FIJI GOING NOWHERE FAST

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By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Australia (August 18, 2000 – Asia Times/Inter Press Service)---Fiji's political crisis is turning out to be a battle for supremacy among its indigenous Fijian groups, three months after a coup supposedly launched for their benefit.

In recent weeks, things appear to have been looking up for the South Pacific island nation. George Speight, leader of the May 19 coup, has been put behind bars and charged with treason. The army is in hot pursuit of his armed rebels, and five Fijian chiefs are under house arrest. However, despite the progress made in bringing order to Fiji, Indian Fijians say they are becoming the scapegoats for all of the country's ills.

''The Indo-Fijian community should not be used as pawns in what has become a bitter struggle for power within the indigenous Fijian community,'' complains the National Federation Party (NFP), a major political party representing Fijians of Indian descent who make up more than 40 percent of the country's 800,000 population.

The party, like the people it represents, has been relegated to watching Fiji's latest political power plays from the sidelines. In 1999 elections, voters swept the rival Labor Party to power. Its leader was the now deposed prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. Chaudhry had offered hope of bringing racial harmony to the nation, being the first Indo-Fijian to be elected premier. But those hopes were dashed when Chaudhry and other government officials were held hostage for 56 days by armed rebels who demanded that ethnic-Indians be stripped of political rights.

Chaudhry was forced to resign as premier once they were freed on July 13, after negotiations by the Fijian military with the rebels. But by the time freedom came, the political landscape has changed considerably. Since the May 19 coup, Indo-Fijian political parties and their leaders have been swept aside as various factions within the indigenous Fijian community have battled for power.

Currently, Chaudhry is roaming the world, visiting countries like Australia, New Zealand, India and Britain to drum up support for economic sanctions against Fiji in a bid to get his deposed government reinstated. At the same time, Indo-Fijians back home are becoming increasingly marginalized and irrelevant in the political drama taking place in Fiji.

Kept out of the negotiating process to re-establish political order in the Fijian capital of Suva, Speight's armed supporters have been roaming the countryside, attacking and burning Indo-Fijian homes, farms and shops. Interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase added further fuel to Indo-Fijian grievances this month when he blamed them for the "backwardness" of the indigenous Fijians. He alleged that while Indo-Fijians have been making good money using land leased from indigenous Fijians, the lease fees have been kept too low for too long. This, he added, deprives indigenous landowners of reasonable income from their lands. NFP's general secretary, Attar Singh, refutes these claims, arguing that Fiji's progress was the result of the toil of the largely law-abiding Indo-Fijian community.

The use of these lands and its lease conditions has become a political football in recent years, not to mention a sensitive issue between the two ethnic groups. Much of the land is used to plant sugar, Fiji's major export product and economic lifeline. The majority of sugar farmers are Indian Fijians farming on land leased from indigenous landowners.

But while the issue of the land leases keeps surfacing in Fiji's tense political climate, developments in recent weeks point toward a bitter political battle raging within the indigenous Fijian community. For the first time since independence in 1970, the army -- made up almost exclusively of indigenous Fijians -- is engaged in shootouts with indigenous Fijian rebel groups that are armed. Already, three soldiers and a policeman have died in the skirmishes. Some 400 troops were assigned last week to comb the interior of Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu, to flush out the rebels, some of whom are believed to be members of the army's Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit.

Meanwhile, Speight's lawyers argued for six hours in Suva courts last week, saying that the coup leader and his supporters were not safe in military custody. The judge, however, refused them bail. The lawyers also claim that the military has assaulted them while in custody. Three of the accused came to court with bruises and broken limbs.

There are other signs of conflict with the indigenous Fijian community. With the military and Speight's supporters clearly at loggerheads, the military has withdrawn the amnesty it offered to the rebels' group in July in order to get Chaudhry and other hostages released. Now, they say that military commander Frank Bainimarama signed the agreement under duress, which means it is not valid anymore.

Meantime, the police have said that Fijian chiefs who supported the events of the May 19 coup may face interrogation. A police spokesman, Romano Tikotikoca, told Fijilive news service that traditional means of reconciliation do not have any value in criminal proceedings.

Amid efforts by the military and the government to restore some semblance of law and order, Fiji faces severe economic problems as a direct result of the coup.

Fiji's Reserve Bank said this month that the economy is in sharp decline, and that it will shrink by 15 percent this year. According to the bank's governor, Savenaca Narube, at least 6,000 people have lost their jobs since the coup and another 7,000 are working reduced hours. Tourism, which is the country's second biggest foreign exchange earner, is taking the brunt of the fallout from the coup. Visitor arrivals are down by 60 percent in June and hotel occupancy rates are below 20 percent currently. Narube said the only bright spot was sugar, with the harvest well under way.

But despite the economic impact of the coup, Chaudhry is arguing strongly for economic sanctions against Fiji in talks with Australian and New Zealand governments and union leaders. He says that unless democracy is restored in the island, there will be no end to this type of political turmoil.

''Every time that there is an election in Fiji and certain vested interests lose, they change the rules. How many times will the international community put up with this?'' he asked after a meeting with Australian union leaders in Sydney last week.

For additional reports from the Asia Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Asia Times Online: Oceania.

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