they are wondering [about how Arafat died] because they want to see about their beloved leader what happened to him, why it's happened this way. It's not very strange, and it's not odd for the Israeli government to do something of this sort."
Remembering Arafat, Masri says: "He gave us hope. He gave us determination, and to think and to dream that this dream will come true, to go back to our homes .... He was an extraordinary leader, we loved him and he was our hero. And to me he was also a friend. Although, he made many mistakes, but a hero can be forgiven."

The Frost Interview can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Friday: 2000; Saturday: 1200; Sunday: 0100; Monday: 0600.

Listening to our Elders



I recently watched an interview on Al Jazeera by veteran journalist David Frost. His guest was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the famous Nobel Peace laureate, and one of the world’s most respected church leaders, was a central figure in ensuring an end to white minority rule in South Africa. Archbishop Tutu was instrumental in the struggle against apartheid, also acting as chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As a defiant campaigner against apartheid, he is one of the world's most prominent defenders of human rights.

As someone who grew up hearing and reading about Archbishop Tutu, who had retired from public life, the interview was a rare glimpse into not just the mind but the heart of a man who felt the pain of injustice and decided to do something about it.

In the interview he recalled to David Frost how the injustices he saw under apartheid tested his Christian faith:
"I really got very angry with God, and would rail at God and say: For goodness sake, how can you allow such and such to happen?"

But he later told Frost that, "someone up there must really have been on our side or batting for us.”

“After (Nelson Mandela's) release and the build-up to our first democratic election, it was one of the roughest, one of the bloodiest, periods in our history."

Archbishop Tutu also saluted the enormous role of former South African President Nelson Mandela in the dialogue that led to South Africa's peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy.

"His contribution is immeasurable; his stature. I mean for someone who was the commander-in-chief of the military wing of the ANC to be at the forefront of persuading people that it would be better for us to negotiate; it is better for us to lay down our arms. And then to try to live that."

The archbishop also gave his frank view on concerns about the direction the current government in South Africa is headed. 

If you have access to the internet, the full interview can be seen on http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/frostinterview/2012/11/20121112125225355813.html or else perhaps the television station that rebroadcasts Al Jazeera may air it again as an act of corporate social responsibility.

Also in the interview, Archbishop Tutu was joined by former United States President, Jimmy Carter. Both Tutu and Carter are members of the “The Elders”.



Chaired by Archbishop Tutu, The Elders is an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights. They were brought together in 2007 by Nelson Mandela, who is not an active member of the group but remains an Honorary Elder. The Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was also an Honorary Elder, until her election to the Burmese parliament in April this year.

Apart from Archbishop Tutu, President Carter and President Mandela, the Elders include:

  • Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland; Nobel Peace Laureate and expert in international peace mediation, diplomacy and post-conflict state building;
  • Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Laureate; put development, human rights, the rule of law, good governance and peace at the top of the United Nations agenda;
  • Ela Bhatt, the ‘gentle revolutionary’, a pioneer in women’s empowerment and grassroots development, founder of the more than 1 million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association in India;
  • Lakhdar Brahimi, former Algerian freedom fighter, Foreign Minister, conflict mediator and UN diplomat; an expert in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction;
  • Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman Prime Minister of Norway; a medical doctor who champions health as a human right, and put sustainable development on the international agenda;
  • Fernando H Cardoso, former President of Brazil; implemented major land reform programme, reduced poverty and significantly improved health and education; an acclaimed sociologist and global advocate for drug policy reform;
  • Gra├ža Machel, International advocate for women’s and children's rights; former freedom fighter and first Education Minister of Mozambique; and
  • Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; a passionate, forceful advocate for gender equality, women’s participation in peace-building and human dignity.

None of the Elders hold public office, which makes them independent of any national government or other vested interest. They are committed to promoting the shared interests of humanity, and the universal human rights we all share. They believe that in any conflict, it is important to listen to everyone - no matter how unpalatable or unpopular this may be. They aim to act boldly, speaking difficult truths and tackling taboos. They don’t claim to have all the answers, and stress that every individual can make a difference and create positive change in their society.

You can read more about the Elders at http://www.theelders.org

The Elders have been actively working towards peaceful solutions in conflict areas around the world most recently in Africa and the Middle East, where last week they called for a cessation of hostilities, and for the international community to renew efforts to resolve the decades-long conflict.

As part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, Archbishop Tutu urged men and boys to challenge harmful traditions and protect the rights of girls and women.

“I call on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women. It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.”

Here in Fiji and Oceania, we have a traditional respect of our elders.

However in it seems that in our rush to develop, often the voices of our senior citizens are drowned out by the buzzwords of the current generation.

Most of our elders have the benefit of having learned from their mistakes, of experiencing the joys and failures in personal and community life. They often speak to us out of nothing more than a desire to not see current and future generations repeat the actions of the past.

