POLITICAL UNREST IN FIJI LEAVES SOME HAWAI‘I RESIDENTS IN LIMBO

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By Craig DeSilva

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (May 25, 2000 - PIDP/CPIS)---The storming of the Parliament and government takeover by coup leader George Speight that has rocked the small South Pacific country of Fiji this past week has sparked concern by Hawai‘i residents who have family or business ties with the island republic.

Located 3,000 miles southeast of Hawai‘i, Fiji has a population of about 800,000 - a little less than the number of people who live on O‘ahu.

But for those in Hawai‘i with connections to Fiji, the horrors of a third coup in 13 years has hit home.

For many, it’s been a week of worry and frustration.

"This is a sad day for Fiji," said Valerie Lewa Warren, a native of Fiji who moved to Hawai‘i in 1978. "But the signs were there."

Warren, a salesperson at the Ralph Lauren Polo shop in Ala Moana Center, has been in regular contact with family and friends ever since the government takeover last week Friday. Her sister lives near Suva, where much of the looting and rioting occurred over the weekend.

She’s on the Internet regularly throughout the day trying to get as much information as possible through media reports, as the situation constantly unfolds.

"This is definitely terrorism," she said. "This is an act of treason. (Speight) should be responsible for his actions and be treated accordingly."

Warren said she’s disappointed but not surprised that tribal leaders may replace Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, the country’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, with a native Fijian. President Ratu Mara has already said he can’t guarantee Chaudhry will remain prime minister.

"It weakens the whole democratic system," she said. "I’m surprised, but I suppose that’s what Mara needs to do to appease all sides, especially Fijians who don’t want an Indian prime minister."

Warren said although Chaudhry has been abrasive on land issues, she said he is a man with vision and progressive ideas. She said Chaudhry has taken many positive steps at trying to raise the standard of living for Fijians. She noted his support for improving Fiji’s school system, which had been falling in disarray.

She added that the problem is not just the tension between ethnic Fijians and Indians. She said a bigger problems lies within the Fijian community itself.

"It’s always been a conflict for us," she said. "Our own people are not cohesive. Fijians are not united."

Racial Tension Was Brewing

Although many have expressed shock over the coup attempt, it hasn’t come as a surprise. There had been evidence of racial tension for months by native Fijians against Chaudhry’s government, especially over issues of land rights.

The attempt to overthrow the government has come as a setback for Fiji, especially since the country has worked hard to improve its image in recent years. Constitutional reforms set in place in 1997 and 1998 were an attempt to encourage foreign investment, improve tourism, and repair its standing within the international community following the 1987 coup, when military leader Sitiveni Rabuka toppled Dr. Timoci Bavadra’s government.

The country has only recently improved economically since the 1987 coup. The country also has been successfully climbing out of a two-year economic recession. Real gross domestic product (GDP) rose almost 8 percent last year.

"This is a black eye for Fiji," said David A. Chappell, a history professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. "This will certainly stay with Fiji for a few more years."

Chappell said although many Fijians sympathize with Speight and his cause, they don’t support his method of kidnapping the prime minister and his cabinet.

"This is Fiji’s second attempt at changing politics with guns in 13 years," he said. "Fiji is the only Pacific Island with military coups. The country is in danger of developing a coup culture in that if you don’t like the government all you have to do is storm Parliament."

Chappell added that Fiji’s political leaders must take a strong stance and not give into Speight’s demands. If that happens, he said, Fiji has the potential of dividing its military and creating civil unrest within various factions in the regions.

"This has the potential of getting worst before it gets better," he said.

But for others, the government takeover was bound to occur, given tension between ethnic Fijians and Indians.

"Although the election (of Prime Minister Chaudhry) was a democratic process, it doesn’t mean Fijians down deep feel good about symbolically losing control," said Vilsoni Hereniko, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies.

Hereniko, a native of the Fiji Island of Rotuma, said he was stunned when he first heard the news of the coup attempt. He was attending a literary conference in Auckland, New Zealand when he first got word of the unrest in his hometown. He has since been in regular contact with his sister, who is stranded in Suva waiting to return home to Rotuma.

