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Brij V. Lal

Fiji is a damaged, divided democracy. George Speight’s dramatic intervention has dislocated the process of political reconciliation, severely strained race relations, and shattered the foundations of the nation’s economy just when Fiji was gradually emerging from the debris of 1987. The images of looting and burning, thuggery and violence on the streets of Suva, the worst in the history of Fiji, will forever remain deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of its people, and the recovery from the wreckage and ruin will be long and hard.

George Speight, a Fijian of part-European descent, a failed businessman, an Australian permanent resident, proclaimed himself as a saviour of the Fijian ‘race.’ The constitution, which only three years ago was unanimously approved by the Fiji Parliament (the majority of whose members were indigenous Fijians), blessed by the Great Council of Chiefs, and praised by the international community, had to go, he said. The government of Fiji must be returned to indigenous Fijian hands.

Speight is the front man for a variety of interests, including the radical nationalist Fijians operating on the fringe of indigenous politics, opportunistic Fijian politicians defeated at the last elections keen to settle old scores, and an assortment of people from various social and ethnic backgrounds who rode the gravy train of the 1990s, but whose prospects dimmed upon the election of Mahendra Chaudhry’s People’s Coalition government. They were not pleased, and they threatened reprisal. Elements of the military, too, are involved, especially members of the crack Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit established by Sitiveni Rabuka after the 1987 coups. Their involvement is the inevitable consequence of a politicised armed force whose loyalties lie to individual leaders than to the institution of the army.

The Chaudhry government’s hectic – in the view of some of his critics too hectic – legislative program heightened their fears. The prime minister’s pugnacious style, forged during his long years in the country’s trade union movement and his government’s ongoing, hugely counterproductive confrontation with Fiji’s media, worsened the situation. The government was understandably pressed by its political opponents to deliver early on its electorally appealing but economically costly election promises, including introducing minimum wages, providing social security, rolling back the structural reform program, and resolving the ever-difficult issue of expiring leases. Land, always an emotional issue in Fijian politics, became the rallying point for Fijian groups already distrusting of the government and galvanised into action by the dormant Taukei Movement by that mercurial chameleon of Fiji politics, Apisai Tora, whose own party is Chaudhry’s coalition partner. Such is the nature of politics in Fiji.

The problem, if there is one, is not Mr Chaudhry’s ideas and his vision for Fiji; it is more his style and the tradition of open, robust political discourse it represents which does not sit easily with the other tradition of more allusive and indirect discourse, conscious of well defined cultural protocols, rank and hierarchy. Removing Chaudhry from power will not solve Fiji’s ever-deepening social and economic problems in an increasingly globalized world. The land question will have to be resolved sooner rather than later because the Fijian sugar industry drives the engine of the national economy. The state, whoever runs it, cannot evade responsibility for the fate of people turfed out from the leases after generations of earning their livelihood from them, nor ignore the legitimate interests of Fijian landowners who want them back. The principles of good, effective and transparent governance will have to be observed irrespective of who is in power.

Speight and those who support him want a reversion to the 1990 constitution which enshrined Fijian majority in Parliament and to the principles of ethnic dominance which underpinned it. But even with greater numbers, Fijians could govern only with the support of non-Fijian parties because they have splintered into political parties bitterly opposed to each other. Rabuka lost the 1999 election in large part because of Fijian political fragmentation. The same will happen again, for Fijians, like other communities in Fiji and elsewhere, are divided by ancient prejudices and modern greeds. And the fragmentation will increase with the gradual disappearance of the fear of Indian dominance which has informed political discourse in Fiji for the last half century.

The culture of political patronage which emerged in the 1990s brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy, epitomised most notably in the near-collapse of the National Bank of Fiji. Well-connected opportunists had a field day. Virtually every public institution became infected by the virus of mismanagement or abuse of office. The most seriously affected victims of this were the ordinary Fijians of all ethnicities. But there were also some who benefited unscrupulously from the public coffers, and some of them are among the moving agents behind the present crisis. Returning to 1990, as Speight and his supporters demand, will once again hobble the institutions taking Fiji towards better governance.

Race has been portrayed in the media and popular commentary as the main issue behind the present turbulence. It is an issue, but there is more to the story than meets the eye. Speight has trained his sight on the Indians, but he is also leading a middle class revolution against the Fijian establishment symbolised by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The disrespectful and dismissive (once unthinkable) tone in which his name is being taken, the call for his resignation, the increasingly audible whispers about his supposed dynastic ambitions, the long reign of the eastern hierarchies of the Koro Sea, touch deeper issues about the structure of power in traditional Fijian society than is first apparent. Race becomes a tool for mobilizing Fijian opinion, for in the ultimate analysis, this crisis is more than about Indians.

Mahendra Chaudhry is not the problem facing Fiji today. You may remove him from power, but the deep-seated problems will not be removed. You may maim the messenger, but the message will not go away.

Originally published in The Australian, May 25, 2000.

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