A STATE OF SIEGE

Print edition : June 10, 2000

Fiji's crisis following the coup and the counter-coup finds the military and the civilian rebels locked in a standoff and raises disturbing questions about its identity as a civil democratic nation-state characterised by ethnic plurality.

A "CIVILIAN COUP" and then a military coup in Fiji have together turned the international spotlight on the tiny South Pacific island-state and raised concerns about the rights of minorities, even large minorities, within sovereign countries. However, the shock waves felt by ethnic Indians in Fiji, who account for 44 per cent of the population, have remained muffled since May 19 when George Speight led a civilian coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. After all, the montage of unfolding events has produced outside the island-republic an eerie but predictable feeling of deja vu.

At the Parliament complex in Suva on June 3, coup leader George Speight briefs newspersons on the details of his talks with military officials on the resolution of the crisis.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

Fiji, independent since 1970, is no stranger to internal power games, including coups. The ethnic fault-lines, delineated by the British colonial masters who transported Indian workers across the high seas and transplanted them in the Fijian sugarcane fields, had already served as pitfalls for a modern-day democratic experiment in the post-independence state.

So, although Speight is part-European in origin, he had no difficulty in claiming to have acted as he did - taking Chaudhry and his Cabinet colleagues hostage inside the Parliament complex in Suva - to "save the indigenous population". Ethnic Fijians in fact are in a majority, and comprise 51 per cent of the population of about 800,000. Speight, however, sought to capitalise on an ethnic reality: compared to Chaudhry, who is indisputably an 'alien' of Indian stock, Speight is part-indigenous, although he is far from fluent in the native language.

Speight speaks English (as do many Fijians) and this has enabled him to communicate his ideas to the satellite-linked world outside. And such have been his communication skills that as of early June he had forced the military 'government', which came on the scene to subdue him, to parley with him. These talks have focussed not just on the possibility of securing the release of Chaudhry and his associates, but have covered the Fijian political future. Speight held several rounds of talks with the 'Head of the Interim Military Government', Commodore Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, but they remained indecisive even on the dawn of June 5, a critical date in Fiji's political calendar, which itself had become a plaything in the hands of both the civilian and military coup leaders.

Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, who has appointed himself Head of the Interim Military Government.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

The issues that remained unresolved were those relating to the release of the hostages as also the contours of a new dispensation that could please both the civilian and military coup leaders. June 5 was a crucial date because that was when the Great Council of Chiefs - traditionally the country's final arbiter in politics - was to meet to decide who should govern the country in the context of the twin coups and in what form until the next general election. The idea of such an election, which is only a distant possibility, was being bandied about in order to take the country back to either a full-fledged democracy or a majoritarian variant of the Lincolnesque polity. In the Fijian context, that is, a government of the majority, by the majority and for the majority. But, as the day began, the signs were not propitious for a final decision-making by the native chiefs.

A 'win-win' formula, which would keep both the military and an ambitious civilian in power without either of them being elected by the people, proved elusive. Such a situation had not been anticipated by the Great Council of Chiefs, which retained its centrality to Fijian politics even under the 1997 'Magna Carta' of multi-racialism. Speight decided, without any warning, that he had suffered enough under Chaudhry's administration which was to have been a showpiece of political pluralism.

As June 5 passed without any decisions being taken, the showdown between Speight and Bainimarama acquired a testy edge. The military ruler refused to step down or share power with Speight, and said that he would "not entertain any more demands" from Speight. Bainimarama asked Speight and his supporters to set free the hostages and lay down their arms in exchange for a blanket amnesty. Speight dismissed this offer and again warned that the captives might be shot if the military tried to rescue them by force. Speight said that his "crusade" for the rights of indigenous people could not be compromised. But Bainimarama remained firm in his resolve to keep Speight at arm's length lest Fiji face economic sanctions imposed by the West.

Throngs of supporters of Speight at the Parliament complex, the scene of the hostage crisis.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

THE bizarre drama of political 'thuggery' (as Speight's action was characterised in the democratic world outside Fiji) and the subsequent military intervention, which failed to tame him, began on May 19. Speight had stayed in the vanguard of a parade by nationalist natives on that day before taking Parliament itself by storm. The rally by the nationalists was the culmination of a series of petitions from Speight to Chaudhry and the other powers-that-be seeking a "fair deal" for the indigenous people.

For all the democratic glitter of Chaudhry's triumph in the free elections held in 1999 under the 1997 Constitution, which was a gilt-edged document laced with multi-racial features for the first time in the local context, he was not widely seen by the native people as a representative of a new all-Fijian identity. This was despite the fact that Chaudhry, known to be a pugnacious leader of the Fiji Labour Party, had committed himself to uplifting the disadvantaged indigenous people.

