FIJI VIEWPOINT: TROUBLE IN PARADISE

By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

On Friday May 19, 2000, at 10:00 a.m. about eight men, armed with M-16 automatic rifles and shot guns, stormed Fiji’s Parliament and held hostage forty MPs and Cabinet Ministers, including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. Immediately following the news of this illegal takeover, thugs went on a rampage, petrol bombing and looting about 200 Indo-Fijian and Chinese shops in Suva’s Central Business District. At about 1:00 p.m., coup leader, George Speight, son of SVT MP Sam Speight and a Suva businessman, installed Ratu Timoci Silatolu as the Prime Minister of Fiji and at about 1:30 p.m., Speight suspended the Constitution, the lawfully elected government, the Great Council of Chiefs, and the President. It is reported that the move was well planned and that prominent opposition figures are behind this.

As the news of the coup spread, foreign media attempted to make sense out of the total chaos in Fiji. Communication lines were down for most of Friday as people tried to understand the background of the coup leader, George Speight, who was indicted on fraud recently. An Australian Permanent Resident, George Speight, with the support of opposition and a unit of the Fiji Military Forces, executed this armed coup. The group on May 6 held a clandestine meeting in Suva with a Swedish arms dealer. It is believed that members of the opposition SVT and certain elements in the army (an SAS trained Counter-revolutionary Unit) were behind plans to hijack the government on May 19 - the first anniversary of the Chaudhry’s Coalition government.

After the Suva rampage, the President of Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, issued a statement denouncing the illegal takeover and imposed a dusk to dawn curfew. Two battalions of soldiers were dispatched to downtown Suva and police cleared the affected area and set up roadblocks. All this did not stop looters from continuing their rampage well into the night. In Suva, homes were also targeted by thugs and thieves and many homes were stoned and broken into at night. Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), Sitiveni Rabuka, continued to hold discussions with the coup leader.

In the morning of May 20, Nausori town was attacked by the same thugs and shops were looted and burned. Negotiations between the President and the coup leader was going nowhere and by midday George Speight dismissed the Great Council of Chiefs and ordered the President to resign. The coup leader also called on indigenous Fijians to support his actions. At about 3:00 p.m., half a dozens shops in Rakiraki were set on fire by the same roving bandits. After that Fiji’s radio FM 96 was informed that the looters were on their way to Nadi. Rumors were rife that members of the army were supporting the coup. However, the Deputy Commander of the Fiji Military confirmed that the army was behind the President and the same was confirmed by the Commissioner of Police, Isikia Savua.

In the night of May 20, rumors surfaced that Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry was beaten by his captors and forced to sign a resignation letter. It was also reported that (the Prime Minister’s son and personal secretary) Rajendra Chaudhry was beaten and threatened along with other Indo-Fijian Ministers. At 5:00 a.m. on Sunday, May 21, ten junior Ministers were released and among them was Assistant Minister for Information Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, who confirmed that the Prime Minister had been beaten.

The stalemate continued on Sunday as family members of the MPs were allowed to bring clothing changes and food. In an interview, the coup leader George Speight made it absolutely clear that he was willing to go all the way and execute the hostages if he had to. Negotiations with the intermediary were going nowhere and the President of Fiji issued a statement in the afternoon where he stated that the coup leaders had plans to kill their captors. This statement was refuted by George Speight. Meanwhile, Ratu Mara in a Presidential decree banned foreign media from conducting any more interviews from the coup leader. Police have set a one-kilometer roadblock around the Parliamentary complex. A group of coup supporters did try to run the roadblock, but were arrested immediately.

The President has issued an amnesty to the coup conspirators conditional upon their recognition of the constitution and the elected government. This was rejected by George Speight, who continues to claim that he is the "Prime Minister" of Fiji. It is believed that the coup plotters are becoming desperate and will continue the siege. On May 22, the Taukei Movement withdrew support for Speight and on Tuesday, May 23, the Great Council of Chiefs will convene an emergency meeting where the current situation will be discussed. Indications are that the coup will be condemned. Already, chiefs from the west have made it clear that they support the constitutional government of the day. The GCC Chairman, Sitiveni Rabuka, has spoken in favor of the constitution and as a result accused of being biased by the hijackers. Opposition MPs who were invited to join the government have declined and with a media ban, the situation for the coup masters is becoming increasingly desperate. However, the thugs who went on rampage on the 19th attempted to re-group without success on May 22.

It is crucial now for the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) to speak with a single voice and in no uncertain terms denounce this illegal takeover. Fiji will suffer if a clear message is not relayed by the GCC. Already plans are afoot to impose trade sanctions and expel Fiji from the Commonwealth if any attempts are made to legitimize in any manner or form the actions of the coup leaders. Trade sanctions will have enormous impact on Fiji and cause enormous hardship to everyone, regardless of race. I believe that indigenous Fijians do not want to turn back the clock fifteen years and destroy all the constitution and economic gain.

Prepared by Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

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