Looking within

Print edition : June 20, 2008

Commodore Frank Bainimarama days after he seized power in a coup on December 5, 2006.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

An animated debate is under way in Fiji about the impact of coups on the country.

MAY is an uneasy month in the Fiji Islands because it brings back memories of the two occasions when the elected government was overthrown violently, setting off a period of animosities and looting. This year, the month marked the 21st anniversary of the first coup by a group of middle-ranking army officers on May 14, 1987, and the eighth anniversary of the armed takeover of May 19, 2000. A remarkable similarity marked the way in which the two coups were carried out: armed groups walked into the Parliament building and took the Prime Minister and his Cabinet hostage.

This year, there have been surprisingly open discussions in Fiji on the coups and their impact on the countrys social and economic life, with different sections of the people and political leaders expressing their views. A strong contributory factor for the introspective exercise is the fact that Fiji is once again under a military-led government with the commander of the armed forces, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, as Interim Prime Minister.

Last year, the interim government was still settling in, and the political environment was not conducive to introspection. This year, the interim government is keen to formulate a new Peoples Charter for Change and Progress through wide consultations under the aegis of a National Council for Building a Better Fiji. The charter is part of Bainimaramas avowed plan to remove the rigidly compartmentalised race-based electoral system and introduce a more inclusive and democratic polity. The proposal has provoked a good deal of discussion. The charter itself is embroiled in controversy as the political parties and other influential groups have refused to be part of the Council on the grounds that it is Parliament that should debate such sweeping changes in the Constitution.

On taking over power, Bainimarama said that Fijis Constitution would be reviewed to rid the country of race-based politics. He said that each voter should vote for a single candidate on the basis of a combined electoral roll instead of separate electoral rolls for Indians, Fijians and other races. Parliament in Fiji has fixed quotas for indigenous Fijians, ethnic Indians and other races, with each ethnic group voting for its own representatives. Representatives in a limited number of seats are elected on a general electoral roll. There is a growing view that race-based voting fosters racial politics as political leaders can ignore other ethnic communities while looking after the narrow, parochial interests of their own ethnic group.

At a recent conference, former Vice-President Ratu Joni Madriwiwi, who was ousted in the December 2006 coup, spoke about the highly-charged political environment and the considerable debate about the electoral system and governance that had taken place.

A respected legal luminary and a traditional chief of the indigenous Fijians, Ratu Joni said: Both the interim regime and the National Council For Building A Better Fiji have provoked the ire of certain sections of Fijian opinion by advocating a one vote, one value electoral system. Fijian protagonists have interpreted this as an attack on indigenous identity and the right to have their representatives elected on their own electoral rolls. In the present situation, Fijians are able to exercise predominance over other communities, so the insistence of having separate electoral rolls and representatives becomes less obvious. The irony is that in this different setting, it is the minority communities who then need to be protected. The long-term solution for Fiji lies neither in communal seats nor in a one vote, one value electoral system. The answer lies in proportional representation that provides the most appropriate safeguards for minorities.

The debate and introspection has brought into the open many unarticulated strains that have existed since the coups. According to Ropate Qalo of the University of the South Pacifics Department of Sociology and Social Work, the injury caused by the first coup has never healed. Others have talked about shadowy figures who were behind the 1987 and 2000 coups people who were never identified but who used the events for their own personal and political ends. Many radical indigenous Fijians have justified the coups, which in their perception have restored their political supremacy in the country.

One of the architects of the 1997 Constitution, Brij Lal, said at a recent seminar that Fiji had suffered a great deal from the coup of 1987 and that a series of political crisis since could have been avoided if it were not accepted as legitimate. But because people were seeing through the prism of race and indigenous rights, things were confusing when, in fact, the issue was the military overthrow of a democratically elected government, he said. That is the bottom line, but people did not see that. Those involved with the first coup were granted immunity and the lack of respect for law and order started from there, Lal said.

Over 120,000 people, mostly people of Indian origin but also a sizable number of ethnic Fijians, left the country after the 1987 coup. The ethnic Indian community, comprising descendants of Indian indentured workers brought to the islands to work on sugarcane plantations, was the largest ethnic group in the country at the time of its independence from the British Empire in 1970. Indigenous Fijians now form 51 per cent of the population while people of Indian origin constitute the largest minority at 38 per cent of the population.

Each successive coup has led to an accelerated rate of emigration, and it is the better qualified and more enterprising who migrate to foreign lands. The progressive loss of skilled personnel has had its impact on the economy and so have the political upheavals wrought by the coups. Recent studies have shown that about 50 per cent of the islands population lives under the poverty line.

