REPORT: FIJI: APRIL 2000

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By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

SUVA, Fiji Islands---On Tuesday April 4th, 2000, the Taukei Movement was revived in Lautoka by former Party of National Unity leader Apisai Tora. At the meeting, the Taukei activists collected more than 100 signatures on a draft petition, which outlines grievances, including opposition to the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act (ALTA). Meanwhile, the Minister for Labour, Industrial Relations and Immigration, Ratu Tevita Momoedonu, shrugged off this revival as nothing more than "sour grapes." Nevertheless, the revival comes after reports that the Land Use Commission will be established despite objections from chiefs and landowners. That was the message from Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry as Cabinet toured the Northern Division at the end of last month. According to the Native Land Trust Board boss, Maika Qarikau, the proposed Land Use Commission is a waste of money. Mr. Qarikau clarified that the NLTB was already fulfilling most of the Commission’s objectives and there were existing arms of the Government doing what the Commission intends to achieve. However, barely a week after the launch of the Taukei Movement in Lautoka, the Rewa Province Taukei Movement, was formed on Saturday, April 8 at Nadoi Village in Rewa. The movement comprises of representatives of the ‘tikina’ (district) of Rewa and Burebasaga. Ro (chiefly title of rank used before a name) Alifereti Tuisawau confirmed that the movement will support the Native Land Trust Board’s stand on land and totally support Mr. Qarikau and his staff in whatever way possible. Besides Rewa, Macuata landowners and Tui Wailevu, Ratu Kinijoji Maivalili of the Tikina Wailevu in Cakaudrove have expressed disappointment that Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry had opted to disrespect their wishes.

On the political front, government coalition partner, the VLV, is reconsidering its relationship with the Fiji Labour Party. Acting Secretary-General, Joe Vosanibola, confirmed that party officials have been pressured from members and followers of the party to withdraw from the government. However, a final decision will be made at the party’s annual general meeting in June 2000. Meanwhile, another government coalition partner, the Fijian Association Party Western Constituency, has thrown its support behind the Taukei Movement and asked for Party Leader Adi Kuini Speed to step down at a branch meeting in Lautoka on April 8. At the meeting, former Cabinet minister and founder of the Taukei Movement Apisai Tora was invited to talk. Fijian Association party West branch president, Ratu Viliame Dreunimisimisi, confirmed that the revived Taukei Movement was likely to gather support in its fight to win back the rights of indigenous Fijians.

Realizing trouble on the horizon, a cabinet team was sent to the west to persuade the chiefs there not to support the Taukei Movement, which held a failed public demonstration in Lautoka on Thursday, April 20. Six Fijian ministers -- Labour Minister Ratu Tevita Momoedonu; Agriculture Minister Poseci Bune; Sports Minister Ponipate Lesavua; Home Affairs Minister Jioji Uluinakauvadra; Communications Minister Meli Bogileka; and Lands Minister Ratu Mosese Volavola; -- started a three-day tour on April 17 and visited 10 villages. Meanwhile, two chiefs -- Tui Sabeto, Ratu Kaliova Mataitoga, and Marama Tui Ba, Adi Sainimili Cagilaba -- refused to meet the delegation. At the height of extensive public relations campaign by the government to get the chiefs on side, the Macuata Provincial Council discussed recent developments, where chiefs and landowners endorsed the Taukei Movement in its fight to remove the government of Mahendra Chaudhry.

Following a failed Taukei Movement protest march on April 20, organizers went back to the drawing board and promised a better performance for the march in Suva on April 28. About 4,000 people marched through Suva in support of the SVT party and the Taukei Movement for the Prime Minister to step down. A group of SVT and Taukei Movement members later presented their petition to the Boselevu Vakaturaga. The petition called for the dissolution of the Chaudhry government, no changes to the constitution, the proposed Land Use Commission to be abolished, all Schedule A and B land to be returned to landowners and the mahogany deal to be reviewed. Participating in the march were members of the Fijian Association Party and the Christian Democrats. Another protest march is scheduled for May 19.

The Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) held its meeting from April 26-28 at the Raffles Tradeswind Entertainment Centre. Unlike previous meetings, the Assistant Minister for Fijian Affairs, Ratu Isireli Vuibau, and Fijian MPs were not invited. Only Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and Acting Minister for Fijian Affairs, Ratu Mosese Volavola, participated in the proceedings. On Wednesday, April 26, former Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, was elected unopposed by the delegates, and the GCC rejected a nomination by President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara for a member of the Native Land Trust Board. Mara nominated former Lands Minister Ratu Timoci Vesikula for one of the five positions. Six names were put to the floor and Ratu Timoci was voted out. In other resolutions, the GCC referred the Land Use Commission proposal to the Fijian Affairs Board.

In other news, Prime Minister Chaudhry left for Canberra on April 16 to meet with his Australian counterpart, John Howard, on urgent trade matters, pertaining to Textile Clothing and Footwear (TCF). On line are some 18,000 jobs, which will disappear due to trade liberalisation pressure from the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In the afternoon of April 18, Mr. Chaudhry pushed for a six-month extension to Australia’s export credit scheme, which, according to him, is vital to Fiji's clothing and textiles industry. Fiji's Prime Minister requested Mr. Howard to keep the concession going beyond June 2000. Chaudhry also discussed the possibility of Australia cutting off its foreign aid to Fiji worth 21 million dollars a year. On 19 April, Australia outlined the broad principles of a new concession scheme for Fiji’s clothing and footwear industries. However, Mr. Chaudhry stated that Australia is still to give full details of a replacement plan for Fiji’s clothing and footwear industries, which sell 80 percent of their exports to Australia. Meanwhile, Mr. Howard promised an answer on the extension request within a couple of days. Under the South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement (SPARTECA), signed in Tarawa in 1981, Fiji experienced rapid growth in TCF through export credits from Australia and New Zealand. In 1995, the industry contributed 22.4% of the total domestic exports. Between 1990-91 and 1995-96, total TCF exports from Australia to Fiji increased 13-fold, largely due to increased exports of fabrics. By 1995-96, fabric exports accounted for over 70 per cent of total TCF exports to Fiji.

Apart from SPARTECA, negotiations were completed earlier in 1999 on the Australia Fiji Trade and Economic Relations Agreement (AFTERA). The Agreement was signed in Canberra on March 11, 1999, with the exchange of letters required for its entry into force, taking place between Mr. Downer and his Fiji counterpart, Dr. Tupeni Baba, during the Sixth Annual Australia-Fiji Ministerial Talks held in Nadi on December 15, 1999. In broad terms, the Agreement provides a framework in which more specific arrangements can be made to further develop mutual trade and economic development.

All in all, the month of April saw increasing indigenous Fijian frustration with the Government. Led by political agitators, Fijians once again feel that their land and culture are threatened by an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, who continues to disregard Fijian protocol when dealing with sensitive cultural issues. The Land Use Commission and the mahogany policies are seen as an affront to Fijian aspirations. Moreover, critics charge that the government continues to deliberately remove indigenous Fijians from top civil servant positions and has ignored completely the plight of the landowners. It was established, previously, that Fijians are led by simple communal sentiment and that any perceived threat to their "way of life" is met with insurmountable opposition.

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