Hard times

Print edition : December 08, 2001

Even after the installation of a democratically elected government, the wounds that the coup and violence of 2000 inflicted on Fiji's social and economic life remain.

SUVA, the capital of Fiji, bears few signs of the riots that ripped the port city 18 months ago during the coup against the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) government led by Mahendra Chaudhry. Reminders of the turmoil, like a series of wall paintings along a downtown street or the shell of a burnt-out restaurant building on the seafront daubed with pro-democracy slogans, go virtually unnoticed amidst the spanking new plazas and arcades. There has been a government-sponsored effort, aided by insurance payments, to help rebuild the damaged structures. A Buy Suva shopping week is on. While the crowds mill around, shop owners complain of limited sales. This is a picture of Fiji today.

The physical signs of the civil strife are being wiped away, but the deeper wounds caused to the social and economic fabric of the country are hard to heal. The coup shattered the economy, which was just beginning to pull out of a decade-long stagnation that followed the earlier coup in 1987. International sanctions have affected the garment industry, while tourists have kept away since the first signs of trouble in the islands. The general elections of September 2001 brought a democratically elected government to power. However, the bruises left by an emotionally charged elections will take time to heal.

ON May 19, 2000 an armed group took Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet hostages. Every group that aired its grievances following the coup linked the development to the indigenous Fijian community's dissatisfaction at its economic backwardness. During the campaign for the September 2001 elections, appeals based on ethnicity became strident and, for the first time, voters were polarised on racial lines. The ethnic Indian community went to the elections as the wronged party, and as the primary target of the coup and the lawlessness that followed. The heightened feelings during the coup led indigenous Fijians to believe that they were being marginalised from both economic and political power. Fijians of Indian origin, by and large, voted for the FLP seeking a return of its leadership in government. The majority of ethnic Fijians voted for the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanu (SDL), the party floated by Interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, or for the hardline, nationalistic Conservative Alliance (C.A.). Moderate indigenous Fijian parties were wiped out as the SDL and the C.A. focussed on the primacy of indigenous Fijians' interests.

The three intrinsically intertwined issues of race, land and politics have played important roles in Fijian society. However, unlike earlier elections in which the main political parties contested on a multi-racial plank, the September 2001 elections were fought on ethnic lines. This reality is now reflected in the composition of the government as well. Although the FLP, as the largest Opposition party, was entitled to a place in the Cabinet under the provisions of Fiji's Constitution, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase refused to include it because of his inability to work with Chaudhry. Refusing to accept the position of the Leader of the Opposition, Chaudhry has challenged Qarase's action in court.

While the political divide is taking its time to recede, the issues that have a direct effect on the people pertain to reconciliation, land and the economy. Vinay Chandra, a taxi driver in Suva, said: "The economy is down, there are no jobs. The garment factory where my mother worked is closed. First of all, we have to eat. Politics is secondary."

"We can live together, if it were not for the politics," said Ali, who runs a motor vehicle workshop in Lautoka town. "There is poverty among Indians and Fijians. But Fijian leaders point to large shops owned by Gujaratis and say all Indians are rich," he added. Since the days of the civil strife, a lingering sense of insecurity has prevailed in Suva. It affects not only Indian-Fijians but also people of other ethnic groups such as the part-Fijians and other Pacific islanders.

The positive signs in Suva are the efforts made by various social organisations towards reconciliation. A poster in Suva reads: "Only when racism is talked about and recognised can its real face be addressed." A young speaker at a seminar in Suva said that peace and reconciliation meant not only the absence of conflict but also having the courage to address the wrongs of the past and the fortitude to build an inclusive future.

The ethnic divide in Fiji is not seen as racism but as something that protects the interests of the indigenous people. The new government is considering a three-language system in schools - comprising English, Fijian and Hindi - so that each community can speak the other's language. Ideas of integration came from outside and were resisted by Fijians as they we feared these would lead to a loss of their special identity. Misconceptions about the other community abound in Fijian society, and there has been little concerted effort to dispel them. The impression of the Indian community being rich is belied by statistical figures. There are Indians in all economic strata.

The lush greenery of the Pacific island nation helps to hide the stark face of poverty. A recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) study estimated 40 per cent unemployment in the country. According to Professor Vijay Naidu of the University of the South Pacific, about 12,000 students come out of the school system at all levels every year. Of them, only 2,000 get jobs in the organised sector. Over 30 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2000, and recent estimates suggest that another 10 per cent would have been pushed into this category in the past one year.

While in the past year there has been an economic downturn it had recorded a healthy growth rate the year before. The tourism sector has become vulnerable, especially because of the fall in air travel from the U.S. after the September 11 events. At the moment, the economy needs major attention since its main sectors, such as tourism and the sugar industry, have been affected. (Sugar production has dropped from four million tonnes to 2.5 million tonnes in the past year, partly owing to the expiry of land leases.)

Land for sugarcane farming is leased by Indian farmers for periods of 30 years. Although the time has come for renewal of most leases, landowners are refusing to renew them. The Indian farmers, who have lost their farms, have to look for other avenues of work in a declining economy. Meanwhile, although some Fijian landowners have taken to cane farming, a large part of lands that were under sugarcane cultivation is lying fallow. Indian farmers believe after the coup the landowners stopped renewing leases because they feel they are not getting adequate returns for their land even when Fijian sugar sells at a high price under a preferential trading arrangement. They add that cane prices are determined by the Fiji Sugar Corporation, whose mills require major technology upgradation.

The expiry of the land leases is an immediate problem because about a quarter million of Fiji's population is directly dependent on the sugar industry in its various forms. The Qarase government has plenty of problems before it, and the most important ones relate to convincing people of the two main ethnic groups to work together for the economic security of all communities.

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