By Sanjay Ramesh

HONOLULU (Pacific Islands Report, Jan. 6) – In Fiji, tourism is booming while the sugar industry is collapsing. During sugar harvest season, lorries full of sugar cane wait for the mills to take in the cane. Internal sugar cane infrastructure is shabby, leading to sporadic derailment and transportation problems. And yes, there is the other factor. The gradual phasing out of European Union sugar subsidy under the Lome Conventions sugar protocol means that large sugar estates will be the only ones left standing when market forces kick in. The small and medium scale sugar farmers are on their way out. The situation is compounded further by the expiry of leases under the generous Agricultural Landlords and Tenants Act (ALTA) of 1976. Indigenous Fijians made it clear as early as 1995 that some sugar leases will not be renewed. Indo-Fijian politicians backed ALTA while indigenous Fijians sought changes that would result in better return on leases. In addition, the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) identified indigenous population pressures as another reason why landowners chose not to further lease.

The National Farmers Union (NFU), Sugar Cane Growers Council and Indo-Fijian politicians represented the interest of farmers, whereas the NLTB and the Government supported the landowners’ viewpoint. The debate was carried on in a racially charged atmosphere, but a fundamental problem remained. Under the 1990 Constitution and again under the 1997 Constitution, nearly two-thirds of the house had to agree to a legislation to supersede ALTA. Racial stratification following the coups of 1987 ensured that Fiji’s population lay trapped in ethnic compartments and this thwarted attempts at developing a national strategy on sugar leases. There was, however, a glimmer of hope between 1996 to 1999 when the Indo-Fijian dominated National Federation Party worked with the indigenous Fijian Soqosoqo ni Vakevulewa ni Taukei party on constitution and agricultural leases reform.

However, the era of cooperation was cut short by the outcome of the 1999 General Elections. An Indo-Fijian Prime Minister came to power and immediately pursued pro-Indo-Fijian farmer policies much to the chagrin of indigenous landowners. In just one year, the Government was deposed in a hostile takeover with many indigenous Fijian landowners refusing to renew sugar leases in support of the coup. This prompted Indo-Fijian internal migration with farmers leaving or abandoning farm work for labourers job in towns and cities. A new Government was elected in August 2001 and it favoured implementing the Native Land Trust Act (NLTA) over all sugar leases. However, farmer’s union refused to accept NLTA, because they argued that it was unfair. The National Farmers Union and the Fiji Labour Party argued in favour of ALTA while the Great Council of Chiefs, the Government and the NLTB proposed NLTA. The debate once again got locked down on vested sectional interests as the stalemate continues. The Government, however, sought to move on this issue by implementing a sugar restructure plan, but this too came under criticism.

The issues and debates surrounding sugar leases are a reflection of a divided country. It shows that the leaders of various communities in Fiji have failed to rise beyond simple communal sentiment. Worse perhaps is racial prejudice that continues to be openly displayed by Honourable Members during Parliamentary and Senate sessions. So much so that Fiji’s Prime Minister has requested all political parties to show greater maturity while engaging in debates in both Houses.

Ghosts Of May 2000

The animosity between Fiji Labour Party and the Government of Fiji stems from the events of May 2000. There are concerns within Labour that the Government has hidden suspected coup conspirators from public scrutiny by providing them with lucrative positions overseas and are actively working towards compromising investigations into suspected coup ringleaders holding senior Government positions. Some senior Government Ministers and supporters have already been charged and convicted with participating in setting up of an unlawful government and masterminding the November 2000 mutiny at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.

In October 2000, the Government, overwhelmed by the number of charges pending against its senior officials, spearheaded a national reconciliation stunt.

It became a stunt because the Government did not consult all the stakeholders, including the victims and the perpetrators of the events of 2000. In Fiji, there are preconditions to effective reconciliation and they are:

Instead of working towards a national reconciliation policy, some chiefs on behalf of their vanua conducted a traditional indigenous forgiveness ceremony and presented tabua (whale’s tooth) to the President of Fiji, Ratu Josefa Iloilo. Members of the Fiji Labour Party incarcerated in Parliament for 56days were also invited but they refused to participate, suggesting that the process was a political ploy by the Fiji Government. However, unfortunately, Indo-Fijians from Tailevu, Naitasiri, Dawasamu, Wainibokasi, Muaniweni, Dreketi, Korovou, Nausori, Labasa, Suva, and indigenous Fijians, who were beaten up by Speight supporters and had their homes ransacked and property and livestock stolen were not invited. Also not on the list were resort owners, who had their property invaded by fractious indigenous landowners at the height of the crisis and indigenous Fijian women who suffered sexual abuse inside the Parliamentary complex, and other Fiji citizens who lost their jobs as a consequence of the events of May 2000 .

The Government of Fiji criticised the Fiji Labour Party for not participating in the reconciliation process. Not long following the October 2004 reconciliation effort, the Government continued unilateral policy making and imposed restrictions on the use of fire crackers on Diwali ( Hindu festival of lights) from 5pm to 10 pm The restrictions were criticised by a number of individuals, Hindu religious groups, and the Fiji Labour Party. Worse perhaps was that the restrictions were backed by a fine of $F800. As a result Diwali 2004 was a quiet affair as Fiji Television reported on 13 November 2004.

