The Blonde Terror Suspect Among New Zealand's Restive Indigenous

A police clampdown on Maori activists in New Zealand netted an unlikely “terror” suspect: 27-year-old Urs Signer of Switzerland. Awaiting his trial, Signer continues life as “usual” in the indigenous village of Parihaka, where he lives with his Maori part

Maori statue along Omaha Beach, New Zealand (stealthproject2006)
Maori statue along Omaha Beach, New Zealand (stealthproject2006)

PARIHAKA, New Zealand – Vapors rise from the lush green fields surrounding Parihaka; it's been a cold, star-filled night but now the hot morning sun is drying the dew on the grasses. On the horizon stands snow-capped Taranaki. Like other volcanoes in New Zealand, Taranaki is only "sleeping."" Nobody knows if and when it will wake up.

In front of the marae, this tiny village's communal building, guests are gathering. Singing Maori women encourage them to enter. Inside, the walls are hung with images of dead ancestors. The residents of Parihaka are getting ready for the traditional hongi. Each guest takes the hand of a host, and the two touch noses and foreheads, sharing their breath which is the force of life. It's a sign of trust. Once a month, residents and visitors meet in this Maori village for talks that sometimes last for days. "All subjects are open for discussion,"" says the chair, Ruakere Hond.

Community debates are an ancient tradition for the natives of Aotearoa, which is what the Maori call New Zealand. In Parihaka, Maori is spoken during the morning, and during the afternoon English may also be spoken. "It's a way to make sure our language and culture survive,"" Hond says.

A tall, blonde man stands out at the gathering: he is Urs Signer, of Switzerland. The 27-year-old European man lives in Parihaka with his Maori partner, and, carrying their small son Piriniki, he is meeting and greeting in fluent Maori.

If it were up to the New Zealand police, Signer would be behind bars. As far as they are concerned, he's a terrorist. This student, musician and activist is one of 17 people arrested during a police raid of the Maori village of Ruatoki on North Island. Elite forces cordoned the area off, searched homes and arrested village residents. According to police at the time, the round-up capped a long period of secret surveillance. It was a matter of national security, they said: a group of nationalists had been in training for armed attack to bring down the government "IRA-style.""

Terrorism is a serious charge. Anyone convicted of it faces the possibility of life imprisonment. This was the first time the police and prosecutor general used New Zealand's Terrorism Suppression Act as legal basis for action. Critics call the decision a delayed reaction based on the hysteria that gripped New Zealand after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City. The decade-old attack in the United States sparked rumors in New Zealand of backcountry "terror camps."

Just days after the arrests the prosecutor decided against charging the detainees under the anti-terrorism legislation. But because four weapons and 250 rounds of ammo were seized during the raid, charges of violating gun laws were brought against five of the detainees. The defendants, who were also accused of belonging to a "criminal organization,"" have been awaiting trial since 2007.

Rugby and elections take precedence

A court date was originally set for late May 2011. It has since been pushed back to February 2012, after the rugby world cup in September and the elections in November. "They're trying to wear us down,"" says Signer. "It's a burden for all of us, for our families and friends. Especially since none of us knows what we supposedly did.""

On advice from his lawyer, Singer is refusing to say anything else on the matter. He won't explain, for example, how he came to be involved with the Maori, what the group was doing or what exactly the charges are. Whatever the story is, researcher Rawinia Higgins, who teaches Maori culture in Wellington, says unequivocally that "the accusations of terrorism are laughable."" Nor does it surprise her that the defendants may have had weapons: "These are remote areas, everybody has a gun. They're all hunters.""

But the village of Ruotaki, whose residents are almost exclusively Maori, is one of several focal points for Maori activism and nationalism in New Zealand. Arrested along with Signer was Tame Iti, a well-known activist with a full-face traditional moko tattoo. He is part of a movement hostile to the often violent colonization of New Zealand by Great Britain in the early 19th century. Some supporters of the movement fall for an independent ‘"homeland"" and others for expelling the pakeha, as white New Zealanders are known, altogether.

Urs Signer does not like hearing the word "nationalism"" used in conjunction with Maori activists. He describes his partner as "an anarchist; she would never call herself a nationalist."" Signer himself has a long history of political activism. In his hometown of Basel, he belonged to the anti-military "Schweiz ohne Armee"" group. Over the past few years, however, all of his energy has been devoted to Maori issues. He appears to be fully integrated in the little community of Parihaka. Indeed, community members have come to respect the counsel of this young foreigner as much as they do the advice of the village elders.

It's time to eat. The women have been cooking since early morning. Vegetables, sweet potatoes, salted meat. Most of the food is produced right here in the community, by all the members. ‘‘I'm a vegetarian,"" Signer says. "But that doesn't mean I don't know how to kill and butcher cattle." While everybody is eating, tradition dictates there be no debating. Everybody sits at long tables, young and old alike—older people are well-integrated in most Maori communities. People talk and laugh; everybody is included, nobody is left out.

Of New Zealand's population of 4.3 million, 14.6% are Maori. Their decades-old fight for more self-determination has been fundamentally successful. Hardly any other country has achieved so much in such a short time as New Zealand with regard to integrating its ethnic groups. As recently as the 1970s, many Maori were ashamed of their ethnicity; members of Maori tribes were at the bottom of the social ladder, had hardly any political clout, and suffered severe social problems. And while many, mostly urban Maori remain underprivileged to this day in terms of jobs, education and health care, the indigenous group as a whole is well-represented in parliament and enjoys increased presence in business and university communities.

A new enemy

Thanks in great part to the commitment of activists, New Zealand was forced to look back and to try to make up for past injustices. In 1975, the then Labor government began taking Maori claims seriously. The Waitangi Tribunal was established to make recommendations, resulting variously in reconciliation with various tribes, land restitution, and compensation. Tribes have since become one of the largest conglomerates in the country, with interests in tourism, construction, retail, exports and fisheries. Going hand-in-hand with reconciliation was a quota system to build Maori representation in parliament and give them a guaranteed number of seats. The Maori Party, which was founded in 2004, is a major player in Prime Minister John Key's government.

Taranaki glows in the light of the evening sun. Once again today, the main topics of discussion in the marae are the upcoming trial and fears about the verdicts, even though the accused aren't likely to receive more than very mild sentences. "The anti-terror law has only one purpose, to prevent legitimate political opposition, particularly on the part of the Maori," Signer says.

Some no longer see the government as their main opponent. For these activists, parts of the private sector have become enemy number one. In many parts of the country they are fighting the oil and gas industry, which seeks to build rigs in traditional hunting and fishing areas. The Maori fear destruction of the landscape for which they feel culturally and morally responsible. Thanks to land restitution, many of them have won the right to join in the conversation.

Except in Taranaki, where the trial is holding reconciliation up. Here, in the shadow of the volcano, the Maori lost their land in bloody battles with the British. It now belongs to white farmers—descendants of the soldiers that slaughtered their ancestors.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - stealthproject2006

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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