FIJI PACIFIC NO MORE: THE PROSPECT OF WAR

VIEWPOINT

By Jeremy Webb E-mail: Jeremy.Webb@ecan.govt.nz

With the storming of Fiji's parliament on Friday the 19th of May Speight made a grab for power. The weekend that followed was positive in that the Fijian police and armed forces swore allegiance to the President of Fiji Ratu Mara, whose daughter is one of the hostages held by Speight. In the following week the Bosso Levu Vakaturanga or Great Council of Chiefs also swore allegiance to Ratu Mara, but by the end of the week the Great Council of Chiefs had made great concessions in an offer to Speight who promptly refused it.

Included in the offer made to Speight and the crowd of over a thousand that had joined Speight in the parliamentary grounds, was immunity for Speight and his men as well as guaranteed Indigenous Fijian prime ministership and government office. Speight's refusal to accept the offer was a surprise and as dangerous as the offer itself. Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer threatened Fiji and the Great Council of Chiefs with International Sanctions if the Great Council of Chiefs did not support the elected government before the end of this weekend. Australia and New Zealand's fear is that Speight will set a gun touting precedent for those wishing to have their way in Fiji. Indeed New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs Phil Gough said that divisions within Indigenous Fijian society might even result in civil war between the east and west of Fiji.

Saturday the 27th of May, it has been a week and one day of captivity for Mahendra Chaudhry, the Prime Minister of Fiji, along with the Daughter of Ratu Mara the President of Fiji, and the wife of the Chief of Fiji's armed forces and 27 other political hostages. Today has also been the first day of casualties. Two of Fiji's armed forces personnel loyal to the President are wounded with bullet wounds and a cameraman is also wounded by a bullet. The confrontation was initiated by Speight himself. Speight asked for volunteers and then selected 200 young Fijian men who were largely unarmed. He then sent them to overrun an army barricade. The government forces fired sporadic automatic gunfire into the ground and air as the crowd moved to forcefully disarm them. Some of Speight's supporters also fired rounds at the army wounding two of the soldiers. First blood.

Sunday the 28th of May, the day starts with church in the parliamentary grounds and finishes with a dead policeman. Hundreds of young men move out from parliament's grounds to overrun Fiji television's building. It is reported that Speight is unhappy with the coverage he is receiving, and his supporters were willing to use force to impose their coverage preferences on Fiji. In addition to overrunning Fiji Television’s building a Fijian Policeman is shot to death.

Worrying is the ability Speight has to control large crowds, including the media as reported by Barbara Dreva of Radio New Zealand news. Speight effectively controlled the media pack, something most people cannot do. Adding to Speight's personal profile is a history that includes fraud, embezzlement, extortion and bankruptcy suggesting that he is self-serving and has no qualms. The way he utilized social instability to take Parliament without any obvious direct political backing, along with his history, suggests that he is an opportunist also. Speight's refusal of the generous offer by the Great Council of Chiefs that included immunity from prosecution, and changes to the constitution guaranteeing Indigenous Fijian government reflecting much of what Speight had been calling for, clearly shows Speight will not compromise for anything less than leadership of Fiji.

The gathering of over a thousand Speight supporters, including many young men, is the most worrisome development. Speight has already shown that he is willing to ask these men to fight and push the boundaries which surround them. Very shrewdly he sent them unarmed, creating the situation where a few armed personnel have to confront hundreds of largely unarmed men. Fijian soldiers are very unlikely to fire directly at their fellow Indigenous Fijian relatives approaching them and if they do Speight has the opportunity to discredit the predominantly Indigenous Fijian armed forces as being against their own race.

What resolution will there be to the crisis? This is not a hostage crisis, but now a political and military crisis. Even within the Great Council of Chiefs there is division, with Chiefs from the east supporting Speight and Chiefs from the western economic powerhouse of the Fiji economy supporting Chaudhry who, like Timoci Bavadra, is from the west. The Great Council of Chiefs do appear to be able to commonly support the President, Ratu Mara, who in turn has the constitutional power to remove Chaudhry from office if he believes that Chaudhry does not have the confidence of Parliament and the ability to form a government. Ratu Mara is personally being held to ransom as his own daughter is being held by Speight. Ratu Mara has to decide how far he is willing to step outside the constitution to please Speight or risk further confrontation.

Speight holds no regard for the present constitution and does not appear to be willing to accept compromise. This being the case, either Ratu Mara concedes fully to Speight's demands or Ratu Mara denies Speight of his ambitions, further escalating the conflict.

If Ratu Mara does comply with George Speight's wishes then not only will he defuse the present tension between himself and Speight but he also will get his daughter back. At the very same time the tensions between the west and east of Fiji will be exacerbated, as earlier in the week Ba province, a province in the west, had threatened to form a separate state if Speight's demands are a met. The Indigenous Fijians of the west are resentful of the fact that the two Labour prime ministers, Chaudhry and Bavadra, both originating from the west, have been removed by coups conducted and supported by Fijians from the east. In addition there is further ill feeling in the west as the economy of Fiji is largely based in the west but the political actions of Indigenous Fijians in the east consistently harm the economy.

If Ratu Mara does not comply with Speight's demands then the saga will continue. George Speight will not compromise, and with the number of men he now has in the parliamentary grounds he will not be attacked. The Armed forces loyal to Ratu Mara can only lay siege to Speight and his supporters. Speight will send his supporters out again to overrun military posts. Even if the Fiji armed forces try to stop food and water from being supplied to Parliament’s grounds Speight will simply use his men to force the army back, allowing holes in the siege to form. With time, the men gathered in the parliamentary grounds will become armed, some with M16's, others with home made weapons Guadalcanal style and others with cane knives and stones. Speight will not compromise and will use his influence and charisma to guide his willing Indigenous Fijian supporters, some of whom are from the armed forces, to further his control on Parliament and surrounding neighborhoods. There will be violence beyond looting, and there will eventually be bloodshed. If the situation is allowed to escalate beyond the first killing there will be war because Speight is a charismatic uncompromising self-serving unscrupulous opportunist with willing armed support.

If Ratu Mara does bend under pressure to Speight's demands, there is the real possibility of at least political fighting between the east and west of Fiji. With the precedent of gun touting resolution to Indigenous Fijian grievances, that has been set by Sitiveni Rabuka and now Speight, it is likely that there will be future violence in Parliament or elsewhere in Fiji. The prospect for Fiji is not good. Fiji is no longer Pacific, and there is the real prospect of war.

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