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SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 1, 2001 – Fiji’s Daily Post)---Just when Fiji was recovering from the two military coups of 1987, the country was struck with another major political disaster, one of the worst ones ever in the South Pacific and which had led to the nation’s suspension from the Commonwealth.

A democratically elected government, headed by the first ethnic Indian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, was overthrown by failed businessman George Speight and his group on May 19,2000.

The group claimed that what they did was in the name of the indigenous rights but whether it was really for that cause, we may be able to know only once, if ever, the probe into the coup gets completed.

When the Chaudhry government was overthrown, the 1997 Constitution also went out the window and together with it went democracy, making way for lawlessness and suffering which most citizens, including the indigenous population, experienced and continue to experience.

Some 7,000 people became jobless as a result of international trade sanctions imposed on the country and a number of children were forced to become school dropouts.

Then there was the overflow of pain that broadened the gap between the two mainstream races in the country; the Fijian and the Indians, who today no longer have equal rights as their fellow countrymen, in the very country they were born in.

We now have a Ministry of Reconciliation created by the Interim Administration, which took over from George Speight and his group, to bring the two races together.

Whether it will work or not and whether democracy will return in the country is something we will have to wait and see!

But this is what the deposed prime minister, Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, had to say about Fiji in an interview with the Daily Post journalist Mithleshni Gurdayal, yesterday:

POST: Some seven months have passed since the overthrow and quite a lot of political wranglings have come across us, including Justice Anthony Gates' landmark ruling. Do you see a genuine sign of the country going ahead?

Chaudhry: We will not move forward until democracy and parliamentary rule is restored, and that is what the international community wants done without any delay. So until such time when there is restoration of genuine democracy and parliament recall, we should forget about moving forward. In fact we are sliding so fast that in the year 2001, things will be even more difficult than it is now. Well, Justice Anthony Gates in his judgment on November 15, 2000, in the Lautoka High court, has paved the way for the swift return to democracy and that is what everyone, including the president should follow.

POST: What do you have to say about the extent of suffering that ‘non-politicians and the ordinary' people of the country are undergoing as a result of that political greed, that has ruined Fiji?

Chaudhry: Suffering flows in all parts of the country. I have made visits all around, and have seen suffering in the rural Fijian villages and in the urban areas. Thousands are without jobs and many more are on reduced hours with severe pay-cuts... this itself has escalated poverty. Because we inherited a high-level of poverty when we came into power in 1999, we moved fast to reduce that but of course it is estimated now by some independent Social-Welfare organisations that over 60 percent of our people are living below the poverty line.

There is an immense poverty and this will continue to worsen... the price of basic food items is going to increase from today, taxi and bus fares will also increase, electricity bill is also going up; then we have businesses winding-up and all this will mean the ordinary person has to spend more.

The tourism earnings have declined sharply; sugar earnings will also be a lot less then what it was. We'll be lucky if we are able to reach a sugar production of anywhere near 330-340 thousand tons... sugar income will be drastically affected. Our manufacturing industry is not doing too well; the garment industry and its future is a hanging piece of trade preference agreements, which has been held back. I believe that the countries, which had been giving us aid, will now move to cut the aid even further as they have already reduced them. I also know that the business community is disinvesting; there is no new investment.

Our health and education sectors are also badly affected; we have lost up till now several hundreds of teachers, nurses and doctors and technicians who have left - that will have a drastic effect on our children and every other person.

We have a massive brain drain, which means that our ability to service our infrastructure and industry will be seriously eroded. Then the level of corruption is getting higher in the civil service sector. This again is something that will affect the poor and again. All this spells disaster on Fiji and it's time we have to have damage control and convince people that we are taking democracy seriously.

POST: What about the sugar industry and the Indians?

Chaudhry: It's in a very precarious position and my own assessment is that we can kiss good-bye to the sugar industry. And it has been largely brought about by the irresponsible Fijian politicians and the Native Land Trust Board and, as a result of their inflexible land policy, Indian farmers have no choice but to move away from cane farming.

I believe that is the right choice for them because they cannot build their future on a resource which, in this case is the native land, which they can neither own nor control... they will always be at the mercy of someone else and, therefore, they will stand open to exploitation. So it is in their own interests and their future generations that they must secure their future by moving away to something that will be their own, that none will be able to snatch it from them and build around that.

That means that the sugar-cane earnings will automatically go down over the years and in three years time when things don't change, mills will close...we have a scenario which is bad and it will worsen.

On the question of national reconciliation, it is only possible, when those who have wronged seek forgiveness and have a genuine commitment to make up... utterances on it without any feeling in the heart is not enough but a genuine approach, something that was said in 1987.

I must make it clear that there are a majority of people who want reconciliation but the elements in control at the moment don't want it because it will not serve their vested interests.

POST: What about the Peoples Coalition?

Chaudhry: We will remain as a political force, and continue to fight for a return of democracy under the 1997 Constitution and to serve our people.

For additional reports from Fiji’s Daily Post, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Other News Resources/Fijilive.

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