Pacific News Spot: A Change in Flag to Represent a Modern Identity

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Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama announced on the 3rd of February that the Fijian flag (pictured above) will be replaced on the 10th of October. This date will signify the 45th anniversary of  independence from the British Empire which occurred in 1970. This is no coincidence as the motive for replacing the flag is to shun the colonial past of Fiji. In its place Bainimarama wishes for a flag design that represents the Fijian national identity and position in the world in the modern era. This involves removing the colonial symbols of the Union Jack and the shield motif that depicts the St George cross, a lion, sugar cane, bananas, a palm tree, and a dove. Each represents a source of colonial domination for a variety of reasons. The Union Jack, St George cross, and the lion are obvious direct references to Britain. Sugar cane and bananas represent the Fijian plantation past whereby Indian labourers were indentured to work such plantations. This to Fijian Indians is not the imagery that they fondly remember. Furthermore sugar cane and bananas no longer represent a large proportion of Fiji’s economic activity, this has long been overtaken by the tourist sector. The dove also does not represent local wildlife or fauna that many call for to be represented in the new flag. The past actions of Prime Minister Bainimarama have foreshadowed a change towards a more representative flag. In 2013 during a new year’s speech he stated that Fiji was in need of a new flag, however preparations for the first democratic elections since a coup in 2006 put such a task on hold. Furthermore, the elections needed to pre-date the change in flag in order for its design to hold some democratic legitimacy. Bainimarama in his time of military decree also removed the queen’s head from the national currency, and has scrapped the queen’s public holiday. Therefore it should come as no surprise that a change in flag has been announced. New designs for the flag will be offered in a national competition which school children are also encouraged to participate. In this announcement by Bainimarama it must be asked, what is the current local opinion of changing the flag? How will it incorporate and account for Fiji’s ethnic diversity? Where does this move stand with regards to other flag changes directed against the colonial past?

Local reaction to Bainimarama’s announcement is starting to come through. It has been mixed and has caused debate within the media. On “Pacific Beat” radio 05/02/15, the designer of the current flag, Tessa Mackenzie, claims that on the ground approximately 75% of the population generally oppose a change in flag. She claims that the Fijian people rally around and proudly display the Fijian flag during sporting events such as the rugby 7s. She also alludes that the sky blue background of the flag is unique and has become emblematic of Fijian identity. The chiefs of Fiji have supported Bainimarama in claiming that the part Britain has played in the Fijian past is now over and that a change in flag needs to represent that. Again Tessa Mackenzie says it’s a mistake to run from the past, it cannot and will not be ignored by changing it.

Another prominent criticism is that it will be difficult to agree upon a design that represents all of the ethnic groups of Fiji, particularly the Fijian Indians. Despite the fact that the current flag symbolises colonial dominance and exploitation of the British Empire over Fijian Indians, a new flag may equally deny them the opportunity to be displayed prosperously in Fijian national identity. If purely indigenous Fijian symbols are used then it would signal yet another blow for Fijian Indians and their position in Fiji. It must be noted that the coups of 1987, 2000 and 2006 were all initiated by indigenous Fijian outrage of Indian Fijian dominance in parliament. As a result of these violent political events the Indian population, which was around half of the national population, plummeted to less than a quarter, as they migrated out to other Pacific nations. In 2014 however a move towards Indian inclusion/connection occurred with the visit and acceptance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Fiji. Giant banners welcoming Modi were displayed all over the country to welcome him as a representative of the Fijian Indian’s homeland. During this visit considerable aid funds were negotiated, signalling a renewed recognition of the Indian population in Fiji from both the Fijian and Indian governments. If Bainimarama wishes to continue the sentiment of Indian political and cultural inclusion, then Fijian Indian symbolism must be included in the flag.