Our country is in middle-age, perhaps we as a nation are going through a mid-life crisis. 

Sometimes it is necessary to stop listening to ourselves and start listening to those who have wise, if simple, words of wisdom; who stand ready to offer guidance to individuals as well as communities.

Perhaps Fiji and Oceania needs a group like the Elders – with no claims to public office, no vested interests; just men and women who can lead by example, creating positive social change and inspiring others to do the same.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

ENDS

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Opening our Eyes to Gender Violence

Published in the Fiji Times as "Open Your Eyes" (Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan) Wednesday, 21st November, 2012


This Sunday is the 25th of November. It marks the beginning of my mother’s 75th year. Significantly, it also is the International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women which marks the beginning of the annual global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

The 16 Days run from 25th November to December 10th, which is International Human Rights Day.

This global campaign calls on individuals and groups around the world to act to end all forms of violence against women and girls. Making the critical link between violence against women and human rights, the campaign observes several significant dates in its 16 days, including November 29th, International Women's Human Rights Defenders Day; December 1st, World AIDS Day; and December 6th, the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, where a man deliberately gunned down 14 women students.

Set against the recent backdrop of the Israel/Palestinian conflict in Gaza and ongoing conflicts around the world; the attempted assassination of 15 year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, the continuing use of child soldiers in places like Uganda and other untold stories of violence against the girl child; and the ongoing struggle for a just and peaceful society in our own country; it is important that we do not just paint a picture of gender violence is broad brush strokes that may obscure the details and allow us to dismiss this campaign as “just another” event by “men haters”.

According to Johan Galtung, an acclaimed peace researcher, there are three broad forms of violence:
  • ·         Direct violence: The most visual form, hurting people physically by war, beating people, abuse, mobbing, etc. It can either be experienced yourself or seen on the street but it can as well be ‘transmitted’ by movies, games, etc.
  • ·         Structural violence: The type of violence that is embedded into systems. Restricting access to rights and possibilities based on gender, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, etc. The inequalities within societies and between societies create tensions which further violence if not resolved non-violently.
  • ·         Cultural violence: Embedded stories glorifying and normalizing war and violence. These stories and ideas of how to solve conflicts limit our possibilities to solve conflicts, because they tell us that one action always needs this specific reaction and it has always been like this and will always have to be like it is. In a way, this is the brain, the reasoning behind violence, making it acceptable.

Violence has its roots in distorted power relations.
·         Fear is a key element in domestic and family violence and is often the most powerful way a perpetrator controls their victim.

·         Intimidation includes harassing the victim at their workplace or home either by persistent phone calls or text messages, following the victim to and from work, or loitering near work or home.

·         Verbal Abuse includes screaming, shouting, put-downs, name-calling, sarcasm, ridiculing the victim for their religious beliefs or ethnic background.

·         Physical Abuse can range from a lack of consideration for physical comfort to permanent damage or death.

·         Emotional Abuse, by deliberately undermining their confidence, leading them to believe they are insane, stupid, 'a bad mother' or useless.

·         Social Abuse includes isolation from social networks, verbal or physical abuse in public or in front of friends.

·         Economic Abuse results in the victim being financially dependent on their partner or family member. Sexual assault is an act of violence, power and control.

·         Controlling what the victim does, who they see and talk to, where they go, keeping them from making any friends, talking to family, or having any money.

·         Separation Violence involves various activities such as loitering and following, receiving persistent telephone calls and mail, and being watched. 

In Fiji, the fact that “bread and butter issues” were highlighted in many constitution submissions, the recent case of sexual assault by a religious leader and news of increase in suicides and attempted suicides should make us realise that all is not well in the islands “where happiness finds you”.

The coming “16 Days of Activism” are an opportunity to not just look at the global and local scenarios of ongoing discrimination and violence against women of all ages but also to honestly reflect on our own attitudes towards women and other vulnerable groups in our society.

There are many vulnerable groups and minorities – ethnic, social status, economic, those with differing opinions, lifestyles and faiths – who continue to be subjected to violence and discrimination. Each one of us, men, women and children need to ask ourselves how we may have contributed or allowed these abuses to take place.

Often we take a simplistic view to the issues and the brave women and men who speak on behalf of the voiceless many subjected to these forms of discrimination and violence – who are often to ashamed or afraid to speak out – persevering in silence.

In a society that holds dearly to religious values that promote peace, justice and the greater good, the question needs to be asked: what are we doing to stop violence from destroying our homes and our communities?

Many religious leaders, when asked for comments by the media, speak out against gender violence. Yet how are we addressing the issue of violence in general and in particular violence against women and children in our churches, temples, mosques, mata-siga and bible-study groups etc?

Are we willing to discuss this topic in our community talanoa or kava sessions?

Are we willing to accept that we may need to change our views?

Are we willing – even for a moment – to look at the world through the eyes of some who has been sexually violated (regardless of gender)?

Are we willing to try to peer out of the slits of someone who has been “bashed” in the face for no reason except that they were weaker and an easy target for someone to vent their frustrations (sometimes of being a victim themselves)?

Are we willing to look at ourselves through the eyes of a mother forced to sell her body to provide for her children because her husband abandoned them?

In “Long Walk to Freedom” Nelson Mandela, writes that when a population faces structural violence and repeated oppression, many argue that... the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.

The cycle of violence, if not broken, continues with more devastation than any flood or cyclone.

There are no easy answers, but we must not be afraid to ask these questions to ourselves and our society.

Or perhaps we prefer to live with our eyes wide shut.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”
ENDS



Monday, November 19, 2012

"Desmond Tutu: Not going quietly" - The Frost Interview




The Nobel laureate on his role in South Africa's struggle against apartheid and his alarm over recent developments.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

CNN Hero Narayanan Krishnan, Powerful Video One Talented Chef, Millions of Hungry Mouths

crossposted from http://www.karmatube.org/videos.php?id=1927 Narayanan Krishnan was an ambitious, award-winning chef with a five-star hotel group, short-listed for an elite job in Switzerland. One day, he saw an old man eating his own human waste for food by the roadside. Haunted by the image, Krishnan quit his job within the week and returned home for good, convinced of his new destiny. Now 29, he has served more than 1.2 million meals to India's homeless. His days start at 4am, he has never missed a single day of serving meals, he doesn't have much for himself anymore...and he's never been happier.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Mana of Music: Empowering Youth

Published in the Fiji Times, Off The Wall With Padre James Bhagwan Wednesday, October 24, 2012.. click here to go to web version..



The first time I heard the song, “We are the World,” sung live was while sitting in Churchill Park, Lautoka next to my mother. I’m not sure of the year but it was not long after the song became a world-wide hit in 1985. I knew the song well but it was the group that sang it that got my attention. The choir was made up of school children of different ethnicities and cultural groups and from different schools. 

Years later, I was to hear the same song, being sung again but in a different city. However the context was the same as hundreds of young men and women from different backgrounds and different secondary schools sang in the old National Gym, now the Tattersals Leisure Centre.  So was the effect; perhaps a little more powerful.

Next fortnight, the Tattersals Leisure Centre will once again be filled with the raw power of the human voice. Well about 500 voices. For two nights young people of Suva who have been empowered musically will raise their voices, and, as one voice, share that power with those fortunate to be there to witness that musical experience that is “Mana Choral Fest‐2012: ‘Voice Of Change’.

Originally the Fiji Secondary Schools Music Festival, which was revived in 2007 and 2008 by Pasifika Voices after a 15-year hiatus, Mana is another musical child of composer Igelese Ete.

In the midst of his “artistic labour pains,” Ete, a “PK” (“pastor’s kid”) who gave up a place in his high school senior rugby team to take up choral singing, shared with me his belief, based on his own experiences, that music can be tool to inspire, empower, uplift and also give a strong sense of self-identity.”

In fact the change of name from the usual Suva Secondary Schools Music Festival, to “Mana: ‘Voice Of Change’” is part of Ete’s vision for the youth of Fiji and the Pacific.

Being current and relevant to our youth is crucial, so I thought it would be good to rebrand it something that would resonate with the youth. I suggested it to the members of Pasifika Voices if they could find a name they would all be proud of, to give them a sense of 'self- identity' making it unique to Fiji and also the Pacific.

“Mana”, which is commonly understood across the Pacific to mean great authority, presence, prestige or power, is more than a catchy title for a music show. Throughout the years, the Suva Secondary Schools Music Festival has been a blessing and platform to empower audiences and unite schools. According to Ete, the Students/performers have “mana” and have used this gift to enrich the lives of generations of audiences, and the blessing is in the song and the symbol of unity.

“The late Mrs Ethel Naidu, who was a renowned convener of the Suva Secondary Schools Music Festival, once said that, "The purpose was to create a friendly atmosphere among students and the spirit of working together," The Suva Secondary Schools Music Festival has always been about releasing this power or Mana via the arts and helping students realize the mana that they posess, and the responsibility of exercising this right and share this blessing with others. The Music Festival is a celebration of Mana and a time of empowerment and the deep spiritual realization of purposeful engagement with whole audiences.

Ete, paid tribute to Mrs. Naidu, who passed away last September, leaving a lasting legacy that he has inspired him.



“We lost a wonderful inspirational individual in Ethel, and she was on like mind – and I remember bringing her in to the 2008 Sec Schools Music Festival and talking about unity, and all the wonderful schools that were involved – and for its was also about Music as a means to inspire & unite the community. 

