Fiji Coup Leader: Exclusive Interview

SUNDAY Channel Nine Television

Date: May 21, 2000
Reporter: Hugh Riminton
Producer: Nick Farrow / Mick O'Donnell

On Friday, the Fijian population was shocked to discover that seven masked men had entered Parliament House in the capital, Suva, while Parliament was sitting and had taken members of the government hostage.

Soon, heavily armed men were observed guarding the parliamentary grounds. Looting broke out and shops owned by ethnic Indians were ransacked and burnt.

The coup was directed against the ethnic-Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, who had been in office for only a year. The action marked the third coup in Fiji in thirteen years, although this time the military did not appear to be involved.

The coup leader, George Speight, is a businessman who has worked for eight years in Australia. He has declared that the constitution, which allowed the election of an (ethnic) Indian to head the government, is now void.

George Speight has variously announced the appointment of a new prime minister and a new president and himself as both prime minister and head of state. He says he is seeking recognition of the rights of the indigenous Fijian half of the population.

Sunday reporter Hugh Riminton, producer Nick Farrow and cameraman Les Seymour have gained extraordinary access to the coup leader.

These interviews give the first insight into the thoughts of rebel George Speight.

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Early Saturday night, coup leader George Speight walked to the gate of the Parliament House grounds and spoke to Fijian and International reporters:

Speight: Today's first step? Nothing at all. Quite frankly, e continue to hold the former members of the Labour coalition government led by Mahendra Chaudhry, the former Indian Prime Minister. The members continue to be detained. Their well-being: I want to assure the international community they are safe, they are very happy, they're secure and basically they spent all day in Parliament today sitting around and drinking grog, having some food and engaging in stories.

Reporter: To those who call you a terrorist or a threat to the nation, what's your response?

Speight: Well what would you expect? I'd like to question the legal...the claim; I presume you are referring to His Excellency the Honorable Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. From where I sit he has no legal claim to the title of President and I will explain in detail what I mean by that.

Reporter: I wish to know whether you or people assisting you in anyway put your hands or beat the former Indian Prime Minister as you referred to him?

Speight: Definitely not. Any suggestion that we manhandled or physically injured the former PM Mr. M. Chaudhry in any way are scandalous and deserve to be treated with the utmost contempt.

Reporter: Are you a violent man; are you prepared to kill to get what you want?

Speight: I'm not a violent man. I would propose that I'm a purposed man who is determined to implement the measures to ultimate conclusion and fulfillment of the ah... securing of the rights of the indigenous people that has been represented to the coalition government that I overthrew but which they persistently chose to ignore.

Reporter: Why are you still holed up in Parliament behind locked gates?

Speight: I put it to you that the reason why we are behind locked gates is by my doing and by my design. In fact it's to actually protect the safety and well being of the members whom I hold because of the absolute immense level of the backlash of public hate for them. But if I let them move outside these gates they probably steal their life.

Well, let me explain the legal foundations which are at the core of my current statements because I believe that these, the legal foundations I will clarify to you will basically explain why I believe there will be some resolution very quickly. When I overthrew the coalition government of Mahendra Chaudhry yesterday in fact at the same time I abrogated the constitution of Fiji, through a civilian coup. My actions install in Fiji a civilian-led government with me as its head of state to effectively control power. But in abrogating the constitution I effectively removed all laws existing in Fiji so we have no legal foundation on which to run our affairs. Consequently we have two options on which to progress, with regard to establishing a legal foundation for the running of the affairs of the civilian government which I put in place: One was to bring back, use my executive powers as head of state to bring back the abrogated constitution with certain amendments that would safeguard the status of the indigenous Fijians; or alternatively I would proceed down the path of the formulation and promulgation of appropriate decrees which would achieve the same thing in its own way. I have chosen the latter strategy and that is to formulate and promulgate decrees. In fact we have gazetted as I speak six decrees, the first of which brings back the basic laws of Fiji, which will regulate the affairs and the day to day business of my government and then secondly onto the fourth, fifth and sixth we have implemented further decrees to give my powers in order to conduct the business of Fiji.

(Interruption)

Can I just finish please. It effectively means that the position of President and in fact Vice President held by His Excellency Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Ratu Josefa Iloilo Uluivuda ceased to exist once I promulgated those decrees.

