Monday, June 04, 2007

Matt McCarthen: Faith meeting hides hypocrisy of controversial participant

5:00AM Sunday June 03, 2007
By Matt McCarten

Over the past week, two visitors from the Philippines have been guests in New Zealand. One of them, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, was welcomed into the country by the Government. The other, Dennis Maga, a leading trade union and human rights activist in the Philippines, was welcomed here by a number of trade unions, including my own, and other progressive groups.

Arroyo was feted at a State luncheon with our prime minister. Her fellow countryman, Maga, spoiled it all by imprisoning himself in a cage on the steps of Parliament. Maga's aim was to draw our attention to the fact that while they were nibbling on New Zealand's finest foods, Arroyo's political opponents who hadn't already been murdered were languishing in prisons without being convicted of any crime.

Helen Clark and Arroyo then popped off to Waitangi to meet other international guests to chat about religious good deeds. The purpose was to discuss how religion could be used for good, rather than as a vehicle for fanatics and opportunists to kill people they didn't like.

Of course, the irony of their guest heading up a murderous regime at the Inter-Faith Dialogue organized by our Government has obviously missed their attention. Since Arroyo came to power six years ago, almost 900 political killings – three a week have taken place, according to reputable human rights groups. This is on top of a similar number who have disappeared or been kidnapped and who are presumed to be dead.

Terrorism's best recruits are from the urban poor in countries like the Philippines. Yet 130 members of a political party that lawfully organises the urban poor to fight for their rights have been murdered.

And it's getting worse. In last month's election alone, 126 people, including candidates and ballot scrutineers, were killed. One political leader was abducted, and another narrowly escaped a similar fate. Ballot scrutineers claim thousands of votes for opposition parties were discarded, and in numerous cases they were forced to register non-existent votes for candidates allied with Arroyo.

Maybe someone could have pointed out at the Inter-Faith Dialogue that the number of victims in one of the guest's countries far surpassed the region's casualties from terrorism. Maybe a little less prayer and more soul-searching might have been a better use of time.

I suppose it's easier for our Government and media to focus on the antics of protesters outside the Waitangi Marae than to expose Arroyo or the hypocrisy of hosting her. There is no doubt in my mind that if Jesus were alive today, he'd be with the protesters outside the marae, and I mean the real protest with Maga, not the grandstanding by Destiny's Brian Tamaki that the media focused on.

We stoop low when we take the antics of an ambitious fundamentalist politician seriously when he claims we must be run as a Christian country. Christian fundamentalists don't seem to get the irony that while they're berating New Zealand for not being a Christian state, they're attacking as backward Islamic countries.

It's the warped thinking of these Christian that gets us into quagmires like Iraq. The real danger is not secularism. It's fundamentalists like Tamaki, who lead us all into extremism. If there is a God, it would be interesting to hear Him giving the bishop a good telling off when he dies for his Unchristian behaviour. It'd be almost as much fun as the telling off that our other fundamentalist wannabee politician, pastor Graham Capill, will be getting.

Even Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who was present at the meeting, confused Tamaki's silliness with the real issue that Maga and his supporters were making. Peters claimed that the protesters were being disrespectful to the marae and the local people. But local Maori spokesman Arthur Harawira quite rightly said it was the Government who was disrespectful to local Maori by bringing in someone whose regime was murdering its own people.

Despite the wringing of hands of the dialogue participants, it's not religion that is the cause of terrorism. It's the rise of unearned privilege by the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary people. When the rich and powerful suppress their people and kill their leaders, then some people abandon legitimate political activity and turn to extremism.

Dennis Maga is not a terrorist or an extremist. He was invited to New Zealand to tell us the truth about Arroyo and her regime. But by bearing peaceful witness to the murderous regime in the Philippines, he has now been marked for death by embarrassed leaders in his country. His trade union in the Philippines learnt this week that he will be arrested and imprisoned when he returns. Another reliable source says he will be murdered. These aren't idle threats. One of my staff was in the Philippines for a week this year, and in that time, three trade union activists were murdered, apparently by state forces. Maga's family and supporters have begged him not to return until he has an assurance from Arroyo and her government that this won't happen.

The attendees of the Inter-Faith Dialogue and our Government must ask Arroyo to promise them that no harm will come to Maga. If she doesn't, he mustn't leave New Zealand. If something does happen to him, all attendees of the Inter-Faith Dialogue will be associates of a known terrorist.