FIJI PRESIDENT IMPLORES CHIEFS BEFORE VOTE

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SUVA, Fiji (Fijilive, July 27) - Fiji President Ratu Josefa Iloilo today warned members of the Great Council of Chiefs to adapt to an era of sweeping change or risk "simply becoming decorations."

"We are called here at a critical moment of our country," Iloilo said, while opening the three-day GCC meeting at the Tradewinds Convention Centre outside Suva this morning. "The nation looks to us as chiefs not only of the (indigenous) Fijians, but also for all of Fiji, to assist in unifying a divided society and promoting stability and goodwill."

The chiefs will deliberate on submissions on the controversial Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill, that has divided the country, before it makes its stand known on Friday.

The military, police, Fiji Law Society, opposition Labour Party and civil society organizations are amongst those opposed to the Bill whilst Fiji's 14 Provincial Councils and the Methodist Church support it.

The Bill proposes to reconcile the nation through traditional and Christian principles of forgiveness, truthfulness and tolerance. Critics of the Bill argue that it will interfere with the judiciary and allow those convicted of treason over the 2000 coup to walk free.

"There are many challenges confronting us in the exercise of our leadership among the Fijian people themselves," Iloilo said. "Perhaps, most importantly, we must continue to demonstrate that the system we represent is valid for an era of sweeping change. The title bequeathed to us through our indigenous heritage speaks of Fijian identity and culture and the integrity of the Vanua. The chiefs, the land and the people are one. That is the concept that holds the Fijian community together. And now, more than ever, we must see to it that it is preserved and adapted for the 21st Century."

Ratu Josefa also reminded Fiji's chiefs from the 14 provinces of the significance of late statesman Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna's words which he uttered at a similar gathering of chiefs prior to independence in 1970.

"We should never forget Ratu Sukuna's warning about the dangers of chiefs simply becoming decorations. He said if that happened they were finished," he said. "He declared chiefs could only be sure of their people continuing to follow them as long as they appreciated that chiefly authority was better than anyone else's."

Ratu Josefa said status itself was not sufficient for chiefs to lead. He said chiefs needed to prove they had the qualifications and authority "possessed by their ancestors to rise to the occasion."

"Before we are in a position to advise our people on the right course we must also make sure that we have the knowledge and the awareness required to fulfill this duty properly. If we do not have this, we cannot lead. When we are equipped with leadership skills that complement traditional rank; we are appropriately prepared to provide the inspiration, the motivation and guidance expected of us. The ethos of 'vakaturaga' (chiefly way) will then retain its true place in Fijian culture in this new millennium. So many things compete for our attention and action as we address what must be done to take the Fijian race forward."

The Bill will be the top agenda tomorrow when submissions are made by the military commander, the Methodist Church, the Government and the Concerned Citizens Against the Bill group before the chiefs deliberate on the issue.

The unanimous endorsement of the Bill by Fiji's 14 provinces would count for nothing although they make up the GCC. The GCC has in the past voted against the will of the provinces on certain issues.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase hopes to table the Bill for debate in Parliament this year.

July 28, 2005

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