Protests must be true to their cause

By The Editorial Board 10 July 2021, 10:20PM

There is so much to lament about the cynical nature of modern political campaigning.

But perhaps its most disheartening aspect is the practice of hijacking otherwise well-intentioned people promoting a non-partisan cause to promote a party's own message. 

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin is credited with coining the term “useful idiots” to describe those who could be mobilised to protest seemingly in favour of one issue without realising they were serving another agenda. 

Disappointingly we have witnessed the increasing use of this style of manipulative politics in Samoa in recent weeks. 

Early last month women took to the streets as the Appeal Court prepared to judge how many women were required to sit in Samoa’s Parliament to meet a constitutional mandate.

This paper stands for advancing women’s representation; it also stands against violence aimed against women and girls in their homes, wherever it stems from. That much should be clear from our consistent and non-partisan coverage of these issues for over 40 years. 

But we do object to hijacking noble causes by stealth and for self-interested political purposes, as we saw last month. 

Some 500 women marched peacefully to Mulinuu to show their support for growing women’s representation in Parliament.

(Again, the principle they advocated is one we endorse; at less than five per cent of elected legislators the proportion of female legislators in Samoa is shameful). 

But we make the observation that those who assembled to advance women’s causes ended up serving those of men who were engaged in political games. 

The court’s forthcoming decision had immediate political consequences. Had a sixth woman M.P., Aliimalemanu Alofa Tuuau, been appointed the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) would no longer be a minority in Parliament.

It was for that cause that the true believers in women’s empowerment were ultimately marching. 

By the time that they had arrived at Parliament House more than 500 female protesters dressed in white were many times outnumbered by H.R.P.P. supporters in blue who arrived just as the protest concluded. It was a transparent attempt to attach party politics to what should be a noble and non-partisan cause. 

For evidence of that we need look no further than how the event was conducted. The peaceful women protestors drew the attention of the media but that is where their role ended.

Several men addressed the assembled crowd but not a single woman made a speech.

Sitting under tents at their arrival at the Malae o Tiafau were the country’s most powerful men who were seeking to sway national politics and to use women to do so. 

Such actions cheapen the causes they are intended to promote. Women’s representation in Parliament is not an issue which should be split on party lines. 

But if it were it is worth noting that the Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party’s leader, Fiame Naomi Mataafa, has been a leading voice for raising women’s representation  across the Pacific for decades.

Tuilaepa, by contrast, freely denigrates women with whom he disagrees. He has called this newspaper’s reporters “fat” and “inexperienced” and even suggested that Fiame could not lead a fulfilled emotional life because she did not have children. The list of anti-feminist slurs uttered by the Prime Minister goes on far too long for it to be listed in full here. 

Unfortunately, though, the June march was a successful example of how a principled cause could be twisted to meet political ends. 

Which is why talk of another march to take place on Monday in opposition to violence against women causes us concern. 

Once again the cause of the march is noble and one we have advocated for many years: gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s freedom from abuse of all kinds.

But we are concerned that women will be used to attract media attention and lend legitimacy to an event that serves only cynical political ends.

On the question of the protest we must ask, why now? Why are we protesting against the treatment of women in Samoa at this precise moment when we have, for years, been reporting on their ongoing physical and sexual abuse?

We think it is no coincidence that the planned march is scheduled to occur in the same week as yet another court judgment that could determine the nation’s political future is being handed down.

But the event is also being nakedly tied to party politics. Earlier this week the caretaker Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, attempted to confect a political scandal based on comments made by the F.A.S.T. party’s chairman, La’auli Leuatea Schmidt.

Tuilaepa claimed that La’auli, speaking against a Government employee who anonymously used Facebook to make scandalous claims against the woman who leads his political party, made comments that were abusive to women. 

The caretaker Prime Minister said that while La’auli’s words were undeniably a “very clear” endorsement of sexual assault as a form of punishment. 

He further alleged that the media and non-Government organisations had been involved in a conspiracy of silence about the allegations to cover them up and support their pro-F.A.S.T. agenda. 

“What’s amazing is that there is not a word in the [Samoa] Observer about it,” he said.

“Meanwhile every small lapse from the H.R.P.P. is publicised.”

This is the first of several errors made by Tuilaepa about this incident. More than a week before Tuilaepa made these remarks we devoted 1000 words to covering the issue, including printing La’auli’s remarks in full and Tuilaepa’s criticism. 

We suggest that the caretaker Prime Minister, who recently provided us with advice on our front-page headlines, reads the Samoa Observer more carefully or stops misrepresenting its content to suit his political agenda. 

But nonetheless, Tuilaepa’s criticism has worked like a charm. His framing of La’auli’s comments as advocating sexual assault of women have spread widely online ahead of Monday’s march.

We wonder, though, how many who have condemned La’auli’s comments have actually listened to them in full and how many relied on second or third hand accounts.

A close reading of La’auli’s remarks reveals that he did not, at any stage, advocate sexual violence.. That idea was in fact first raised by the TV3 announcer interviewing Tuilaepa. But he has successfully used a sliver of ambiguity to create a political backlash. 

As is made clear through side-by-side videos placed on our website, only a deliberate misinterpretation of La’auli’s comments - which advocated dealing with slander at the village level - could interpret them as casual advocacy of sexual violence. 

“You're aware of what happens to those that make up stuff with the intention to harm,” La’auli said.

“But a time will come when they'll be brought out to the open field, with floodlights turned on, so the aumaga (untitled men) of SāTupua and Sā Malietoa can decide what to do with them.”

La’auli is clearly advocating a cultural solution; to shine a light on a woman who had used internet anonymity to slander another woman anonymously online. Only  an imaginative leap and creative misinterpretation could load them with sexual connotations.

But much of the damage has been done and La’auli has been tarred with the brush of not taking sexual violence seriously and condemnation of his words has built up in advance of Monday's march.

We can only encourage anyone taking to the streets to ensure they are totally aware of the cause to which they are lending their support and not debasing higher principles by mixing them with party politics. 

Protestors must ask themselves whose interests are they serving: women's or those of a man with a political agenda?

By The Editorial Board 10 July 2021, 10:20PM
Samoa Observer

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