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Mauritius’ Growth Bringing Tension

December 9, 2000

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius (AP) _ Out in the Indian Ocean, this island state has long prided itself on its ethnic harmony, democracy and economic prosperity.

Its leaders tout Mauritius as the ``rainbow nation″ whose various racial groups have combined to build a thriving economy based on upmarket tourism, textiles and sugar. The tiny island is now Africa’s representative on the U.N. Security Council, thanks to the backing of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who visits Sunday and Monday as part of her African tour.

Yet away from the resort hotels amid the palm trees and golden beaches, all is not well among the 1.1 million Mauritians.

Racial tensions have been laid bare since four days of riots early in 1999 killed five people and injured dozens. Many people blamed the ``reggae riots″ on an uneven division of the economy’s largesse among the country’s ethnic groups.

``We are developing too fast. On the one side you have five star hotels, then people working in them are going back to the suburbs where life is intolerable _ the suburbs are rotting,″ said the Rev. Henri Souchan, who spends his Sunday evenings feeding and providing shelter for homeless people.

The nation has an annual per capita income of around $3,900 _ 10 times that of most African nations _ but Port Louis, the island’s only real city, is full of poor neighborhoods teeming with frustrated, poorly educated and often unemployed mixed-race Mauritians.

The wealthy commute to their offices in the capital’s colonial-style center from fancy homes tucked away in the lush interior or on the beaches of the north coast.

Although elections in September passed peacefully, race relations remain strained by economic frustrations.

``People have become more aware of the fragile nature of our society,″ said Asha Sibartie, a Hindu and acting director of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute.

The violence was sparked by the death of the popular Creole reggae singer Kaya while in he was in police custody.

The majority of the rioters were mixed-race Creoles, people whose ancestors were African slaves and Europeans and who disproportionately make up the ranks of the island’s poor. Creoles charged that police beat Kaya to death.

About 80 percent of the police force is of Indian descent, said Henry Srebrnik, a Canadian academic who has written extensively on Mauritius.

The Indians, mostly Hindus whose ancestors were brought to work in the sugarcane fields, make up 51 percent of the population. The mainly Catholic Creoles account for 27 percent; Muslims, also from India, 17 percent; Chinese, 3 percent; and Euro-Mauritians, mostly French, 2 percent.

Hindus hold most of the civil service jobs, and the wealthy Franco-Mauritians control much of the business sector. Creoles tend to be manual laborers or hold blue collar jobs.

``Hindus have everything,″ said Souchan, a the priest who is an eighth generation Franco-Mauritian and an outspoken activist for the Creole community.

On such a small island _ 790-square miles _ the separation between the rich and poor is tiny, the symbols of wealth often a stone’s throw from pockets of poverty.

Roche Bois, a Creole neighborhood where palm trees stick up among scruffy apartment buildings and open garbage dumps, is one of the most African areas of Mauritius _ and one of the poorest. It was most affected by the reggae riots.

``People feel a kind of injustice because Hindus take maybe 90 percent of the public sector jobs,″ said Karl Flore, a technician. ``You normally find Creoles living in the suburbs where conditions are very poor.″

Many Creoles and Euro-Mauritians opposed independence from Britain in 1968, worried about the dominance of the Hindu majority. All the country’s government leaders have been Hindus.

Sir Anerood Jugnauth, who was elected prime minister Sept. 11, blames the previous government’s ``mistakes″ for the reggae riots, but he disputes that Creoles are neglected

``Some people believe they have been left out, but in truth it’s not like that. It’s not only Creoles who have been excluded but certain regions _ it’s more physical and geographical than communal,″ Jugnauth said in an interview.

``We are going to work more to paying attention to places that need more infrastructure, better schools, better teachers. We will definitely pay more heed to those who feel neglected,″ he added.

Such promises are greeted skeptically in Creole neighborhoods, where people say the tensions have shown the idea of a rainbow nation to be false and made all Mauritians more aware of their ethnicity.

``Since the February riots, the people of the different communities have grouped themselves together,″ Flore said. ``We are not looked at as people, but as Hindu or Creole.″

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