Falklanders hope to send a message with referendum

8th March 2013, Comments 0 comments

The Falkland Islands will vote in a referendum on Sunday and Monday which residents hope will send a crystal-clear message to Argentina and the world about their strong desire to stay British.

In a move instigated by residents of the barren archipelago themselves, the 1,672 eligible voters are being asked specifically whether they want the Falklands to retain their status as an internally self-governing British overseas territory.

They hope the outcome will provide a slap in the face to an increasingly bellicose Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner, who has been ramping up the diplomatic tension with London over Buenos Aires' long-held sovereignty claims.

The islanders also hope the referendum result will arm them with an unambiguous message to take to other capitals when pressing their case for acceptance on the international stage.

Britain has held the windswept South Atlantic Ocean islands since 1833 but Buenos Aires claims they are occupied Argentinian territory. The two countries fought a brief but bloody war over the islands in 1982.

Argentina, 400 kilometres (250 miles) away, has branded the referendum "illegal" because, it claims, the islanders are "implanted" and thus do not have the right to self-determination.

An overwhelming "yes" result is not in any doubt but the islanders hope an emphatic verdict will be a clear statement of their belief in the right to self-determination.

"We would be deluding ourselves if we thought that Argentina would change overnight, but we hope it'll be a strong message to them and to others," legislative assembly member Jan Cheek, a sixth generation Falkland Islander, told AFP.

London will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires unless the islanders expressly wish it.

On April 2, 1982, Argentina's then-ruling junta invaded the Falklands, sparking a 74-day war with Britain which cost the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British troops.

If the invasion hardened the minds of the staunchly pro-British islanders further, Kirchner's relentless tub-thumping has done likewise for a whole new generation.

"We are reasonable people; we are open to dialogue on a number of things," Dick Sawle, another of the islands' eight elected legislative assembly members, told AFP.

"What we are not going to talk about is sovereignty because the people don't want to -- and it's as simple as that."

Turning to the referendum, he said: "There are many countries where many politicians don't hear our side of the story," citing South American states.

"I would hope it would change hearts and minds."

He added: "The only people who can really decide what is in their best interests are the Falkland Islanders."

Diplomatic friction between Argentina and Britain has intensified since 2010, when London authorised oil prospecting in the waters around the islands.

But Falkland Islanders suspect Kirchner's often-emotional crusade is a ruse to divert domestic attention away from Argentina's mounting economic problems.

"As Argentina declined, so the rhetoric increased," Sawle said.

"Waving the flag of the Falklands issue is a good distractor. Argentina is in a dying state, inflation is rampant, the official figures have been questioned by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), it's in a dreadful state of affairs."

Four-fifths of the rugged islands' 2,563 residents live in the capital Stanley, with its pubs, red telephone boxes and Union Jack flags on the buildings.

However, polling stations in remote villages and even mobile voting booths will be used to make sure those in even the farthest-flung sheep farms get the chance to cast their ballots.

Several countries have sent official international observers.

"The result will demonstrate in a clear, democratic and incontestable way how the people of the Falkland Islands wish to live their lives," the Falklands' government said in a statement.

The referendum question reads: "Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom?"

The residents hope that the result will give their views a greater platform in discussions about the islands, which often get bogged down in disputed historical minutiae dating back to the 16th century, long before Argentina came into being.

Sukey Cameron, who represents the Falklands government in London, said they expect Buenos Aires to disregard the result.

However, "at least, internationally, it will bring the islanders into the forefront, rather than just an argument over land between Britain and Argentina", she told AFP.

"We can actually say this is the referendum that was done fairly and squarely: this is the result.

"We're neighbours in the South Atlantic, and we would like to have a normal neighbourly relationship.

"There is a population in the Falklands, there are people who live there. We are not just talking about empty land."

© 2013 AFP

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