This year's theme for the Choral Festival is "‘Voices of Change’". I asked Ete how he saw music as a force for social change - not just self expression but to give positive messages and articulate hope.

Well music in particularly ‘singing’ - has the ability to communicate a message in a non-confrontational way powerful way, something that is unique to this medium and has a huge influence on a spiritual, emotional, physical, intellectual organic way. And sometimes you can try and try and convince the masses through other means but when we communicate by voice through words and melody something unique happens. And it really does explain why singing is such an integral part of community and also the Church.

Set against the backdrop of the recent inter-school violence, the process of forming the choir has taken on a special meaning for Ete, Pasifika Voices and the young choir members.

This year we’re commenting on creating unity between schools and individuals by getting to know each other, respecting each others differences and views, whether they have a different voice part – say you’re a soprano – we always have mixing session where they get to stand next someone they’ve never met. So even within the rehearsal process we are constantly conveying the positive messages of unity in our diversity. The songs we’ll be singing about talks a lot about empowerment and achieving your dreams, believing in who you are – but also we’ll be singing about acceptance of our differences – racially, denominations, culturally, all the things that may divide us.

“In regards to rivalry, I think giving them activities that highlight team dynamics, working together towards a common goal and making sounds that inspire them, goes a long way in building those positive bonds amongst them.

An added bonus for the partipants of “Mana” has been the inclusion of brothers Nainz and Viiz Tupai who are an award winning R&B/Soul duo from New Zealand, Adeaze. The Fijian singers have been watching music clips of the community driven duo and are excited about joining forces with them.

“They’re really humble guys who want to serve, said Ete.

“They were both part of a choir I help set up in Auckland – called the ‘Auckland Pacific Gospel Choir so they’re a prime example of young pacific islanders whose parents migrated to NZ in search of a better life, but had to struggle hard for their kids. Their mum, who is disabled, always encouraged them to busk for their food. They grew up in Church keeping the faith.”

Adeaze are now are at the cutting edge of the music industry, so much so that American singer, Maria Carey even sampled of their songs on her latest album.

“They are such great role models for the youth, and will also holding a free music workshop for Church Youth Groups in Suva on the Sunday (11th November).”

The MANA Choral Fest will be held at the Tattersals’ Leisure Centre on Friday 9th and Saturday 10th November. It promises to be something special.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

For the Girl Child



In the week of  our Fiji Day and Gold Coast Sevens’ victory celebrations, a important events took place that may have escaped our attention.

On Thursday, October 11, United Nation Member States, international organisations, and civil society celebrated the very first International Day of the Girl Child

The landmark resolution declaring the day of the girl-child was passed in December 2011 by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly following a two-year campaign led by Plan International with the support of the Canadian government. It comes at a significant time, when the rights of young women and girls are at a crossroad of growing awareness and ongoing challenges.

According to a post by Ani Colekessian of the Association for Women's Rights in Development, the girl-child is supported by a number of international instruments, but still she faces double discrimination, because she is young and because she is a girl.
In many countries, girls experience discrimination from their earliest moments. Globally, social preferences for boys have led to the disappearance of an estimated 100 million infant-girls. Already at birth a girl's life is at risk: morbidity rates of Infant-girls under 1-year old are 50 percent higher than boys of the same age and those under the age of 5, 40 percent higher.
Girls often encounter barriers to formal education; they are less likely than boys to be enrolled in school, which significantly affects their lifestyle and the opportunities available to them. Each additional year of primary school increases her eventual earnings by 10 to 20 percent; leads to later marriage; fewer and healthier offspring of her own, who have a higher chance of an education; and a reduced risk of HIV/AIDS. Without formal education, girls continue in an ongoing cycle of repression, in which they are expected to assume traditional gender roles, including that of domestic caretaker, while brothers attend school and assume their "male" provider role.
Just days before, one day before "Fiji Day", Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl campaigner for girls' rights was shot and seriously wounded by the Taliban as she was leaving her school in her hometown in the Swat valley, northwest of the capital, Islamabad. Malala Yousafzai first came to public attention in 2009 when she wrote a BBC diary about life under the Taliban. Malala's primary objection was to the Taliban's prohibition of female education. Militants had destroyed over 150 schools in 2008 alone. At the time of writing, young Malala is still in a critical but stable condition, recovering from gunshot wounds to the head and neck. Read Malala’s story at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19899540.
Colekessian's article also states that overall, 82 million girls in developing countries will be married before they turn 18. Girls who marry at a young age not only risk leaving school early, they also become particularly vulnerable to complications during pregnancy and childbirth as well as STIs and HIV and AIDS. Maternal deaths are more common among young mothers and rates of infant mortality and morbidity are also increased.
In at least 28 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), a centuries-old practice of removing part or all of the external genitalia of women for non-medical reasons.
The tradition, grounded in cultural, religious and social beliefs is mostly carried out on girls between the ages of 4 and 12 as a way to control their sexuality. The risks are severe and include mental and physical implications. An estimated 92 million girls in Africa above the age of 10 have undergone FGM.
Globally, 150 million girls under the age of 18 have experienced forced intercourse or other forms of sexual violence. Though most cases remain unreported to authorities due to feelings of shame, panic or disbelief, 36-62 percent of reported sexual assaults are committed against girls under the age of 15. In the United States, 54percent of all female rape cases occur before age 18 and 1 in 5 secondary school girls aged 14 to 18 have been physically or sexually abused by a romantic partner. In addition to the serious emotional, physical and psychological trauma associated with gender-based violence, according to UNICEF, sexual violence against girls is directly and indirectly related to rising rates of HIV and AIDS following forced intercourse. In some cases, the trauma and shame can also lead to lost childhoods, abandoned education, the loss of dignity and self-esteem.
As child-soldiers, girls are not only recruited as combatants but into domestic and sexual slavery as well. Often the reintegration of ex-combatants has failed to recognize the role of girls in combat. Many programmes offer reintegration packages (skills training, food, and money) in exchange for weapons, wholly useless to girl-combatants who are often unarmed. In many cases, girls who bypass reintegration programs are at risk of isolation and poverty.
In her speech to 50 Key UN Diplomats, 19 year-old Girls Speakers Bureau member, Saba, illustrated the lived experience, "I have no title to my name. I am just a girl. I want you to picture me placing a huge stonewall in front of you. There is no way to climb it or go around it. Essentially you're trapped and invisible. 'Why me?' you ask. What if I told you it's just because of your gender? Wouldn't you feel helpless and vulnerable? This is how many girls feel every day." It is each of the actions and events centered around the International Day of the Girl-Child that will promote equal treatment and opportunities for girls to get around these "stonewalls" they run into every day. Read the full version of Ani Colekessian’s article at http://www.awid.org/News-Analysis/Friday-Files/International-Day-of-the-Girl-Child.
As a father of a vivacious six year-old daughter, I am grateful for the awareness that International Day of the Girl-Child brings and the challenge it makes for us all, to engage with this concern. My son Francisco-Xavier may argue about his rights as a boy-child but I am sure that as he reads and digests the information I am sharing today, he will better understand what his role is as a brother and, perhaps one day, as a father. I hope my little Antonia, with whom I have formed a deep bond with during my last visit home, will learn to value and not take for granted the opportunities she has. Perhaps Malala will become a role model (along with her grandma, mum, aunt and cousin) for Antonia as a symbol of standing up for what is right, good and true.
Every girl (and yes, Francisco-Xavier - boys too) child deserves protection, education, respect, and love. Even if these are the only things we can give them, they are the most important things we can give them.
"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity"
Rev. James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. Visit www.twitter.com/padrejb

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Our Submission to the Constitution Commission


Submission to the 2012/13 Constitution Commission

By James Bhagwan and Maelin Pickering Bhagwan

October, 13th, 2012

Introductory Remarks

 Good morning.

My name is Maelin Pickering Bhagwan, I am here this morning on behalf of my husband, Rev. James Bhagwan – who is studying overseas and not able to be here in person, and my two children Francisco-Xavier and Antonia.

I would like to thank the Commission for giving me and my family the opportunity to present our submission. We make this submission as our responsibility as independent citizens of Fiji.

To give you a little understanding of the context in which this submission was prepared I would like to give you a little background of our family. I am of mixed Chinese, i-Kiribati, Samoan, i-Taukei and European heritage. My husband is of Indo-Fijian, and mixed Filipino /European Heritage. Our children, often called “fruit-salad,” contain the blood of almost all native Pacific Islander and migrant communities.

My husband is a Methodist and an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji. I am a Roman Catholic and teach in a Catholic Girls High School. Our children are members of the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia. We have extended family members who belong to many different Christian denominations and religious groups. Our family and friends come from all walks of life, age groups, genders, sexual orientation, abilities and ideologies.

My husband and I were both born within the first decade of Fiji’s Independence. Unlike our children, we remember when Fiji was still known as the way the world should be. We make our submission in the hope that Fiji will once again be the way the world should be.

We have followed the work of the commission and the submissions that have been made. We agree with many of the submissions that have been made in an attempt to take this nation forward, away from race-based politics, institutionalised structures of oppression and stereotype.

Our vision is of a Fiji where life, love, community, justice and peace are sacred values and a lived reality. Where every voice, no matter how small is heard, and everyone is connected in a relationship that is rooted in a sense of belonging to this place.

While we support the 11 pillars of the Peoples Charter for Change, Peace & Progress, we believe that this constitution while upholding universal principles and international conventions and norms, must reflect the uniqueness of our country. Some of our submissions are made in this context.

