Friday, October 9, 2015         

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Unrest increases on Rapa Nui

A clash could erupt between Chilean police and island activists, a UH student fears

By Rob Shikina


Lorenz Gonschor has been anxiously following news reports online about Chilean security forces landing on Easter Island, which lead him to worry that the government could come down hard on local protesters.

Last weekend the Chilean government sent 45 police officers to Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, to "monitor" the situation, saying it might use force after protesters occupied government buildings, the English-language Santiago Times reported Tuesday.

Some activists worried the police would attack demonstrators, the paper said.

Activists began occupying public property about two weeks ago, claiming ancestral ownership of the land. They occupied about 30 properties on the island, including museums, government buildings, the local tourism office and a hotel.

Following the protests, Easter Island Gov. Pedro Edmunds Paoa resigned for "personal reasons," the paper said.

Easter Island occupies the eastern point of the Polynesian Triangle, with Hawaii and New Zealand at the other corners. The island, annexed by Chile in the 1880s, is home to descendants of those who built enormous stone figures known as moai.

Gonschor has visited Easter Island three times since 2004 and received a master's degree in Pacific island studies while doing comparative research of political movements in Easter Island, Tahiti and Hawaii.

During his visits he became friends with several native activists involved in the current protest on the island.

Gonschor, now a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Hawaii, said there have been several protests involving native issues on the island. In the 1990s, native Rapa Nuians blocked archaeological sites and collected a cultural tax.

Activists occupied the runway of the island's airport last August, protesting the influx of immigrants from Chile. Both of those protests were resolved peacefully through negotiations with the government, he said.

The last protest resulted in the Chilean government introducing a bill to limit migration to the island.

Gonschor said he suspects the current protest was spawned by "a general frustration with the slowness of the Chilean legislation ... (which) makes it difficult to make any kind of reforms."

He said there was little concern for violence among local authorities on the island, but the concern escalated once the Chilean government stepped in.

"Hopefully, they don't do any kind of heavy-handed action," he said. "They're land activists; they're not guerrilla fighters."

About 4,000 people live on the island, with a little more than half Rapa Nuian, Gonschor said.

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