On the anniversary of the 1987 coup, the Fiji Times wrote: Since 1987, we have lost more than 120,000 talented and skilled people to nations abroad. Our economy is not growing, investments have dwindled and it is difficult to find work. We are spending more than we earn, the cost of food and fuel has increased, tourism is suffering and people have lost their jobs.

After 21 years since that fateful day in May, we have lost everything and gained nothing. We have lost out on 21 years of development, of growth, of missed opportunity, of progress and of prosperity. We are still a divided country divided by race, gender, religion and ideology. There is little patriotism and no unifying symbol or leader. Every time we try to move forward, we get pulled back by coups. We will never progress if we keep having coups. History tells us that quite clearly.

On May 14, 1987, Lt Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, the third ranking officer of Fijis army, led 10 soldiers into the hall where the newly elected House of Representatives was in session. One of the soldiers yelled Sit down everybody, this is a takeover while Rabuka rounded up Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra and his Ministers and took them away in an army truck. A reporter from the commercial FM radio, who was present in the press gallery, rushed to broadcast the news of the coup even as the armed forces stormed the capitals telephone exchange and shut down all means of communication.

DEPOSED PRIME MINISTER Laisenia Qarase, whose government was accused of corruption, on the day of the coup in 2006.-TIM WIMBORNE/REUTERS

Thirteen years later, a similar scene was played out. On May 19, 2000, as a few thousand Fijians staged a march through Suva to protest against government policies, a group of seven men armed with AK-47 rifles stormed into the Parliament complex. As the news of the takeover attempt spread, the demonstrators ran towards the Parliament complex and took over its lawns.

It took the armed forces 56 days to negotiate the release of the hostages. In both instances, the perpetrators of the coup claimed to be acting to protect the special rights and privileges of the indigenous Fijians.

On December 5, 2006, Bainimarama announced that he had taken over the government and removed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase after a long-drawn-out cycle of open bickering between the Prime Minister and the military chief.

Faced by crippling sanctions by its two largest neighbours, Australia and New Zealand (both banned the entry of any person associated with the interim government) Interim Prime Minister Banimarama assured the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum that elections would be held in early 2009.

Unlike on the previous two occasions, Bainimarama did not claim to be protecting the interests of indigenous Fijians but accused the Qarase government of corruption and of following racist policies. The military commander alleged that the general elections of 2006 were marred by massive rigging of votes and said that the incumbent government used state resources to buy support. He asserted that he had acted to protect the rights and interests of all the people of Fiji. The 2006 coup did not target ethnic Indians. It marked a power struggle between two influential indigenous Fijians and brought into the open the simmering dissension within the ethnic Fijian community.

Twenty-one years after he overthrew the government, former Prime Minister Rabuka has admitted for the first time that his actions were wrong. It was a mistake and I admit I was wrong, he said. According to Rabuka, the coups in 2000 and 2006 were staged by people who thought they would be considered heroes for their actions. But you dont become a hero by staging a coup. If there was a better and softer way, I would have taken that path, but whats done is done. Lets put all that behind us and stop this coup culture because it does not help with development and progress. Let us move on and take Fiji forward, he said. Rabuka even went through the traditional forgiveness-seeking ceremony by presenting a tabu (whales tooth) to the Fijian chiefs.

Sitiveni Rabuka, who led two military coups in 1987 and served as Prime Minister between 1992 and 1999.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) leader Laisenia Qarase, who was ousted as Prime Minister in December 2006, said the overthrow of any elected government was illegal. There is nothing right with the illegal overthrow of a government, Qarase said. It is treason and in my view, it should never happen in a civilised country such as Fiji. Its been 20 years since Rabuka carried out the first coup and though he has expressed regret, it does not take away the pain of those who have suffered in the 1987, 2000 and 2006 coups. In any illegal overthrow the losers are the people of the country. Each coup takes the country back by 20 years, he said.

Bainimarama sees the charter proposal as essential to fixing Fijis social problems, but it has been opposed by many politicians, traditional Fijian chiefs, church associations and other groups. In late May, he told a public gathering at Rewa, outside Suva, that if the chiefs and politicians did not accept the charter process, there would be no elections. This set alarm bells ringing as the military chief had, at the last meeting of the leaders of the Pacific region, committed himself to holding elections by March 2009.

Recently, a meeting between Bainimarama and Qarase was organised through the good offices of various influential people. Qarase termed the military chiefs comment as unfortunate and said: In view of the dialogue between us, it would be good if we come to the discussions without any preconditions. The former Prime Minister said that he was willing to be involved in a dialogue that included all parties represented in the last Parliament.

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