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June 24, 2000


By H.R. Prasad

Mr. Prasad’s family has lived in Fiji since the first indentured workers were brought from India in 1879. He now resides in Australia.

The hostages have been in captivity of Mr. George Speight and his armed thugs now for more than a month. Speight and those that supported him initially thought that within a few days after his despicable act the captive parliamentarians would be released and he and his supporters would assume power to govern.

Speight’s supporters, as seen in the TV coverage or newspapers, are either defeated candidates of the last election or those that were going to be investigated for their many financial misdeeds during the reign of the former government. The rest are common thugs and bandits happy to use the guns at any moving target. The village folks that fill the parliamentary compound have been lured in with a plentiful supply of food, drinks and merrymaking. They dwindle when the supplies are over. But they gather again when Speight’s marauding men, who set off to pillage Indo-Fijian villages of their cattle, crops and poultry, bring in the new stock.

It was vital for Speight and his cronies to see the overthrow of the Chaudhry government at all cost in order that their misdeeds were never disclosed. Now that they have succeeded and have the hostages securely locked up and have been given most of the powers they demanded they are lost as to what should be their next step in this futile venture. At the same time Speight is fearful in releasing the hostages. His own life will be in danger as he is no longer of value to any group, particularly to those nationalists who have pushed him to undertake this deplorable act of destroying the functioning parliament. He is not a full-fledged Fijian. They will never give him the leadership role now that this extremist has the legitimate government locked up and so demoralized.

Speight has also annoyed many of Fiji’s racial, economic and provincial groups. Many families have been shattered, thousands of jobs have been lost and murder and rape have taken place in this generally peaceful and harmonious country -- all because one man and a few dozen that support him could not abide by the rule of law. Now that they have been given whatever power they demanded, under duress, they are doubtful of their ability to govern. The only road left for Speight and his most unmagnificient men under these circumstances is to surrender and let the law take its course. Perhaps under the protection of law they will find security, although it could not be guaranteed.

The army has been trying to bring out a solution in vain. They are being forced to appoint an interim government as happened after the last coup. Speight and opportunists would want to use the interim period to draw up another constitution more palpable to the Fijian nationalists. In the meantime the interim period will allow those who stood behind Speight to completely drain out the national coffers of whatever resources the nation possesses. There would be no accountability. Accountability is only prevalent in a democracy where the government has to explain its action to the people. An appointed or nominated government is generally not trusted by the majority of the people because of its susceptibly to biases and corruption.

So what is the option now? The best way out for Fiji is to bite the bullet, release the hostages and put the Chaudhry government back in power, as all other efforts have failed while the nation is bleeding to death. Even if an interim administration is put in place it would not be accepted either internally or by foreign governments. Fiji survives by trade and aid. Without the support of the foreign powers the nation’s economic life is very limited. The rhetoric that some of the Speight opportunist use that they will move to other sources of imports is just silly. It cannot be done either in the short or even in the medium term. Fiji is very solidly tied with Australia and New Zealand as far as its economic culture is concerned and this relationship has mostly been in Fiji’s favor. This is why it has existed and will exist for a long period of time. If Fiji wants to change it no one is preventing it to do so and it would have done so. Fiji would have been the loser.

What we should be looking at for the future is not a constitution giving special rights to one group or the other but a system of government with complete democracy. Let us not fear it. Let us have a system of open voting of one-person one vote regardless of race, class or creed. If in our region our Pacific Island neighbors can do it, why are we afraid of it? Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and India are full democracies. Many of them are multiracial and multilingual societies. We should join this elite group and be recognized. We should make human rights our first and foremost priority. Any other system that we may concoct will only be a patch up job till another idiot demolishes it with guns and knives.

The Chaudhry government has been functioning well. No doubt it must have annoyed a few during the process of governance. The business community was unhappy to see the assistance provided by government been eroded. I t was the policy of the Chaudhry government to divert funds saved to more needy areas. On other matters such as leasing of native land and processing of the mahogany plantation he initiated wide-ranging discussions to achieved the best possible result. Legislation was proposed to close tax avoidance, much to the annoyance of some big businesses.

The decision not to hand over the mahogany plantation to Speight and his gang turned out to be fatal as George looked at the plantation as his next venture to make a quick buck. He failed to get the mahogany contract. He turned to Mahendra Pal Chaudhry for vengeance. On May 19, 2000, under the point of a gun, he took him hostage together with the members of his Party. He has held them since. To Mahendra and his son, who was the private secretary to his father, he unleashed his anger by having them severely beaten up by his gang of thugs, while Speight himself stood on the side enjoying the show. The only comment he made about this incident, with a smile on his face, was "the Prime Minister was roughed up twice, an action which could not be avoided in such times".

In general though the majority of the population supported what Mahendra Chaudhry managed to do during his one year of governance. He saw that the prices of basic food items were lowered by withdrawing taxes on them. He lowered prices on water rates and electricity. He moved around the country listening to the people and devised his policies and programs accordingly. Internationally he visited all the neighboring developed countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan, that are Fiji’s major trading partners and aid providers. He attended the Heads of Commonwealth Government meeting in South Africa.

On the economic side there were many major investments in pipelines or it just took off due mostly to Chaudhry’s personal efforts. It could be said that after many years of chaos and confusion that followed after the Rabuka coups of 1987 Fiji was again settling down to a period of political stability and economic growth. The only noise of discontent was heard from the disgruntled of the last election or those who were not prepared to put forward an effort to participate in the growing economy. They expected handouts, a common feature of Fiji’s past, and none was forthcoming to the losers. The Chaudhry government’s achievements were pretty good given the fact the government was in office for only a year. Speight’s action in forcing the government out of power by means of guns is therefore meaningless as far the country is concerned.

Given the Chaudhry government’s record during its one year in office and that any government formed under duress would not be acceptable, either locally or overseas, the only wise way out is that the incumbent should be allowed to continue to govern Fiji. If the indigenous Fijians feel strongly that Chaudhry should be ousted then they could do so in the Cabinet or Parliament as they have the majority. Chaudhry would have to accept the verdict, as it would be done through the democratic process. The President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, should be requested to resume his position and if there is any change that has to be made it should be done by the body that appointed him, that is, the Great Council of Chiefs, and not a tin-pot gunmen or a bunch of bandits. We are far more civilized that this. It would be not be wise to hand over power to any interim body from the legitimately elected government even under duress. The army, which administers the current day-to-day operation of the government, has a clear option. Bite the bullet; install the incumbents, in order that the Fiji economy and national pride are salvaged.

Mr. H. R. Prasad 15 Stanton Road Haberfiel Sydney NSW, Australia Email: npsingh@zip.com.au 

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