Letter to the Editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1987, p. 14.
Sir: Under the heading “The CIA’s long history in the Pacific” (Herald, May 19) David McKnight produces nothing to sustain his case. He alleges there is a direct connection or conspiracy between the CIA and the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) and its activities in Fiji. By implication this has something to do with the current situation in Fiji.
I am aware of some of the activities of AAFLI in the region and I know the following:
AAFLI is part of the AFL-CIO (the American equivalent of the ACTU) and it is true that most of AAFLI’s funds derive from the American government. As your readers may know, the President is no friend of the American labour movement, and at the last presidential elections the AFL-CIO campaigned for and endorsed the Democrat candidate.
AAFLI’s funding can be compared to the ACTU’s Pacific trade union training program, which is mostly funded through the Australian Development Assistance Bureau. It would be just as ludicrous to say that this “link” between Federal government funding and the ACTU indicates ASIS involvement as it is to state, as Mr McKnight claims, that American government assistance points to CIA involvement.
Many Western union [peak councils], including the ACTU and the AFL-CIO, believe they have a responsibility to assist their brother and sister unionists in the Pacific. This is the major reason for US and Australian union activities [in the region].
The AAFLI is starved of funds. The current US Administration has cut funding to all the AFL-CIO’s international programs. Because it had to cut back activities and administration costs, AAFLI shifted its office from Suva to Hawaii in July last year. (Mr McKnight implied this move occurred because of an article he wrote for the Herald last year. This indicates he is not only guilty of shoddy journalism, but also of megalomania.)
In November last year, allegations concerning the AAFLI and [the] CIA surfaced at a conference on the Pacific organised by the H.V. Evatt Foundation. Mr Mahendra Chaudhary, then assistant secretary of the Fiji Trade Union Congress and who was arrested as a minister in Dr Bavadra’s Cabinet, dismissed those claims, saying that there was no evidence of AAFLI interference in the affairs of Fijian unions and that the unions appreciated AAFLI’s assistance with training programs.
The alarming news in Fiji reminds us how fragile are democratic institutions and the role of a free media in reporting the truth. The Herald’s coverage of Fijian events over the past week has been excellent, but marred by the publication of Mr McKnight’s myth and mischief.
McKnight, who wrote the article to which my letter responded, was then a member of the Communist Party of Australia and, as was common of people of that ilk, had a low opinion of the United States and of anything to do with the AFL-CIO. The latter organisation had played a highly significant role in fighting for labour rights and union training, as well as resisting far-leftists in the labour movement across the globe. Mainly that was in support of ‘bread and butter’ unionism, training locals in the basic arts of negotiating, giving a speech, preparing a case before a local industrial relations board or tribunal. In 1984 the AFL-CIO were most prominent for their long-standing support for Solidarnosc and the movement for democracy in Poland.
I met many of the AAFLI people in the Pacific. They were all salt of the earth types, mostly ex-American unionists, with affection for Polynesian and Melanesian society. Their work involved running adult education training courses for the members of the local labor unions and for some of the cooperatives formed in the Pacific island countries. The AAFLI officials were genuinely critical of various restrictions on organised labor imposed by conservative island governments.
Mahendra Chaudhary (1942- ) was a person on the left of the Fijian labour movement who would have spoke the truth if he thought AAFLI was up to nefarious political activity or ‘spying’. I back his testimony over anything McKnight wrote.
I met Chaudhary on visits to Fiji and his to Australia. Along with D.P. Singh, a Vice President of the Fijian Trades Union Congress (FTUC), more of a moderate labor type in his case, I kept abreast of events in Fiji in the 1980s. Both of them were slightly wary of James Raman, the General Secretary of the FTUC, whom they saw as the ultimate pragmatist, without a political framework or compass to guide him. Raman joined them all in forming the Fiji Labour Party, but I got the impression that he feared the Chiefs and traditional society were not ready to share power, that despite prominent support from certain native Fijians, that the Labour Party might be pilloried as an Indian take-over of the government. Whatever his reservations, fears of racial conflict, and foresight in seeing the potential political environment worsen the position of the trade unions, he fought to defend the Labour Party and what his supporters wanted – equal representation under the law.
Sadly, the coups in Fiji meant that as with many Fijian Indians, Singh migrated to New Zealand, seeing no point staying in a country where his children could never aspire to true equality. There was a brain drain from the country.
In contrast, Chaudhary thought migration and exile unthinkable. I found him an engaging, thoughtful, logical mind, easily the most impressive person I met in the Pacific. There was a touch of the ascetic purist, Gandhian in spirit, to him. Chaudhary managed to speak calmly, yet incredibly passionately, about human and labour rights, in a style shorn of jargon, in clear and beautifully phrased language.
It has been a terrible loss for Fiji that bandits, charlatans and adventurers, in the name of native Fijian nationalism, seized power in 2000, a year after he became Prime Minister in May 1999, after a victorious election campaign.