FIJI’S PRIME MINISTER SITIVENI RABUKA: A TRANSITION

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By Michael J. Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (July 6, 1998 - New Zealand Herald)---On Albert Street the protesters were cursing his name. Inside, Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka was telling Pacific journalists how he had saved ethnic Fijians from the lamentable fate of the Maori. Back in 1991, it sounded almost true, but now Mr. Rabuka sings from a different song book. Gone from his rhetoric is the indigenous nationalism that motivated his 1987 coups. In a troubled Fiji, Mr. Rabuka is seen as the voice of multi-cultural reason.

On July 27, a multi-racial constitution comes into effect replacing the 1990 constitution which discriminated against Indo-Fijians who make up 43 percent of the population of 790,000.

Why had a man who very nearly precipitated a blood bath and as recently as 1991 was preaching ethnic nationalism by June 1995 was considering power-sharing with the Indo-Fijians?

Former New Zealand Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves, who led the Constitution Review Commission, says he does not know what went through Mr. Rabuka's soul.

"I am good at recognizing it but no good at explaining why," Sir Paul says.

"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."

A diplomat noted Rabuka does not believe he changed at all.

"He is much more complicated than he seems on the surface. He is a bright and very clever man, more so than his modest education indicates," the diplomat said.

The U.S. Ambassador at the time of the negotiations, Don Gevirtz, is clear, too, that the prime minister sees no contradictions in his mind. This was underlined by setting up U.S. forums for Mr. Rabuka.

"I believe all of those contacts with American leaders... had helped bring him to a broader global view, but he had to be susceptible to that in the first place.

"Rabuka has told me frequently he doesn't feel he ever made a dramatic change, that he always had these proclivities."

Mr. Gevirtz said Mr. Rabuka is very bright.

"I believe he is a very effective politician, very effective political leader and that his timing was right in implementing what was in his soul."

Leadership has taken a toll on Mr. Rabuka, who looks much older than his 49 years.

Burdened by the detail of government, he no longer has that sense of elan he had as an army officer.

Two years ago he had some kind of a religious experience with a U.S.-based born again group. He bought in around him associates and friends for prayer breakfasts which were heavily fundamentalist and dogmatic.

Auckland faith healer Bill Subritzky went to a prayer breakfast.

"I was delighted to see that when I made various calls such as for those who wanted to see their children restored to the Lord, that the prime minister himself responded with his wife," Mr. Subritzky says on his Web page. "There is no doubt about it that God has accomplished a major change in this man over the past few years since he conducted the coups in 1987."

The Methodist Church, under deeply conservative sway at the time of the coup, was taken over by a more liberal president, Ilaitia Tuere, who Mr. Gevirtz described as "a moderate and inspiring religious leader." He convinced Mr. Rabuka the new constitution would, in "the long run be better morally and spiritually for the whole country." Those who know him say his Christianity is deeply felt and at times he seems tortured by it all.

During the Sandline crisis in Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan's leadership was under threat from a military rebellion led by PNG Defense Force commander Brigadier-General Jerry Singirok, something of a Rabuka look-alike.

During the crisis Mr. Rabuka, at the time in Croatia, telephoned Sir Julius to encourage him, "knowing he needed friends."

"He kept on reading Romans Chapter 13 to me as if he knew the whole verse by heart, so I told him to talk to Singirok," Sir Julius said.

Mr. Singirok heard from Mr. Rabuka twice, finding the reading ironical:

"Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive."

If, as Sir Julius suggests, Mr. Rabuka had memorized it, one wonders at the torment over his coups. At one point he apologized at a prayer session for what had happened in Fiji.

A couple of relationships have been instrumental.

One was with Sir Paul. Like Mr. Gevirtz ,he persuaded the prime minister off the path of introspective, isolationist Fijian nationalism.

Mr. Gevirtz believed Sir Paul inspired both sides.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the respect he commanded and with his command of his proposals, he really knew every detail, produced a lot of confidence....

"His personality and knowledge of the subject produced a lot of confidence and I think he was careful about not indicating a bias."

