An attempt by a narrow majority of traditional chiefs in the Cook Islands to hijack control of the island nation from the elected government is being reported as a bid for real power to be given to traditional chiefs.
Eight of the 15 high chiefs in the House of Ariki, an advisory body to Parliament established 42 years ago, made a proclamation on Thursday at Taputapuatea Marae in Avarua
They claimed to be dissolving the government elected in September 2006 and taking over leadership of the island nation of just under 20,000 people, Television New Zealand reported.
New Zealand Maori sovereignty campaigner Bruce Mita – a former director of a Sydney funeral home – was reported to have participated in secret meetings to help the high chiefs get control of the Cook Islands' natural resources.
TVNZ said Mr Mita claimed he represented futures traders in New York and said he could make billions of dollars for the Cooks, a group of islands which are self-governing in free association with New Zealand. Cook Islanders are citizens of New Zealand.
And it quoted one chief, Makea Vakatini Joseph Ariki, as saying: "Basically we are dissolving the leadership, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister and the ministers.'
But Terepai Maoate, Deputy Prime Minister in Rarotonga, said the Government would not recognise those actions.
And paramount chief Pa Tepaeru Ariki said: "What the Ariki is doing now, is illegal, very illegal. It is a sad day for myself and other Ariki for this to happen."
TVNZ said the House of Ariki had a purely advisory role and the chiefs had not wielded political power for more than a century.
The Cook Island Herald reported the group's proclamation was a way of reclaiming the mana of the paramount chiefs.
"They are asking for public support in their quest for recognition as the Atu Enua and original source of the land of our islands," it said.
Many chiefs still had large tracts of land that belonged to them as family land, but others had lost land by gifting it to churches or having it used for schools, airports, ports and administration buildings.
Those chiefs whose ancestors generously provided land for public purposes in the last century had been given little or no acknowledgement, the newspaper said. The people who now controlled the gifted land saw themselves as "owners" rather than only custodians.
Lands had been given on condition of receiving payments of labour or food – the equivalent of ground rental – now Ariki were not even automatically on the VIP guest list for government functions.
"The invitations have fallen by the wayside," the newspaper reported online. "People tell them that everyone is equal but some high officials . . . appear to be trying to elevate themselves to take the place of the paramount chiefs".
In 1947, there were six Ariki in the Legislative Council but when the islands prepared for self-government in the early 1960s, there was just one "token place" initially provided in the Council of State. Though there was a House of Ariki eventually recognised under the constitution, in practice the chiefs were rarely consulted.
A bid in 1974 to have the House of Ariki select one of its members as the Queen's representative failed by one vote.