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by the Gun is an
invaluable contribution to the growing literature on the May 2000 Fiji coup.
Robert Robertson
and William Sutherland
are well-established academics on Fiji and have written
extensively on colonial orthodoxy and class struggles among indigenous
Fijians. In this latest contribution, the authors challenge established
orthodoxy on indigenous Fijian identity, and state-led strategies to enhance
paramountcy of indigenous Fijian political and economic interest. Most
significant of all, perhaps, is the analysis of the events of May 2000.

On 19 May 2000, armed indigenous Fijians hijacked the People’s Coalition Government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. According to the authors, the coup happened because after 30 years of Fijian political dominance, the aspirations of the majority of the Fijian people have not been realised. [iv] Furthermore, Chaudhry’s policies allowed indigenous Fijian nationalists in the ruling Coalition to work with the opposition SVT (Soqosoqo Vakevulewa ni Taukei) on a united “Fijian” front. In less than a year, Chaudhry had run out of favour with the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) over solutions on expiring sugar leases under ALTA [v] . Members of the Great Council of Chiefs, including those owning Mahogany plantations, saw the Coalition as acting contrary to indigenous Fijian interest. To add to the growing resentment, Chaudhry disbanded the Fiji Intelligence Service (FIS), which was established by the Interim Government of Fiji in 1990, and fought running battles in public with one of Fiji’s biggest daily newspaper, The Fiji Times.

Just before the takeover, the militant indigenous Fijian Taukei Movement was revived and a noisy public protest took place on the very day armed men stormed Fiji’s Parliament. The authors focus on two key players: George Speight – the public relations face of the coup and Ilisoni Ligairi- an British Special Air Services (SAS) trained soldier and head of security at Fiji’s Parliamentary complex. Speight was brought on board at the last minute and it is acknowledged that there was no major preparations as was the case in but an assumption on the part of the millennium coup plotters that the Fijian establishment would rally behind another armed insurrection. [vi] That unfortunately did not happen, because some senior officers in the army refused to support the takeover, and from that point onwards, the hijackers sought assistance from sympathetic villagers, who came in large numbers to act as “human shield.”

The coup, disguised as a nationalist push for indigenous Fijian political control, ended up exacerbating divisions and fragmentation within the indigenous Fijian community. Worse perhaps were moves by the coup masters to exploit traditional vanua politics by threatening the life of former President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. [vii] But as behind the scenes manoeuvres continued among the hijackers, the military, the hereditary chiefs and bureaucrats, Indo-Fijians were attacked by indigenous Fijian youths in Muaniweni, Dawasamu and other parts of rural Fiji. These racially motivated attacks exemplified the level of racial consciousness prevalent in Fiji and the apparent lack of cross-cultural discourse, which the 1997 Constitution sought to encourage.

For the authors, the central theme to arise from the crisis of May 2000 is the economic backwardness of indigenous Fijians in relation to other communities, particularly Indo-Fijians. The choice to the indigenous Fijians are clear. Either, as has often been said, they cling to their culture and traditions and continue to lag behind others economically, or they adjust and make compromises to better enable them to achieve greater economic success in the capitalist sense. [viii] The problem is that despite “positive discrimination” policies of the Alliance Government (1970-1987), SVT (1992-1999), and now SDL (Soqosoqo Duavata Lewenivanua) (2001 onwards), very little has changed at the indigenous Fijian grassroots level. Straight after the end of the hostage crisis, indigenous Fijian banker, Laisania Qarase and senior bureaucrats drafted the indigenous Fijian “blueprint on supremacy,” which essentially reinvented the policies of the previous governments. There was no consultation at the provincial, district and village levels on collective strategies to address the contradictions of the Fijian way of life and the indigenous Fijian desire to participate fully in commerce and high finance.

The so-called solutions imposed from above have failed in the past and there is no evidence to suggest that it will work in the future. Furthermore, Robertson and Sutherland emphasise that nepotism, cronyism and colonial style command structures disregards transparency, dialogue and accountability. [ix] An essential ingredient for sound economic management and good government. The authors propose an outcomes-based policy framework on indigenous Fijian development, together with specific performance indicators, timeframes and audit requirements for all action plans.

Maybe, the message in this book ought to be taken into consideration by the current policy developers in the Qarase Government. Indigenous Fijian nationalists have to focus on their own structures and institutions before apportioning blame on Indo-Fijians. Moreover, indigenous Fijians have to move away from the rhetoric of “unity” and encourage open and constructive debate on issues affecting the community. Only through such initiatives that a majority will be able to contribute to the process of indigenous Fijian economic, social and political advancement. The myth that Speight and the gang facilitated against Indo-Fijians remain just a myth as indigenous Fijian divisions widened, resulting in a mutiny in November 2000 and further rumours of instability following the arrest of nationalists, who were planning to depose an all-indigenous Fijian Government of Laisania Qarase in January 2002.  

Finally, Government by the Gun is a must read for all those interested in developing a deeper understanding of the problems facing the indigenous Fijian community. The authors challenge established ideologies and propose a number of solutions that may release the country from the racial straitjacket and endless political instability it finds itself in.

Sanjay Ramesh, PhD

Dr. Sanjay Ramesh has written extensively on Fiji. His latest contribution is “The Race Bandwagon,” in Brij Lal and Michael Pretes editor, Coup: Reflections on the Political Crisis in Fiji, (ANU: Pandanus Press, 2001)

[i] Brij Lal editor, Fiji Before the Storm, (ANU Pandanus Press, 2001) and Brij Lal and Michael Pretes editor, Coup: Reflections on the Political Crisis in Fiji, (ANU: Pandanus Press, 2001)

[ii] Robert Robertson and Akosita Tamanisau, Fiji: shattered Coups, (Leichhardt: Pluto Press, 1988)

[iii] William Sutherland, Beyond the Politics of Race: An Alternative History to Fiji to 1992, (Canberra: ANU 1992)

[iv] Robbie Robertson and William Sutherland, Government by the Gun: The Unfinished Business of Fiji’s 2000 Coup, (Annandale: Pluto Press Australia, 2001), p.xvii.

[v] Ibid, p.10

[vi] Ibid, p.12

[vii] Ibid, p.43.

[viii] Ibid, p.86.

[ix] Ibid, p.124

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