The statements coming from His Excellency Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and claiming to act under the title of President I am here to inform the international media that that is an illegal, illegal use of the title of President. For in fact we have a new President of Fiji. I used my executive powers incurred upon me by the decrees which we promulgated to install today a new President of Fiji and that gentleman is a very high ranking chief in his own right and goes by the name of the Honorable Ratu Jope Seniloli.

I overthrew the government, set aside the constitution, promulgated six new decrees which gave me executive authority of the affairs of the country of Fiji, my country, and in so doing have established, have passed the head of state authority for executive control into the position of a new President.

Later in the evening, when other media had departed, George Speight gave Sunday this exclusive and remarkably informal interview with reporter Hugh

Riminton, outside the gates of Parliament House:

George Speight (shaking hands with supporters): We have the press here.

Hugh Riminton: Just one from Channel Nine. These are among your supporters. Does it feel good to come and meet these people who are standing in the rain here to ...

Speight: I recognize you, what's your name again?

Riminton: Hugh Riminton from Channel Nine

Speight: George Speight.

Riminton: Nice to meet you. Is it good to stand here with people who plainly share your views?

Speight: Well absolutely. I think the foreign press should take into consideration that, rather than looking for just my personal statements on this matter why don't you invoke the views of the people and find out. And I think you should do that, you should ask them what do they think of what's going on?

Riminton: We have done (that) during the day; we've spoken to some that are here. You seem very relaxed. You must be short of sleep; it's been a momentous few days.

Speight: I haven't slept for three days so I guess that explains why I'm looking a bit worse for wear.

Riminton: Are you feeling relaxed? You seem very confident.

Speight: Oh absolutely. I mean, you know this is a very important exercise. I represent indigenous people of my country and their aspirations and their future, so what should I fear?

(A rain shower has begun but the interview continues.)

Riminton: Ratu Mara has made some very strong statements today; he says that you're terrorizing people and that he won't bow down to threats. What is your response to that?

Speight: Well I'm not threatening Ratu Mara. I'm merely exerting a position which is afforded to me by virtue of my actions in overthrowing the government and subsequently my legal position by virtue of the six decrees which I have promulgated in the last 24 hours.

Riminton: And so your next move now?

Speight: Well my next move now is to wait and see what his next move is but essentially I will proceed because an interim government has been sworn in and on the legal foundation of the six legal decrees that I have written and which have all been gazetted and then we will continue with the execution of the administration of government. I am the interim Prime Minister of Fiji as I speak whilst Ratu Mara has no legal basis for his comments, particularly if he insists on using the title of President, which ceases to exist as I speak because I have abrogated the constitution. I continue to contain the members of the former government and I have abrogated the constitution as I said, so that's the situation. But there's no doubting his chiefly influence is summoning the support of a great number of organizations and good luck to him.

Riminton: Given that you have this legal status as you point out, are you yet in the position or when will you be in the position to feel confident enough to release Mr. Chaudhry and the rest who of course legally now have no status at all?

Speight: Well I think that depends on His Excellency Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara whom I have the greatest for. He continues to deny the valid, the legitimate valid foundation from which I speak and I suppose a lot of that is to do with the fact that we haven't circulated a lot of the decrees and copies of it. I mean we intend to circulate the six decrees that we have promulgated in the next 24, 48 hours. Hopefully they'll reach his office and his person and he'll read them and he'll begin to realize that we don't speak you know in a frivolous fashion. I mean we, yes, I have overthrown the former government you know but we've also taken steps to set a legal foundation from which I speak and you know we're attempting dialogue and I'm sure we can reach a resolution if he recognizes me.

Riminton: How will you circulate these decrees, given that as I understand it, the printing office won't ...

Speight: As easy as I came out here to talk to you.

Riminton: You feel a free man in this country...

Speight: I am a free man in this country. I'm the Prime Minister of this country. And you know the forces of the Fiji police are at my disposal as I speak. I have executive authority over them. If they choose not to fulfill my request I respect their right. We're not in a confrontational mode but I said you know the distribution of the decrees will take place to all of the government ministries over the next 24, 48 and 54 hours and they will come to learn of the legal foundation from which I issue instructions and we should all commence with the administration of the affairs of government very quickly.

Riminton: General Rabuka has said that he will call a meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs for next Tuesday. What do you think that meeting will have to say?

