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USP Journalism Programme

By David Robie
© USP Journalism Programme

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SUVA: One of the ironies of embattled Fiji is that today is Constitution
Day. But there is no constitution - the multiracial document was
abrogated by decree by the then military regime on May 30 at the start
of martial law.

Nevertheless it's still a welcome public holiday, even if there is
little to celebrate.

And at least one wit has dubbed the occasion "Reconstitution Day".
Now the country has two "governments" since the military handed
executive power (or has it really?) back to civilians.

One is the caretaker government in Suva awaiting reappointment by then
interim President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo. Its formal swearing-in was called
off last Wednesday after further threats.

The line-up was condemned by the country's moderates for including
rebels and their Taukei Movement allies, while insurrection leader
George Speight rejected it as a betrayal of his indigenous "cause".

The other government of national unity is being formed at Sorokoba
village in the west of Viti Levu by deposed Prime Minister Mahendra
Chaudhry and more than half of the 71 MPs elected under the 1997
constitution - including many of the former hostages.

There is even a third "government", which still seems to be pulling most
of the strings. These are the ratbag remnants of Speight's so-called
Taukei civilian government that are camped at Kalabu Fijian School on
the outskirts of Suva, near the airport town of Nausori.

Already their supporters have left a trail of theft, car burnings,
hijackings and assaults since leaving Parliament after the 60-day siege,
During the hostage drama, Fiji has had four "heads of state" (if you
count Speight's brief self-appointment at the start of the crisis), and
five "prime ministers".

As the silent majority of Fiji Islanders come to terms with feelings
ranging from confusion to resignation, or anger, over the countryÕs road
to ruin and despair, the moderate civil society opinion and optimism is
tentatively beginning to emerge.

Living and working here, as I have for almost three years with a
regional institution, has its comical and bewildering sides. Teaching
with the use of digital and computer technology is a challenge with
three power-cuts a day thanks to the rebels - 10am to 12noon, 2pm to 4pm
and 8pm to 10pm.

And a surreal staff cafeteria lunch by candlelight when the frequent
rain turns the day gloomy.

The disillusionment and frustration over a discredited Fiji military -
in spite of its past proud record in Lebanon, Sinai, Bougainville and
East Timor as peacekeepers - and police force in failing to restore law
and order is growing daily.

A cartoon in one daily newspaper sums up the paradox of the police
leadership vacuum.

Depicting young Fijian thugs burning and looting shops and homes in the
background, police officers are shown asking each other where is their

"I think on vacation," says one.

"I canÕt take this anymore - they have brought shame to the force. I'm
quitting for my own safety," replies the other.

Police Commissioner Isikia Savua considered it was an appropriate time
to attend a security conference in Vanuatu last week. His deputy,
Assistant Commissioner Operations Jahir Khan, is on a month's leave in
the United States.

In a sarcastic open letter to Speight, the Fiji Sun says: "Cut it out
George, it's not funny anymore!"

Citing a long list of damage wrought on the country - such as 5000
people out of jobs, international sanctions, a drop in sugar exports and
a fall in tourism - it adds: "George, you are the man!

"The burning of the vehicles at the parliamentary complex leading up to
the hour of [the abandoned swearing-in of interim ministers] was clever.
The majority of the people of this country are starting to hate what you
are doing.

"They don't understand you anymore É The majority of the people blame
you for the lawlessness É for everything bad that has happened since
May 19.

"This country is dying a slow death."

A court has issued a warrant for the arrest of Speight for dangerous
driving. This could be the start of legal actions against the coup
leader outside the scope of the amnesty.

There is also irony about the disenchantment of many grassroots
indigenous Fijians with Chaudhry and his constitutional mentor, ousted
President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the countryÕs 80-year-old elder
statesman who as the PacificÕs elder statesman has had an extraordinary
political career spanning five decades. The Labour-led "people's
coalition" government was the first to seriously address the problems of
the urban and rural poor of all races.

Chaudhry arguably achieved more in one year than his predecessor, 1987
coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, managed in seven years. But he alienated
the business community by rolling back privatisation policies and
restoring protectionism.

His government's attempt to solve the thorny land leases problem -
misrepresented as putting Fijian landowner rights in jeopardy - were in
fact essentially policies introduced by the indigenous Rabuka

The claims by Speight that the "cause" of the revolt was to "protect"
indigenous Fijian interests and culture are a sham.

Yes, the objective was certainly to regain indigenous Fijian supremacy
lost after the demise of the 1990 constitution .

But the 1997 constitution had entrenched safeguards to ensure indigenous
Fijian aspirations could not be thwarted by any government.

The main problem was that it was drawn up in the expectation that it
would be catering for mainstream politics in the country Ñ a coalition
of the middle ground of Indo-Fijian and indigenous Fijian politics.

However, the Fiji Labour Party won power in the May 1999 election with
an overwhelming Indo-Fijian and urban Fijian mandate. Although it formed
a coalition with Fijian parties, the result fuelled insecurities among
the rural and poorly educated vanua - the landowners.

Indo-Fijians had no ambitions for "cultural imperialism". In their
post-coup submissions of the Falvey Committee 1987, Manueli Committee
1989, and Reeves Commission 1995, they endorsed the belief that
indigenous Fijians needed special provisions to protect their culture
and tradition.

This was symbolised by National Federation Party leader Jai Ram Reddy's
emotional statement to the Great Council of Chiefs in 1997 that the
chiefs were the chiefs of all Fiji Islanders.

The deposed Parliament was never Indian-dominated, as widely reported in
the media. Fijians had 51 per cent representation in the House of
Representatives (elected lower house) and 72 per cent in the Senate
(appointed upper house).

Overall, Fijians had 57 per cent representation in Parliament during a
session of both Houses. (Fijians number 51 per cent of the 800,000

The government of national unity is likely to mount legal challenges to
the status of the interim government and abrogated constitution based
on the doctrine of necessity. But another Commonwealth precedent has
also been canvassed in the Fiji media - the doctrine of duress as
demonstrated in Trinidad and Tobago.

On 27 July 1990, a heavily armed radical Muslim group - "Muslimeen" -
seized Prime Minister Arthur Robinson and his government hostage in
Parliament, and stormed the state-run television station. Robinson was
wounded in the foot and was freed by his captors to negotiate an accord
for the release of the rest of the hostages.

When the siege was over after six days, Robinson rejected the settlement
signed under duress and the rebels were later arrested and jailed.

A final paradox from a local Fijian newspaper correspondent: "Try and
draw horns on Speight's, [Ratu Timoci] Silatolu's and [Colonel Ilisoni]
Ligairi's faces and you'll see Satan in three different forms," he

"I've tried hard to comprehend how ordinary Fijians could show undying
support for terrorism, murder, violent robberies and total disregard for
law and order - and still sing hymns and talk of God."

* David Robie is a New Zealand journalist and educator living in Fiji.


Title -- 2858 FIJI: Commentary: Fiji's ironies and muddled myths
Date -- 24 July 2000
Byline -- David Robie
Origin -- Pasifik Nius
Source -- USP Journalism Programme, 24/7/00
Copyright -- USP/Robie
Status -- Unabridged


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last revision July 26, 2000