The Coastal Post - July 2000

Fiji At The Crossroads

By Karen Nakamura

"The campaign promises were sweet but the fruit bitter."

An anonymous Fijian living in Marin was commenting on why, on May 19, fellow Fijian, George Speight, stormed the nation's Parliament and took Indo-Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and 30 other officials hostage. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) reported Speight wanted to give indigenous Fijians control of their own destiny once and for all. His faction's strong-arm tactics shocked those who might have been sympathetic to the plight of ethnic Fijians. The situation, however, is a classic clash of colonizer and colonized. Only in this case, the oppressed indigenous population is very aware of the colonizer's tactics. Another interesting factor is the perceived colonizers, Fiji-born Indians, were brought in by the same British who once colonized indigenous Fijians.

While many outsiders think Speight was determined to become a dictator, most Fijians don't. They feel he was trying to correct a wrong. And, even though many in the military, Parliament and the traditional Great Council of Chiefs feel he lacks the necessary prerequisites to run a government, the man on the street likes Speight. As General Secretary of the largest union in Fiji, Speight often used the threat of the strike to get concessions for workers and is known for his aid to the little guy.

When the Prime Minister Chaudhry took office by a landslide in 1999, Speight was fired as chair of two mahogany timber companies he'd been appointed to by the previous government. He was also removed as the managing director of an insurance firm for alleged misuse of funds. One of the motivating factors in the coup was the granting of a lucrative timber deal, (Speight was working on it with an American company), to the Indo-Fijian choice. Indigenous Fijians accused Prime Minister Chaudhry of giving economic advantages to the Indians.

Shortly after the coup, the military took control. Declaring martial law, they conducted negotiations, promised to appoint an interim government and bring back full democracy within two years. Commodore Frank Bainimarama has stated Speight will not be appointed to the new government. The army has, however, offered amnesty to his supporters, dispensed with Fiji's constitution at Speight's request and promised to draft a new one. Bainimarama said that though the military sympathizes with the goals of indigenous Fijians "We must take into consideration all the people in this country." Speight has agreed and an ethnic Fijian has been named the next president.

The problem according to many indigenous Fijians was the former Prime Minister himself. Chaudhry sounded humanistic during the election campaign, promising to do away with fees for school children, for example. This hasn't come about. However, one of his first acts was to appoint family and friends to positions of power. He also made a fatal move. As Prime Minister, he tried to minimize the powers of then President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara who is also a member of the powerful Great Council of Chiefs. Furthermore, Chaudhry attempted to destroy the traditional Council itself.

What's important to understand is indigenous Fijians own every square inch of land in the country. Designed into provinces, each clan owns and controls all the property in its traditional region. These family-clan structures elect a chief and send him to the Council of Chiefs who administer leases and use permissions among other duties. Thus, if Donald Trump decides he wants to build a hotel in Fiji, he has to get a lease from the Council besides working with the Parliament.

Chaudhry decided to require government licenses for fisherman and land developers who already had the permission of the Council. This was an obvious power play to take control away from indigenous Fijians whose attitude is "not over our dead bodies." Like the Chinese and Hong Kong, the council granted 100 year leases to the Indians. These are now expiring. The Council refuses to renew them. Chaudhry stepped in to pay the evicted planters $28,000 each for their losses. Indigenous Fijians wondered what the precedent was. The Indo-Fijians leases ran out and weren't renewed by the owners, simple as that. Why should the government interfere?

The reasons for such extreme reactions goes back to the late 1800s when indentured laborers were brought in from India by the British to work the sugar and tea plantations. In 1970, Fiji became independent and a member of the British Commonwealth. In 1987, indigenous Fijians staged a coup d'etat stating Indians were becoming too powerful. At the time, Indo-Fijians were a majority but many richer professionals fled. Presently, Fijians are in the majority at approximately 51%.

In 1990, a new constitution guaranteed indigenous Fijians over 50% of seats in Parliament and banned Indians from becoming Prime Minister. However, a constitutional commission recommended in 1997 the abolition of race-biased provisions. Twenty-five of the 71 seats were declared open-race. Others are designated for indigenous or Indo-Fijian candidates.

"Democracy is a long process," our anonymous source said. What happens in Fiji could effect emerging democracies for years. It doesn't take much to recognize the inevitable debris of colonial rule and to realize why the Fijians want their country back. What is tragic is that when the Council of Chiefs did accept inclusive democracy, the Indians chose to resort to cronyism and power grabbing.

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