Diplomatic moves

Print edition : June 10, 2000

India's diplomatic activism against Fiji, dictated by domestic pressures, may only strengthen the hands of the chauvinistic elements on the Pacific island nation.

JOHN CHERIAN

SINCE May 19, ousted Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and most of his Cabinet colleagues were being held hostage by coup leader George Speight and his band of heavily armed supporters. Over a few weeks Speight achieved most of his stated goals, including the dismissal of Mahendra Chaudhry's government. But that was not enough for the ultra-nationalists, who seem to have united under the leadership of Speight. The next to go was President Kamisese Mara. Then came martial law.

United Nations representative Sergio De Mello (centre) and Commonwealth Secretary-General Don Mckinnon (right) with Speight after a failed diplomatic mission to Suva on May 24.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

New Delhi's response to the dramatic developments were initially cautious. In the third week of May, an External Affairs Ministry spokesman described them as "regretful and disappointing". New Delhi immediately contacted a number of capitals, especially those of leading member-countries of the Commonwealth. In the last decade the Commonwealth has adopted a tough stance on dictatorships, particularly such governments in countries where democratically elected governments were forcefully supplanted by the military. Nigeria remained suspended from the Commonwealth for most of the 1990s. It was readmitted only after a democratically elected government was installed in 1999 but has remained suspended from participation in meetings of the organisation after the military coup in October 1999. Similar action is bound to be taken against Fiji as the Harare Declaration and the subsequent Millbrook Action Plan specifically call for stringent steps against countries trampling on democratic norms.

It was obvious from the outset that New Delhi has very little leverage over faraway Fiji. In fact, India and Fiji had reopened diplomatic relations only after the swearing in of Mahendra Chaudhry as Prime Minister last year. New Delhi suspended ties with the government of Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987, after the first coup against an Indian-dominated government. The main actors in the region are Australia and New Zealand. Although these two countries have issued strong statements denouncing the latest events, they have done nothing tangible so far. But Canberra may be forced to react more forcefully in the wake of the copy-cat coup in neighbouring Solomon Islands. On June 4, armed rebels led by a disgruntled lawyer seized Solomon Islands' Prime Minister, Bartholomew Ulufa'alu. This incident came just 18 days after the coup in Fiji. Again, the coup was fuelled by ethnic rivalry and the issue of land rights.

Fiji is not East Timor and is currently of little strategic value. When Rabuka staged his coup, the Cold War was still on. The United States Navy made frequent calls at Fijian ports. Although Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth for most of the 1990s, it was not all that isolated. Israel established a strong presence in Fiji during the period, and the Fijian government established relations with Taiwan, of course for a handsome consideration. Beijing broke off relations with Suva, protesting against the Fijian government's actions.

Suddenly the Indian government has woken up to the fact that the developments in Fiji could be an emotive issue. It seems, therefore, to have tentatively decided to play the "diaspora" card. After the coup of the 1980s, Indians in Fiji emigrated in large numbers - all of them to more developed countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Fiji Indians, just as others in the diaspora, have very little links with India. Most of the Fiji Indians who left Fiji in the 1980s and 1990s were skilled people, who were assimilated into Western societies. According to diplomats, the inflow of skilled personnel actually helped the economies of Australia and New Zealand.

The turmoil this time may again help countries such as Australia, which would once again attract capital and a skilled workforce. The exodus seems to have already begun, but very few people of Indian origin are expected to come to the land of their forefathers. Two of Fiji's leading businessmen of Indian origin have indicated that they have no plans to return to Fiji in the light of the recent events. As for ethnic Fijians, despite their differences with George Speight, there seems to be a consensus that henceforth the government should be run by them. This leaves the majority of Indians who toil in the factories and the sugarcane fields with very little choice. They have nowhere to go and the international community so far has nothing to offer them but platitudes.

THE sudden spurt of diplomatic activism by New Delhi has, to a large extent, been dictated by domestic pressure. The coup has been frontpage news in the press. Some people close to the ruling coalition have written about sending Indian warships to restore democratic rule in Fiji. In countries such as Guyana, Surinam and Trinidad people of Indian origin had in the past been unjustly deprived of their share of power and there was precious little that the Indian government could do. The high-profile diplomatic moves by India in early June could in fact boomerang and strengthen the hands of the chauvinistic elements in Fiji. The government had dispatched a special envoy to Fiji to gather firsthand impressions about the situation. S.T. Devare, a senior diplomat in the Indian Foreign Ministry, was in Fiji in the first week of June.

Devare has reported from Fiji that the Indian population is generally calm though it is concerned about the fate of Mahendra Chaudhry and others. The report says that they have reposed faith in the Commonwealth to resolve the problem. Although there have been some reports of sporadic attacks on members of the Indian community, the Indian and Melanesian communities continue to co-exist peacefully. Devare was not able to meet any representative of the Fijian government in Suva.

Devare also held discussions with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and other senior officials of Australia. Australia is part of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which was meeting in London on June 6 to discuss the crisis. The other members of the CMAG are Botswana, Nigeria, Malaysia, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Barbados and Britain. New Delhi has been in touch with all these countries and is confident that the Commonwealth will take a tough stance against the erring member-state.

External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was in London in early June, where he held discussions with Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on the issue. Britain has warned Fiji that it could be suspended from the Commonwealth if its new rulers did not return the country to democratic constitutional government. The British Foreign Office stated that suspension was a real option when the CMAG met in London.

The only country with a slightly differing perception of the issue could be Malaysia. The Malaysian government, especially Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, supports the "Bumiputra" (sons of the soil) policy; in Malaysia, power is monopolised by the indigenous Malay majority. When Rabuka seized power in 1987, he had said that he was inspired by the Malaysian model.

New Delhi expects a strong statement from London condemning Fiji and the dispatch of eminent Commonwealth envoys to the Pacific nation to study the situation. On May 24, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon and a United Nations envoy, Sergio Viera de Mello, visited Fiji. They were allowed to visit the hostages, who said that they were manhandled by Speight and his gang. Many countries have already threatened sanctions on Fiji if multi-party democracy is not restored.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said in the third week of May that Fiji would become an outcast if George Speight's hostage-taking resulted in the overthrow of the democratically elected government. Since then the government has been overthrown, along with the President. The 1997 Constitution, which guarantees a multi-racial democracy, has been scrapped by the military regime that has taken over.

Meanwhile there were indications of an imminent showdown between the military and Speight. On June 4, the military gave an ultimatum to the coup plotters to lay down their arms and release the hostages. A spokesman for the Army said that there was "a line which we cannot cross. We cannot surrender this country to them".

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor