RABUKA OF FIJI:  A

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CRITICAL REVIEW OF THE BIOGRAPHY OF A CONTROVERSIAL SOLDIER AND A LEADER

 By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

 Chapter 1 deals mainly with the history of Fiji since 1642.  Sharpham provides an interesting insight into indigenous Fijian community, particularly of eastern Fiji[1].  While accepting that Fijians were in a state of incessant warfare, he noted that the community was a fairly structured and a hierarchical one.

 With the influx of Europeans, however, traditional warfare changed and the acquisition of muskets became a fundamental characteristic of power and status in pre-Cession Fiji.  Not only the Europeans, but Wesleyan missionaries had enormous and far-reaching cultural impact.  The King of Bau, Ratu Seru Cakobau, initially refused to accept Christianity but changed his mind when faced with a formidable opposition in the person of Ma’afu. 

 Sharpman is instructive in his analysis but he misses an important event -- the battle of Kaba in 1856 that clearly established Bauan hegemony.  The battle fought between the opponents of Cakobau and Tongan warriors was a turning point in pre-Cession Fiji.

 Nevertheless, Sharpham makes an important observation when he elucidates that the mataqali (the primary local division of Fijian society), tokatoka (the enlarged family unit or group descendant from brothers), yavusa (the largest kinship and social division of Fijian society consisting of descendants of one person) and matanitu (government) system is one primarily evolving from Bau.

 Following Cession, the hill tribes of Fiji refused to recognize Christianity or the colonial authority and after a series of confrontation, an armed expedition was sent to rout potential dissent.  In the end, dissident chiefs were rounded up and hanged under the colonial penal system.

 However, members of the hill tribe continued to secretly practice their ancient custom and religion and by the end of the nineteenth century a number of movements surfaced, including the Tuka Movement[2] and Luve-ni-wai or water babies.

 Sharpham does not acknowledge these movements, which provided an ideological and spiritual basis for dissent against the colonial government and collaborator chiefs.  Some of these ideas were later on picked by Ratu Apalosi Ranawai, who went on to challenge European dominance in commerce by establishing an indigenous Viti Company.  After his exile[3], other movements emerged in the twentieth century and these too had pronounced anti-colonial themes.

 Sharpham is correct when he criticizes the colonial policy of keeping the races apart and handles with care the Indo-Fijian fact.  The need for cheap and abundant labor led Sir Arthur Gordon to acquire Indian indentured laborers, who were brought to Fiji on a five-year contract from 1879.

 By 1916, there were some 60,000 Indians in Fiji and many chose not to return to India.  Once free from indenture, Indians in Fiji started to organize under the leadership of Indian activists, who came from the colonies to fight for the rights of their compatriots.  However, unfortunately, the activists were followed by missionaries who virtually split the Indian community into many factions -- Muslim League, Sangam and within North Indians Arya Samaj and Sanatan Dharam[4].

 Since then, Indo-Fijians remained a divided community and one that still is fiercely communal.  Sharpham notes that the Indian struggles against the colonial government have had a negative impact on race relations. 

 Following a harvest boycott during the height of Second World War, Fijians and Europeans saw Indians as unpatriotic, selfish, cunning and power-hungry.

 Moving on from the Indians, the second chapter deals with Rabuka’s childhood, including a thorough family background from his father.  Rabuka was born in 1948 and during his formative years was influenced by his soldier uncle.  The militaristic ambition remain with Rabuka as he moved from Primary school to Queen Victoria School (QVS) which, as Sharpham rightly points out, was an elite school for grooming future leaders.

 Due to changes in the school policy, Rabuka got the rare opportunity of participating in that highly structured and regimented boarding school life.  Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his ambition to pursue a career in the army, despite a series of disappointments on the academic front.  It is clear from the outset that Rabuka was a product of a colonial system, which was institutionalized racism.

 Rabuka was overwhelmed by the Fijian involvement in the Malayan campaign and as he began a career in the army in the late 1960s, he remained very well indoctrinated in the prevailing ideology of the west.  The first notable evidence of politicization of the Fiji Military Forces was revealed by the aftermath of the 1977 general elections, which was won by the Indian-dominated National Federation Party[5].

 This, of course, was unacceptable to Rabuka.  However, due to a timely intervention by the Governor General, the situation was diffused.  In 1979, Rabuka had an opportunity to go to the staff college in Tamil Nadu, where he expressed strong anti-communist views on the fledgling relations between India and the Soviet Union.[6]  In 1981, he was alarmed over the political involvement of the Indian High Commissioner, Ms. Sonu Kochar, in Fijian affairs.