Speight: Well I mean again there's the issue of legality of that meeting. You know right now the Great Council of Chiefs does not exist because I have abrogated the constitution but, as I said, there is traditional and social support for these structures and to the extent that its members wish to get together and discuss these issues which are affecting us at the moment that is their right and I welcome them to do so.

Riminton: The Chiefs of Bau today said they did not support you.

Speight: Well I expect that because I have been very forthcoming in my analysis of the extent and the outcomes of my actions, I mean essentially, if you are a member of the province of Bau I mean part of my action has actually abolished the position of Vice-President and you know Ratu Sir Iloilo, who is a high-ranking chief of Fiji, whom I respect greatly, is the current holder of the Vice-President title in Fiji and I don't doubt that by stating that fact that it's going to anger some people.

Riminton: Is it not fair to say that you ...

Speight: Can I leave now?

Riminton: Sorry, just one last one, is it not fair to say that you can't hope to carry the indigenous Fijians with you unless you can also carry their Chiefs who they obviously revere so much?

Speight: Absolutely and I'm confident that if the Chiefs concentrate on the issues about which I'm espousing they'll come around in good time.

Riminton: Mr. Speight thanks for your time.

Speight: Thank you. Take care. See you later. Let's go.

George Speight then walked on the road outside the gates of Parliament House. Hugh Riminton walked with him and asked a few more questions.

Riminton: Sir, do you hope to get some rest tonight?

Speight: Oh absolutely, I mean I'm getting about 30 minutes to 40 minutes of sleep a night. That's plenty isn't it, under the current pressure?

Riminton: Do you feel that the real crisis point has passed, that there's now some settlement or do you think the crisis point is still to come?

Speight: No I think the crisis point has passed to the extent that the act has been committed. I have overthrown the government. I mean naturally there is a big backlash of emotion to be expected from that. I mean you know it's caused disruptions to the economy and ah... a lot of people feel that I've injured their rights enshrined in the constitution that I have set aside. And you know the resultant chaos that's emanated but aside from that you know I mean the act has been done you know. What is going to happen now is dialogue and negotiation and at some point in time you know the parties have to meet because the issues about which I'm championing are you know common to all of us in some form or fashion. So we're all on the same page; it's just that someone's up here, down here, over there.

Riminton: Do you regret the violence and the looting that happened yesterday?

Speight: Oh yes.

Riminton: What would you say to people about how they should behave?

Speight: We certainly don't condone the violence and anybody who's involved in sporadic outburst of looting and burning I mean these people are just off; I mean we don't, we don't condone that. And they should stop it. Because the outcry of the indigenous people was basically centered around removing the Mahendra Chaudhry government and I have effectively done that. So we've achieved what we want in respect of one of the key elements that was presented in the march and so there's no need for civil unrest. And what then takes place now is negotiation between the parties.

Riminton: Calm negotiation can sort this out?

Speight: Exactly and that's what I'm promulgating, that's what has taken place last night between Rabuka and myself on behalf of his excellency and you know hopefully we'll continue tomorrow. Tomorrow's Sunday though I mean tomorrow is normally a church day for everybody in Fiji so...

Riminton: Do you countenance the possibility that you could fail?

Speight: No. I mean the fact that I've attracted this much attention and this much focus and this, and a new resolve from His Excellency Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, in his statements today, say, where he is absolutely committed to ensuring that the issues raised by the indigenous people of Fiji, via their petitions to him presented at the end of their marches will be given due credence and will be addressed and you know solutions proposed. I mean, quite frankly, these are knee-jerk reactions as far as I'm concerned. That type of response was what was sought from the government that I overthrew and indeed from perhaps former administrations as well. Because this is the culmination of an up swell of something that's been dormant in the minds of our people but gaining momentum over time.

Riminton: How long have you planned it?

Speight: How long have I planned what?

Riminton: Have you planned this action that's taken place over the last...

Speight: Ah, twelve months.

Riminton: You've been working on it 12 months, basically since the election?

Speight: Well I've been thinking about it for twelve months like perhaps every other Fijian in Fiji because there've been many instances of public statements by indigenous people about their discontent about the Chaudhry government. I mean they just don't like it, including, may I add, members of their coalition partnership, the Fijian Association Party. So it's not new what I've done; it's what the people expect. The very fact that I've done it in the manner I've done you know has shocked people but by and large they condone it because talks of a coup, whether military or social or civil have been the order of the day in Fiji since Mahendra Chaudhry took power.