I now offer our small contribution to the Constitutional process.

Proposals


With the understanding that the Constitution is a “Living Document” which will grow and change according to the needs of the people of Fiji, we, on behalf of our family and for the sake of our children, their children and the generations to come, off a proposal in the following areas for inclusion in our new constitution:

1.    Common Identity

2.    Common Language

3.    Citizenship

4.    Religious Tolerance and Human Rights

5.    Participation in Decision-making

6.    Religion and the State


1.     Common Identity

a.    All citizens of Fiji to be known as Fijians.
b.    Historical Identity of indigenous Fijians and Rotuma and resettled Ocean Islanders to be maintained through the use of Kai Viti, Kai Rotuma, Kai Rabi.
c.    Indigenous Fijians and their children to be registered in the Vola Ni Kawa Bula.
d.    Provincial Identity / relationship to the Vanua to be recognised for all citizens dependent on place of birth of both parents (Kai / Vasu) or, for naturalised citizens, place of residence/settlement.

As I have shared earlier, our family is of mixed heritage. In the last general elections my husband and I registered and voted in the General Electors Communal Constituency. My husband is sometimes classified as Others or Indian depending on which side of the family at which one looks. He has faced racism for being Kai Idia, and for not being full Hindustani. While I have been classified as Kai Loma, or Vasu, I have also been called Kai Jaina. Our children are being raised to recognise and celebrate every part of their ethnic heritage. Yet at the same time they cannot claim any one ethnic group or culture over the other. They and the future generations will need an identity that is suitable for all who make Fiji their home.

The common name of Fijian is important because that is nationality when we are identified outside of our country. We are people of Fiji, either by birth or choice. We deserve to be called Fijian regardless of when our ancestors arrived in these islands or from whence they came.

At the same time we believe that apart from our identity outside of this country or as citizens of the Republic of Fiji, we must recognise and celebrate our identity within this country. We recognise the first settlers of these islands, our indigenous brothers and sisters. Their arrival is shrouded in the mists of time and so we recognise them as Kai Viti, Kai Rotuma.

We recognise the right of the Kai Viti to the land, sea and traditions that they have been given stewardship over. We recognise that there must be mechanisms in place to ensure that Fiji will always remain the Vanua of the Kai Viti. The Vola Ni Kawa Bula is one such mechanism. It is our responsibility as Fijians to ensure that the Kai Viti are recognised as integral to the way of life in Fiji.

At the same time we believe that we who are born and raised here, or who have adopted Fiji as their home, must have a place within the Vanua. There is a need for a mechanism in which all Fijians regardless of their heritage may be able to part of the Vanua, as members of the community, with equal responsibility and recognition.

2.     Common Language

a.    Vosa Vaka Viti to be the National Language of Fiji.
b.    English, Fiji-Hindi, Rotuman and Vosa Vaka Viti to be classified as Official Languages of Fiji.
c.    Vosa Vaka Viti to be compulsory subject at all registered educational institutions. (Up to Certificate of Proficiency level.)

We believe that Vosa Vaka Viti is something that is unique and that we as a nation should not only strive to protect but share make use of. English of course is still the dominant language (the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese) and the language of education and international communication. Hindi-Urdu is the third most spoken language in the world, with some 333 million speakers, while the indigenous language of Fiji has not even one percent of that.  At the same time Fiji-Hindi, which is now being recognised as a separate language from Hindustani is also a language unique to Fiji and as such should also be recognised as such. The indigenous Rotuman language is also a language that needs protection.

In this process of nation building we are asking the indigenous people of these islands to share their name, their home and their resources with people who are descendents of settlers (some voluntary, some compelled) who also consider Fiji their home. 

While each cultural group has the right and should be encouraged to preserve their own traditions, the first step to living as one people is to speak one language. Language should not be limited to the foreign language of English (regarded by some as a language of imperialism and foreign domination) but should be the language that marks us all as people of Fiji. 

We believe that the time has come for every Fijian to speak the native language of Fiji.  This means there must be a concerted effort for conversational Fijian or Vosa Vaka Viti to be taught to all students at school, regardless of ethnicity. It also means that remedial language instruction is necessary for those who were not taught the language at primary school level. Community groups and civil society organisations have an important part to play in this process.

This is where a certificate of proficiency can be used as a standard to develop a wide-reaching curriculum. However it does not have to be just the work of the education ministry or civil society – including religious groups. This is something that individuals can do on a one-to-one basis or among a group of friends.

Maybe then we will be able to really understand one another. Maybe then we will come a step closer to being one people. Maybe then we will be truly worthy of the name Fijian.


