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November 2001

By Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

In November, the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase struggled with the issue of Afghan refugees as reports surfaced that a deal was negotiated with Canberra to establish a refugee processing station in Fiji. On 1 November the Lomaiviti Provincial Council objected to the idea of settling the Afghan refugees on Makogai Island and following similar concerns by Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) and disagreements within members of the Qarase Cabinet, the plan was aborted on Thursday, 22 November by both Fiji’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Kaliopate Tavola and his Australian counterpart Alexander Downer.

Fiji’s Foreign Affairs received a boost on 1 November with the launch of its website with the assistance of the People’s Republic of China. According to the Fiji Government press release, ‘a special feature of the website is the provision of a Public Forum for Discussion, which is designed to encourage the exchange of ideas on topical issues pertaining to the operation of the Ministry or Government’s foreign and external trade policies in general.’

In another development in favour of national reconciliation, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry participated in Talanoa IV -- a forum set up to promote peace, harmony and racial stability in Fiji. Held at the Fijian Resort from 3 to 4 November, the forum agreed to build trust, encourage respect to the rule of law, implement affirmative action for disadvantage groups, and examine the possibility of amending the constitution.

While many saw the Talanoa session as a great way of discussing and debating national issues, the Qarase Government came under the microscope after its coalition partners Matanitu Vanua held a party meeting on 3 November following which the delegates expressed the party’s intention for Fiji to be declared a Christian state and those incarcerated on Nukulau on treason charges to be set free. Coup leader George Speight has already missed two sitting of Parliament and as a result, his election will become null and void, prompting another by-election in Tailevu.

Meanwhile, the Great Council of Chiefs met to discuss and agree to various programs earmarked by the Qarase Government in the 2002 Budget. Among the provisions agreed to were the 10 million trust fund and a 20-year development plan for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans and a land claims tribunal, similar to the one based on the Maori experience in New Zealand.

On fiscal policy, the government has decided to borrow heavily from the domestic market and some 10 percent of revenue will come from overseas loans. Economic growth is predicted around 1.5 percent this year and an ambitious 3.5 percent for 2002. The government will revitalise the sugar industry and has allocation of some $10 million to this sector. There are also money for health ($106.6 million), education ($217 million) and poverty alleviation ($157 million)

[NOTE: F$ 1.00 = US$ 0.4387 on December 5, 2001]

Affirmative action programs for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans have been allocated $28 million, out of which:

· $200,000 for the Review of the Fijian Affairs Act and Implementation of Review Report;

· $200,000 for the Review of NLTB and Native Land Fisheries Commission;

· $1.5 million for the Development Assistance Scheme for Fijians & Rotumans;

· $5.5 million for Fijian Education Fund Scholarships;

· $10 million for the establishment of the Fijian Trust Fund;

· $145,000 for the transfer of State land and Schedules A & B to NLTB;

· $500,000 to assist Fijians in buying back ancestral land through interest free loans;

· $100,000 for the establishment of the Land Claims Tribunal; and

· $5 million for the continuation of the Fiji Development Bank Interest Subsidy Scheme for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans.

· As a counterbalance, Multiethnic Affairs was allocated $4.4 million out of which $2.5 million is for scholarships.

The problem with the Fiji government’s balancing act is that Indo-Fijians who constitute 45 percent of the population are forced to compete with the Europeans, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders for scholarships and for other community development funding.

Historically, Multiethnic Affairs have failed to provide necessary support to the Indo-Fijian community, which has unique social and economic problems. The lack of direction on the part of the Qarase government in promoting multiculturalism via fair allocation of state resources to all communities in Fiji demonstrates inherent systemic policy problems.

On 12 November, the Minister for Multiethnic Affairs, the only Indo-Fijian member in the Qarase Cabinet, Shiu Gaj Raj, stated that his Ministry will give priority, in terms scholarship allocation, to those students whose parents were evicted due to non-renewal of sugar leases. But the $2.5 million, which is to be shared among all minority communities in Fiji, will benefit only a small number (around 10 percent) of eligible Indo-Fijian students.

Furthermore the Fiji Labour Party complained in Parliament that the allocation of funding to schools was highly discriminatory, since it ignored indigenous Fijian students attending schools run mainly by Indo-Fijians.

Besides that, the Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry predicted a coup in February 2002. The prediction comes following moves by the Fiji Military Forces to give back responsibility of order and stability to the Fiji Police Force. However, there are still internal problems within the rank of file of both the police and the army and some of these issues were highlighted recently during the November 2000 mutiny trial.

On 14 November, defense attorney for the trial, Kelemedi Bulewa, stated that senior officers of the armed forces were unhappy with the appointment of Naval Commander Frank Bainimarama to lead the army and the officers behind the plot to oust him were: Lieutenant Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini, Lt. Col. Inoke Luveni, Col. Ulaiasi Vatu and Lt. Col. Jone Baledrokadroka. The problem with the trial is that the testimonies of the mutineers were contradictory. However, it has been established that the ringleader of the mutiny was Shane Stevens, who was encouraged by high profile chiefs. Besides the mutiny trial, the proceedings against George Speight have also come to a grinding stop, following the departure of Speight’s Australian solicitor Michel Gumbert.

At the end of November, Fiji was still trying to come to terms with its past as Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase turned the Budget 2002 debate into an orchestrated attack on the Fiji Labour Party, which demanded compensation for the victims of last year’s racial violence. Qarase pointed out that by allowing any provision for compensation, the government would open a floodgate of claims. In so far as the Prime Minister was concerned, there were a number of disadvantaged parties, including the indigenous Fijian landowners, most of who are in possession of their land, following mass expiry of sugar leases from 1997. In somewhat strange analogy, Qarase linked the sugar lease issue to the victims of racial violence, therefore turning the issue from one of compensation to race.

The inability of the Qarase government to create a fair and just policy framework for the participation of all communities in social, economic and political development of the country will create further ethnic tension.

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