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By John Griffin

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (October 15, 2000 - The Honolulu Advertiser)---"Got Fiji?"

I was surprised – almost shocked to see that "Got Milk?" – type bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck in Honolulu a couple of months ago. This was at the height of the crisis in which an armed gang held Fiji’s prime minister and Cabinet members hostage for weeks.

Was somebody here, maybe Hawaiians, praising that?

Later I figured, and hoped, the pickup owner was expressing approval of a local rock star named Fiji rather than the tragic events that have shaken what was once considered the brightest star among the new island nations of the South Pacific.

I know that the situations in Hawai‘i and Fiji, a former British colony, are not truly comparable. We are lucky for several reasons to have avoided the kind of strife that tears an island society apart.

Still, the news from Fiji and elsewhere in the South Pacific invites some comparisons. Maybe it can also help us look for lessons as Hawai´i seeks both change and ways to keep a harmonious society.

With that in mind, these are some of the points that emerged for me in recent talks with Pacific Island experts here and from elsewhere:

Fiji’s situation is complicated by the fact that some 43 percent of its populations is made up of descendants of sugar plantation laborers brought from India generations ago. Some Indians remain poor while others are dominant in the economy and prominent in politics.

This has some parallel with multiracial Hawai‘i. Yet the differences are more notable. When I first went to Fiji, I was both surprised and saddened at the relative incompatibility of Fijians and Indians. Animosity and fears remain, despite advances.

In any event, the major problem in Fiji today is said to be disputes among Fijians – tribal and class differences of a kind we don’t see among Hawaiians, plus the more familiar gap between those who have benefited by development and those left behind. Indians are sometimes scapegoats in this situation.

Fiji is hardly alone in such deeper troubles. Much of Melanesia – the Southwest Pacific region with more than 80 percent of the Pacific’s people and most of its land-based resources – has problems.

The Solomon Islands are going through a Fiji-like crisis. Papua New Guinea, the Pacific’s biggest nation with more than 4 million people in 700 language groups and tribes, is beset by differences.

Melanesian separatists have been struggling for independence in Irian Jaya, the resource-rich western end of New Guinea ruled by Indonesia. The situation has touches of a potential East Timor. U.S. and Australian officials recently denied an Indonesian charge that the two countries were seeking to split Irian Jaya from Jakarta rule.

So we can expect to see more trouble in a region that has seemed deceptively quiet and been too little noticed by the outside world. And the only good side of the strife is if it leads to more attention to some basic problems.

Understanding those problems is a beginning.

In the larger picture, all Pacific Islands – and here I would include Hawai‘i – share, in a special island manner, a sense of loss of old ways and anxiety about the future. They must balance culture and new forms of government against relations with the outside world. That world includes a globalization movement that often prioritizes development over everything.

Some are failing. That’s in part because their inherited and inappropriate Western political systems sidetrack real dialogue and democracy. Many also put more emphasis on economic growth than equality. And many need new leadership to replace a generation that got tired, fat, and sometimes corrupted, in the now-departed days of abundant Western aid against communist wooing during the Cold War.

The East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program under director Sitiveni Halapua has been following this situation for years. It is working to devise "holistic development" approach that would attempt to minimize conflict by focusing more on people and cultures in the islands. (One wonders whether there might be something for Hawai‘i in this, or if it would be labeled controversial, even socialist.)

If understanding current Pacific Island problems is a beginning, another needed step is building more American interest and help in Washington and elsewhere, including Hawai‘i.

"Strategic" is a much used and abused word in talking about the Pacific Islands. It was real enough in World War II. After that the United States ran a "strategic trust" in Micronesia, the area north of the equator still linked to us with self-governing colonies (Guam and the Northern Marianas) and special ties to other groups of islands.

Our Cold War policy toward the Pacific Islands was "strategic denial" – keep the communists out. Now the sad joke is we have "strategic neglect" from a Washington that has too often lost interest in Pacific Islands outside of a special few (such as our "Star Wars" missile-test facility at Kwajalein and poison gas disposal at Johnston Island).

Robert Kiste, longtime director of the University of Hawai´i’s Center for Pacific Island Studies, notes how Asian interests (fishing, trade, tourism, etc.) are often replacing those of the West in the islands. Evangelical missionaries may now be among the most active Americans in the Pacific.

So where does this leave Hawai‘i, which too often seems to be in denial of its Pacific Island status (as we think of our region as a doughnut – Pacific Rim psychology – rather than a malassada, with 10,000 islands in the interesting middle)?

For one thing, I would like to see the qualifications for the next University of Hawai‘i president and/or the new Manoa chancellor include some advanced awareness of the Asia-Pacific world as a whole.

Then there’s sovereignty for our Polynesian people, the Hawaiians.

The British at least set up a system where Fijians kept control of much of their land, the most vital commodity for all Pacific Islanders. That’s a better deal than Hawaiians got. But events in Fiji and elsewhere show that land use is often more of a key than ownership.

Kiste and others suggest a better example for Hawaiians might be the rights the Polynesian Maori people have won in New Zealand. But that also involves two elements not found in Hawai‘i, an old treaty the Maori had with the onetime colonial British and a Maori tribal structure.

So, in a sense, Hawaiians are starting more from scratch in claiming their rights and at least a piece of their nation. They must do it their way; perhaps with the bill going through Congress as part of the beginning.

Still, we also have to see that what is happening in Hawai‘i on sovereignty is also part of a changing Pacific Island mosaic with its lighter and darker pieces.

And, while we all can’t be Hawaiians – I still call myself Coast Haole Emeritus – we can be part of Hawai‘i and grateful for the great gift Hawaiians have given to harmony in these Islands.

That’s why I like another bumper sticker I saw just after the Fiji one. This one said: "Got Aloha?"

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser.

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