INDIGENOUS FIJIANS URGED TO MAKE LAND CONCESSIONS

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (June 19, 1998 - The Fiji Times/Agence France- Presse)---Indigenous Fijians must resist the urge to take back lands from tenant Indian farmers when leases expire, Constitutional Review Commission chairman Sir Paul Reeves says.

In an exclusive interview with The Fiji Times in Auckland to mark the implementation next month of the constitution he played a key part in drawing up, Sir Paul also appealed to political leaders to be courageous as there were no easy answers for Fiji.

He said the relationship between Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and Opposition Leader Jai Ram Reddy was crucial to the country.

He acknowledged the ALTA land lease issue had not been part of the constitutional review but said it was "absolutely vital" an agreement is reached and that Fijians do not get swept up into a feeling that had to take the land back.

"I hope that what comes out of this process is the renewal of leases and if the renewal of some leases is not possible the government will find some other land to settle Indian farmers. It is in a tight corner and has not got too much room to move," Sir Paul said.

He appealed for Fiji nationalism to stop turning in on itself and to instead follow New Zealand Maori and become part of a world economy. He said Fiji's "life blood….is still ebbing away" in Indo-Fijian emigration.

But he said it was little wonder they did and he sympathized with them.

Politically he said Indians now had no other alternative than to "seek some form of partnership" with Fijians.

 

COMPLETE INTERVIEW

Outside on the Auckland street protesters cursed the name Rabuka.

Inside the banquet hall Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told Pacific journalists of the way he had saved ethnic Fijians from the lamentable fate of the indigenous New Zealand Maori.

That, back in 1991, was an awkward moment. It sounded almost true.

Today, without coup or bloodshed, there is a Maori renaissance led by people like Sir Paul Reeves.

Maori have a 1.5 million hectare land base, own 40 percent of all New Zealand's fisheries quota and play a multi million dollar part in the economy.

"Maori, to an extent, are already in the international economy, for better or for worse... They are there, they will do well sometimes, other times they will not do so well," Sir Paul says.

"I don't see that being duplicated by many other countries in the South Pacific region, I think the Maori are out there, they are innovative, they are into it."

No longer are Maori eligible as Mr. Rabuka's model for failure, Maori increasingly are a prototype for success.

"I would want to encourage Fiji not to simply assume that they know what it means to be an indigenous person of their land, but to take whatever indigenous means and to look at it, tease it apart and try to understand what it means internationally," Sir Paul says.

"(It should) not be used it as something that turns themselves in, and on to themselves.

"The danger in that is that they say 'well, I may go down the tubes, but at least I will be true to my principles as I sink'.

"That is sad, and they are better than that."

Two years ago Sir Paul with former Speaker Tomasi Vakatora and academic Brij Lal handed their report on Fiji's constitution over to President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Next month the constitution that came from the Reeves' Report will come into effect.

The next six months, Sir Paul said, calls for courageous political leadership.

"Prime Minister Rabuka must continue to get his constituency behind him and it is not an easy task."

Crucially the constitution's electoral provisions are different from those recommend in the report.

Sir Paul told The Fiji Times that when he went to Fiji in June 1995 he believed the terms of reference given to the commission were "the more significant political statements Fiji had made in quite a long time." He saw it as a form of consensus between ethic groups, and his task was to try to honor the aspirations of all the ethnic groups.

Mr. Rabuka, Ratu Mara and Opposition Leader Jai Ram Reddy were in agreement on it.

The 1990 constitution was designed to produce a result even before elections were held with its 37 Fijian seats, 27 Indian seats, five general voter seats and one from Rotuma.

Sir Paul said the commission wanted to try another beachhead, away from communal politics.

They came up with the proposal for 45 open seats and 25 reserve seats.

"What they've done is turn that on its head, they've taken it to be 46 communal seats, 26 open," Sir Paul says.

"I trust them, its their judgment that rules the day at this stage but they've taken our principle but they have not accepted our numbers. Well? Their decision."

Whatever the numbers it still requires an ethnic Fijian to be acceptable to an Indian, an Indian to be acceptable to a Fijian.

He believes Tomasi Vakatora and Brij Lal wanted the original numbers.

"(But) subsequently I gained the impression both ... felt that if they were not going to take our numbers, the numbers they did take still represented a substantial commitment to the principle of a gradual evolution to a new political culture, once people had gained confidence in each other."

Sir Paul speculates on what went through Mr. Rabuka to mind which saw him go from an ethnic Fiji nationalist vision to bi-culturalism.

"I can only imagine you get one perspective when you lead a coup; you get another perspective if you try to lead a country which is to take everybody with you."

