VIEWPOINT:  FIJI: ONE YEAR LATER

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VIEWPOINT

FIJI: ONE YEAR LATER

By Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

The month of May 2001 marked the first anniversary of the devastation caused by the illegal seizure of the Government of Fiji by indigenous Fijian extremists. As one looks back, it becomes clear that vested political and economic interests united against the Peoples Coalition Government. Moreover, the coalition’s own policies were deliberately misinterpreted by a variety of political actors to create fear and anxiety among mostly indigenous Fijians. Here are some of the highlights of the events before and after the illegal takeover.

There were rumors in Fiji since November 1999 that soldiers who were overseas on peacekeeping duties had been recruited to overthrow the Peoples Coalition Government.

In December 1999, there were unconfirmed reports that some SVT members were behind moves to destabilize the government.

Following the Taukei Movement march in Suva, the Peoples Coalition Government refused to give a permit to the organizers of a planned May 19, 2000 march, but changed its mind after receiving briefings from senior police officers.

Despite the protest march in Suva, the Parliamentary complex remained "lightly" guarded. Anyone could have easily infiltrated Parliament. During the day of the takeover, Ratu Timoci Silatolu, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure, Simione Kaitani, Isireli Leweniqila, and Levani Tonotonivanua were quickly sworn in as Ministers in the Taukei Civilian Government.

The NLTB drafted a Deed of Surrender, which virtually placed all native land under the administration of this illegal Taukei Civilian Government.

On May 29, upon the advice of senior army officers, the President of Fiji Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara stepped aside and the Commander of the Fiji Military Forces (FMF) issued two decrees: the Fiji Constitution Revocation Decree and the Fiji Existing Law Decree 2000.

By early June 2000, Western province indicated its intention to break away from the rest of Fiji.

More evidence started to surface regarding George Speight. The NSW Minister for Fair Trading stated in Parliament on June 7 that George Speight was the middleman for the Queensland based Wattle Group, which fleeced $165 million from Australian families.

The FMF issued a statement refuting GS allegations that the army officers inside the Parliament were all regular serving officers. The lineup included Ilisoni Ligairi, Joseva Savua, Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure, Penaia Belainamau, and Serupepeli Dakai.

Reports of violence and thuggery against Indo-Fijians surfaced in Muaniweni, Dawasamu, Korovou, Nausori, and Dreketi.

By the end of June 2000, former banker and Senator Laisenia Qarase was tipped by the army to lead an Interim Government of Fiji.

Bainimarama in a press release on July 3 disclosed detailed steps for a new constitution and affirmative action provisions for indigenous Fijians.

The military concluded the Muanikau Accord and promulgated the Immunity Decree, and the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) acquiesced to the demands of the hijackers by installing a President and VP sympathetic to the ‘cause’ in July 2000. The hostages were released and the hijackers and their sympathisers started their party at Kalabu Primary School.

There are some very interesting questions, including the involvement of senior police and army officers in the May 19 disaster. As it has been pointed out before, any takeover of a government in Fiji cannot be successful without the active participation and support of the army. From the last count, some 200 army officers were under investigation for their involvement in this coup. Out of this 200, 80 were members of the 1st Meridian Squadron, who were handpicked by Rabuka as an anti-terrorist team.

Recently, the Military’s Legal Director, Lieutenant Colonel Etueni Caucau was been temporarily relieved of his duties after he was implicated in an internal army investigation into the May 19 coup. RFMF spokesman Lieutenant Ilaisa Tagitupou confirmed that a board of inquiry recommended that Lt. Col. Caucau and a number of senior officers be investigated. We have a scenario where politicians, soldiers, former FIS members, senior police, powerful chiefs and anti-Chaudhry businessmen were all part of the conspiracy to unlawfully undermine an elected government.

Earlier in May 2001, it was disclosed by former Secretary to the President, Joseph Browne, that Intelligence reports in the days leading to the events of May 19 last year were deliberately withheld from President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Mr Browne stated that he had been in constant communication with dissident groups from April 20, 2000 and that he could sense an increase in nationalist activities. This revelation places the whole Fiji’s intelligence infrastructure into question and in particular a security briefing to the elected Minister of Home Affairs regarding the fateful political protest march by nationalists on May 19, 2000.

Also of concern are efforts by the military to move former President to safety during the height of the crisis. During the Great Council of Chiefs meeting at the end of April 2001, it was moved that the military apologize for the manner in which it requested the Commander in Chief to vacate his office. The Army commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama pointed out that instead of asking the army to apologize, the GCC get some of its own members to seek forgiveness from Ratu Mara since they were the ones who went into Parliament to support coup leader George Speight.

