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New Zealand national day protesters demonstrate for Indigenous rights

By Lucy Craymer

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Roughly 600 protesters on Tuesday marched to where New Zealand’s founding document was signed in the town of Waitangi, as official celebrations competed with protests against proposed government policies that threaten Indigenous rights.

Demonstrators were protesting New Zealand's centre-right coalition's promises to undo policies that promoted the official use of the Maori language and sought to enhance Indigenous living standards and rights.

The government has also said it will introduce, but was not committed to passing, a bill that would reinterpret the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document that established British and Maori governance of New Zealand, though the English and Maori versions differ and there is debate over whether the Maori ceded sovereignty.

The protesters arrived carrying signs asking the treaty be honoured and many people were waving the national Maori flag or the United Tribes flag.

“The idea that the government can mess with the treaty is really abhorrent to us,” Moea Armstrong, a protester in the group said.

The arrival of the protesters followed more formal celebrations including a dawn service marking the day in 1840 when the treaty was first signed between the British Crown and more than 500 Maori chiefs.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and some of his coalition ministers arrived at the venue on Monday and were met by protesters displeased at moves to change Indigenous policy. The gathering is the biggest in at least 30 years.

Critics say the government's moves are the most significant step backward for Maori rights in decades, and some have taken legal action against the government to stop the policy changes.

Protest has long been part of Waitangi celebrations and in 1995 official events had to be cancelled due to anger over government policies. In 2016, a minister was struck in the face by a dildo thrown by a woman protesting a trade agreement.

(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Josie Kao)