Unilateral Policy

The Government continues to implement unilateral policy without greater stakeholder input. One such policy is to provide indigenous Fijians scholarships for Form Seven education. This scholarships will be available only to indigenous Fijian schools as part of the Government’s broader affirmative action agenda for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans. The Fiji Labour Party blasted the policy as systemic segregation and not in the spirit of national reconciliation. Labour argues that whilst there are limited opportunities for indigenous Fijians to access higher education, there are also disadvantaged students in other communities who should be given similar access.

There are also other policies-for example indigenous land claims tribunal and provisions for indigenous landowners to claim foreshore and marine resources-that have caused concern among investors and developers.

Interestingly, though, the Government accused the Peoples’ Coalition Government of pursuing unilateral policies during its short one-year reign but ended very much doing the same. In ethnically mixed societies, there should be a multiparty committee on public policy established to deliberate on and fine tune government policy. Policy in Fiji is largely dictated by party manifesto, and ethnically exclusive Governments may be able to achieve greater cross ethnic consensus via such multiparty committees.

I guess such strategies can be used to build at first consensus and trust among political leaders. Tireless effort by the Fiji Labour Party to force itself into Cabinet through endless court challenges has all but ended with Labour accepting its position as the official opposition.

Problematic Constitution Or Problematic Political Parties?

On Friday 9 July 2004, the Supreme Court of Fiji gave its judgement on Fiji’s multiparty case.

Under Section 99 of the Fiji Constitution, the Prime Minister is required to consult the leader of FLP before advising the President to appoint as Minister and then Cabinet. This provision refers to consultation regarding the structure and function of the entire Fiji cabinet and not just the entitlements of the FLP. The High Court reaffirmed the proportionality requirement of Section 99.

The SDL argued that it is entitled to 45% of the cabinet positions or 16 Cabinet Ministers , FLP 39%, or 14 Cabinet Ministers and for the balance, the PM is entitled to fill at his discretion.

Acting outside the 10% threshold is not defined in the constitution and the Supreme Court has held that in its judgment.

The Fiji Labour Party argued that the since FLP and SDL are the two parties with more than 10% threshold, the SDL as a consequence is entitled to 53% or 19 positions and the FLP 47% or 17 positions. This view was not supported by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of Fiji is silent on the issue whether the policy of the party that has the majority seat in the House is the governing policy of the cabinet. This left a crucial point unanswered. The SDL claim that parties joining the cabinet may do so under the SDL party manifesto and policies, and further argue that if parties are to bring in their own manifesto and policies, the cabinet will become dysfunctional.

The 1997 Constitution envisaged that parties would first have multiracial policies and as such it would be easier for parties to come together in a multiparty cabinet. However, racial consciousness, flared by the events of May 2000, allowed political parties to develop racially exclusive policies with communal specific agendas. This undermined the spirit of Section 99 from the very outset.

In the end, the Government offered Fiji Labour Party minor Ministries as part of its invitation offer and Labour responded that the Ministries allocated were simply created for the purpose of convenience and was a waste of tax payers money.

Prime Minister Laisania Qarase has further called on political parties to amend the section of the Constitution that allows any Fijian Citizen, regardless of ethnicity, to become Prime Minister. Mr. Qarase believes that in 20 years time, there may be a chance that such a provision will find greater acceptance within the indigenous Fijian community. Qarase also wants the multiparty provision in the current constitution amended.

Army Vs Government Round Two

If anyone has been following Fiji politics, it will not come as a surprise that the army continues to express concern over Government decisions. At the end of 2003, the Home Ministry prematurely attempted to remove the Commander of the Fiji Military Forces, Frank Bainimarama, because he had vowed to pursue army officers who supported the Speight May 2000 coup.

In what can be termed "round one", the Government wanted to bring someone from overseas for the post of the army commander, but opposition political parties expressed their confidence in current commander, who vowed to uphold law and order and warned Government Ministers not to flaunt the law for the sake of political expediency. Decision not to extend the Commander’s term as the head of Fiji Military Forces came after a group of army officers accused the Bainimarama of conspiring to oust the Government.

After marathon meeting between Government representatives, the army and the President of Fiji, it was decided that Bainimarama’s term as Commander be extended and a National Security Committee chaired by the Government be established to avoid further clashes.

With round one under wraps, round two started when the Attorney General of Fiji decided to release coup convict and former Vice President of Fiji Ratu Jope Seniloli from prison for health reasons. The army saw the move as continued Government manipulation of the law to assist convicted senior officials from not carrying out their sentences. In fact, the army had been conducting its own public relations exercise and advising villagers to support the decision of the court.

Continued pressure from the army has seen a long overdue cabinet reshuffle. On 16 December 2004, Josefa Vosanibola became the new Minister for Home Affairs while the current Minister Joketani Cokanasiga retired to the back- bench. In a press release on the same day Prime Minister Qarase stated that there was a need to restore a more cooperative working relationship between the Army and the Government, through the Ministry of Home Affairs.

As Fiji heads towards 2006 elections, the wounds of May 2000 have clearly not healed. Most serious of all is the continued racial compartmentalisation of indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian communities.

January 6, 2005

Sanjay Ramesh is a researcher and writer on Fijian politics.

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