Another Year Another Successful Peaceful Protest: Where To From Here?

Ever since Eritrea emerged as an independent state in the early 1990s, the country has been ruled by a self-styled autocrat who has extremely abused his position of power. One of the means – besides physical threat and harm – that the Eritrean regime has traditionally implemented as a repressive method is the phenomenon of a so-called “National Cultural Festival” This Festival is a political event designed to further the influence and power of the Eritrean authority. As such, it cannot represent the Eritrean people’s true aspiration whilst gross abuse of the people’s fundamental rights goes unchecked in the country. A sample (by no means exhaustive) of the sort of oppression perpetuated in Eritrea are now widely circulated in several web sites that stand for justice, peace and democracy in Eritrea.1

In light of the above, members of the Eritrean Community in Australia by opposing the “Festival” have taken a stand against crimes committed by the ruthless dictatorial regime ruling Eritrea. Members of this community have regularly challenged the dictatorial behaviour of the Eritrean regime via various means, one of which has been through a peaceful rally against its so-called “Festival”, rejecting the exploitation of our culture to promote dictatorship in Eritrea. In 2007 and for the fifth year, members of the Eritrean Community in Australia protested in a civilized manner against injustices committed by the Eritrean government. Through these demonstrations, our members called upon the Eritrean government to release political opponents, prisoners of conscience, journalists and civil-rights activists and many others who have been imprisoned incommunicado for a long period of time without formal charges and fair trial.

As a community body, we proved to the authoritarian regime that we believe in democratic principles and humane values that oblige us to fight tyranny within the bounds of the Australian law. Our Members raised their voices loudly against abuses of human rights and called for an end to oppression and religious persecution. In adopting such noble stand, only humanistic, moral and patriotic considerations affect this Community’s decision. This year’s peaceful protest, rejecting the Festival is in line with this. Simply translated, our abstinence from the Festival is about our commitment to the cause of the oppressed Eritrean people.

Activities during Two Days of Protest

As it is customary, some members of the Eritrean Community in Australia rallied peacefully calling for peace, justice, democracy and respect of human rights. Although this year’s rally started with unfavourable weather conditions, this didn’t deter protesters from arriving in time. The first day was hot, sunny and humid; the second day was slightly cooler but windy and dusty due to the prolonged drought in Australia and which has been exacerbated by the current El Nino weather system. Cool change came only towards the end of the second day when the wind changed from hot northerly to cool southerly and south-westerly. Under such conditions, many of the protesters would have preferred to stay at home with air conditioners turned full, or would have chosen to enjoy the beaches and the relief they would have offered. In spite of the unfavourable weather conditions, our members who feel the pain of the suffering Eritrean people and who are concerned about the sorry state of their home country chose to stand for a few hours in the extreme weather conditions. Standing for a few hours in such conditions is nothing compared to the prolonged suffering of the whole nation and its people.

It was a major political blunder to hold the so-called cultural event in Melbourne City Town Hall. The “Festival” organisers underestimated the greatness and popularity of the place; hence it failed to recognise that this respected place at the heart of Melbourne city can easily attract people from all around the city. Again, the evidence for this is the diverse crowd that can be seen in the various photos taken during the two days of peaceful protest. Added to that, strong campaign slogans advocating for human rights in Eritrea displayed in the vicinity of the Town Hall. This attracted passers-by like a magnet, and the protesters seized this great opportunity to explain the reasons for staging peaceful demonstration. Press Releases, Memorandums, Posters, Amnesty International documents that explain the extreme abuse of human rights in Eritrea were distributed to passers-by who were very receptive and patient enough to listen to the protesters’ demands. A highly talented Musician from the Republic of Burundi added another dimension to the peaceful demonstration. His Bob Marley style music made the event colourful by attracting more people, especially the wider Australian community. His cry for peace, love and Justice to prevail in Africa captivated protesters’ as well as passers-by’s emotions.

The make-up of the peaceful protesters was diverse. As in previous years, the young and old guards of our liberation struggle worked cooperatively to stage a successful demonstration. The protesters composed of the liberation struggle generation who still have patriotic feeling towards the suffering of their people. Also, this year’s demonstration was marked by the presence of a significant number of youth. The participation of the energetic young people is an encouraging sign and a step in the right direction. We thank and deeply appreciate the youth for being aware of the suffering of the Eritrean people and for proactively participating in the peaceful demonstration.

Eritrean Australians for Peace and Justice (EAPJ) rejects the idea that claims the so-called “Festival” belongs to the Eritrean Community in Australia. The reason for this is that those who support the Eritrean government in Australia represent a minority. The majority of Australians of Eritrean descent do not affiliate or associate themselves in anyway with the repressive regime. EAPJ maintains the majority hold anti-government views, as we have evidence that there are those who reject the repressive policies of the Eritrean government, but they are silent fearing reprisals against their family members who still live in Eritrea. EAPJ firmly holds this view until proven wrong! On the contrary, this festival is politically motivated and it is organised by the Eritrean Embassy in Australia under the direct order from the Ambassador and the consular office in Melbourne. Therefore, the Eritrean government sponsored “Festival” doesn’t represent a National Cultural Event in its true meaning.

