FIJI COUP FADES BUT RIVALRIES STAY

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By Mary-Louise O'Callaghan South Pacific Correspondent

SYDNEY, Australia (May 28, 2002 – The Australian)---Where are they now, the faces of Fiji's coup?

The shaven-headed, fast-talking, camera-loving George Speight?

The frail and ageing former president Ratu Kamisese Mara?

The smooth-talking, fast-thinking Lieutenant Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini?

Two years after Fiji's parliament was stormed by gunmen, the tourists are back, fresh elections have been held and the economic outlook is bright (latest forecasts put Fiji's economic growth higher than that of Australia's at 4.4 per cent) but much remains unresolved in the South Pacific nation.

As for Speight – a failed former businessman who claimed his coup was in the name of indigenous Fijian rights – having pleaded guilty to treason in February this year he is now serving a life sentence, although moves are afoot to petition the President for a full pardon.

The subterranean tensions and rivalries between traditional competing Fijian power groups, brought to the surface by the coup, are still preoccupying the country's indigenous political elite.

Missing from this complex power-struggle is Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who had dominated Fijian politics following independence in 1978. Persuaded at the height of the coup to step down as president, Mara had a stroke last July and has withdrawn from public life.

The country's largest indigenous institution, the Royal Fijian Military Forces, also remains unsettled. For much of the year there has been a public tussle between the commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, and Tarakinikini.

Tarakinikini, who was so popular as official army spokesman during the coup he had a cocktail named after him in Suva, has spent much of the past two years working in New York as a military adviser to the UN peacekeepers. But now he is suing the army for refusing to accept his resignation and claiming Bainimarama has portrayed him negatively. The constitutionality of the Qarase government, elected last September, is also being contested in the courts, not surprisingly, by the prime minister ousted in the coup, Mahendra Chaudhry. Chaudhry insists that at stake is not just the right of his Labour Party to be invited to help form a multi-party cabinet but rule of law. The matter is to go to Fiji's Supreme Court this year.

Despite the improvement in the economy, there is growing violence and poverty.

Australian high commissioner to Fiji Sue Boyd also believes there is a risk that lengthy political and legal wrangles will leave disaffected Fijians feeling their core concerns are not being addressed.

"There is danger that they will once more seek to advance their interests by overthrowing the constitution. At the same time, the Indo-Fijian community needs to be safeguarded if Fiji is to survive economically and the debilitating brain drain is to be halted," she said.

Boyd added: "Is Fiji fixed? The answer is 'No, Fiji is not fixed.'

"But the processes are taking place within the framework of the constitution. The challenge for the Qarase government is to ensure that this continues to be the case."

For additional reports from The Australian, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Australian.

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