Monday, 22 Oct 2007

RAWIRI TAONUI: Guerrillas in our midst? No!

By RAWIRI TAONUI - Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 21 October 2007
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The arrests last Monday of Maori and other activists was a sensationalised over-reaction by a dysfunctional police force, a power-seeking intelligence service and a government that has lost touch.

International terrorism, national security and gun safety are important issues, but so too are race relations. The storm trooper treatment of Ruatoki families, intimidation of school children on a bus and searching Tame Iti's nightie-clad daughter in a darkened Whakatane street are reminiscent of the racist destruction of Rua Kenana's Tuhoe community. Bungling police even left Maori liaison officers out of Monday's operation, only to invite them back when challenged by Maori on Wednesday.

This is an appalling follow on from the foreshore and seabed debacle, consecutive damning UN reports on Maori rights and the government's reprehensible opposition to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There is widespread disquiet within Maoridom. People who already feel marginalised are further alienated.

Tuhoe descend from Hinepukohurangi, the mythical female personification of the mist that cloaks their beloved forest each night. Elsdon Best called them the "Children of the Mist". Are they guerrillas in our midst? Of course not.

It is no secret that there are scores of camps in the Urewera. Mostly on residual Maori land, they dot the Whakatane and Waimana river valleys within the national park. Many are bare hunters' sites like the one police raided; others are huge wharenui, constructed from logs and tarpaulins, sleeping 60 to 100 people. Some fly rangatiratanga flags so what if they also sit astride Department of Conservation tracks. Working together, DoC doesn't prosecute the camps. Maori allow trampers free passage. Hundreds of Tuhoe family members flock there during school holidays, Christmas and New Year, relaxing, swimming, learning traditional lore, rongoa (medicines), taiaha, bush craft, survival and firearms use.

There are lots of guns. Taneatua, Ruatoki, Ruatahuna and Waimana are located on the forest margin. Every lower socio-economic home has an old .303 and a .22 for hunting kai. The main crime occurs when people learn to shoot at a young age before appreciating they require a licence, and then don't bother to obtain one. Older and other illegitimate guns float around all hunting communities; they're usually more dangerous to the users than others. Gangs, guns and dope growing will complicate things, as will historical tensions between commercial and local hunters Urewera crews took pot-shots at each other a few years back.

Tuhoe also suffered under the colonial yoke. Scorched earth and confiscation policies punished their hiding the 19th century prophet Te Kooti. The beautiful ancestral forest is largely no longer theirs. The sense of loss is heightened for them more than others because confiscated lands lie outside the front door. Nevertheless, and quite remarkably, Tuhoe remains intact: 40% speak te reo. These things make the Tuhoe Nation humble, proud, unyielding and defiant.

But none of this is terrorism. Silly myths about hardline Maori preparing revolution in hangi pits have come and gone over the years. All hunting fraternities have a few hare-brained but harmless military fantasists. The two may come together here. Machismo rhetoric and commando games have always fringed protest circles. During the '81 Springbok tour, there was talk of tunnelling across Auckland to blow up Eden Park although the digging would take four years and the baking soda vinegar potpourri was somehow lightweight.

Tame Iti is a master of theatre, not a terrorist. He showed his bum to the Waitangi Tribunal, and has spat with great aplomb and even greater accuracy in the direction of a governor-general, a prime minister and the assembled Labour Maori MPs. He shotgunned a flag because he is a freedom fighter for rights, not a killer. He may have some Molotov cocktails but who would he throw them at? No Pakeha train passes by, and 737s fly too high. Iti co-hosts a boys' agony programme for emotionally distraught brothers once a week on Maori TV and then hangs about in Ponsonby cafes. He wears camouflage gear, but doesn't have the body type for special ops.

As for links with other groups? Free-thinking people form natural associations. In '81 it was Hart, unions, Maori radicals and others. Police breaking and entering a "free bike repair shop" in Wellington and bungling raids without warrants in Christchurch targeting "Save Happy Valley" are ridiculous.

These are idealistic young people whose goals in life include saving fat snails from rotten mining companies and liberating chickens from fascist battery farms.

Police have over-reacted before. In 1978, they organised the army and armed offenders to evict Maori from Bastion Point when the only resistance was song, prayers and tears. They do so again here. Why on earth did they seize underwear from Taupo to search for explosive residue?

Today's evidence is equally unconvincing. Police may have legitimate prosecutions over unlicensed guns under the Firearms Act, but terrorist accusations are simple scaremongering. Osama bin Laden does not live in the Ureweras, turbans and tataramoa (bush lawyer) simply don't mix. Ruatoki will not invade Auckland. Who would pay for the gas? Iti's "army" appears to comprise a 53-year-old from Palmerston North, a teenage girl from Otara and a likeable but obviously nutty Pakeha anti-Pakeha from Takanini.

One warrant itemised balaclavas and camo T-shirts. There are thousands of camo thingys on TradeMe and in The Warehouse, including cool pyjamas and funky undies.

And, what do they mean by napalm? Supermarket fire-starting cubes, dirt and petrol, and glycerol mixes are standard outdoor survival fire-starting tricks. The odd idiot makes a big one, but that's a far cry from weapons-grade bomb making.

Critics warned that police and the Crown would use the Terrorism Suppression Act to target Maori and other progressive groups when it was introduced in 2002. Those fears were realised last week. The charges are trumped up because a new anti-terrorism bill is before parliament. This is about scaring the community to enhance state power and restore a faltering police force beset by allegations of sexual misconduct, cover ups, fatal car chases, computer porn scandals and failing 111 systems. The same happened in Britain and Australia. Mohamed Haneef was charged under terrorism laws but never prosecuted when so-called evidence fell apart.

Terrorism is a reality of the 21st century. So are civil rights. It is the job of the police to be vigilant and the public's job to keep them responsible. The only evidence of terrorism last Monday was a phalanx of fools dressed in black targeting a poor brown community and those who dare to keep democracy honest by thinking differently. Police Commissioner Howard Broad could end the terror now simply by resigning.

  • Dr Rawiri Taonui is head of Canterbury University's Maori and Indigenous Studies school.

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