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New Zealand has the right to atone for its colonial crimes in the Pacific

In London recentlyAustralian Foreign Minister Wong Eng-yin has called on the UK to face up to the disturbing realities of its colonial past in the Indo-Pacific. Ms Wong’s ancestry comes from the Chinese community that worked in the dangerous mines of British Borneo. Colonial stories, she said, “can be uncomfortable at times — for those who tell them, for those who hear them.”

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Some in the UK’s ruling Conservative Party strongly object to Ms Huang teaching the UK how to deal with its past. However, she raises a problem that won’t go away. The UK has announced its intention to pursue deeper trade and security ties in the Indo-Pacific region. Ms Wong hinted that it was unlikely to succeed in what she called “the most important region of our time” unless Britain confronted how a history of often abusive conditions affected its relationship there. Understanding the past, she said, “allows us to better share the present and the future. It gives us the opportunity to find more common ground.”

Patricia O’Brien, historian of colonialism at Georgetown University and the Australian National University, at diplomata Foreign Affairs magazine: “In this day and age, reflection on colonial history can help conduct good diplomacy.” If Britain and other former colonists wished to criticize the region’s new imperialist power, China, on firm moral grounds, they might Would consider this particularly worthwhile.

Alas, Britain has been a master at not facing up to its history. In numerous instances, it has screwed up in a row to atone for its imperial slavery in the Caribbean, and its king remains head of state in eight countries. However, Britain is by no means the only major power in the Indo-Pacific region with a shady past. During the 1937-45 Pacific War, Imperial Japan massacred civilians, forced Chinese and Koreans into slave labor, and conscripted tens of thousands of Koreans and other “comfort women” into military brothels. Japan’s relations with its neighbors are still plagued by that history.

In the South Pacific, where British white colonies, including Australia, became colonizers themselves, colonial errors remained a political minefield. But recent experience there shows that countries may choose a path to weather the storm. New Zealand, in particular, is an exemplary apologist.

An apology from a state is very different from an apology from an individual. Meaningful political apologies extend from many to individuals—for example, victims of slavery or their descendants. Hiro Saito of the Singapore Management University points out that the behavior is performative. But if the actors are not sincere, the acting is useless.

Few would blame New Zealand for the sincerity of the apology. In 2002, then Prime Minister Helen Clark issued a moving apology for her country’s past mistreatment of Samoa. It included exiling its leader and killing more than a fifth of its population after New Zealand allowed a ship carrying the Spanish flu to dock on the island’s territory. Her apology was met with a Samoan forgiveness ceremony. “Unfinished business”, as Ms Clarke puts it, can only be resolved with the consent of the victim.

In August last year, another New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, voluntarily proposed a Ifoga, Publicly humiliated and apologetic for her country’s racist “dawn raids” in the search for Pacific Islanders who overstayed their work visas in the 1970s. Chris Finlayson, the former New Zealand attorney-general with whom he negotiated dozens of apologies and financial settlements Maori tribe, the Maori tribe said: “If the royal family just came in so easily and said we were sorry, they would not accept it.” Apologies must be specific and tailored to the sensitivities of the victims. “Acknowledging that certain things have happened in history … and promising that there would be a different way [in future]”

It may help that a modern diplomatic apology echoes the South Pacific tradition of atonement, in which Taboo, polishing the teeth of a sperm whale used as a gift, is symbolic. In January alone, Fiji’s new prime minister offered Kiribati one. However, even without such props, it is wise to do the right thing. Not least because when states say they’re sorry, they’re thinking more about opening the future than closing the past. In times of bleak geopolitical competition, even level-headed strategists should keep in mind good logic.

Read more from our Asia columnist Banyan:
Keeping Up With the Tokugawas (February 23)
After suppressing critics at home, Narendra Modi takes action against foreign media (16 February)
Democracy is making a comeback in Asia (February 9)

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