Such a view of Chaudhry came into focus in the context of Speight's resolute refusal to free him and his Cabinet colleagues even after they were transformed into political dummies twice over - first, by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the President who had led Fiji to independence, and later by the new military 'government' which eased Mara out of office.

Ousted Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, a May 1999 picture.-STAN RITOVA/REUTERS

Chaudhry, who had assumed power at the head of a People's Coalition a year ago, was in Parliament, the seat of people's power, when the denouement began. Speight, escorted by seven masked gunmen with Uzi sub-machine guns and M-16s, stormed into the Parliament complex. They took all the politicos hostage, encountering no resistance.

The capture of Parliament and Speight's action of taking 44 parliamentarians hostage (out of the total of 71) was at first seen by the authorities as no more than a case of a criminal act for ransom. However, Speight lost no time in making clear his agenda - the overthrow of a government led by a minority ethnic Indian and a return to the politics of native Fijian paramountcy. The latter cause, dear to Gen. Sitiveni Rabuka (pronouned Rambuka), soon brought him to Parliament House.

Rabuka, who had led a similar bloodless coup against an Indian-controlled government in 1987 and is currently the head of the Great Council of Chiefs, was the only Fijian leader who could have empathised with Speight's "cause" or comprehended his methods. Rabuka's arrival at Parliament House shortly after Speight's announcement of a civilian coup gave rise to considerable speculation.

Fijian soldiers open fire in the air to disperse a mob of Speight's supporters who attacked an Army checkpoint near the Parliament complex on May 27.-

A logical question was whether Speight had acted as a front-man for Rabuka, who had been politically marginalised ever since his party lost to Chaudhry's coalition in the 1999 election. However, Rabuka soon asserted his status as the first among equals in the Great Council of Chiefs and sought to rectify such impressions. He said his main objective was to negotiate and secure the release of the Prime Minister and the others. Even as Speight remained unyielding, Rabuka made it clear that he was nobody's pawn or patron and that his current status placed him above the din and bustle of the hostage crisis.

Even as Rabuka drew a blank in his stated efforts to persuade Speight to release the hostages, mobs took to the streets, attacking and torching shops and other properties owned by ethnic Indians, who are reckoned to be much more prosperous than the indigenous Fijians. In one sense, the violence set the tone not only for the confrontation between Speight and the native-Fijian hierarchy but also for the revival of animosities between the indigenous people and ethnic Indians.

Without patting Speight for taking the Prime Minister of the day hostage, Rabuka said: "I think that (Chaudhry's) position right now is untenable. And if he feels for the country (and if) he sees (the) demonstrations (against him and ethnic Indians) and the damage that happened in Suva ... he might feel that he wants to step down". Rabuka suggested more explicitly, too, that Chaudhry could resign "willingly" as Prime Minister and spare Fiji the prospect of political turmoil.

However, Chaudhry refused to resign despite being reportedly beaten up on his first night in detention. Speight released 13 of the 44 hostages, and some of them spoke of the psychological "torture" they had been subjected to. Foreign diplomats and observers in Suva spoke of credible "eyewitness accounts" that Chaudhry was dragged out of the Parliament building and "threatened" at gunpoint in public. Subsequently, word spread that Deputy Prime Minister Doctor Tupeni Baba had told Speight that he was ready to hand over the entire government to the rebels in exchange for the personal liberty and physical safety of the Prime Minister. But this presumptive "offer" did not sway Speight, who perhaps sensed that there was much more political leverage to be gained from holding onto the remaining hostages even as he tried to position himself at the centre of the native-Fijian power structure.

It was at this stage that Mara, who was still President on May 21, defended the state of emergency that he had proclaimed on May 19. However, the military units that were deployed did not try to disarm Speight and his armed supporters or rescue the political hostages. Commonwealth countries such as Australia, which have a keen interest in Fijian affairs, tended to give the military the benefit of the doubt for its inaction. However, the topography of the Parliament building in Suva was considered a virtual deterrent for a potential hostage-rescue operation. Not in focus at that stage was the Fijian military's own plans for a coup. That, however, occurred before long.

President Mara declared that the action of Speight and his armed squad had "no legal backing" and claimed that "parts of the government, parts that make up the government - the disciplined (military and police) forces, the civil service, the judiciary - are behind me". But Mara's sense of constitutional authority had by then come under siege.

Speight evidently wanted to enhance his reputation as a political strategist and rid himself of the tag of a failed businessman. Being the son of a politician opposed to Chaudhry, Speight obviously held a grudge against the ethnic Indian leader. Not surprisingly, Speight held out an indirect threat to Chaudhry himself. Any move by the soldiers to rescue the Prime Minister and his associates could only mean "a decision causing us to jeopardise the lives", he said.

