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
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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.


Tension builds in row over women’s entry into Hindu temple in Kerala

In this file photo taken on October 18, 2018 Indian Hindu devotees are pictured at the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala. (AFP)
Updated 13 November 2018
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Tension builds in row over women’s entry into Hindu temple in Kerala

  • Hindu women demand their right of religious freedom as 41-day festival approaches
  • Kerala polarized over female entry into the hilltop temple

NEW DELHI: Tension in the air as Sabarimala Hilltop temple in the South Indian state of Kerala is being prepared to open on Nov. 17 for a 41-day Hindu festival.
The tension pertains to the entry of females between the ages of 10 to 50 into the ancient temple of Ayyappa, a deity who devotees believe is celibate and abhors the entry into the temple of women of marriageable age.
The Indian Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment in the last week of September, laid down a rule that bars the entry of young women into the temple. This led to a severe protest across the state, with women being stopped forcefully from entering the temple.
Last month, when the temple opened for six days, at least 12 women tried to enter the hillside temple but a violent crowd blocked their passage, with police looking helpless. At least 560 women in the barred age group have enrolled for the annual pilgrimage that starts in less than a week.
“We are taking all kinds of steps to see that devotees can pay their obeisance to the deity in a peaceful manner,” S. Sreejith, the Kerala inspector general of police, told Arab News.

Political mileage
Before coming to the temple, devotees observe celibacy for 41 days and avoid all kinds of meat and alcohol. They also don black robes for the period.
“The soul of any temple is the deity inside. The deity Aayyappa is a bachelor and that’s why the entry of young women is regulated in the temple,” says Rahul Easwar, a Hindu right-wing activist with close links to the Sabarimala temple.
Talking to Arab News, Easwar said: “We will never say anything against the Supreme Court. We are fighting for our rights to believe and our rights to have our own faith.”
However, women rights activist Kavita Krishnan claimed that “the entire controversy is clearly politically manufactured by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”
The BJP is looking for political mileage in Kerala — the state where it is a small marginal player,” added Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association.
She pointed out that “the entire debate is concocted. It is well known that women’s entry was allowed until the 1990s, and it was stopped upon a court order. The Supreme Court order has only undone that order.”
The local government of Kerala, a coalition of communist parties, supports women’s entry into the temple.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in a news conference on Saturday, said: “Opposition to changes in customs is quite natural. But there is no going back. Toilets, bathing facilities and accommodation facilities at Nilakkal will be set up for women devotees. The current crisis is temporary.”
K. Surendran of the BJP, however, said: “This is a matter of belief and the court should not interfere. Why does the court not interfere in the affairs of other minority religions?”
The BJP spokesperson in Kerala told Arab News: “The women who want to enter the temple are not devotees but activists. They are not believers.
“The local government is trying to polarize the issue by supporting women’s entry because it wants to gain the support of other religious minorities,” added Surendran.
Sandhya Acharya, a woman devotee who has registered to go to the Sabarimala temple, told Arab News that there is an “attempt to deny entry to women by calling them activists.
“Why should there be discrimination in the house of God in the name of gender?” she asked.
Rajesh Krishnan, a Kerala-based activist and intellectual, said: “The whole issue has polarized the society in Kerala. The issue has become all the more vicious after the BJP entered the debate and saw it as an opportunity to win over the people and make an entry into the southern Indian state.”
Around 42 review petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court and Tuesday the Apex court will decide whether it should revisit its judgment or not.