FIJI MUST FOCUS ON PRINCIPLES, NOT PARTIES OR PERSONALITIES

Editorial

Fiji Daily Post

SUVA, Fiji (June 5, 2008 ) - Is this really about excluding personalities or a particular party from Fiji political future? Are we going to propel the national debate forward by constantly focusing on playing the man, or woman? Can we get anywhere if our discourse is centered on vilifying a particular party as though it were the sum and substance of all that has gone wrong in Fiji since independence and even before? Should the Interim government and its backers be obsessed with scapegoating Qarase and the SDL party? To be sure, there were problems in the last Qarase government -- no government in the world is perfect. But to rant as if the SDL was the sole, worst-case repository of ethno-centrism, or as if it invented it, or indeed, surrendered to it, is gobbledy-gook. Indigenous ethno-centrism (self-centeredness) has long kava-like roots in the vanua’s [country’s] history.

From the inception of the idea of Fiji as colony, tribes were at odds as to whether this was a good idea or not. The myth of ‘Fiji’ as a multi-tribal union under British control and with all of the benefits of imperialism was sold as the way forward. But not everyone bought into it. Tribes that did not were soon the subject of superior force and protracted warfare. Guns settled the issue where argument could not. As it is today, military force and the threat of it changed the minds of recalcitrant tribes-people so as to cooperate with the will of chiefs who, in those times, were seen to be in league with the British.

Nevertheless, outward compliance brings inward resistance and there lingered in the Fijian consciousness during the colonial era, a suspicion that the way forward was not all that it was cracked up to be. Populist charismatic leaders arose along the Wainibuka River, in the sacred Ra hinterland, and in the central-north and west interiors of Viti Levu. Fijian ‘Christian nationalism’ -- or more accurately ‘syncretism’ -- took shape to give sacred respectability to the anti-colonial suspicions. 19th century indigenous prophets like Navosavakadua and Apolosi Nawai arose in succession to proclaim the dream of a Fiji rid of foreign ideas and foreigners. Arresting, banning, expelling and destroying either these men or their villages may have served a short term colonial disciplinary problem, but it did not put out the light they had lit in the minds of their followers. Their ideas in some form or other survived the colonial onslaught and even thrived in the 20th century as Fiji wound itself up for independence and beyond. More significantly, Fijian ethnocentrism thrived where it was not supposed to; in towns and centers where urbanization and improved literacy and increasing education were found.

According to socio-political theories of the day, ethnic or racial group centeredness were supposed to die out as ‘melting pot’, multicultural populations took hold as a result of modernization and with it, westernization.

In Fiji, just the opposite happened. Increased education that was found in urban centers brought about more sophisticated articulation of the indigenous dream of the prophets of old. Moreover, their vision found its way into the mainstream of western-style democracy that was being planted and urged in the political soul of the vanua. For example, no sooner had the independence era begun than we saw the advent of Viliame Savu’s ‘Fijian Independent Party’ (in 1972) proclaiming a message of Fijian political exclusivity, along with Sakeasi Butadroka’s ‘Fijian Nationalist Party’ - later renamed the ‘Fijian Christian Nationalist Party’. Their common objective was nothing new, but was really the same one found in earliest colonial times. And that was to rally Fijians to the cause of indigenous supremacy and to oppose global ideas such as open democracy. They feared it would spell the end of a distinctive Fijian culture and its people.

By 1987 their cause was championed through the military coups of Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. But it was not to be. In 1995, Rabuka promised that he would introduce a more democratic constitution for Fiji than the 1990 version he had helped put in place. After a consultative process, not unlike the one we are going through now, the majority of Fiji’s indigenous provinces rejected the proposed revisions, but the new constitution went ahead anyway. In the 1999 elections, Rabuka was swept from office. The Labour-dominated People’s Coalition government of Mahendra Chaudhry came to power. That election began a destabilization campaign which led to George Speight’s accession through the barrel of a gun -- only to be toppled by more guns -- some of which now rule behind the Interim government.

The Qarase SDL government was undoubtedly the benefactor from the toppling of Speight.

But to accuse it of racism, as some have since it was toppled, is short-sighted indeed.

If anything, the Qarase SDL government tried its best to hold down and control the indigenous ethnocentrism latent in the Fijian heartland. Because the SDL party is not the author of indigenous ethnocentrism, it cannot held to account as being the chief fixer. To focus upon one man Qarase and his Party is therefore misguided. Dealing with him and them to try and exclude them from the nation’s future will, if our history is anything to go by, only make matters worse. To build a better Fiji, we need to focus commonly on new principles, not personalities or parties that will guide the nation to a more inclusive future -- no matter who wins the next election.

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