CHINA FACES KIRIBATI VOTER-INFLUENCING CHARGES

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By Samisoni Pareti

SUVA, Fiji (Nov. 1, 2002 - Islands Business/PINA Nius)---With campaigning heating up in Kiribati for its Nov. 29 general election, the Chinese ambassador has denied claims that he was involved in voter-influencing tactics for President Teburoro Tito.

Opposition leader Dr. Harry Tong has of late complained loudly of what he termed the "over-friendly" association between Chinese Embassy officials in Tarawa and government electoral candidates.

Observers say the Chinese government would be keen to see the re-election of Tito to ensure the continuing presence of its satellite tracking station in South Tarawa.

Tong and his party have not hid their intention to close the Chinese station if they win the November poll. In the last session of parliament they tried unsuccessfully to get the government to provide information about it.

Tito is seeking a second and final term as president of the Central Pacific republic. He needs to win one of the two seats from South Tarawa if is he is to remain as the top candidate for presidency.

His strongest rival is one-time friend and now opposition leader, medical doctor Tong.

"Embassy officials have been accompanying government candidates giving out gifts in South Tarawa and other areas in recent weeks," Tong’s close aide Brian Orme told Islands Business magazine.

"This is tantamount to influencing the upcoming elections and interference with Kiribati’s internal affairs."

The opposition has also described as highly unusual a donation made by Chinese Ambassador Shuxue Ma to a cooperative society in Bairiki on Oct. 21.

In a letter sent to the recipient, Tito’s Environment and Social Development Minister Kataotika Tekee said part of the money ought to be handed over to his personal assistant.

Tekee did not specify where this money, AUS$4,252, will be used. The minister is currently in India on government business and is not expected back in Tarawa until the coming week.

Ma confirmed donating AUS$5,132 to the Nanotasi Cooperative Society in Bairiki. But he said the society was to use only $880 for payment of four dozen sports uniforms with the balance to be handed over to Tekee.

"He promised to use the money for another three projects," Ma said in a telephone interview. "He can be trusted."

The other three projects concern the repair of a sea wall and fencing of a Kiribati Protestant Church compound, as well as a donation to a local primary school.

Asked why only one check was presented for the four projects, and not one for each project, Ma said "because our donation was in a package…understand me."

Told the explanation was still hard to understand, the Chinese envoy said: "You press people think in other directions."

On opposition claims that his government had been offering gifts to the local community, the senior Chinese diplomat confirmed this. But he insisted there was nothing wrong in the practice since the requests for assistance were received "a long time ago."

Ma could not specify how much they have donated to date, saying it amounts to "thousands of dollars." Communities who benefited are in South Tarawa and elsewhere for projects like repair of sea walls, building and maintaining maneaba (meeting houses) and construction of churches.

Asked why such donations could not wait until after the Nov. 29 elections, Ma said sea walls are important for the protection of Tarawa’s waterfront.

That the donations are being made just before the elections is a coincidence, he said.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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