3.     Religious Tolerance and Human Rights

a.    Office of Ombudsman to be retained and strengthened.
b.    Human Rights as per the Bill of Rights in the 1997 Constitution to be affirmed.
c.    Human Rights Commission to be retained.
d.    Establishment of Fiji Interreligious Council
                                          i.    All faith based organisations and registered religious organisations/groups to be members.
                                        ii.    Chair of Council to be appointed in rotation among religious bodies (not denomination) that hold membership. Duration of the chairpersonship is annual.
                                       iii.    General Secretary to be appointed through application with endorsement by members of the Council.
e.    Commission for Reconciliation and Peace-building to be established to work in conjunction with Human Rights Commission and Fiji Interreligious Council on issues of Restorative Justice.
f.     Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption to be a constitutional Commission
We believe that the Office of the Ombudsman was either limited or ineffective in the past. 

However, we believe in its necessity and call for it to be retained as per the 1997 Constitution.

The Bill of Rights as per the 1997 Constitution is a fundamental piece of the foundation of the Fiji we are trying to build. We call for its full retention.

The Fiji Human Rights Commission needs to continue to be independent of Government and should retain its status as under the 1997 Constitution.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This freedom was guaranteed in the 1997 Constitution’s Bill of Rights (Chapter 4 Section 35(Religion and Belief).

The time is right for us as a people to think deeply about the importance of religious tolerance in our country and how we can ensure that this issue that has been and maintains the potential for massive divisions in Fiji can be properly addressed in the process to develop a new constitution.

There have been many examples at the grass-roots level as well on a national level of positive influence by religious groups and institutions – social justice programmes, awareness campaigns, civic education – the promotion of high morals and compassionate behaviour and the like.

The seeds of religious tolerance have been planted through the recognition of significant holy days such as Christmas, Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday, Lent, Holi, Easter (both Good Friday and Easter “Resurrection” Sunday), Ramadan, Eid, Diwali, etc by convention as well as by legislation.

Is it not possible that religious tolerance is not only covered by the Bill of Rights, but also be enshrined in our new constitution; through a mechanism through which dialogue within and between religions take place? A permanent mechanism such as a Fiji Interreligious Council could not just provide a safe space for dialogue but also provide the platform for cooperation on social, health and other issues as well as assist in the mobilisation of communities in times of natural disaster.

The Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption should be placed under the Office of the Ombudsman to enable it to be independent of Government.

Given the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual pain suffered by so many in our country over the last 25 years, we also believe that there must be mechanism to help our people, individually, as communities and a society to overcome many obvious and unperceived acts injustice, intolerance and prejudice we all have endured.

While Truth and Reconciliation Commissions around the world have had mixed results, we must not ignore need nor the opportunity to engage in restorative justice and peace-building. 
This needs to be a national priority, not reliant on political policies, but as part of enshrining the Fiji Way. We believe, therefore, that provision should be made either under the Office of the Ombudsman or separately for an independent Commission for Reconciliation and Peace-building.



4.     Participation in Decision-making

a.    National Level
                                          i.    Parliament
1.    Only one House of Representatives made up of 1 representative for every 15,000 citizens. With the 2007 Census putting our population at 837,271, that would be approximately 55 or 56 seats.
2.    Constituencies to be determined and updated by the Constituency Boundaries commission.
3.    Representatives to be elected on a common roll.
4.    Representatives to be elected on the 50% +1 of votes principle.
5.    Prime Minister to be elected by House of Representatives. May only serve two consecutive terms.
6.    President to be elected by House of Representatives following public nominations and screening by selection panel. President to hold executive authority and remain Commander in Chief. She or he will also act as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

                                        ii.    Political Parties
1.    Each political party must not have more than 40% of any particular ethnic group as candidates.
2.    Each political party must not have less than 25% female candidates.
3.    Each political party must not have less than 10% youth candidates (ages 18 – 35).

                                       iii.    Eligibility of Candidates:
1.    Each candidate must be a registered voter.
2.    Each candidate must be nominated by more than of 10% of constituents, who are registered voters, through the collection of signatures, not merely the payment of a nomination fee.
3.    Each candidate must not have been convicted in a court of law in the last 10 years.
4.    Each candidate must not be an undischarged bankrupt.
5.    Each candidate must have been a citizen of Fiji for more than 10 years.
6.    Each candidate must have resided in Fiji for at least 5years prior to election year. Exemptions for those who have lived abroad for the purpose of study, national or military service.
7.    Each candidate must resign from Public Office upon nomination. Public office excludes the position of President, Prime Minister, Cabinet Member or any other position held by virtue of being an elected member of Parliament.

a.    Community Level
                                          i.    The Bose Levu Vakaturaga / Great Council of Chiefs is to be established as a Constitutional Office, not a part of a government administration.
                                        ii.    The Bose Levu Vakaturaga membership is to be limited to traditional chiefly leaders.
                                       iii.    Chiefly responsibility for all residents within the traditional boundaries for the maintenance of the Kai Viti culture, traditions and values and the social cohesion of all Fijians.
                                       iv.    The advice of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga is to be sought by the House of Representatives on any legislation that deals with Native Land, Qoliqoli and issues relating to the needs of Kai Viti as well as the Vanua.