The other figure was Opposition leader Jai Ram Reddy.

"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 Reddy was sometimes assailed with self-doubt and was not sure things would work out," Sir Paul says.

When speaking in English, Mr. Rabuka, like Mr. Reddy, speaks of "a new sense of belonging, of togetherness and of unity." But the messages are different in their languages. In Fijian, Mr. Rabuka speaks of Fijian nationalism and recovery of land; in Hindustani Mr. Reddy has spoken of the importance of getting family members overseas. "PR" for permanent residency has become an Indo-Fijian mantra.

Mr. Gevirtz, whose own role was instrumental, said there had been a substantial lack of trust between the two men. At the time of the coup, Mr. Reddy, then attorney-general, had been among those held in a military prison.

"You can imagine where Jai Ram's trust was when we started," Mr. Gevirtz said from California.

Mr. Rabuka was fearful of Indo-Fijian economic power and worried that if they had the freedom to operate politically Fijians would lose their lands too.

As negotiations proceeded, both men decided they had to talk face-to-face.

"I believe that at a gut level that what really happened was that over a period of those meetings a deep level of trust developed between both of them which they did not have before....

"Each of them began to have the patience to listen to the other's point of view."

Mr. Gevirtz said in the end he and others were able to convince both men that the economic future of Fiji depended on implementing the Reeves' recommendations.

Another diplomat said Fiji found it was no longer respected internationally. Foreign investors were staying away and those in Fiji with money were tending to keep it liquid and ready to go rather than in productive investment.

This did not sit comfortably with Rabuka.

Rabuka has charisma and power and inevitably allegations of sexual improprieties have followed. It is the one thing all interviewed go off the record about.

In 1994 a row broke out in the Fiji press after a journalist proclaimed her affair with Mr. Rabuka. He admitted it and told his caucus that his wife and pastor had forgiven him. In the longer run the row damaged the journalist, left Mr. Rabuka untouched and revealed Suva as very provincial.

Women, he says, dominate the world.

"I don't think any day goes by without women raising their voices and telling men what to do.

"They are our first teachers, first providers; they are the first missionaries to teach us about God."

In the Pacific being leader is a lonely business for friends are seldom intimates; they are in the relationship for self-interest. For Mr. Rabuka this is a particular problem for he is, at heart, a soldier used to the familiar camaraderie of the battlefield. That was very real for him; he has bravery medals for action in Lebanon.

Another diplomat noted that Mr. Rabuka's passion for comradeship had some strange effects. Last year he made a state tour of France and was accommodated in one of Paris' finest hotels. The one free night he had, when his hosts expected he would head off into one of the cultural capitals of the world, all the furniture in his suite was pushed to the wall and the Rabuka party set up a kava bowl.

The new constitution marks the beginning of election campaigning at a time Fiji is beset with problems.

A severe drought has destroyed upwards of 60 percent of this year's crop. Sugar is usually 40 percent of Fiji's exports.

That is bad enough, but much of the land is leased to Indo-Fijian growers and the leases are beginning to expire. Indigenous Fijians, whose villages are often impinged by the sugar fields, seem to want the land back, either to grow sugar or for different use.

Another dispute has exploded which echoes that of Bougainville. A decade ago Bougainville rebels attacked power lines in a dispute initially over compensation for the copper mine. Now villagers in a three-hour rugged drive from Suva are demanding compensation for a power station. They are threatening violence.

Fijians saw Mr. Rabuka as a savior, now the same people want delivery on their dreams. The economy cannot handle it, especially with Indo-Fijians leaving, or as Sir Paul put it, Fiji's "life blood (is) ebbing away, and it is still ebbing away."

Two months ago the Fiji Trades Union Congress called a successful one-day nation-wide stop work after a 20 percent currency devaluation in January sent prices skyward. The Fiji Times recently saw Rabuka's popularity nationwide take a 26 percent dip to put him second for the first time since 1987.

Yesterday's hero has problems no coup can solve.

Auckland based Michael Field is Agence France-Presse's Pacific correspondent 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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