There was a parallel in the west African country of Ghana where air force officer Jerry Rawlings came to power in a bloody coup and was, a decade later, active in leading democratization.

Souls of men can change, the one time bishop agrees.

"I am good at recognizing it but no good at explaining why," he laughs.

What made a difference was the relationship of two men.

"I always thought the relationship between Rabuka and Jai Ram Reddy was an important relationship and was a relationship that was built on respect, although Jai Ram was some times assailed with self-doubt and was not sure things would work out," Sir Paul said.

Mr. Reddy, he said, was pragmatic and "willing to look squarely in the face" the fact that Indo-Fijians were in a minority and a politically acceptable partnership was needed.

"I felt Jai Ram was terribly significant because of that."

Sir Paul said it was clear from reading "A Life of A D Patel" that Indians could have become predominant in Fiji even as recently as the 1960s.

"It did not happen, but it could have happened if the elements that had begun moving around in the 1960s had continued in the same way. But now Indians have no alternative other than to seek some form of partnership."

It is a contradiction, he accepts, to talk of "partnership" and "no alternative" in the same sentence. Sounds more like a shot-gun wedding with Sir Paul the match-maker.

"That's very interesting, what forms the better marriage? A situation where the partners choose themselves or where the parents choose the partners of their sons or daughters? Darned if I know....

"In a sense I am inviting them to get together in a way they have not previously got together."

Sir Paul says he has no idea why there was no blood bath in 1987 but in the decade since he says their has been no real possibility of violence.

Tensions may have ebbed because Indo-Fijians were leaving, or, as Sir Paul puts it, Fiji's "life blood (is) ebbing away, and it is still ebbing away."

He has sympathy for Indians leaving, drawing a parallel with his own family. His grandfather was a farm laborer and they got out of it by getting their children into education.

"If I was an Indian tenant farmer, I think that I would be doing all that I could to ensure that at least one of my children received opportunities of educational advancement and on the basis of that acquired a skill that could basically be a ticket to somewhere else," Sir Paul says.

"That's reasonable, why should every succeeding generation of Indian tenant farmer be simply a repetition of that hard, hard work of scratching a living on 12 acres of land."

These days the retired governor-general spends much of his working in the University of Auckland's APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Community) Centre which has been established ahead of next year's APEC Summit in Auckland.

It promises to be the largest gathering of world leaders outside of the United Nations, and Sir Paul notes, sadly, Fiji, which does not like the APEC tariff reduction agenda, will not be there.

"APEC doesn't want them, APEC lets in Papua New Guinea, but Samoa, Fiji and the Pacific are not there and that is a problem."

Sir Paul says he understands the concept of communalism but wonders if ethnic Fijians have gone too far. He heard many times the variation that Fiji was a house of many rooms where everybody was welcome, but that he had to understand that it was a Fijian house "and there are some rooms you may not go into, I don't think you will find that in Psalm 23."

Sir Paul says he sees his relationship with Fiji in terms of the report and the constitution. He bats on that basis and tries not to get involved in other issues. He was reluctant to discuss land tenancy, saying it was outside the constitution, although then admitted it was a crucial issue.

It is clear too that his is a distant affair now with Fiji.

"There is no easy answer for Fiji. It is a wonderful place and I was glad to be there and I retain a keen interest in the place but I don't go back very often."

Why?

"Well I think they have got to get on with their lives."

 

ALTA WARNING

Sir Paul Reeves comes from Taranaki where, last century, Maori were made at the point of a British gun to lease their lands to white farmers.

For next to nothing.

Now the government has said the Maori should get their lands back once leases expire and if leases continue, then fair market rentals should be paid.

Some white farmers in Taranaki have engaged in a racist campaign to reverse the government's resolution on the issues and Sir Paul says Maori quietly turn the other cheek.

They know arrangements will have to eventually be made, people have to live with each other.

Sounds a little like Fiji?

Sir Paul initially did not want to talk about the controversial ALTA issue, seeing it as outside the constitutional issues he was involved in.

Without prompting he saw too it was crucial to Fiji and spoke, not only as an expert on the constitution, but as somebody who knows what it is like to have others lease their lands.

An agreement in Fiji is "absolutely vital", he said.

"I believe Fijians should be very careful before they get swept up in some sort of feeling that they are going to take it all back and farm it themselves," Sir Paul said.

"I don't think that would be too the advantage of the country as a whole and for the Fijian communities in particular.

"I hope that what comes out of this process is the renewal of leases and if the renewal of some leases is not possible the government will find some other land to settle Indian farmers. It is in a tight corner and has not got too much room to move."

Michael J. Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-MAIL: afp.nz@clear.net.nz

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