FIJI’S RACIAL PARADOX:  BRIDGING THE ETHNIC DIVIDE BY WIDENING THE GULF

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FIJI’S RACIAL PARADOX: BRIDGING THE ETHNIC DIVIDE BY WIDENING THE GULF

By Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

Is the widening economic gulf between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians the root cause of the events of 2000? The Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua Party (SDL) led Coalition seems to have developed a theme around this question to justify first the ‘blueprint for supremacy’ and then the Social Justice Bill. But at a closer look, the gulf between the two communities remains because of failed indigenous Fijian leadership.

After independence in 1970, the Alliance Party, under the direction of Ratu Mara, developed and imposed a raft of programs in favor of indigenous Fijians. Seventeen years later, Sitiveni Rabuka deposed an elected government and imposed his version of the blueprint, which was incorporated into the political machinery of the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa i Taukei Party (SVT), sponsored by the Great Council of Chiefs in 1990.

Under SVT, a whole army of indigenous Fijian professional classes emerged, including lawyers, teachers, bureaucrats, diplomats and career politicians.

The Provincial Councils were given the opportunity to invest in shares, and Fijian Holding was strengthened. Despite a flurry of state sponsored economic activities, only a small number of indigenous Fijians became successful in business.

Policies on positive discrimination under the SVT was institutionalized to an extent that accountability was stifled and a series of catastrophic outcomes were recorded, including the collapse of the National Bank of Fiji, a riot in customs, a regimental fund fiasco in the army, a dysfunctional police force and moreover a seriously inefficient public service.

The SDL led coalition government has reinvented the policies of the SVT with the enactment of the ‘blueprint for supremacy’ and the Social Justice Bill. The objective is to provide financial and educational resources to indigenous Fijians as a priority. But there are inherent problems within the indigenous Fijian community and this makes state sponsored macro economic strategies fail in their infancy.

First of all, the indigenous Fijians have a very relaxed attitude towards education and this factor has contributed to a high dropout rate from both primary and high schools. The SDL Government’s Social Justice policy was to force indigenous Fijians to stay in school by providing preferential funding. However, such strategies have been adopted in the past without success.

The problem is the collective negative attitude towards education and the apparent lack of incentive and motivation at the village level. In contrast, Indo-Fijians have made education a centerpiece of their collective identity in Fiji and the socialization into the world of education begins at an early age.

A highly regimented and competitive atmosphere is also created by Indo-Fijian parents and as a result nearly 70% of total Fiji graduates at the USP are Indo-Fijians -- a sharp contrast to the national population split between Indo-Fijians 44% and indigenous Fijians 51%.

The education funding policy in favor of indigenous Fijian schools is seen as a regressive move by many Indo-Fijians. During the debate on Qarase’s education policy, the Fiji Labour Party argued that the SDL government took away the incentive for many urban indigenous Fijian parents, who send their children to urban Indo-Fijian run schools. While discriminating against Indo-Fijians by disproportionately funding education in general, the Government of Fiji indirectly discriminates against mostly urban indigenous Fijians who prefer Indo-Fijian schools to indigenous Fijian ones.

Other areas of focus for the government include economic participation. This has been a cause of concern for a number of indigenous Fijian governments and the solution for the SDL is to provide access to credit, tax incentive schemes, business license quotas, and a raft of investment strategies.

The biggest problem in this area is that business in Fiji is very much family-based monopolies, exclusively under the control of mostly Indo-Fijian Gujeratis or the merchant class. For indigenous Fijians to open up a business in any of the major urban centers is a daunting as well as a challenging task. However, the merchant class is the one that provides various form of financial contribution to those in power and, as a result, the SDL is unlikely to develop and implement any competition policy or regulation on existing monopolies. As a consequence, indigenous Fijians will not yet see indigenous Fijian businesses flourishing in urban centers.

Apart from regulatory problems, indigenous Fijians still do not have a strong savings culture and are often oblivious about sound economic practices. The SDL has mistakenly argued in favor of indigenous Fijian Provincial democracy in response to the argument that Fiji continues to move away from upholding the constitution and the rule of law.

The indigenous Fijian leadership argues that the Fijian administrative system of provinces and districts allows for a decentralized decision making system and, as a result, empowers the grassroots. However, at a closer look, the structure is still very much premised on Fijian hierarchy and lacks accountability.

The Provinces have become well known for their large scale projects, and experience from the 1990s suggests that such initiatives may be seen as reinforcing provincial pride, but this does not create any tangible benefits for the grassroots. As one Fijian observer notes, the chiefly houses extend and expand while the commoner struggles to make ends meet.

The structures of Fijian administration are elitist and in need of serious reform to empower the Fijian majority. These issues are conveniently deflected by the Fijian leadership by a clever but misleading argument that the economic and social conditions of the indigenous Fijians persist because Indo-Fijians control the economy and have placed systemic barriers for anybody outside their community to excel in business.

The only way then for indigenous Fijians to be successful is to suppress political as well as economic rights of Indo-Fijians. But as noted earlier, the business community in Fiji is extremely monopolistic and is the one that provides financial contribution to various political parties to support and facilitate a "favorable" business climate.

This line of anti-Indian rhetoric was greatly accentuated during the crisis of 2000 when ideologues within the Parliament sent hate messages to village thugs to attack mostly rural Indo-Fijian farmers who, according to popular myth, had grown rich and affluent by denying indigenous Fijians opportunities and robbing them of fair rent. The ripple effect of such ideological engineering was felt Fiji-wide as Fijian landowners refused to extend leases throughout, with a few notable exceptions.

