New Caledonia votes on independence from France

Supporters attend the closing meeting of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) campaign for a 'yes' to New Caledonia's independence from France in Noumea, on the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, on October 30, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 04 November 2018

New Caledonia votes on independence from France

  • Separatists have urged Kanak voters to choose self-determination for Kanaky, their name for New Caledonia, and throw off the shackles of “colonial” authorities in Paris

NOUMEA: The French Pacific islands of New Caledonia began voting Sunday on whether to become an independent nation, in a closely-watched test of support for France in one of its many territories scattered around the globe.
Some 18,000 kilometers (11,000 miles) from the French mainland, New Caledonia is home to a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel — a vital electronics component — and is a strategic foothold for France in the Pacific.
Voting in New Caledonia’s 284 polling stations opened at 8.00 am local time Sunday (2100 GMT Saturday) and was to end at 6.00 pm, with results expected the same evening.
The participation rate was 41.8 percent at midday, compared to 27.3 percent at the same time during local elections in 2014, the High Commission said Sunday.
Some 175,000 people are eligible to vote in the remote islands fringed by spectacular beaches, with opinion polls predicting a large majority in favor of staying French.
But there are fears the referendum could inflame tensions between indigenous Kanak people, who tend to favor independence, and the white population, which boiled over into deadly violence in the 1980s.
The quasi-civil war claimed more than 70 lives. It led to the 1998 Noumea Accord which paved the way for the steady devolution of powers as well as Sunday’s referendum.
Separatists have urged Kanak voters to choose self-determination for Kanaky, their name for New Caledonia, and throw off the shackles of “colonial” authorities in Paris.
“It’s a great day for us. My father, my grandfather fought for this country and today is the second fight in the ballot box,” said pro-independence supporter Patrick Watrone on Sunday, dressed in the colors of Kanak flag.
But indigenous people make up less than 50 percent of the electorate and some Kanaks back staying part of France, not least due to the 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) the French state hands to the islands every year.
Going it alone, “I’m not sure we have all the assets we’d need to succeed,” said Marc Gnipate, a 62-year-old pensioner.
Polls suggest 63 to 75 percent of voters will opt against breaking away from France, which claimed the islands in 1853 and once used them as a penal colony.
Under the 1998 deal, in the event of a “no” vote two further referendums on independence can still be held before 2022.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who is due to give a televised address after the results, has largely stayed clear of the campaign but during a visit to Noumea in May he declared “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia.”
He also raised concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, where Beijing has invested heavily in Vanuatu, a territory which broke from France and Britain in 1980.
Accusing the US of “turning its back on the region in recent months,” Macron said China was “building its hegemony step by step” in the Pacific — suggesting an independent New Caledonia could provide Beijing’s next foothold.
Australia has also expressed concerns about China’s activities in neighboring island states — which the Lowy Institute think-tank estimates received $1.78 billion in aid from Beijing from 2006-16 — boosting its own spending in response.
While Australia officially remains neutral on New Caledonia’s independence vote, Canberra’s former consul-general in Noumea Denise Fisher said it appreciated the stability France’s Pacific presence offered in the face of China’s rise.
“It’s been fortunate for Australia to have a well-resourced Western ally such as France engaged in the region, particularly at a time when there’s a lot of geo-strategic change and new players like China coming into the region,” she told the ABC.
“There are a few uncertainties arising now.”
Home to 269,000 people, New Caledonia is one of a handful of French island outposts — a legacy of the country’s 19th-century empire — which retain strategic importance.
The referendum will be a test of the appeal of remaining part of France for such far-flung territories, which are heavily dependent on state handouts but where many feel overlooked by Paris.
Both French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte have been rocked since last year by major protests over living standards and perceived neglect.
In New Caledonia, there are fears that the vote could expose tensions over stark inequalities which persist despite government efforts to redress the economic balance in favor of Kanaks.
The Kanak community is plagued by high school dropout rates, chronic unemployment and poor housing conditions.
Gangs of delinquent youths have become increasingly common on the streets and both sides fear violence among them if the “no” vote prevails.


India reimposes movement curbs on parts of Kashmir’s main city after clashes

Updated 18 August 2019

India reimposes movement curbs on parts of Kashmir’s main city after clashes

  • There were violent overnight clashes between residents and police in which dozens were injured
  • India has been fighting a revolt in which at least 50,000 people have been killed

SRINAGAR: Indian authorities reimposed restrictions on movement in major parts of Kashmir’s biggest city, Srinagar, on Sunday after violent overnight clashes between residents and police in which dozens were injured, two senior officials and eyewitnesses said.
In the past 24 hours, there has been a series of protests against New Delhi’s Aug. 5 revocation of the region’s autonomy. This followed an easing in curbs on movement on Saturday morning.
The state government has said that it has not imposed a curfew over the past two weeks, but on Sunday people were being turned back at multiple roadblocks set up in the city in the past few hours. Security forces at some roadblocks have told residents there is a curfew.
Two senior government officials told Reuters that at least two dozen people were admitted to hospitals with pellet injuries after violent clashes broke out in the old city on Saturday night.
Representatives in the Jammu and Kashmir government in Srinagar and the federal government in New Delhi did not immediately return calls asking about the latest clampdown or seeking an assessment of the number of injuries and clashes.
One of the official sources said that people pelted security forces with stones in around two dozen places across Srinagar. He said that the intensity of the stone pelting protests has increased over past few days.
The heavy overnight clashes took place mostly in Rainawari, Nowhetta and Gojwara areas of the old city where Indian troops fired tear smoke, chilly grenades and pellets to disperse protesters, eyewitnesses and officials said.
Chilly grenades contain very spicy chili pepper, and produce a major eye and skin irritant, as well as a pungent smell, when they are unleashed.
The officials, who declined to be identified because they aren’t supposed to talk to the media, said clashes also took place in other parts of the city including Soura, a hotbed of protests in the past two weeks.
A senior government official and hospital authorities at Srinagar’s main hospital said that at least 17 people came there with pellet injuries. They said 12 were discharged while five with grievous injuries were admitted.
The hospital officials and a police officer told Reuters that a 65-year-old man, Mohammad Ayub of Braripora, was admitted to the hospital after he had major breathing difficulties when tear gas and chilly grenades were fired in old city area on Saturday afternoon. He died in the hospital on Saturday night and has already been buried, they said.
Javed Ahmad, age 35 and from the wealthy Rajbagh area of Srinagar, was prevented from going to the old city early Sunday morning by paramilitary police at a barricade near the city center. “I had to visit my parents there. Troops had blocked the road with concertina wire. They asked me to go back as there was curfew in the area,” he said.
Telephone landlines were restored in parts of the city on Saturday after a 12-day blackout and the state government said most telephone exchanges in the region would start working by Sunday evening. Internet and cell phones remain blocked in Kashmir.
More than 500 political or community leaders and activists remained in detention, and some have been flown to prisons outside the state.
For 30 years in the part of Kashmir that it controls, India has been fighting a revolt in which at least 50,000 people have been killed. Critics say the decision to revoke autonomy will cause further alienation and fuel the armed resistance.
The change will allow non-residents to buy property in Jammu and Kashmir, and end the practice of reserving state government jobs for local residents.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has said the measure is necessary to integrate Kashmir fully into India and speed up its development.