 During this time, because of his position, Rabuka was privy to confidential briefings from the U.S. Intelligence and he was concerned about the influence of Russia and Libya in the Pacific.  This was the time of the Cold War and U.S. information detailed ways Russian funds, KGB based, were supporting trade unions and peace groups.”[7]

 Not only India but the Fiji Labour Party, formed in 1985, was placed under a cloud of suspicion of being “left-wing” and Socialist.  Clearly, then, Rabuka was a Fijian Cold Warrior who, by 1987, had become frustrated with the social policies of the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) and in particular with the general Indo-Fijian demand for a common roll electoral system.  Indo-Fijians had in 1977 won due to Fijian disunity and the same was to repeat in May of 1987 when urban indigenous Fijians dumped the chiefly led Alliance Party.

The fifth chapter is adequately titled “Coup d’État.”  On 14 May 1987, Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka along with ten soldiers in gas masks hijacked and incarcerated the elected government of Dr. Timoci Bavadra.  Kenneth Bain, a political observer, stated that “at 10 a.m. in Suva, the face of Fiji was damaged beyond recognition; and no plastic surgery would restore its shattered image.”[8]

 In this chapter, we learn that there were a number of players involved in the coup -- members of the Fiji Military Forces, the Taukei Movement, and prominent high chiefs.

 Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Viliame Gonelevu[9] and late Jone Veisamasama were known Alliance stalwarts who refused to accept the result of the April 1987 elections, and through a series of church meetings formalized a destabilization campaign.  Later on, other names appear, particularly of a notable Methodist Church minister, Reverend Tomasi Raikivi, who became a religious ideologue for the coup sympathizers.

 Apart from him, Ratu Finau Mara, Filipe Bole, Qoroniasi Bale, Ratu George Kadavulevu, Apisai Tora and Taniela Veitata[10] were all part of a conspiracy to undermine an elected government.  However, revelations that Ratu Mara gave his blessings to a military takeover are both startling and unnerving, since he has always maintained “no knowledge of the coup whatsoever.”  Not only that but this disclosure cast a serious doubt on the involvement of then Governor-General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau.

 In May of 1988, Auckland Star journalist, Karen Mangnall, wrote a telling article titled “Blueprint for Supremacy.”  In it, she quoted Ratu Inoke as saying that “after presenting the Taukei plans to both the high chiefs (Mara and Ganilau), he took two thinks away with him:  A silent nod from Ratu Mara and the push from Ratu Sir Penaia to get the other provinces behind us.”[11]  It follows from this that not only Ratu Mara but Ratu Penaia knew well in advance about the destabilization campaign and did nothing.

 Even after the coup, Ratu Penaia issued a proclamation on 24 May granting amnesty to Rabuka and those associated with the coup.[12]  Besides that, Rabuka, painfully, defends his officers during destructive riots of September 1987.  The soldiers were ineffective in quelling or controlling the Taukei Movement’s rampage of 21 September.  After the destruction of Suva city was over, only one Taukei Movement member was apprehended after being accidentally shot in the leg.

The stage was simply being set for the second military coup.  This coup, unlike the first one, ousted the Governor General, removed Fiji from the Commonwealth of Nations, installed a military republic and imposed a Sunday ban.[13]  According to Sharpham, Rabuka believed Fiji should be declared a Christian country and follow strict Christian observances.[14]  Apart from harassment of mostly Indo-Fijians, a more fierce anti-opposition campaign was mounted following discovery of illegal weapons in April and May of 1988.

 Undoubtedly, Rabuka may have known more about the arms shipment than what he disclosed in his biography.[15]  Following the discovery in Australia, the Fiji Military Forces quickly moved in and with the assistance of informants seized arms at Tau, Nadovi, Masimasi, Sabeto, Namulomulo, Vuniyasi in Nadi and near Vuda in Lautoka.[16]

 On 23 June, Rabuka confirmed that “several have been detained and questioned without prejudice to their political affiliation or position.  A quantity of arms, ammunitions and other military equipment have been recovered.”[17]  According to analysts, the Taukei Movement and the military intelligence masterminded a half-baked plan to import weapons and upon discovery use it to neutralize the opposition.

 Following a period of intense military activity and intense international condemnation, the Constitution Inquiry and Advisory Committee under the leadership of Paul Manueli was set up in 1988 to investigate and report on a suitable constitutional structure that guaranteed Fijian political paramountcy.  Rabuka kept a watchful eye over the constitution review process and his popularity among indigenous Fijian was confirmed when he was made a lifetime member of the Great Council of Chiefs in 1988.[18]  By 1990, Fiji had a new Constitution, which was denounced as “overtly racist” by many Indo-Fijians.  One such protestor, Dr. Anirudh Singh of the University of South Pacific, was abducted and tortured by members of the Fiji Military Forces.  This episode is carefully avoided by Rabuka and so are the many pre-meditated attacks on Hindu temples by suspected Taukei militants.