EAPJ is deeply indebted to all the volunteers that have made the event successful. These volunteers are the backbone of our activities and without their sacrifices nothing could have been achieved. We would love to mention the highly dedicated members of the Eritrean Community in Australia, but we better not because we believe in a team effort. As a team, we made a concerted effort in organising the peaceful protest and we are satisfied with the outcome which is widely regarded as successful by any measure. Added to this success is the defection of four highly talented members of Halawa Wesen band. Leaving one’s family behind undoubtedly has its own emotional distress, but it is an indication of how desperate is the current situation in Eritrea. EAPJ is also grateful for all Eritreans who boycotted the “Festival” and stayed at home, as their abstinence also contributed to the overall success of the event.

A Wake-up Call to the Eritrean Opposition Politicians

The important question is, where to from here? This question needs to be directed at our politicians in the Eritrean opposition groups. As our respected human rights campaigner and prolific writer, Ustaz Saleh Gadi, clearly spelt out in his Negarit edition of Nov. 21, 2006, we are in need of an effective political leadership.2 A leadership with a clear vision and action-orientated in implementing its vision. A leadership with clear strategies how to depose the dictatorial regime ruling Eritrea, and with a clear vision how to guarantee a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy. A leadership capable of establishing a properly functioning democratic system. Pressure shouldn’t be applied only on the Eritrean regime, but also on the opposition groups. This will force the opposition politicians to meet a real political milestone.

The Eritrean Opposition Group, or more specifically, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) need to be reminded that civil institutions have been involved in various anti tyranny activities to weaken the influence and power of the despotic Eritrean regime. Today’s subject is to remind EDA’s politicians of the peaceful demonstrations that are waged against the Eritrean regime. In record numbers, Eritreans held peaceful demonstrations in Washington DC, London, Melbourne, Stockholm, Rotterdam, Pretoria, etc. under the name of Eritrean Anti Tyranny Global Solidarity. The aim of these peaceful protests is to expose the heinous crimes committed on daily basis by the Eritrean regime, and to make these crimes known to the international community. Concerned, indeed shocked at the magnitude of the plight of the whole nation, peace-loving Eritreans are regularly carrying out peaceful demonstrations on behalf of the voiceless people inside Eritrea, who have been denied basic rights to live normal life.

As EDA’s Politicians know, these peaceful campaigns are waged in order to contribute to the liberation of the Eritrean people from control of every aspect of their life by the illegitimate government. Demonstrations are conducted in solidarity with the oppressed and defenceless people inside Eritrea who are living under continuous fear, humiliation, religious persecution, despair, lack of sense of purpose, and all sorts of abuses that have made them weak and frail so much so that the general populace is pessimistic about the future. Indeed, the future looks grim under the rule of the dictator. Unfortunately, an entire generation has been denied the right to education, which is a key to success in any society.

What do the growing patriotic sentiment, defiance and dissent by civil institutions mean to EDA? This is a question which will be addressed by EAPJ in a Press Release directed to EDA prior to EDA’s scheduled congress in mid-February 2007.

Final Comments

There are those who justify their support of the “Festival” as an act of patriotism and national duty towards their country of origin. We, who stood outside the festival, have boycotted the so-called cultural event for the fifth consecutive year and our justification is this:

We cannot afford to indulge in the proceedings of a dubious party at this dark hour in the life of our fellow country men and women. Fear, sorrow and uncertainty have subdued the Eritrean nation and have become the norm. Eritreans with minimum information about their country cannot fail to grasp the downward spiral that the country is going through. In fact, given the regime’s mal-practices, there is nothing pleasant and joyous coming out of Eritrea at the present moment.

Also, it is important to seek answers to these legitimate questions:

Is it patriotism to be hungry?

Is it patriotism to be humiliated, intimidated and arrested?

Is it patriotism to deny the youth the right to education by keeping them in trenches for indefinite period under the guise of National Security?

Is it patriotism to consign the youth to slavery projects for indefinite period under the excuse of National development?

Isn’t it ironic to waste the youth power by embarking on a senseless and destructive border war that could be averted through diplomacy, and instead utilize the youth power in rebuilding war-torn Eritrea?

Is it fair to jail parents and the elderly by accusing them of assisting their children to flee from the Hell of the Eritrean regime?

Having clarified our reasons for rejecting the Festival, it becomes a matter of conscience whether to boycott and rally against the so-called “Festival” or to be part of it. EAPJ has chosen the former over the latter, as we feel obliged to stand up for justice, democracy and human rights, which completely are absent in present Eritrea. In this, we claim the moral high ground.

Finally, what EAPJ intends to state in no uncertain term is to emphasize the point and deliver the message that members of the Eritrean Community who oppose the official Festival are neither against Eritrea nor its people. On the contrary, concern and love for their home country and its people drives and informs their action. What we are really against and abhor is the Eritrean regime because of its unjust policies and practices.

Eritrean Australians for Peace and Justice

12 January 2007

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