Riminton: Mr. Chaudhry was elected though by a majority and he was elected under a constitution. He has a democratic mandate to be in ...

Speight: I don't doubt that whatsoever.

Riminton: There's no democracy, no place for democracy?

Speight: Sorry what's your first name again?

Riminton: Hugh.

Speight: Hugh. I mean I don't doubt that whatsoever Hugh. You know but you need to look back at the sequence of events which led to the establishment and the ratification of that constitution in Fiji, the one we used in last year's election okay? It was the subject of great debate; wide commentary was sought from the people of Fiji about what they felt about that constitution and its structure and its composition and whilst... I mean all this is on the back of 1987 mind you. So here we are, there's a new constitution in place. Quite frankly no one really understood how it worked because for the first time in our history we were going from a first past the post system to a preferred vote system and all of the machinations of that if you like. I mean, the public of Fiji frankly had very little time to digest the implications of the new constitution, particularly in effect to the possibilities of election outcomes. But clearly what it showed, whilst the intent was there to foster closer ties between the different communities in Fiji I mean the outcome shocked everybody. You know one minute we had Mr. Rabuka in power and the next minute he was defeated so convincingly you know that to walk into Parliament as an indigenous Fijian is almost like an affront to your identity because the opposition is composed of only eight or nine members on this one little tiny corner of the parliamentary oval and they're completely surrounded by the coalition government. I mean that is a testimony of the degree of concern that people have. That result.

Riminton: The Chaudhry government could not have been elected though without votes from indigenous Fijians.

Speight: I understand that I mean they did pick up some indigenous votes and rightly so because you know Fiji for a small country is very very complex.

Riminton: Are you not if I could just interrupt for a moment, are you not betraying those indigenous Fijians who supported the Chaudhry government?

Speight: Yes I do and I apologies for that and I don't doubt that. But I challenge those people who are part of the Chaudhry Labour government in terms of Fijian indigenous supporters, right, that at the core of what I've done are long-term, far-reaching indigenous issues, right, that lie at the core of our identity, the kinds of things we need to have in terms of political and commercial and social control over our country -- there's only 450,000 of us mind you, less than half a million Fijians in this country, right 7,000 square miles approximately, and you know if we let what has taken place continue, quite frankly there is a distinct possibility that the Fijian, the indigenous Fijians' input is going to gradually dwindle to the extent where it's ineffective.

Riminton: You spoke today of warning of possibly fatal consequences if there was to be any reprisals or any attacks.

Speight: Well all I am saying is that when you execute an action like this you're prepared for the worst possible scenario and all I'm saying is that we are. And I say that with the greatest of respect to any party who's out there and to anybody who's thinking of reprisals on us. May I urge you please it's not necessary, you're not going to achieve anything because we are highly prepared to retaliate if we have to.

Riminton: Against whom? Against your hostages?

Speight: If necessary, yes, and that is part and parcel of an overthrow situation and you know I'm not going to apologies for that.

Riminton: So you'd be willing to kill them if it came to that?

Speight: Well put it this way right, I have told everyone at large, right, who has considered reprisals against us of an armed nature in respect to the former Members of Parliament whom we are securing at the moment that if they do so you know they are actually taking a decision in causing us to jeopardize their lives. Because we are detaining them. In the detention process we have gained attention, right, we have gained a focus on the issues about which we want to be addressed. It is therefore no longer necessary for anyone to try and interfere because what needs to happen next is dialogue on those issues. We have set in train a legal process to affect that dialogue and to give it a foundation. And all we're asking for is a recognition by His Excellency Ratu Mara and then we can start to talk.

Riminton: Would it be...

Speight: If, if.. he consistently chooses to not recognize the opposition and he does so at the same time possibly risking the safety of people up here.

Riminton: Are you willing to die for this cause?

Speight: Absolutely, it's just a non-issue, I mean phh.

Riminton: You say that this dialogue must finally settle all this. As part of that dialogue what do you see for yourself, would a requirement be that you remain the head of state in whatever future negotiated settlement is reached?