 On a brighter side, Sharpham points out that Rabuka was active in bringing about a resolution to a long running dispute in the sugar industry.

 During his last days in the military, Rabuka was also active politically in bringing an end to a long-standing crisis in the sugar industry.  He sympathized with the farmers, members of the National Farmers Union, and their overall demand for a price increase, but he urged them to consider the national interest.[19]

 Apart from playing an active role in the sugar dispute, Rabuka closely followed the formation of the Soqosoqo ni Vakevulewa ni Taukei (SVT) party and successfully contested its leadership in 1991.  However, by then, Mara was endorsing Kamikamica as a possible Prime Minister.

 In Chapter eight, we learn about serious political in-fighting among SVT members.[20]  The situation deteriorated following the 1992 general elections after which Rabuka faction worked tirelessly to secure majority support by doing a deal with the Fiji Labour Party.  By 1992, it was clear that Rabuka was slowly moving away from simple communal sentiment, which led him to execute the coups of 1987, to a statesperson who saw national unity and consensus as a key to national development.  Despite his commitments, Rabuka was plagued by a series of bad decisions and revolts.

Firstly, Rabuka found himself caught in a difficult situation following the disclosure of the Kermode Report into Tony Stephens million-dollar settlement issue.  Secondly, Rabuka faced a bitter revolt over the 1994 Appropriation Bill.  For Rabuka, it was less a vote against the budget then an effort to unseat him.  “In retrospect, it was clear to him that the dissidents in his ranks had not been so much opposed to the Budget as consumed by their determination to sink him.”[21]  By the end of 1993, Rabuka had lost the support of the Fiji Labour Party, which conducted a lightening Parliamentary walkout in June 1993 over Rabuka’s broken promises.  Another major challenge was the formation of the Fijian Association Party in January 1994.

After being forced into a second general election in less than two years, Rabuka found himself battling charges of sexual misconduct and bravely confronted the allegations at a caucus meeting.[22]  Increasing the pressure on Rabuka was Jo Nata who used his newspaper, Weekender, to publish the names of women with whom the Prime Minister had sexual relations.  Sharpham notes that:

There was no doubt that Rabuka liked women, for as many colleagues said of him, “he had an eye for women,” and there seemed little doubt that he had been having a number of affairs since he had become Prime Minister.  Members of his staff were concerned about his roving eye and the problems it could cause.  He found women as attractive now as he had in his younger days and no doubt the aphrodisiac of power had certain attractions for some women.[23]

In Chapter nine, we witness Rabuka trying desperately to juggle the often conflicting forces of Fijian political paramountcy on one hand and the involvement of other ethnic groups in the decision making process on the other.  To achieve a balance, Rabuka sets into motion a review of the 1990 Constitution by at first agreeing with the NFP to a Terms of Reference for a Review and in June 1994 announcing the Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitution.

Also on the agenda was the question of the composition of the Constitution Review Commission, which was finalized by March of 1995.  During submissions to the CRC, the National Bank of Fiji scandal erupted and Adi Samanunu lost her Fijian citizenship in an emotionally charged court battle. 

The National Bank of Fiji fiasco dragged on and in the spotlight were two notable Rotumans: Visanti Nakarava and Paul Manueli.  Runaway corruption at the Bank had eventually made it insolvent and a series of investigations and court actions followed.  Unfortunately, due to the cumbersome nature of Fiji courts and a lack of resources for dealing with white-collar crimes, the National Bank of Fiji culprits got off on technicalities by 1999.  Nevertheless, the whole saga haunted the Rabuka government and provided all forms of ammunition to the opposition.

In Chapter ten, Rabuka had become a constitutional reformer and a man who now challenged established belief by suggesting “Fijian” as a common name and battling his own colleagues in support of a new constitution.  Those in the SVT who resisted changes to the 1990 Constitution were: Kelemedi Bulewa, Jim Ah Koy and Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.[24]  Rabuka realized the disincentive of provincialism.  “Rabuka had argued against it, calling it ‘this ugly animal called provincialism,’ but he also understood the conservatism of grassroots Fijians.  Many of his problems with Cabinet colleagues had come from their provincial ties.”[25]

All in all, the constitution review was on schedule and after Reeves Commission completed its work, it was up to the Joint Parliamentary Committee to endorse or modify its recommendations.  The Fiji Labour Party wanted nothing less than the Reeves Commission Report while the nationalists felt it went too far and compromised Fijian political paramountcy.  Nevertheless, significant progress had been made by February 1997.  Rabuka continued his uphill battle with his own colleagues[26] and triumphed in the end when on 3 July 1997, the Constitution Amendment Bill was passed by the House.