The army has maintained all along that its assessment of the situation left the army with no alternative but to move the President for his own safety.

Besides the ongoing saga regarding the investigation of those who may have been involved in the hijacking of the Peoples Coalition Government, the caretaker Prime Minister of Fiji continued with his effort to unite indigenous Fijians.

Interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase has been building his profile as a champion of indigenous Fijians since his appointment to the post in July 2000. Qarase is the author of the ‘blueprint on supremacy’ document, which provides ‘special’ consideration and funding for indigenous Fijians.

Keeping with the aim of the blueprint, Qarase revealed a number of key policies of the Peoples’ Coalition Government, including enacting laws to protect indigenous land. But the actions of the appointed regime were nullified following the judgment in the Fiji Court of Appeal on March 1, 2001.

After a shock defeat in the courts, Qarase team started forming alliances with various chiefly houses in anticipation of launching a political party. At first, Qarase called for indigenous Fijian political unity. However, unfortunately, differences started to emerge and on May 4, Qarase opted for a fresh start and direction by promising a new political party of his own.

The move to launch a new party could not have come at a worse time. The Auditor General confirmed that he was investigating complaints of abuse of government resources by the Qarase administration, and the Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF) was making headway in its action against the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, for unlawfully dismissing the Peoples Coalition Government.

Nevertheless, Laisenia Qarase launched Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (People’s United Party), at Suva’s Holiday Inn on May 9, 2001. Following the launch, the caretaker government started making up for the deliberate neglect of the farming community by promising to resettle displaced farmers in the west. It is anticipated that applications will soon be called from evicted farmers interested in resettling.

While Qarase has started his election campaign early, all is not well with the Fiji Labour Party, which held its national council meeting in Ba on May 12, 2001. Speculation was rife before the meeting that members of the party were unhappy with Mahendra Chaudhry and that a small group threw its support behind party stalwart Dr. Tupeni Baba.

At the meeting, Mahendra Chaudhry took control of the daily financial affairs of the party, forcing party treasurer, Dalpot Rathod, to the Baba camp. Not only Baba and Rathod, but Lautoka lawyer Haroon Ali Shah resigned from the party. However, a greater tragedy was the sudden passing away of Labour Party politician Muthu Swamy on May 13. By May 16, it was a foregone conclusion that the FLP was split, and on May 29 Dr. Tupeni Baba launched the new Labour Unity Party.

While the Fiji Labour Party struggled with internal problems, Bau Island High Chief Adi Samanunu Cakobau was cleared of all charges by the Fiji Public Service on May 17.

Adi Samanunu was seen at the Parliamentary complex during the height of the crisis, supporting the actions of George Speight and his henchmen. However, due to lack of evidence, an internal inquiry against the chief fizzled.

Meanwhile, a total of 54 rebel soldiers were released after being fined $10 each and bound over for 18 months in the sum of $500 in the Labasa Magistrate Court.

Pro democracy activists have expressed alarm at the inquiry and argue that the state is not serious about fully prosecuting those involved in the events of last year.

Also at risk is Fiji’s fragile public service. Inquiries into the involvement of both Police Commissioner Isikia Savua and Adi Samanunu indicate that there was political pressure against prosecution.

Moreover, the involvement of known coup supporters and sympathizers in launching the new Peoples’ United Party has also raised suspicion regarding the fate of those charged with treason. The overt double standards practiced by the caretaker government became all too clear when reports surfaced that former Secretary to the President, Joe Browne, will be disciplined for his affidavit to the Citizens Constitutional Forum, which has spearheaded a major court challenge against the direction taken by the President of Fiji following the Fiji Court of Appeal judgement in March.

In other interesting developments, the SVT has now officially adopted multiracial policies, following the ascendancy of veteran politician Filipe Bole to the position of party leader. Bole had remained steadfast in his support for the 1997 Constitution and plans are under way to field Indo-Fijian candidates in the August 2001 elections. Not only that but former SVT leader Sitiveni Rabuka has been elected Chairman of the Cakaudrove Provincial Council and is supposedly working with moderates in disseminating a message of goodwill and understanding.

At the end of the month, it seems that Qarase’s party is facing the wrath of all other parties. Adi Kuini Speed, the SVT, and PANU have criticized the Peoples United Party for reinventing the failed experiment of the previous Fijian administration towards uplifting the economic status of indigenous Fijians.

Comments to: Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D. at sanjay_ramesh@yahoo.com.au 

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