New Zealand’s image as a Utopia promoting environmental sustainability, peace, justice and individual freedom was shaken on 15 October when police arrested a number of Māori, peace and environmental activists in what is now known as ‘Operation Eight’. This police action is unprecedented in New Zealand history.
Sensational headlines and photos of police in riot gear and the full-face moko of ‘terror’ suspect Tame Iti raised intense fears and shaped the opinions of New Zealand citizens.
I met Tame Iti once in Tanetua in the mid-1990s when I was travelling with a group of Japanese visitors. The recent police raids reminded me of our conversation.
Tame asked me how I liked living in NZ. I replied that I really like the democracy and freedom here. Quite unlike Malaysia, my country of origin, I don’t have to fear being black-listed, arrested or detained without trial if I go on a peaceful protest march. Tame replied:
‘Not if you are Māori. You’ll be stopped and searched by police often, be treated roughly and end up in jail.’
I was rather taken aback by this conversation and started observing more closely how differently some people were treated in this country.
When I received a notice about a symposium ‘For Freedom: Demystifying Terror in Everyday Life in New Zealand’ organised by the Postgraduate Students’ Association of Victoria University last month, I went along to find out more about the context of the arrest of Tame Iti and the 16 others.
The speakers were investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, lawyer of Ngati Kahungunu and Ngati Porou descent, Moana Jackson, education lecturer Dr David Small and law Professor Jane Kelsey.
Nicky Hager set the scene by relating the cabinet’s ‘misguided’ response to 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States in enacting the Terrorism Suppression Act.
The Police established the Strategic Intelligence Unit whose staff began investigating New Zealanders including protest groups to try to find potential ‘terrorist’ threats. Policing of normal protest and the police anti-terrorist work became merged. The result was much heavier treatment of protesters than is normal in New Zealand, for such petty misdemeanours as writing with chalk on a footpath.
Catholics will remember that the Dominican Friars in Auckland provided a home for Ahmed Zaoui after he became the first ‘terrorist’ identified by the SIS in this country. Only after five years of court battles did the SIS finally back down, revealing multiple flaws in the Crown case and in the allegations of terrorist activities.
Moana Jackson linked the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 with the 1863 Suppression of Rebellion Act. Māori fighting for their land were labelled rebels. The action of the state against Māori is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from non-Māori. For example the Māori community of Ruatoki was the only community that was blockaded in the course of Operation Eight.
Moana stressed that media reporting is framed by a biased perception of Māori. ‘Disturbing activities’ and ‘Napalm bombs’ were presented as matters of fact. He cautioned against any predetermination of ‘terrorism’ based on leaked information. A fair trial requires evidence to be examined in court. He asked us to bear in mind the colonial context of framing Māori and mislabelling Māori causes.
Dr David Small stood the justification for anti-terrorism legislation on its head by citing the closest example of terrorism in New Zealand as the bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in 1985. (France initially denied any involvement, and even joined in condemnation of it as a terrorist act).
He said that the social justice network in New Zealand has a long history of peaceful protest.
Professor Jane Kelsey said the period of innocence was over for many Pakeha activists.
She said there has been a gradual accumulation of power by the Security Intelligence Service from the mid to late 1990s.
NZ looking like a police state
I am concerned at the extent to which democracy has been eroded in New Zealand with the passing of the Terrorism Suppression Act and especially with the establishment of the special intelligence bureaucracy. It reminds me of the Special Branch in Malaysia which continues to monitor every move of NGOs even though it was initially created during the emergency period in the 1950s and ’60s. The net effect has been a culture of intense fear and suspicion among many Malaysians who may wish to question government policies or corruption.
In the capital, Kuala Lumpur, last month’s mass demonstration calling for electoral reform was met with heavy police presence, blockades, intimidation and violence.
In New Zealand, the rise in the intelligence bureaucracy and police powers poses a significant threat for those who are involved in social justice activities. The definition of a terrorist act may be widened to apply to groups which do not even intend violence. Many peaceful activists feel that they can no longer trust the police to protect freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.
The US Conference of Bishops has stated that peaceful protest to protect the dignity of the person is a basic human right. When the value of human life is threatened by draconian powers restricting the right of citizens to live fully human lives, such protests must ensue.
Lee Tan initially came to New Zealand as an overseas student and returned again after working in Malaysia among indigenous people for three years.