COUPS, RACISM, TRADITION CHALLENGE FIJI FUTURE

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SUVA, Fiji (Fijilive, April 24) – One of the architects of Fiji’s Constitution, Dr Brij Lal says the country faces three main challenges, as its leaders contemplate its future.

The three challenges facing Fiji is its coup culture, its politics of race, and the role and place of traditional institutions and practices in the modern political arena, he says.

Dr Lal said this as Fiji prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of its first coup on May 14. On this day in 1987, the little known Major General Sitiveni Rabuka staged the first of two military coups, "to reassert ethnic supremacy" following the 1987 elections which had brought an Indian dominated government to power. Some say it laid the foundation for more coups taking place, with the latest staged on December 5 last year.

"It would be a cliché to say that Fiji is at the cross-roads again, because it has been there before," said Dr Lal, a Professor in Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National University.

But nonetheless, Fiji faces several acute, path-altering challenges as its leaders contemplate its future, he added.

Dr Lal says Fiji’s first challenge is to deal with its coup culture.

"The 1987 and 2006 (coups) may have different causes and rationales and significantly different outcomes, but in the end they have one feature in common: the military overthrow of a legally elected government."

He believes that if an important test of a democracy is its ability to survive a change of government, then Fiji has failed the test.

"What will it take to break the cycle?" he asks.

Dr Lal says there are those who want the military disbanded. "But that is unrealistic in the present circumstances.

"Should ways be devised to incorporate the military in the overarching framework of democracy so that the military is privy to and participant in, and not simply a recipient of decisions at the national level," Dr Lal asks.

He feels it is important to inculcate into the populace fundamental respect for law and order.

"Violence as an instrument of public policy does not solve problems, it merely compounds them," he noted.

"As one New Zealand writer has said, ‘Violence always compromises or ruins the cause it means to serve: it produces as much wrong as it tries to remedy’."

Dr Lal says the second challenge for Fiji is to move away from its preoccupation with the politics of race.

"It is an obsession of the past that should not be allowed to hobble the present and the future."

He says the demographic transition of the last two decades has fundamentally altered Fiji’s landscape.

"Within the next two decades, the indigenous community will be two thirds of the population of Fiji, putting paid to the fears of ‘Indian domination’ that underpinned Fijian political discourse for much of the 20th Century."

Dr Lal says the Interim Administration’s proposal to dismantle the race-based electoral system is to be applauded, "provided it is done with wide public consultation and support rather than through a decree."

In this regard, the recommendations of the Reeves Commission may be worth re-visiting, he added.

The third major challenge facing Fiji, according to Dr Lal, is the role and place of traditional institutions and practices in the modern political arena.

"It is, in the final analysis, a question for the indigenous community to ponder.

"The recent spectacle of the tussle between the Great Council of Chiefs and the Military must have been a source of much dismay and discomfort to indigenous Fijians, for they are not used to seeing such confrontation and war of words in the open."

He says two of the principal institutions of the indigenous community, the Methodist Church and the Great Council of Chiefs, have been sidelined and silenced, institutions to which ordinary Fijians looked for leadership.

"Much has been said about the future of the chiefly system, and there has been talk of a ‘chiefless’ society in Fiji.

"The chiefly system itself is not at fault; errant behaviour of some of its members is," he noted.

"Is the GCC equipped to deal with issues of national importance when there is no ‘national input’ into its decision making?" Dr Lal asks.

"The GCC appoints the President and the Vice President, but does it seek advice and counsel of others beyond the membership of this ethnically exclusive body?"

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