(IPS) - The Chilean government is pushing through legal reforms in an attempt to bring to an end a nearly two month hunger strike by 34 Mapuche indigenous prisoners. But it is failing to address two critical aspects of the conflict: the lack of effective dialogue and a failure to recognise it as a political problem.
"The Mapuche people's demands don't only have to do with the Mapuche. It's a problem of Chilean society as a whole," José Araya, coordinator of the Citizenship and Intercultural Programme of the Observatorio Ciudadano (Citizen Observatory, a local NGO), told IPS.
A group of Mapuche inmates who describe themselves as political prisoners declared a hunger strike on Jul. 12. They were gradually joined by others, to reach a total of 34 fasters, held in different prisons in southern Chile.
The hunger strikers, who are in prison on charges of terrorist arson, attempted homicide, bodily injury, invasion of property, threats and illicit association, were tried under the country's controversial counter-terrorism law which limits the rights of defendants.
After being virtually ignored by government officials and the media, the Mapuche protesters became a source of concern due to the international impact of their hunger strike and the possibility that the death of one of the fasters could tarnish the national celebrations of Chile's 200th anniversary of independence from Spain, on Sept. 18 and 19.
To try to solve the conflict, rightwing President Sebastián Piñera sent Congress a bill on Tuesday to reform the military justice system. And on Thursday he plans to introduce a bill that would overhaul the counter-terrorism law, which was issued in 1984 by the dictatorship of late Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) and was only partially reformed after the return to democracy.
The first bill would keep civilians from being tried by the military courts, one of the foremost demands of the hunger strikers and an unfulfilled obligation of the Chilean state, which was ordered by a 2005 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling.
The second bill would remove some of the offences of which the hunger strikers are accused from the category of "terrorism", and would reduce the stiff penalties outlined by the anti-terrorism law.
The law allows secret judicial investigations, lets witnesses conceal their identity while testifying, and provides for longer periods of arrest on remand and extremely heavy sentences.
According to Araya, the legal reforms that the government is proposing are "overdue responsibilities of the state" that have been called for by numerous international human rights bodies, and which would benefit society as a whole.
But the Mapuche hunger strikers, who are now in a critical state of health, say they will continue the protest until their cases are removed from the sphere of the counter-terrorism law and until the government agrees to engage in talks and to set up a body that would monitor compliance with the agreements reached.
"Revocation of the anti-terrorism law is the only way to move towards a basic dialogue that would allow this to be dealt with as a political, not legal, problem," Igor Goicovic, a professor of history at the University of Santiago, told IPS.
Goicovic was one of the drafters of a declaration in support of the Mapuche people, which was signed by 180 historians from Chile and abroad.
"We are saying that this is a political conflict" that dates back far before the current situation of the Mapuche prisoners, the professor said. "It is over four centuries old, and cannot be resolved by the 'criminalisation' of the Mapuche protests by means of anti-terrorist legislation."
Even legislators of the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy have deplored the lack of talks between the government and the Mapuche people, despite the fact that the Coalition governed the country from 1990 until March this year and itself applied the counter-terrorism law against indigenous protesters.
Piñera himself, on Tuesday, and other members of his government have called on the Mapuche inmates to call off their hunger strike, and said the reforms they are demanding would be treated with urgency in Congress. But they are evading direct talks with the fasters, using churches and other actors as mediators instead.
The line of argument followed by the democratic governments that have ruled Chile since 1990 is that violent groups represent a small minority within the one-million strong Mapuche community, and that the main problem involving the country's largest indigenous group is reducing the high poverty levels that they face.
In the late 19th century, Mapuche lands in southern Chile were wrested from them by force by the state. A century later, in the early 1990s, Mapuche communities and organisations began to lay claim to their ancestral territories through a strategy of occupying private lands they regard as their own, which are often in the hands of lumber companies, and protesting logging and mining initiatives and garbage dumps with serious environmental impacts installed near their communities.
The Mapuche also consider insufficient the 667,457 hectares of land restored to them by government since 1994.
Some indigenous organisations are also demanding respect for political and cultural rights, and have put forth proposals that would give them a certain level of autonomy.
Three Mapuche protesters have died at the hands of the police during land occupations. Two of the deaths occurred during the administration of former president Michelle Bachelet, Piñera's predecessor, whose term began in 2006.
Alfredo Seguel, with the Mapuche Working Group on Collective Rights, told IPS that the government had wasted an opportunity to reach an understanding with the indigenous group, when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples was ratified by Chile on Sept. 15, 2008.
On Sept. 1, the government presented the first overview of compliance with that international convention which is aimed, precisely, at ushering in an ongoing process of dialogue between aboriginal peoples and states.
Civil society organisations issued at least three alternative documents parallel to the government's report. One of the main questions raised by the NGOs was how indigenous communities are consulted on issues that affect them.
In September 2009, the Bachelet administration issued a decree to provisionally regulate the consultation procedure, and the government of Piñera is currently carrying out a new public input process to finetune the regulations, the overview of compliance with Convention 169 reports.
"The Chilean state knows that behind recognition of the problem as a political one lies a bigger problem: the neoliberal economic model, which it does not want to substantially modify because it believes it is the right route to development for the country," said the Observatorio Ciudadano's Araya.
Restoring ancestral lands to indigenous groups "would mean engaging in a process of conflicts with large Chilean logging companies," he said.