Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Guest Post from Tonga: Soldiers and cops wherever you go

Nuku’alofa/Pangaimotu – The city centre of Nuku’alofa has been completely closed off after last Thursday’s riots. Military checkpoints have been set up on every intersection. Only people who work and/or live inside that part of town are let in. Journalists can get a special pass which gives them access to the part of town where most buildings are damaged but unfortunately we have not been able to get media accreditations yet. There are close to 20 of these roadblocks in town.

Checkpoints: To film or not to film?
We went for a walk to film and photograph the soldiers on Friday evening. While we were told not to film or take photos by a group of Tongan soldiers at one intersection, others were quite happy to be filmed and some were prepared to talk, too. A Tongan soldier said his gun is an M16. “We check all the vehicles because they go into the political centre. We scan every vehicle for weapons.”

At the next checkpoint two Australian soldiers were walking towards us while we were filming and taking photographs. They were both carrying big weapons (I’m not an expert, but they looked like machineguns to me – see photo). We were standing in the middle of the road on a roundabout and were filming. When they spotted us they yelled “Stop it, stop!” The sight of two heavily armed soldiers was rather scary. It turned out they were just on going to the diary to get some snacks (carrying huge weapons!).

”Maintaining the peace” – again and again and again
At the checkpoint outside the broken satellite dishes, an Australian soldier was keen to talk on camera. His grandparents are Tongan and he speaks the language. “I represent the Australian Defence Force (ADF). We’re just here to support and provide aid to the Tongan Defence Service (TDS) and also to restore peace. The army is going through some trouble in Tonga.” When I asked him what the reaction from ordinary Tongan’s has been like he said: “The public has been good. Every car that goes past, they wave, they’re happy. When they smile at us we smile at them. They always come past and give us food. I feel the spirit out the normal public is very positive. Not one single negative report at all.” Are you on the side of democracy? “No sides, we are just here to support the Tongan Defence Service.” He then started waving to people and talking to them as they drove past. By that time we hade been at that checkpoint for around five minutes and dozens of cars went past – none of them had waved. This soldier seemed to be unaware that the pro-democracy movement does not want the troops in Tonga. He said he has no opinion on democracy in Tonga. This is his very first trip to Tonga. He has “served for his country” overseas before – in Iraq.

On Saturday, a Tongan soldier told us we were not allowed to film and take photos, put his hand over our camera and told us to go away. Back at the Broadcasting checkpoint, we were offered food and we film an Australian soldier and a few Tongan soldiers watching rugby. Four Australian and three Tongan soldiers were hanging out at the next checkpoint. We wanted to take some photos and film a little. After waiting for a few minutes for a reply we were told we can film one ADF and one TDS “working together” (which constituted of standing next to each other doing nothing). We were not to take photos of ADF troops behind who were carrying machine guns. So can you tell me what you are doing here? (shakes his head) ”Sorry no” (The Australian soldier in charge said: ”Just give them your normal spin, what we were told to say”) What’s the normal spin? “Uhm, we are here to keeping the peace pretty much.” How is the peace going theses days? “Pretty peaceful.”

Pangaitapu: Team Blue goes for a swim
Just off Nuku’alofa lies Pangaitapu, a small island with amazing beaches. We jumped on a small boat in which a large group of white men were already sitting. They turned out to be NZ police officers who spent their Sunday drinking beer and getting a tan. They said 47 NZ cops are now in Nuku’alofa (which is a larger NZ police/civilian ratio than in Aotearoa!). They come from all across the country and many of them have previously been overseas (Solomon Islands, Thailand etc.). Some arrived with the airforce on Saturday while other caught a commercial plane a few days later. A new contingent of NZ police has just arrived and they were sent to church “to get the people onside”.

Burning and looting
Back in Nuku’alofa we saw more destroyed buildings outside the city centre. ‘Lily’s Chinese Restaurant’ was completely destroyed and so was the ‘Chinatown Hotel’. A NZ firefighter, who spent his day off with the NZ cops, said that the fires were lit with petrol and that they spread to surrounding buildings. The main targets outside the city centre were dairies, hotels, banks and Tonfon. We talked to some people in the street who described last week’s looting. “People were trashing the shop and walking out with everything. Fanta, VB. The police was just standing here doing nothing. […] The government is full of lies. The King is a liar.”

”Everything is great!”
A SUV pulled over with two ADF soldiers sitting in it. One of them introduced himself as Al Green, the Public Affairs Officers (he has been to Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor, Bougainville and Cambodia – a well traveled chap). “Everything is great. It’s nice and quiet. So all we try to do is keep the peace.” What kind of jobs does the ADF do? “All our jobs are joint patrols with Tongans and helping them out at checkpoints. Our patrols are all about maintaining goodwill and relationships. Our objective is to make sure everything keeps peaceful. […] Basically, we have enough power to maintain peace on the streets.” Are your guns loaded? “Yeah, we’ve got live rounds. I mean, that’s just the standard. We have to able to protect ourselves.” What are your thoughts on politics? “Our view is not be involved in the politics but to make sure peace is maintained on the streets so that Tongans can solve their own problems.” What would you say to people who say that coming here in the first place is getting involved with politics? “That’s outside my scope. Our agenda is just to maintain peace.” He thought he was not educated enough on Tongan culture to have a view himself on democracy. But if we wanted to talk politics he will try and organise for us to interview Major Jim Hammett.

”Having consistent messages which are accurate”
“This is very good PR training for me, you know” said Al Green when talking to us. “Curly questions. You guys should come and work for our media awareness. (Laughs) Exercises.” So you are trained to give those answers? “Well, to be honest mate, we have talking points that allow us to give a consistent message right through defence. Because, uhm, that’s the accurate reason. Those reasons are set to why we are here so everyone is very clear of their purpose. And if you didn’t have that consistent communication you’d be just saying… You lose your entire sense of consistency within your organisation. I mean Greenpeace probably work exactly the same way.”

So, the ADF is in Tonga to keep the peace and support the TDS. Got that message?

text: smush
From indymedia

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