FIJI: THE UNRAVELING OF A COUNTRY

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LETTER TO THE EDITOR

FROM: David Chappell, University of Hawaii History Department

TO: Pacific Islands Report DATE: May 24, 2000 RE: Fiji

What is happening before our eyes, thanks to your able updating of the news from Fiji, is the unraveling of a country. Teresia Teaiwa is quite correct to point out the divisions in indigenous Fijian society, though her claim that there is no Fijian nation seems to assume a reified, monolithic notion of nationhood, when in fact all nations have internal divisions and debates. What is really at issue is the methods of political change. Nations tend to define themselves vis-a-vis some designated "other," in Fiji's case, the Indo-Fijian half of the population, a legacy of British colonial policy.

But the last elections, in 1999, under the Commonwealth- inspired constitutional reforms, showed that the Indo-Fijians, who also have important divisions among them, were more united than the Fijians, who lost the election for exactly that reason. And what is emerging in place of unity is a "coup culture," as Edward Luttwak, author of Coup d'Etat, might say. In some countries, where there is no viable civic culture that respects due process of constitutional law, the only way to change leadership becomes military coups, which only beget more coups.

The so-called "civil coup" being attempted in Fiji by George Speight and his terrorists is really made possible by an elite armed force created by the previous coup-maker, Sitiveni Rabuka: his Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Unit, whose guns enable Speight to talk big while threatening the lives of the kidnapped Prime Minister and his cabinet for almost a week now. Former Prime Minister /General Rabuka and President Ratu Mara, and even the Great Council of Chiefs, are at a loss, obviously, as to how to resolve the hostage crisis without making concessions to Speight and his prancing thugs, thereby legitimizing their tactics. Economic change in Fijian society has given rise to a new middle class, of which Speight represents a small, unsavory portion, which does not necessarily respect the high chiefs of eastern Fiji who had so often managed to claim to represent the "nation" until now. Rabuka himself helped to announce the new era in 1987, when he pulled two coups (after a western region Fijian won the Prime Minister's office for the first time), thus starting the process that has undermined Fiji's third constitution since independence in 1970.

For those who love Fiji, we can only feel sad to see this once-prosperous and stable country slip more deeply into a trap it may not be able to escape. The now-hostage Prime Minister, Indo-Fijian unionist Mahendra Chaudhry, had claimed that he needed more security, and people took it lightly, but the stark reality of political rule from the barrels of guns is becoming clear to everyone in Fiji. And the Indo-Fijians, long the scapegoat "others" against whom the Fijian "nation" defined itself, may no longer suffice. Fijians have now met their real enemy, and it is themselves. Different districts, regions, classes and other segments of the indigenous society may in the future all grab for weapons if they are not pleased with electoral results, thanks to Mr. Speight and Mr. Rabuka. Given the "pardoned" results so far, why shouldn't they?

As Dr. Brij Lal of ANU wrote recently in The Australian, "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." Only unity on the part of the Great Council of Chiefs, Rabuka and Mara (and the remaining army and police) can stop this downward spiral. They must uphold the present constitution or give up the idea of having one at all.

Sincerely,

David Chappell UH History Department U2Chappell@cs.com 

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