It is important to note that a change in flag, especially away from colonial symbolism, has many successful precedents which are shown below. Canada changed their flag away from one that also displayed a Union Jack and a shield, much like Fiji. The South African flag was changed from one which was a mash up of the Dutch East India Company flag, the Union Jack, and the flags of two South African Republics. The British New Hebrides had the Union Jack and a crown symbol. The flags that these three nations changed towards successfully represents and displays their national identities. Canada changed their flag image to an iconic maple leaf in 1957 which is generally considered as part of the fauna that is representative of Canadian identity. In 1994, South Africa changed to a flag known as the “reconciliation flag” which was a part of the ethnic renegotiation movement that the nation experienced with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. It was initially only supposed to be an interim flag during this process of reconciliation, however it was accepted as the permanent flag as a nod to this reconciliation history. The flag of the New Hebrides, which was adopted in 1980, has many components that represent their identity. The green represents the richness of the islands, the red symbolizes the blood of wild boars and men, and the black the ni-vanuatu people. The yellow Y-shape represents the light of the Gospel going through the pattern of the islands in the Pacific Ocean. The emblem in the black is a boar’s tusk the symbol of prosperity worn as a pendant on the islands. The flag change came as it claimed independence in 1980. The name of the New Hebrides was also changed to Vanuatu to complete the identity change. These flags all provide examples of a change from a colonial themed flag to one that appropriately represents independent national identity. As a result there is certainly hope that Fiji can achieve the same results. Currently the only other flags of independent nations that display the Union Jack are New Zealand, Australia, and Tuvalu. Currently New Zealand is planning on changing its flag to one that’s black with a silver fern depicted in the middle. Such a proposed flag clearly represents New Zealand identity and unity. It is generally believed that changing the Australian flag would be much more difficult due to long standing racial tensions and complexities.

Currently no official release is available from Britain on Fiji’s proposed change of flag. Leading up to the 10th of October, more debate will occur on what symbols shall be included, and/or debate on the change’s relevance to Fiji. I will continue to follow opinions on the flag change and national identity. So keep posted!

 

South African flag change

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Canadian Flag change

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New Hebrides / Vanuatu flag change

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Remittance Sector in Flux Part One: Fears of Terrorism Funding are Shutting Down the Remittance Sector that so Many Rely Upon

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A concerning topic has arisen since late November 2014 that remittance services by banks will increasingly cease to be offered in developing countries. Remittances can be classified as international money transfers  that usually originate from migrants in developed countries to family back home in developed countries. Remittances provide a substantially large proportion of money received by developing countries. This is exemplified by the fact that The World Bank has estimated that in 2013 global remittances were estimated at $542 billion dollars with $404 billion of these dollars being sent to developing countries. On a more micro level remittances often provide a large proportion of the incomes of those that live within developing countries. It is estimated that remittances sustain the welfare of 700 million people globally. These remittances are usually set aside for the paying of school fees for children, healthcare, clothing, or can be used as a source of investment in micro-enterprise. Perhaps of equal importance is that remittances sent between family members or friends evokes a sense of social solidarity that can be so easily lost over such large distances. These connections include migrant workers sending money to home and international students receiving money from home. These migrants require such feelings of solidarity when separated from their home families and cultures. Since the importance of remittances is well established and that remittance services are now ceasing to be offered, the following questions need to be asked. What is the role of banks in providing remittance services? How is the threat of terrorism funding affecting the remittance sector? How are new remittance sector regulations causing the cessation of remittance services? Is there a solution in the foreseeable future in restoring remittance services?

Remittance agencies are usually businesses connected to local communities that can provide cheap, affordable, and responsive remittance services to local communities. These include large agencies such as Western Union or Money gram, but also includes a multitude of small scale agencies. These agencies however require bank accounts to receive and withdraw money from. This designates such remittance services as formal because banks are financially regulated by the governments of host countries. Remittances can also be provided by the informal sector such as using family members or friends travelling between countries to act as remittance delivers. In some cases, in particular the Middle East, trusted men of the community are paid to deliver money from town to town. The benefit of formal remittance services is that it can be regulated from who money is received and withdrawn from. This is not true of the informal remittance market and therefore can be used for funding dubious activities such as terrorism without the eyes of the authorities. However it must be noted that the vast majority of these informal remittance services are for genuine livelihood purposes.

