FIJI UNIONS STAND FIRM IN SPITE OF HARASSMENT

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By David Robie © USP Journalism Programme

SUVA, Fiji Islands (June 17, 2000 -  USP Journalism Programme/Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---Trade union leaders in the Fiji Islands have warned that any "solution" to the Pacific country's political crisis based outside the 1997 multiracial constitution will lead to more economic sanctions.

The warning comes amid growing allegations of harassment of cane growers and union officials, particularly in the sugar belt of western Viti Levu island.

Thugs this week tried to burn down the home of leading trade unionist Diwan Shankar in the capital Suva but were foiled by neighbors who called police.

Shankar, assistant secretary-general of the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC), was not at home when the fire started on Sunday night. Part of his living room was damaged.

Neighbors saw six men setting fire to the home and police are investigating the arson attempt.

Newspapers this week have carried bitter letters attacking trade unionists, particularly FTUC secretary-general Felix Anthony, over the trade bans by Australia and New Zealand.

The letters appear to have mostly been written by expatriate businessmen who blame the unions for the crisis rather than rebel leader George Speight and his gunmen.

Yesterday's Labour Ministry figures reported that the number of jobless people since the crisis began a month ago had now reached 4,122.

The military yesterday arrested and detained Anthony amid claims that he was spearheading the cane harvest boycott in the west.

He was arrested and manhandled at the entrance of Ba town shortly after dawn on his way to meet union members at Rarawai mill and released about three hours later.

"I was ear bashed and abused. I felt threatened and do not know why I was arrested," Anthony told the Fiji Sun.

"We are legal organizations and we should be allowed to exercise our rights in the country."

Cane grower unionists were reported on Radio Fiji today as accusing the interim military government of "marginalizing and suppressing" Indo-Fijians in their country of birth.

They claimed that there was a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Fiji as a result of the Speight rebellion and the seizure of the Fiji Labour Party-led elected multiracial government as hostages in Parliament on May 19.

According to the Fiji Times, Anthony said the military must work within the 1997 constitution.

He said the congress would not support any illegal actions or decisions taken by the military, which did not conform with the constitution.

"The FTUC demands that the military act to ensure that there is a return to democratic rule as soon as possible," Anthony told the Fiji Times.

"We remind the military of their oath to the government of the day and the constitution.'

He added that the military was the only authority in a position to minimize the hardship and pain of the people.

A delegation of senior trade unionists from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions Asia and Pacific regional organization is expected in Fiji next week to assess the impact of the crisis.

About 200 Rarawai mill workers walked off their jobs yesterday to protest against military harassment of union officials.

Fiji Sugar Clerks and Supervisors Association secretary Satendra Singh was quoted by the Fiji Times as saying the workers were "fed up" with military intervention.

"We made it clear that the military should not harass union officials and farmers," he said.

But the military denied claims of harassment by soldiers.

The Western military commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Manulevu, was quoted by the Fiji Times as saying the claims were an "outright lie."

"We are only going around and asking farmers to harvest their cane," he said.

Three cane farms, two near Nadi and one near Rakiraki, were set ablaze yesterday with a combined total of about 220 tons of cane worth almost F$10,000 being burned.

In other developments yesterday:

* Police are investigating what was described by the Daily Post as an attempt on the life of the Secretary of Fijian Affairs, Ratu Meli Bainimarama, by armed thugs over the standoff between the ministry and the Native Land Trust Board (NTLB) management team.

Ratu Meli, elder brother of the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, was at home with family members on Thursday night when a military mobile patrol thwarted attempts to set the residence ablaze with Molotov cocktails.

* NTLB general manager Maika Qarikau is under investigation for the circulation of a document titled "Deed of Sovereignty," which has been described by the Fiji Sun as a "propaganda paper"

Landowners who have signed the document claim they have been misled by the board into signing their land over to the so-called "Taukei Civilian Government" of rebel leader Speight.

* Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said at Nausori Airport, when leaving after a daylong Commonwealth mission to the country, that the delegation had been told by the military government that Fiji would return to democratic rule within two years.

He said: "We made the point that two years seemed to us like a very long time."

On BBC World television, he said: "You cannot run a government if you have a multiracial country like Fiji, unless you have an inclusive system. It won't work."

* The Fiji Law Society has appealed to judges to remain in office and warned them to honor their oath to uphold the 1997 constitution.

"Otherwise history will treat the present judges most unkindly," the society said in a letter signed by president Peter Knight to Chief Justice Sir Timoci Tuivaga.

"Any lesser conduct is equally as treacherous as the conduct of the original perpetrators of the events of May 19."

Title -- 2800 FIJI: Unions stand firm in spite of harassment Date -- 17 June 2000 Byline – None Origin -- Pasifik Nius Source -- USP Journalism Programme, 17/6/00 Copyright -- USP Journalism Status -- Unabridged

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