Arguments facilitated by foreign academics were used to demonstrate that indigenous Fijians were deprived of fair rent whereas Indian farmers grew rich and affluent. The Peoples Coalition Government (1999-2000) was accused of providing F$ 28,000 (US$ 13,090) assistance to Indian farmers while not paying anything to Fijian landowners.

At a glance it seems that the rental formula for agricultural leases disadvantaged the landowners, but other micro factors were conveniently ignored. The Fiji Sugar Corporation, the Native Land Trust Board, internal distribution within the Fijian landowning unit and farmers loan and debt structures played significant parts in what actually happened to Fiji’s sugar revenue, received under the European Union’s Sugar Protocol.

Simplistic arguments were used to mobilize racial hatred against Indo-Fijians and the military and the Great Council of Chiefs quickly jumped on the race bandwagon and instituted an all-indigenous Fijian interim government. By then some Indo-Fijians were driven into refugee camps and many had to find shelter with families and friends as non-renewal of leases gained momentum

The interim government instituted a three-pronged strategy to assist Indo-Fijians in distress. Firstly, it allowed for a F$ 10,000 (US$ 4,675) landowner/farmer grant to assist both parties -- some F$ 10 million (US$ 4,675,000) was allocated for this purpose in the 2001 budget; secondly, it established a Ministry of Reconciliation to assist areas most affected by racial violence; and thirdly, it continued with the resettlement program already under way in the Ministry of Agriculture.

For many affected Indo-Fijians, the measures came too little too late and some, who did return to their ransacked and destroyed properties, were faced with government bureaucracy and further threats from village thugs, who were then agents for various Fijian political parties. The August 2001 elections produced stunning results for the few months old party, the SDL. Immediately afterwards, the Fiji Labour Party, SVT, FAP and NFP accused SDL of vote rigging and vote buying. At the center of the accusation was the interim government’s agricultural assistance scheme for indigenous Fijian farmers. In retrospect, some indigenous Fijian farmers, Indo-Fijian businesses, public servants and ministers benefited from over F$30 million (US$ 14,025,000) worth of abuse.

Next the SDL formed a coalition with Matanitu Vanua (mostly former members of SVT, Christian Democrats and Fijian Association Party). An all-indigenous Fijian Cabinet was sworn in and a sole Indo-Fijian member was given a multiethnic portfolio. Following the appointment of an SDL-MV Cabinet, a series of constitutional challenge was initiated by the Fiji Labour Party in the High Court of Fiji for its exclusion from government.

According to the FLP, its exclusion was deliberate because the SDL-MV Coalition was bent on denying Indo-Fijians any meaningful political voice. The FLP is of the view that it can do more for national reconciliation by being in government than sitting on opposition benches, a view not shared by the SDL stalwarts. The drafters of the 1997 Constitution wanted to avoid a scenario where the government was polarized along racial lines, as was the case during the SVT administration (1992-1999). The Peoples Coalition ensured that the Cabinet was multiracial but the SDL, in contrast, has needlessly wasted taxpayers’ money by challenging a February 2002 Fiji Court of Appeal decision on the interpretation of the 1997 Constitution.

A series of bad legal advice has led to numerous humiliations of both the interim government and the SDL led coalition. Clearly, the frustrations started to show when Fiji’s Prime Minister recently remarked that his government was chosen by God to lead the country and that he has 99.9 percent support from the Fijian community.

These statements and the repeated emphasis that Labour’s inclusion in Cabinet would make the government unworkable indicates that the SDL and its chief spokesperson, Qarase, would rather circumvent the 1997 Constitution than to establish a multiethnic Cabinet. The issue has become overly racist because the entire government side is indigenous Fijian while the Fiji Labour Party Members of Parliament are Indo-Fijians.

The acrimony between the SDL and FLP has reduced Fiji’s House of Representatives to racial name-calling and various form of vilification, leading to numerous interjections and warnings from the Speaker. While the leaders of Fiji have effectively wrapped themselves in a racial straightjacket the situation for both Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijian poor continues to deteriorate. The health infrastructure suffered a series of fatal blows, with doctors demanding better wages and work conditions. Not only the doctors but also nurses and airport workers are engaged in a furious campaign to have outstanding industrial relations issues sorted out.

Of Particular concern is the plight of many Indo-Fijian poor, who are now joining an army of Fiji’s underclass, surviving on the fringes of major urban centers in squatter settlements and often living in substandard conditions. Social workers in Fiji concede that Indo-Fijian poor are worse off than their indigenous Fijian counterparts when it comes to housing, employment and welfare.

The demise of the sugar industry has accelerated the suffering of many Indo-Fijian farmers who are now living below Fiji’s poverty line. The pain and suffering of the Indo-Fijians have found expression in growing social problems within the community, such as sharp increases in family problems, prostitution, and suicide. There is a general feeling of hopelessness among the Indo-Fijians as educated professionals from the community continue to leave for a better future overseas.

The Indo-Fijian community will continue to be forced into political and social wilderness as the current government institutionalizes systemic discrimination at all levels of civil society. At the end of it, the struggles of Indo-Fijians in Fiji have become a struggle for "self respect." The whole community is being punished for securing the election of an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister -- Mahendra Chaudhry -- who is still being accused of harboring secret ambitions to deprive indigenous Fijians of their land rights. But if the verdict of the 2001 election is anything to go by, the indigenous Fijian leadership has no alternative but to open up dialogue with Chaudhry or go back to the traditional approach of coups and racial violence.

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

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