Saturday, October 23, 2010


“There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not fly in a vacuum”
Arthur C Clarke.

It is questionable whether the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a state. Most countries around the world do not recognize it as the entity having sovereignty over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. Currently, most of its territory has been occupied by Morocco (and Mauretania between 1975-1979) since 1975, who in defiance of agreements brokered between it and the POLISARIO, the Western Saharan independence movement, refuses to hold a referendum in the territory in order to determine the extent inhabitants’ desire for self determination. Instead, Morocco has constructed a 2,700 km long sand wall, across the country, in order to divide the portion of Western Sahara it holds, from the 20 or so per cent controlled by the Polisario, which is mostly uninhabited.
While the West generally disdains from characterizing the POLISARIO as a terrorist organization, it is generally circumspect and reticent with regards to recognizing their claims to statehood. The Obama administration in the United States, recognizes Western Sahara as part of Morocco. Australia, on the other hand has a slightly more subtle approach. While not recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, it does support the principle of self-determination for the Sahrawi people.
It is easy to sympathise with the Sahrawi Arabs, who live in an isolated and desolate corner of the world. For a quarter of a decade, they have been victims of an interminable war and suffered loss of life and livelihood as a result. It is for this reason admirable that the City of Yarra council recently flew their flag at their municipal offices, at the request of members of the community. This is a heartwarming display of solidarity towards a people who, to all intents and purposes are relatively unknown and/or are ignored by the rest of the world.
The Republic of Cyprus on the other hand, could be said to be Western Sahara’s counterpart as well as opposite. Both countries are former colonies of European powers. Both have been invaded and occupied by foreign aggressors within a year of each other and both remain divided. However, instead of being divided vertically, as in the case of the latter, the former is divided horizontally. Furthermore, rather than being isolated, Cyprus is at the crossroads of three continents, has historically been a trading and cultural entrepot and looms large in the history of the world. As well, the republic of Cyprus is considered by all countries in the world, except for Turkey, to have de jure sovereignty over the whole island. Cyprus is thus a member of the United Nations, since 2004, a member of the European Union and a member of the Commonwealth.
Considering then, that the republic of Cyprus has been a state since 1960, a half a century, the City of Yarra’s refusal to fly the flag of the sovereign Republic of Cyprus in commemoration of its independence, fifty years ago, at the request of the Cypriot Community of Melbourne and Victoria is mystifying. This is especially so, given that other municipal councils, such as that of Whittlesea, Nillumbik and Mornington seemed not to display any reluctance in accommodating the CCMV’s inoffensive request.
Western Sahara’s flag, is purely political, being that used by the POLISARIO armed political movement. It sports the Pan-Arab colours of black green and red first flown by the kings of the Hejaz, in the same design as that of the Palestinian flag, with an added red star and crescent to symbolize Islam. Upon independence, the black stripe on the top of the flag will be replaced by the green stripe at its base. The flag of Cyprus on the other hand, is meek, mild and peaceful, being merely the map of the island on a white background, symbolizing peace, above some crossed olive branches, symbolizing even more peace. It is a flag designed by the recently departed Turkish Cypriot painter İsmet Güney.
So why is the City of Yarra so reticent about joining it its Greek and Cypriot ratepayers’ commemoration of the independence of Cyprus? Yarra Councillor Geoff Barbour’s assertion that the council did not want to exacerbate what could be a controversial issue for the local Cypriot community and there was little information provided about the full diplomatic background to the situation is disquieting and, in light of the council’s apparent condoning of the Polisario cause without too much hesitation, appears disingenuous. After all, anyone with publicly funded access to the internet can in five minutes learn that Cyprus is a sovereign republic to which Australia has accredited a High Commissioner. One can also discover that the occupied north of Cyprus, which is run by a puppet administration known as the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus, is recognised only by Turkey, the country that invaded Cyprus and installed that regime there. Another five minutes of the councillors’ time would permit them to learn that the 1960 independence of Cyprus was the result of the Zurich Agreement, brokered by Britain, Greece AND Turkey.
Yarra Council CEO Andi Diamond’s comment that “council receives similar requests from time to time but does not always accept those this instance, Council declined the request to fly the flag,” underlines the arbitrariness of its decision. This decision insults the significant number of ratepayers of Greek and Cypriot extraction who live, or own property in such suburbs as Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy. For many of those ratepayers, the independence of Cyprus is an important historical event and the council’s arbitrary decision not to accede to a reasonable request to fly the Cypriot flag is insensitive, deeply hurtful and makes them feel that the Council does not respect their ethnic background.
It would be interesting to know the real reasons behind the decision. It would be assumed that the good councillors may have feared pressure or a backlash from the Turkish community. This could be understandable, given the Turkish government’s recent refusal to grant visas to Australian archaeologists – an act that has been linked to the Fairfield City Council’s sanctioning of the installation of a monument commemorating the Assyrian genocide, in Sydney. If this is so, it is a most misguided decision. The independence of Cyprus is not a disputed historical fact. It is an undisputed historical occurrence of great importance to a prominent Australian community. Whether certain persons consider this historical event to be fortuitous or not is irrelevant and the Greek and Cypriot ratepayers of the City of Yarra would be most interested to understand why the flying of the flag of a stateless people is less controversial and offensive that one of a recognised nation state, of which a significant amount of ratepayers derive an ethnic and cultural affiliation. It would also be interesting to know how many of the fifteen Western Saharans resident in Australia according to the last census, are ratepayers of the City of Yarra. As an aside, it is worthwhile to note that the chair of the Australia Western Saharan Association, Georgia Vlassopoulos, is of Greek origin.
The probability of the placid and Cypriot government denying entry visas to the ratepayers of the City of Yarra in protest is quite miniscule. Yet the concept of a local statutory authority having the power to arbitrarily honour one ethnic minority over another over the most flimsy of pretexts is of great concern. Greek and Cypriot ratepayers of the City of Yarra are entitled to a full and frank explanation of the circumstances that led the City of Yarra to dishonour their national day and not to be insulted by a blanket assertion of the Council’s discretionary decision making power. Failing that, Greek and Cypriot aggrieved ratepayers should express their dismay in the one place where their voices will be heard the most – the municipal ballot box.
We leave you know with the following words of advice from Norman Thomas: “If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag; wash it.” I say keep the flag flying, pay your rates, and, if the mood takes you, affix the Cypriot flag upon your letter boxes.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 23 October 2010