The fault-lines in Fiji

Print edition : June 10, 2000

Racial tensions between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians principally underlie the current crisis, but there are also other political factors at work.


ONLY a year ago a new government led by Mahendra Chaudhry was voted to power in Fiji. It was a time of hope and reconciliation between the country's two main ethnic communities - the indigenous Melanesian population and the descendants of Indians who were brought to work on the sugarcane plantations. But 12 months later, a small group of disgruntled persons moved to oust the government. The armed action was the handiwork of a bunch of failed businessmen, defeated politicians and others chafing at the loss of power and alarmed at the direction of the Chaudhry government's economic reform policies. The gang claimed to speak for the entire indigenous Fijian community by stating that it wanted to give power "back to Fijians".

An armed guard beside him, Speight steps out of the Parliament complex on May 26 for the first time since he and his supporters took Chaudhry and his Cabinet colleagues hostage on May 19.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

The actions of George Speight and his associates have dealt a blow to democracy in Fiji, divided society on racial lines and derailed the process of political reconciliation that had started with the unveiling of a new Constitution in 1997. The Fiji Islands had a history of more than a century of racial harmony and peaceful co-existence between the two communities. But the defeat in the 1987 elections of the 17-year-old regime of the Alliance Party headed by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara by a coalition dominated by a party supported in the main by Indo-Fijians triggered forces that changed the placid atmosphere on the islands. The indigenous Fijians found it difficult to accept their loss of power in their homeland, especially to a coalition of Indo-Fijians and Fijians who did not belong to the traditional Fijian hierarchy of tribal chiefs. The resentment culminated in a military coup in 1987.

While it is convenient to label the current crisis as being racial in origin, there is more to the armed seizure at Parliament House than hostility towards an ethnic Indian-led government. George Speight is merely the front man for a variety of interests; he was adopted as the leader of the armed group at the last minute because of his "communication skills". The militant group wanted to put across its views in a palatable form. It was clear that many people had not reconciled themselves to the defeat of the government of Col. Sitiveni Rabuka; these private interests, exemplified by Speight, a failed businessman who was sacked by Chaudhry from two government companies, came together to exploit the anger of a small section of ethnic Fijians directed at a government led by an Indian.

The 1987 coup was orchestrated by the military, but the current crisis was triggered by a group of disgruntled ex-army officers, businessmen and others. It has not received the kind of support that the coup of 1987 enjoyed. Neither the Fijian Army nor the police nor any other major institution in the country publicly supported the attempted takeover. Instead, the Fiji Trades Union Congress called a successful strike to protest the seizure. However, as the hostage crisis went into its second week without any attempt to end it by force, Fijians gathered around the Parliament complex, as if at a carnival. Rather than being a manifestation of the racial divide, the crisis brought into the open the rift within the indigenous Fijian feudal structure. Despite all efforts at moral suasion, the terrorist group continued to flout the authority of the Great Council of Chiefs, which was trying to use its influence to end the crisis.

The 1987 coup had widespread support among indigenous Fijians who believed that Indo-Fijians were taking over their country. At that time the number of Indo-Fijians was slightly larger than that of the Fijian Melanesian population. The coup relegated Indo-Fijians to the status of second-class citizens; helped by affirmative action programmes, ethnic Fijians ousted Indo-Fijians from government jobs and positions. This led to a large-scale flight of Indo-Fijians, particularly professionals, to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which sharply altered Fiji's demographic profile. In 1986, Indo-Fijians accounted for 48.6 per cent of the population and were the largest ethnic group in the country. Indigenous Fijians comprised 46.2 per cent of the population. By 1997, Indo-Fijians accounted for only 44 per cent of the population.

Following the coup of 1987, Fiji faced international isolation and the economy was severely affected.

EVER since the 1994 elections it has been clear that the ethnic Indian population will remain a political force. The sheer numbers of Indo-Fijians, who even now constitute 44 per cent of the population of 812,000 (1999 figures), will ensure that. If the indigenous Fijian vote is split, any ethnic Fijian leader who hopes to form a government would need the support of the Indo-Fijian parties in the House of Representatives, the Lower House of Parliament.

A few months after the 1987 coup, public opinion forced the military junta to hand over power to an interim civilian government, which functioned under the shadow of the military. The coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, swiftly moved up the ranks of the nation's small Army and later transformed his military persona to become a full-fledged political leader by the time elections were held in 1992. By then Rabuka had emerged as a popular hero for the majority of indigenous Fijians. Although race relations had been good until then, the coup brought into the open ethnic Fijians' fears that they would be swamped by the more vocal and politically conscious nationals of Indian origin. A racially biased Constitution which reduced the number of parliamentary seats for Indo-Fijians was adopted in 1990. Rabuka was elected Prime Minister under this Constitution in 1992.

However, by 1994, the main political party of indigenous Fijians, the Soqosoqo no Vakavulewa ni Taukei Party (SVT), split: a section of the back-benchers broke away to form the Fijian Association Party. Fresh elections were called when the Appropriations Bill for the annual budget was defeated in Parliament. The Fijian Association Party served to split the ethnic Fijian vote and this forced the majority section of the Fijian representation to seek the help of one of the Indo-Fijian parties. Rabuka emerged the winner in the post-election intra-party leadership battle, with the support of Mahendra Chaudhry's National Labour Party. In return, the NLP secured an assurance from Rabuka that the discriminatory Constitution of 1990 would be reviewed.

