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October 5, 2000

By Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

The vanua coup of May 19 is seen by indigenous Fijian nationalists as a popular expression of the indigenous Fijians and not as sectional forces within the community attempting to elbow their way into political power under the guise of indigenous Fijian political paramountcy. The 1997 Constitution, which was the source of strength for all the communities in Fiji, became a problem after the results of the 1999 general elections. The illegal takeover then was an expression of internal indigenous Fijian power relations and its articulation at district and provincial levels through to the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC).

The Deed of Cession of 1874 allowed the colonial authorities to make decisions on the economic well being of the Colony and vested authority on land to the Great Council of Chiefs. The GCC agreed to the terms and, as a result, the Colonial Government decided to bring Indian indentured laborers to the Colony of Fiji from 1874-1916. The decision on Indians binds both the Crown and the Great Council of Chiefs, and, following independence, responsibility of Indians in Fiji was transferred from the Crown to the GCC. The leadership of ethnic management fell on Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara who developed a three-tier ethnic management system in the form of the Alliance Party. Following the coups of 1987, the GCC resolved that Indo-Fijians should be fully compensated and encouraged to leave Fiji. This plan was later shelved because it was seen as impractical and problematic for various reasons.

In an article on page 37 of the December 1993/ January 1994 Review magazine, the late Simione Durutalo, a Sociologist at the University of the South Pacific, commented that there was internal strife within the indigenous Fijian community because of a lack of democracy. He argued successfully that Sitiveni Rabuka emerged as a champion of commoner rights but ended up in both the chiefly and the commoner camps and as a result got the worst of both worlds. As a Sociologist, Durutalo argued that the problem facing indigenous Fijians was caused by unequal development. Some provinces did better while others lagged behind. The social stratification within the indigenous Fijian community, he remarked, could spark off another coup.

For late Durutalo, the 1990 Constitution was largely responsible for the fictionalization of Fijian political interests. Once Indo-Fijians were removed from political power, indigenous Fijians started discriminating among themselves. The SVT realized that the best way to move the nation was to develop a multicultural constitution based on a suitable power sharing arrangement. Former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka noted that indigenous Fijians would still be in control under the 1997 Constitution but would not dominate any other ethnic group sharing the habitat. The problem that the SVT had was that it did not attempt to disseminate information on the 1997 Constitution to the rural Fijians who were part of the SVT’s political base. The best example of the failure to educate the grassroots was illustrated by the 1997 Naitasiri by-election, where the nationalists whisked away victory from a joint SVT/FAP candidate. What happened in Naitasiri indicated that the SVT had not done its homework.

The illegal takeover of an elected government was the work of disgruntled politicians and their supporters who engineered the whole event to facilitate their own interest. Most members apprehended for the illegal takeover are political party stalwarts, who went around whipping anti-Indian sentiment among indigenous Fijian community. The ill-informed indigenous Fijian grassroots fell right into this propaganda like they did in 1987 due to cultural isolation and lack of political and constitutional knowledge.

Bills that affected indigenous Fijian interests were already being re-worked by the Peoples’ Coalition despite claims to the contrary by the hijackers. The Land Use Commission was referred by the Great Council of Chiefs to the Fijian Affairs Board (FAB) in their April 2000 meeting and all other bills affected indigenous Fijian interests were either with the GCC committee or with the Native Land Trust Board. Under the provisions of the 1997 Constitution, no government can ever pass a bill affecting indigenous Fijian interest unless supported by a majority of GCC nominees in the Senate and, clearly, Chaudhry had to amend those bills according to the wishes of the GCC before being passed by the Senate.

The vanua coup is then hardly a vanua coup as such. The SVT and factions from FAP and VLV together with the Nationalist Vanua Tako Lavu Party and the Taukei Movement were instrumental in bringing down the government. George Speight and his entourage were busy misinforming landowners on the multi-million mahogany deal and the Native Land Trust Board was largely responsible for erecting the bogey of land alienation. Add to that the First Meridian Squadron, anti-government civil servants, and police, and you have a vanua coup.

The racial attacks that followed were the work of village thugs. Many Indo-Fijian families who have testified to the reign of terror confirmed that the men who robbed and attacked their homes identified themselves as supporters of George Speight’s group. If this was a national phenomenon, then why did not such events take place in the western part of Fiji, where support for the thugs was very low?

While Mahendra Chaudhry showed insensitivity on indigenous Fijian issues, that, in itself, is not a valid reason to overthrow a government and destroy the constitution. The cosmetic assumptions by the indigenous Fijian nationalists do not stand up to any critical scrutiny. Indigenous Fijians are disunited and the rebels have humiliated and undermined the authority of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), which met in May, July, and in August to deliberate on the Fiji crisis.

The indigenous Fijian institutions have been shaken to the very core. The survival of the neo-traditional order hangs in balance and it may be that in the end indigenous Fijians will be responsible for undermining the very institutions they purport to protect. The Interim Government is not assisting the situation either.

Interim Prime Minister Laisania Qarase is not elected and therefore he does not have the mandate of the people to rule. The regime is justifying its existence by arguing that it has the blessings of the GCC and the President. The military had a better plan before with the nomination of Ratu Epeli Nailatikau as Prime Minister. But, as usual, the manifestations of Suva politics and eventual re-writing of the Interim Cabinet line-up with rebel assistance became a predictable exercise. Laisania Qarase was an appointed Senator under the previous government. He represents a small group of urban indigenous Fijians who feel that he is the right person for the "handout" job. To suggest that this person is representing anybody apart from this small group is erroneous.

Just about every group is represented in the Interim Government line-up, except for Indo-Fijians. There has to be at least two or more Indo-Fijian members from the Peoples’ Coalition, because the Fiji Labour Party polled some 65% of Indo-Fijian votes. The argument used by the Interim Information Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola to justify his existence in the Interim Government was that the SVT polled 38% of the indigenous Fijian votes. Why then are Indo-Fijians are denied the representative of their choice with 65% of the votes? It clearly shows that the Interim Government has willfully isolated the Indo-Fijian community just to appease the treasonous felons and a variety of village thugs.

The Interim Government in Fiji has failed to gain international recognition and now the Ministry of Information is spewing out one news release after another criticizing the EU, Australia, NZ, the U.S. and the Commonwealth, including the Peoples’ Coalition, Indo-Fijians, trade unions and former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. It clearly shows that the Interim Government is now in a state of panic, because it has failed to win both international recognition and local legitimacy. Since the 1997 Constitution was abrogated, the constitutional function of the GCC to appoint a President (in consultation of the Prime Minster) is in doubt. So the decision by the GCC to appoint Ratu Josefa Iloilo and known coup conspirator Ratu Jope Seniloli as Vice President can be legally challenged. The decision then by the President to appoint the current Interim Government is also questionable.

It all revolves around the decision by the former President to dissolve an elected government when the Prime Minister of that government was held hostage at gunpoint by armed men. Constitutionally, the President has lawful authority to invoke emergency powers and direct the military forces to restore order. While the emergency decree was promulgated, the President unconstitutionally dissolved the Government and in some bizarre manner allowed the Commander of the Fiji Military Forces to assume executive authority and impose martial law. For the military to abrogate the executive power of the President, it has to overthrow the President in a military coup. That did not happen and the Peoples’ Coalition has filed an action in the High Court challenging the legality of the actions of both the army and the former President.

It can be successfully established that the actions of the Fiji Military Forces were both illegal and unconstitutional and that the decree to abrogate the 1997 Constitution is void as a result. All actions and decrees, including the Muanikau Accord and the Immunity Decree, are a result of the initial illegal action to unconstitutionally assume executive authority. This brings into question the role of the Chief Justice and behind the scene legal advisers, who erroneously attempted to legitimize something that was illegal in the first place. The former President of Fiji, the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), the Fiji Military Forces, the President of Fiji, the Vice President, the Chief Justice, the boys on Nukulau, and the Interim Government are all in serious legal trouble. Already the High Court has on Monday, October 2 dismissed the defense of an accused rebel on the basis of the Immunity Decree, stating that weapons were still at large and that violated the Accord from which the Immunity originated. However, the Decree will be tested in the Fiji Court of Appeal.

Repeating the prophetic words of late Simione Durutalo, the Fijian society needs to be democratized, including the Great Council of Chiefs, which has become a traditional beast that remains distanced from the grassroots. Furthermore, the social stratification and income and life style disparity among indigenous Fijians continue to play a leading role in breeding suspicion and ill-will. The solution is not unity but partnership with other communities to improve the economic status of the whole of the indigenous Fijian community and not just a selected few.

Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

© Sanjay Ramesh 2000

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