Hereniko said Fiji had taken great strides in settling racial divides, especially following last year’s elections. This latest coup attempt, he said, has set Fiji back.

"Everyone was so idealistic and hopeful that there was no racial unrest and a smooth transition from Rabuka to an Indian prime minister," Hereniko said. "I think people thought things in Fiji had come around in a positive way and that maybe things were going to get better."

"Everybody, including myself, was rooting for the beginning of a new era in Fiji politics," he added.

Business Projects On Hold

Hereniko and his wife, playwright Jeannette Paulson, had made plans to go to Fiji at the end of June. They plan to do post-production and secure financing for a film they’re producing about life in Rotuma.

Those plans, however, are now up in the air due to the recent unrest in the country.

"(The coup) works against the project because people will be distracted and wondering how to recover financially," he said. "The people we are hoping to approach will now have other important needs."

But Hereniko is still hopeful money can be raised for the film. It’s a low-budget film of about $300,000. He will ask hotels and other businesses for concessions and will try to get volunteers for the cast and crew before filming starts in July 2001.

"We’re hoping we will be able to proceed," he said. "At the moment we’re going according to plans."

The Center for Pacific Islands Studies has been developing a program to teach a course in conjunction with students at the University of the South Pacific based in Suva. The program, entitled "Moving Cultures: Entanglements and Transformations in the Asia-Pacific," will be taught at both colleges simultaneously via videoconference during the fall of 2000.

Those plans, however, have been put on hold at the moment. UH officials haven’t had contact with USP since the uprising.

"At the moment we’re in the planning stages and finalizing the syllabus," said Terrence Wesley-Smith, an associate professor at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies. "But the events in the last few days have obviously interrupted that."

"We’re hoping things will get back on track and we’ll be able to go ahead as planned," he added.

Wesley-Smith said Fiji is sure to feel the immediate economic repercussions of the uprising with a drop in tourism. But he said it remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be.

"(We’ll see) whether investors will prefer to go somewhere else because they’re worried about Fiji’s political stability," he said.

Tourism

The political upheaval hasn’t disrupted Outrigger Hotels & Resorts’ plans to open a new hotel in Fiji, located outside of Nadi along the Coral Coast.

Perry Sorenson, Outrigger’s chief operating officer, said construction is almost done on the 207-room hotel and 47 bungalows at Outrigger Reef Fiji Resort. He said the resort is expected to open as planned at the end of June.

"It’s a long ways out, about 70 or 80 miles, from Suva," he said. "It seems as though the trouble has really been focused in the capital city and hasn’t reached beyond that point at this time."

The disruption in Fiji comes at a time when the country’s tourism industry is undergoing a turnaround. Fiji had a record 410,000 visitors in 1999, a 10.4 percent increase from the previous year, according to Radio Australia.

Sorenson said he spoke with an Air New Zealand representative, who hasn’t experienced a significant drop in airline bookings to Fiji. He said, however, that there have been some cancellations from the Japanese, which is not a significant market for Fiji. A majority of the visitors come from Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

"A lot will depend on whether the government acts quickly and brings resolution to the problem," he said.

"If the government is reinstated as the Council of Chiefs have supported, then this will pass very quickly," Sorenson added. "If they don’t act and Fiji becomes a renegade nation, obviously it would have disastrous results not only for tourism but also for Fiji’s standing in international trade and its economy."

Sorenson, however, is hopeful the situation can be resolved quickly.

"I think Fiji has a bright future as a tourism destination," he added.

Also, Bank of Hawaii’s three branches in Fiji were closed Monday along with many other businesses in Suva due to the rioting. The banks reopened Tuesday (Hawai‘i time).

"We’re continuing to monitor and evaluate the situation closely each day as it evolves," said BOH spokesman Stafford Kiguchi.

Sense of Security

Despite the sense of uncertainty now looming over Fiji’s government, residents will also have to deal with a sense of lost security once the situation comes to an end.

Fijian native Valerie Warren said residents in her hometown have already survived three government insurrections. This instability has caused many in the back of their minds to wonder what more is looming.

Said Warren: "The element of fear will be there once again. It’s tragic to live in an environment of fear."

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