The 1970 Constitution, which had been adopted at the time of Fiji's independence from British rule, was a carefully crafted document. It provided for a racial balance in the House of Representatives, assigning 22 seats each for indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Of these, 11 seats each were known as communal seats: indigenous Fijians voted for candidates from their community and Indo-Fijians voted for candidates from theirs. The other 11 seats in each category were open seats, where both Indians and ethnic Fijians voted for the candidates. The remaining eight seats were allotted to all the other ethnic communities under the category of general electors. Only indigenous Fijians could contest the Fijian seats and only ethnic Indians could contest the Indian seats, but candidates needed the support of all the ethnic groups represented in the common electoral rolls, in the 11 common seats to be contested by the two communities. It meant that both communities had an equal share of power and each would need the support of sections of the other community.

The 1990 Constitution, however, was heavily loaded against Indo-Fijians; the number of seats for ethnic Indians was restricted to 27, against 37 for indigenous Fijians. This Constitution was intended to ensure that Indo-Fijians would never come to power in Fiji; it reserved several important posts for indigenous Fijians. However, electoral politics has its own dynamics, and it became necessary for the indigenous Fijian leaders to seek the support of Indo-Fijian parties to form the government. This realisation led to the beginning of a process of political reconciliation, resulting in a more equitable Constitution of 1997.

ANOTHER issue that continues to cause friction between the two communities is that of land leases. Over 80 per cent of the land in Fiji is owned by Fijians - not individually, but by the entire village or tribe. Under the law, land held in this manner cannot be sold. Ethnic Indians grow sugarcane on land taken on 30-year leases, which are administered by the Native Land Trust Board. Tourism and garment exports, besides sugar, are Fiji's main foreign exchange earners.

The majority of the land leases will come up for renewal in the next two years. Many ethnic Fijians want to reduce the lease period to 10 years or take over the land themselves. This was one sensitive issue that the Chaudhry government faced. A couple of extremist Fijian leaders had claimed that Chaudhry was considering legislation to provide for 99-year leases. But not once since the hostage crisis began did the terrorist group speak about the land lease issue.

It took the Fijian economy more than a decade to get over the negative consequences of the 1987 coup - among them were flight of capital, suspension of foreign investment, collapse of tourism and delay in harvesting cane. The Fiji dollar was devalued twice (at current exchange rates, one Fiji dollar is equal to $ 1.9556) and Indo-Fijians, mostly the well-off, professional and skilled class, left the country. Gross foreign exchange reserves fell and as a consequence large capital outflows were banned. Unemployment increased and inflation reigned high. Trade unions in Australia and New Zealand imposed bans on trade with Fiji, which resulted in food shortages, since food items account for 15 per cent of Fiji's imports. New Zealand refused to renew a contract to buy Fiji sugar at a price higher than the prevailing international prices.

Fiji's total budgeted expenditure for 1999 was F$ 1,083 million, while the revenue forecast was F$ 994 million. The budget provided for a deficit of F$ 70 million, or 1.9 per cent of GDP. Revenue estimates for 2000 were F$ 1,028 million; the budgeted expenditure was F$ 1,098 million. Inflation was projected at zero per cent for 1999 and three per cent for 2000. However, as a consequence of the latest political disturbance, trade deficit and inflation may well touch double digits. Thirteen years ago, the country paid a high economic price for political destabilisation. This time around, the story is unlikely to be any different.

The sugar, tourism and garment exports industries have all been affected by the political disturbance. A bumper sugarcane crop awaits harvesting, but the ethnic Indo-Fijians who constitute the bulk of cane farmers have refused to cut the cane, and the crushing mills have come to a standstill. Tourist bookings at the country's famed resorts were cancelled on a large scale and the number of airline flights to Fiji dropped after the armed action began. Garment exports to Australia, Fiji's largest trading partner, were affected by a boycott that came into effect under the influence of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

While governments in the neighbourhood, including Australia and New Zealand, took their time to consider the possibility of imposing trade sanctions against Fiji, the trade unions decided not to handle goods from Fiji.

Sugar accounts for 30 per cent of the country's exports and 12 per cent of GDP. Sugar processing accounts for a third of employment and all industrial activity in Fiji. Garment manufacturing and export had been growing in the past few years. Last year, garment exports yielded F$ 272 million, surpassing the value of sugar exports for the same period. Last year's tourism earnings were a record F$ 568 million and during the current year tourist arrivals were expected to grow by over 7 per cent. Following the armed takeover, these projections are certain to go awry.

Before the armed action, foreign exchange reserves were reported to be adequate to cover almost six months' imports. However, Fiji's debt is rather high at F$ 1.4 billion, or 40 per cent of GDP; F$ 527 million was expended on debt servicing between 1996 and 1998.

When it was voted to power last year, the People's Coalition government headed by former trade union leader Mahendra Chaudhry had caused the business sector in Fiji some worry. There were apprehensions that the government would go in for higher taxes and duties to fund the social action programme it had promised at election time. Among the early moves of the new government was to bring down the prices of some basic food items (most of which were imported) by reducing value added tax and customs rates. Additionally, 17 consumer items were listed for price control and the government reduced the power tariff. Budgetary allocations for health, education, agriculture and infrastructure development were increased. The government announced plans to take a closer look at the working of the scandal-tainted banking sector and the insurance sector, and there was talk of introducing a national minimum wage. Evidently, this did not go down too well with the business community.

Shubha Singh is currently writing a book on Fiji and the Indian experience.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor