Sun, unblemished beaches, friendly islanders who like to dance in grass skirts, slow pace of life. A great place to be a tourist. These images dominate the Western media in reference to the South Pacific.
“At once a sanctuary and playground, our magical resort [in Fiji] offers blissful reverie to those who seek intimate peace and quiet, or spirited adventure for thrill seekers,” reads one tourism website for the South Pacific that also touts “sensational” sandy beaches and “lush” tropical foliage.
Life for the permanent residents of most of the islands of the South Pacific, however, is less blissful than the tourist promotions.
Equality and respect for women – rather than violence inflicted upon them – ranks high as an aspiration of 16 women from five regions in the South Pacific who attended the 2013 Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), May 6 -June 14. Their other goals include:
- respect for human rights and restorative justice instead of police brutality and imprisonment without due process;
- true democracy instead of military, dictatorial, or colonial rule;
- sustainable development that benefits the islands’ inhabitants, instead of environmentally destructive extraction of natural resources by foreign companies;
- and healing for current and historical trauma.
Peace must be inclusive, reaching to roots
“We desire peace that is inclusive of all groups,” said Koila Costello-Olsson, who directs the Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding headquartered in Fiji. Costello-Olsson spoke as one of the hosts for a June 2 visit to EMU by Winston Thompson, the Fiji ambassador to the United States, and his wife, Queenie. Joining Costello-Olsson in receiving the Thompsons was EMU president Loren Swartzendruber, plus about 30 SPI participants, faculty and staff.
“We need to appreciate and update our traditional ways of solving conflict,” said Costello-Olsson. “For long-term change, we need to look a the deep-rooted sources of conflict in our region.”
Ambassador Thompson and his wife – who encouraged use of her first name, Queenie – heard six women from the group, representing Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, West Papua, and the Solomon Islands, speak about the conflicts affecting many of the more than 1,000 islands in the South Pacific.
“Our cultures have worked in areas of peace for thousands of years,” said Ana-Latu Dickson, who directed the Milne Bay Counseling Service in Papua New Guinea for more than a decade. But a legacy of colonialism and destruction of indigenous cultures has yielded a highly dysfunctional society in Papua New Guinea, including “one of the most brutal police forces in the world,” she added.
Dickson brought tears to the eyes of many in the ambassador’s reception when she referred to the horrific treatment of juveniles for relatively minor offenses and the harms done to women by angry, frustrated men. She credited EMU’s program for teaching her that “peacebuilding is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” and that she and her colleagues have to take steps not to burn out from their difficult work.
At SPI, Dickson said, the women have learned to look at their conflicts through different lens, “learning to analyze our conflicts better, learning to take in the world views of others, learning to sit and listen and to understand the different dynamics in play.”
Gaining insights and tools
After the women’s presentation to him, Thompson rose to commend them for gaining “insights and tools,” plus “generating networks,” that will help them to lead and to find solutions to the problems afflicting Fiji and, by implication, other island nations. “We’ve been suffering and in need for ways to get things back together. I am hopeful that we are moving in the right direction,” he said, referring to current deliberations over a new constitution in that country. “I ask you to hope and pray for Fiji over the next year.”
Queenie, who had become teary as Dickson spoke, added: “I honor all of you. My heart goes out to you. You are doing wonderful work. . . It’s a huge job. You can’t be isolated. Thank you for what you are doing. Thank you.”
The South Pacific women were part of a group of 21 women who formed the newest cohort of EMU’s two-year-old Women’s Peacebuilding Leadership Program. They were sponsored by Bread for the World, Germany. (The others in the 2013 women’s peacebuilding group were five Somalis from East Africa, sponsored by USAID.)
West Papua has worst conditions
Of the regions they represent, the women spoke of West Papua as having the worst political and social conditions. West Papua is part of an island historically known as Irian Jaya. The eastern part of the island gained independence from Australia in 1975 and is now Papua New Guinea.
West Papua, however, remains under the thumb of Indonesia, with Indonesian and U.S. interests benefiting from an environmentally disastrous gold and copper mine run by Freeport McMoRan, according to Camellia Webb-Gannon, coordinator of the West Papua Project at the University of Sydney.
West Papuans who have protested the environmental destruction and colonial occupation have been killed or simply disappeared in numbers that add up to tens of thousands, amounting to slow-motion genocide, according to academics at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.
In a 2004 statement, Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu called attention to the plight of West Papua: “For many years the people of South Africa suffered under the yoke of oppression and apartheid. Many people continue to suffer brutal oppression, where their fundamental dignity as human beings is denied. One such people is the people of West Papua.
“The people of West Papua have been denied their basic human rights, including their right to self-determination,” said Tutu. “Their cry for justice and freedom has fallen largely on deaf ears. An estimated 100,000 people have died in West Papua since Indonesia took control of the territory in 1963.”
Churches collaborate for positive role
With the backing of 20 churches across the South Pacific, the Pacific Theological College in Fiji is collaborating with Costello-Olsson’s group to help build a network of trained women and men to address widespread social injustices, including violence against women, said Rosalyn “Rosa” Nokise, program director for the college, who is part of the group at SPI.
Nokise said other regional-wide issues are political instability, struggles for self-determination, ethnic tensions (often fostered by political interests), environmental degradation due to extractive industries, and the threats posed by climate change.
For additional information and insights into this topic, read “South Pacific Women Challenge Abuses.”