After successfully introducing the new Constitution, both Jai Ram Reddy and Rabuka played an important role in bringing Fiji back into the Commonwealth.  However, unfortunately, Rabuka remained suspicious of Indo-Fijians and this is revealed when he, during a visit to New Zealand, disclosed that “he really does not like Indians,”[27] and refused to be welcomed in a traditional Hindu manner[28] at a religious gathering with Jai Ram Reddy.

Worst perhaps was the surprise apology to Indo-Fijians during the 1999 election campaign.  This simply infuriated Indo-Fijians who saw the apology as an electioneering strategy to win sympathy for causing enormous pain and suffering by executing the military coups in 1987.  Indo-Fijians were united in their belief that Rabuka was not to be trusted all cost and those, like the NFP, who associated itself with him had to be dumped as well.

While Rabuka expressed disappointment at Indo-Fijian bloc voting, it was not surprising at all for the Indo-Fijians who felt that the coup leader was rightfully punished at the polls.  Not only the coup, but a series of problems on the economic front propelled voters, regardless of ethnic origin, to dump SVT and its coalition partners.

At the end of the book, we get a feeling that Rabuka, at least, tried to rise above simple communal sentiment and initiate constitutional reform.  However, it seems that has fundamentally failed to understand Indo-Fijians, despite having a number of friends in his seven years as Prime Minister.  The suffering caused by the 1987 coups remain well embedded in the minds of Indo-Fijians and it will take some for this to be exorcised.

Meanwhile, a greater problem, identified by Rabuka, is Fijian disunity.  As stated earlier this disunity played a large role in defeating the Alliance in 1977 and in 1987 and ejecting Rabuka in 1999.  It seems that indigenous Fijians were temporarily united in 1987 to quell the perceived Indian threat.  With no threat on the horizon, indigenous Fijian unity seems nothing but wishful thinking.

[1] Nicholas Thomas, “Kingship and Hierarchy: Transformation of Politics and Ritual in Eastern Oceania,” History and Anthropology, Vol.7, No-1-4, pp109-131.

[2] Martha Kaplan,” Meaning, Agency and Colonial History: Navosavakadua and the Tuka Movement in Fiji,” American Ethnologist, Vol.17, No.1,1990, pp.3-22

[3] Charles J. Weeks, “The Last Exile of Apolosi Nawai: A Case Study of Indirect Rule during the Twilight of the British Empire,” Pacific Studies, Vol.18, No.3, 1995, p27.

[4] John Dunham Kelly, “Bhakti and the Spirit of Capitalism in Fiji,” PhD Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, 1988.

[5]R.S. Milne, Politics in Ethnically  Bi-polar  States,(Vancouver: University of  British  Columbia  Press,  1981),   p.73.

[6]john Sharpham, Rabuka of Fiji: The authorised biography of Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka, (Rockhampton: Central Queensland  University  Press, 2000) ,p.67.

[7]Ibid,p. 85.

[8]Kenneth  Bain,  Treason  at  Ten: Fiji  at   the Crossroads,  (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989),  p.3.

[9]John Sharpham, Rabuka of Fiji, p.96.

[10]Ibid, p.98.

[11]”Taukei Protest  Funds Queried,”  Fiji  Post, Vol.2, No. 19, 26  May,  1988.

[12]John  Sharpham, Rabuka  of   Fiji,  p.123.

[13]Sanjay  Ramesh,  “From  Guns to Dialogue: A Political Commentary  on  the Tenth Anniversary of the  Military  Coup in Fiji,” Pacific Island Report, Pacific  Island Development  Program/ Center for  Pacific  Studies,  17   November, 1997, p.1.

[14]Sharpham,Rabuka of Fiji, p.143.

[15]Ibid,  p.144.

[16]The Fiji Times, 7  June, 1988.

[17]Broadcast to  the nation  by  the Minister  for Home Affairrs and the Commander  of the Fiji Military  Forces, Brigadier Sitiveni Rabuka,   Thursday, 23June,  1988.

[18] Sharpham, Rabuka of Fiji, p.153

[19] Ibid, p. 161.

[20] Ibid, p.170

[21] Ibid, p.182

[22] Ibid, p.189

[23] Ibid, p.190

[24] Ibid, p.221.

[25] Ibid, p.227.

[26] Ibid, p.229

[27] Ibid, p.256

[28] Ibid, p.266

 

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