Speight claimed later, however, that it was not as if he hated ethnic Indians. It had not occurred to him, he pointed out, to liquidate Chaudhry or the other Indian-origin parliamentarians although they refused to give up power. He claimed, further, that the political hostages were being treated with "the respect they deserve".

RICK RYCROFT/AP

RICK RYCROFT/AP

Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who was forced to step down as President. Former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who led a military coup against a leader of Indian origin in 1987, failed in his attempt to secure the negotiated release of Chaudhry and the other hostages.

Sensing that Speight was in one sense powerless as he could not liquidate the hostages and lose a bargaining chip, the traditional power-brokers of the native-Fijian establishment regrouped in the new context, which was increasingly being defined by anti-minorities rhetoric. The native chiefs, Mara included, reckoned that the die was once again cast against multi-racialism in politics.

Even as Rabuka maintained that the chiefs "do not approve of what Speight has done", Mara, not yet overthrown by the military, exercised what were perceived to be his residual powers under the 1997 Constitution and on May 27 dismissed Chaudhry as Prime Minister. In Mara's calculation, Chaudhry's dismissal would leave a deposed (and therefore useless) Prime Minister in Speight's possession and remove the ground from under the coup leader's feet.

Mara's decisive move against Chaudhry came as a sequel to the first clashes between the President's security forces, including some soldiers, and the increasingly violent supporters of Speight. At least one policeman, and perhaps also a soldier, were reported killed, but there was no authoritative version of the rush of events.

At a different level, the international community, especially Australia and New Zealand, saw Mara's move as one aimed to appease Speight. Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon and United Nations envoy Sergio de Mello had earlier failed in their diplomatic mission to Suva because Speight had remained unrelenting on the hostages issue.

Speight, however, did not rise to the President's bait. The stakes were raised when Mara proclaimed himself the "only government." Speight's tussle with Mara can be traced to animosities between their respective clans. At a more personal level, Mara's daughter too told Speight what exactly she thought of him as he continued to hold her and others captive.

Mara committed something of a Freudian slip when he asserted on May 27 that he was still "the only person who is governing the country at the present moment". On the following night, suspected supporters of Speight went on a rampage through Suva and vandalised a television station that had beamed programmes critical of him. Speight then piled pressure on Mara to step down. Finally, Mara's presidency of "the present moment" slipped out of his hands.

FOLLOWING the outbreak of violence, the chief of the Fijian military forces, Bainimarama, intervened on May 29 to promulgate martial law and institute a military government. A team of military officers met Mara, presented him a whale's tooth as a traditional gesture of goodwill and asked him to vacate office. Mara obliged, only to remain a notional President for a few hours, before his position was merged with that of Bainimarama's designation as the 'Head of the Interim Military Government'.

A debate began on how long the military administration could remain in an "interim" capacity. Fiji's experience with military intervention in the 1980s was not seen as a suitable parallel now, despite its being a precedent, and Speight seized upon this reality to train his 'political' guns on Bainimarama himself.

The two hail from the same region of Fiji's native heartland, but Bainimarama, who had risen from the ranks of the Navy of a minor maritime nation, was not credited with much overall military experience. His claim to fame in Fiji, however, was said to rest on his being a "thinking" soldier. Another view was that he was not averse to the idea of the Army being a "democracy-friendly" institution in a multi-racial country.

A delegation of the Great Council of Chiefs, the country's political arbiters, arrives at the Parliament complex for talks with Speight on May 25.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

However, Bainimarama's initial announcement that martial rule would continue for at least three years as a prelude to a fresh general election did not endear him to the international community. With Speight refusing to bow to Bainimarama's authority and release the political hostages, the fundamental tussle in Fiji over the relative rights of the indigenous Fijians, on one side, and the ethnic Indians and tiny sections of European and Chinese migrants, on the other, was also being eclipsed. Both Bainimarama and Speight agreed, under the circumstances, to refer their power struggle, which involved Mara and Rabuka as well on the margins, to the Great Council of Chiefs.

The prime issue, as Col. Filipo Tarakinikini, the military government's spokesman, told this correspondent, was not a simple and stark choice between military rule and a civilian government, presumably headed by Speight despite the fact that his methods had been far from democratic. The choices would include, according to the spokesman, "a military council on top of a civilian (set-up)".

With the chiefs, hamstrung by the political war between Speight and Bainimarama, taking their own time to deliberate, the international community could hardly intervene. The players in Fiji might have to take note of the Commonwealth's view of the Fiji crisis, and a "coordinated approach" by Australia and New Zealand, on the one side, and India, on the other. With the U.S. deciding to fine-tune its strategy with that of the larger international community, the question could well be whether the die is cast against Fiji or only against the minority Fiji Indians, who might again migrate in large numbers if they are driven to a corner.

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