Speight: Well not necessarily Hugh. I'm a reasonable man you know. These actions are designed with our long-term implications in mind. This is not about me, George Speight, I mean; this is about very much the concerns by a large community of our people. And having said that I proceed with what I, with what I'm doing. So, you know, let's hope that people in Fiji and people internationally will focus on the issues and focus on the concerns and understand the reason why I've taken these actions. Indeed, they're not the first time it's happened in Fiji's history. And let's move you know. The first time it happened it led to what we have, to what we have. The second time it happened let's hope it results in what we want and that's all I can say. Thanks Hugh.

Riminton: Do you believe these men will get out free, will be okay?

Speight: (walking off) Thank you Hugh, Yes, yes, yes.

Riminton: Thank you very much for your time Mr. Speight.

Speight: Thanks Hugh.

 

With that George Speight went back through the grille of the parliamentary gate, guarded by armed men in plain clothes, as well as police.

Late in the night, following rumors that a doctor and ambulance had been called to attend Mahendra Chaudhry, Sunday's veteran cameraman, alone, was ushered into the grounds of Parliament House to speak with George Speight.

Speight: I am concerned about a BBC report from one of their web sites, that's alleging that I have taken to the use of firearms on a personal level, in order to threaten and subdue Mr. Mahendra Chaudhry, the Prime Minister of Fiji whom I have in my custody at the moment. I'd just like to say that it's absolutely untrue, it's ridiculous and I'd like to urge and make a special plea to the international media to just adopt a responsible level of reporting in these important matters that are going on in my country at the moment.

Les Seymour: How's the health of everybody inside?

Speight: The health of everyone inside is fine; we have medical doctors as you can see at our disposal who come and go as required. We have the Red Cross as well who send medical people to visit the Members of Parliament whom we have in our custody. Generally everyone's in good health. They're safe and sleeping at this time.

Seymour: Is Mr. Chaudhry unconscious? There was a report that he'd gone unconscious.

Speight: No, Mr. Chaudhry has suffered a bit of stress earlier on in the evening. One of the members of his Cabinet actually is a medical doctor, came down and administered to him and told me that his blood pressure was normal, his pulse rate was normal and in addition to that he had applied the oxygen mask as a precaution, but I checked not more than five minutes before coming here Les, and Mr. Chaudhry is well; he's asleep in the company of his son and some of the other members of the Cabinet. He should be up early in the morning for breakfast as usual.

Seymour: And what about the other people that you're holding; what's their health like?

Speight: Absolutely perfect, everyone's fine as I said, Les. Their health and their safety have not been compromised since I took the actions that I did on Friday morning.

Seymour: And what's the situation like inside? Are your people tense and is the situation likely to get out of control?

Speight: No I mean the situation is not tense but as is required of any action of this type we're on constant high alert. And you can appreciate that. As you can see we have armed men around; the compound is manned by police as well as our own people. Things are fine. What does concern me though is that media reports that have come to my attention have revealed that Mrs. Kuini Speed, who is the Deputy Prime Minister of this country, was receiving medical assistance in Sydney, Australia at the moment is going out of the way to encourage your government and perhaps even the New Zealand government to consider reprisals against us. I'd just like to reiterate to Mrs. Kuini Speed that these actions are irresponsible; there is no need for them; they won't achieve anything and what we are pursuing is a line of dialogue you know with the channels of communication still open at this time.

Seymour: How's your own health? You getting much sleep?

Speight: No, I'm not getting much sleep at all but I mean that's normal isn't it, Les?

Seymour: Yes, I'd say so.

Speight: Do I look like I need sleep?

Seymour: Ah, you do at the moment, yes.

Speight: OK, I think it's that bright light of yours.

Seymour: I'm sorry about that. Is there any message you want to get out?

Speight: For the second time in our country, through obviously illegal actions and undemocratic actions that I have I undertaken -- and I agree with that -- I have been able to turn the spotlight on indigenous concerns and indigenous interests on behalf of my people. I mean we desire self-determination in our commercial and our political affairs. It's something we don't enjoy at the moment and it's something we never have enjoyed. That's with due respect to the racial composition of our country.

The doctor who had treated Mahendra Chaudhry during the night was reported as saying the arrested prime minister was suffering from exhaustion and showed no signs of having been beaten.

During the early hours of the morning, nine of the politicians being held hostage were released, s well as a bodyguard.

There are thought to be dozens of people still remaining hostage in the parliamentary grounds.

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