It has become clear that the regulation over the formal remittance market has not been very strenuous over the last couple of years. On the 17th of September the financial intelligence agency AUSTRAC suspended the operations of a remittance agency called Bisotel Reih on the suspicion that it was using the company to fund terrorist activities in the Middle East. It is claimed that Bisotel Reih could have handled  as much as $21.3 million over the period January to August 2014 for terrorist related funding before investigation. The company was based in Sydney and had an office in Tripoli (North Lebanon). This location made it a prime candidate to fund extremist activities in nearby Syria. Bisotel Reih was owned by the sister and brother in law of Sydney terrorist Khaled Sharrouf. Khaled is known as the poster boy of Australian based terrorism, in 2005 he was charged over possession of items designated for a large scale terrorist plot. Investigations began after the company often failed to reveal recipients of money to regulators. Since investigation it has been revealed that one individual that was sent money was a US citizen known to be fighting in Syria. It is claimed that this US citizen has been sent $12,000 dollars during this period. Whilst Bisotel Reih was suspended and later deregistered from continuing remittance services it is clear that they had the opportunity to fund terrorist activity for a long time prior to the investigation and of a very high value. It can only be assumed that such cases have been one of the key causes of increased regulation in the remittance sector especially in the Australian and wider Pacific region.

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Above: Hassan El-Sabsabi of Bisotel Reih (brother in law of Khaled Sharrouf) after a raid in Southbrook Melbourne. Photo by: Jason South

The new regulations in the remittance sector have primarily entailed stricter know-your-customer regulations for banks. It not only requires them to know the remittance agency’s identity but also the remitters that the agency deals with. These strict regulations have increased the transaction costs for banks in the remittance sector which many are not willing to shoulder. Banks are also conscious about the personal relations consequences of not adequately fulfilling the necessary counter-terrorism requirements. As a result Banks such as Westpac and ANZ to cease providing bank accounts to remittance agencies that provide such services to many Pacific islands. Westpac has also additionally been forced to cease remittance services because JP Morgan chase, which clears all of its US dollar transactions, is also pressuring it to act in unviable strict accordance to counter terrorism regulations. Regulators have been negotiating with banks encouraging not to cease their services to remittance agencies and to correspond to the new regulations. This has only amounted to temporary reprieves. Westpac for instance will open up remittance services to a select number of companies until March 31st 2015, however a long term solution does not seem to have materialised. This trend is not only occurring within our Pacific region but rather on a global level. In Somalia for instance it has recently been announced that the Merchants Bank of California will drop the accounts of remittance agencies there.

So what is the solution to this remittance crisis? First of it all it can be argued that strict formal regulations in the remittance sector will only slow but not stop terrorist funding. Such remittance services will be offered rather through informal channels that bypass regulatory structures. This argument postulates that genuine remitters are being unjustly punished for no reason as less genuine remitters will still carry out their operations underground. Some call for the return to the status quo. Secondly, it must be asked whether banks have some moral obligation to provide services that are so vital to the livelihoods and emotional welfare of such a large proportion of the global population regardless whether it decreases their profits by a few percentage points or not! One solution therefore is for the banks to take the hit. An unlikely solution. Thirdly, the blame cannot entirely be put on banks. Governments must also shoulder the blame as they have burdened the banks with regulatory requirements and have foregone the financial responsibility themselves. It can be argued that counter terrorism funding activities need to be provided by an industry regulator with a broad enough mandate and power to provide such regulation. Currently regulators do not have this broad mandate or government funding. Government needs to take some responsibility, however where will those required funds come from and at the expense of what? Lastly it can be argued that perhaps alternative regulations need to be offered that both combat terrorist financing activities but also do not cripple banks and remittance agencies with unviable transaction costs. One of these suggestions has been to cap transactions by small remittance agencies. This may not prevent terrorist funding but it will also not prevent those relying on remittances for their livelihoods to be left in the cold. Such a solution offers a balanced approach albeit not a complete solution.

This topic is of particular interest to me and I will continue to track it as solutions and opinions continue to develop.