We recognise that while the Great Council of Chiefs is an historic body, its origins lie in the British Colonial administration of the Kai Viti. Nevertheless we recognise the traditional leadership that the chiefly system of Fiji offers the Vanua.

The Great Council of Chiefs is an important institution of our nation that must be included in the governance structure of Fiji. However, we believe that it must be separate from Government and only deal with specific issues on a national level, as we have articulated above.

At the same time, and further to our submission on Provincial Identity, we humbly ask not only your consideration, but through your good offices, that the traditional leaders of the Vanua reconsider their understanding of both who they consider themselves leaders of and who constitutes the Vanua.

My husband and I are both from Rewa. My husband’s forefathers settled in Vuci and I have maternal links to Lomanikoro. My husband is also vasu i Macuata. While we teach our children about their diverse ethnic and cultural heritage, at the same time we want them to also be Fiji’s children and have their links to Rewa and Macuata recognised. We want them to know and understand who and what their vanua is, who their high chief, and understand what that means for them.


This is not just for the minorities who have some blood ties to the Kai Viti. We believe that this is important for all Fijians regardless of ethnic background as it adds to social cohesion through a sense of belonging and commitment to the wider community.


We believe that the Great Council of Chiefs could provide the mechanism that ensures that all chiefs practice inclusive leadership of all people in their villages, districts and provinces.


This, we believe, will not only help in the development of common identity and common or national culture, but also benefit the Vanua as many more people will be able to contribute to development and stewardship of its resources.



5.     Religion and the State

a.    Fiji to be a Civil Religious State.
The 1997 Constitution, in its section on State and religion holds that, “Although religion and the State are separate, the people of the Fiji Islands acknowledge that worship and reverence of God are the source of good government and leadership.” We submit that this should be retained in the new constitution.

I have shared with you the religious diversity of our immediate and extended family.

We believe that while a secular state may guarantee freedom of religious belief, there is also a possibility that, in the future, it may limit the manner in which the people of this country may wish to express and observe their faith. With most of the schools in the country funded by the state, there is no guarantee that schools which teach important values and traditions through their religious education curriculum and ethos will be able to continue to do so.

The same can be said for religious social welfare organisations that work with the state or participate in state-programmes.

We believe that the majority of the people of Fiji not only have a respect for the divine, but also for the sacred and that there are many non-traditional belief systems which are a source of positivity and goodness among our people.

We advocate for the state recognition of Civil Religion. In the tradition of Emile Durkheim and Robert Bellah, Civil religion is comprised of a sacred system of beliefs, myths, symbols, and ceremonies that give meaning to the concepts of "nation" and "state." Civil religion presents an understanding of a society's role in history and each person's role as a citizen. In other words, a civil religion is an expression of the cohesion of the nation. It transcends denominational, ethnic and provincial boundaries.
According to Robert D. Linder, Civil Religion must be independent of the church as such or it will merely be an ecclesiastical endorsement of the state, and it must be genuinely a religion, or it will simply be secular nationalism. There must be ultimate meaning and genuine feeling involved in order for it to function as a religion. Further, it requires a civil theology that is a religious way of thinking about politics—which supplies the society with a continuing sense of identity, interprets the historical experience of the people, and affords a source of dynamism, uniqueness and identity.

It is our view that Fiji as a nation already practices Civil or Civic Religion in some ways. Perhaps this has not been articulated before and is not common although it is practiced some form in America, Australia and Israel. This is a possible way for acknowledging those symbols, beliefs, rituals and meanings that are considered sacred and morally positive by our people, regardless of their particularities. We feel it is a more middle ground approach than the choice between the two poles of Christian State and Secular State.

Conclusion

Members of the Commission, I would like to conclude with words of thanks and appreciation for your commitment to this most difficult task. My late father-in-law Benjamin Bhagwan was a member of the 2000 Constitutional Review Commission. While he was called a traitor, outcast and opportunist by some, he saw it as a calling to serve his people, not only to hear their views but to engage with them help them understand a different perspective and break down walls of prejudice and suspicion.

We know it has not been an easy task and that there is pressure from many sides, so we thank you for your remaining steadfast to your integrity and the responsibility you have undertaken.
I thank you for listening to our submission, and offer it to you in the sincere hope that it may contribute to the positive and strong foundation on which we will rebuild our nation.

As is our tradition, we pray that God’s blessings will be upon you and those who will join in the process of creating this “sacred document”.

Vinaka vakalevu, Shurkyia, Thank you very much.

Mrs. Maelin Pickering Bhagwan – maelin.b@gmail.com
Rev. James Bhagwan – padrejames@gmail.com