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Howard’s End: Behind The Fiji Coup

An select group of right-leaning elites were behind, not one, but three coups against elected governments in Fiji. Scoop's John Howard looks at the evidence.

The Fijian Army effectively seized control of Fiji on May 29, following a coup attempt on May 19 by George Speight.

Speight and 15 gunmen had seized 31 hostages, including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, and most of his cabinet who, apart from four recent releases, they still hold.

Speight then declared himself Prime Minister on behalf of the indigenous population of Fiji whose rights he charged were being usurped by the ethnic Indian minority.

The international media have endorsed Speight's claim that the crisis is an ethnic conflict between indigenous people and the Indian minority, who the British colonial masters brought to Fiji in the 19th century.

"Ethnic tensions" were also blamed for two coups in 1987 by Chaudhry's predecessor - military strongman Sitevini Rabuka, - who seized power against "Indian domination" of the Government.

In Rabuka’s coup Indians were excluded from Government participation for the next decade, but Fiji was also shunned by the international community.

In 1997, a new multi-racial Constitution was adopted ending Fiji's isolation. And in May 1999, Prime Minister Rabuka was defeated in a landslide by Chaudhry and his Fiji Labour Party.

Far from being oppressive and "Indian dominated" Chaudhry's government had more native Fijian than Indian Minister's, as well as overwhelming support from poor and working class Fijians, indigenous and Indian alike.

Chaudhry is no new comer to the political scene - he co-founded the the Fiji Labour Party in 1985, and had been Finance Minister in 1987 before the Rabuka coups.

Despite being badly beaten by Rabuka's forces, he is widely admired for not fleeing Fiji after the initial coups, as did many other Government Ministers.

Like Chaudhry himself, a former head of the Trade Union Congress, both one-third of his current cabinet and many backbenchers, were senior union officials before they entered Government.

According to a Fijian born academic the local multi-racial oligarchy apparently despised Chaudhry's policies which promoted the general welfare of working Fijians.

Australian National University history professor Brij V. Lal, a native Fijian and an author of Fiji's Constitution, believes most Fijian's approved of Chaudhry's policies.

"He was espousing old, conventional Labour-type policies,” Lal says.

"Protecting trade unions, rolling back structural reform (austerity) programs, talking at least about introducing a minimum wage, trying to make sure that foreign investment in Fiji came, but that it wasn't a kind of rampant capitalism - he was attempting those kinds of things.

“[Chaudhry] was beginning to consolidate his position across a broad spectrum of people. And once that happened, of course, the power base of those other ethnically based parties would be threatened," he said.

Before the latest coup, Chaudhry had scrapped the regressive 10% value added tax on cooking oil, flour, powdered milk, rice, fish and other food essentials; had established price controls over other basic commodities; had intervened against "downsizing" by major industries; and had started to bring clean water and electricity to rural areas.

This, his free market opponents could not tolerate.

As the May 28 issue of the Melbourne paper, Sunday Age admitted, the mastermind behind Speight's coup was British SAS Colonel, Ilisoni Ligairi, the founder of Fiji's 30-man elite Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRWU), who provided Speight with his soldiers.

Liagairi had been appointed to head the British, Australian, and US-trained CRWU in 1987 by then coup leader Rabuka.

According to the Sunday Age, planning for Speight's coup took place at Rabuka's house.

A senior Australian counter-terrorism operative believes that the Australian intelligence services would also have been connected to the coup.

"They would have some links to them, they know everything that goes on in the South Pacific," he said.

Therefore, it was no shocker that on May 23 Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, after a protest that the coup "has taken us completely by surprise," gave it Australia's tacit approval by declaring that Chaudhry need not be reinstated as long as "democracy was restored."

On May 29, the Fijian military under Commodore Frank Bainimarama, seized control of the country to "restore order."

However, the Australian and New Zealand-trained Bainimarama, like Speight, dismissed the Chaudhry Government; annulled the 1997 multi-racial Constitution; announced that he would give an amnesty against prosecution to Speight.

The Fijian military has suggested it could end up holding power for the next two years a move which, in anyone's language, means another military coup has occurred in Fiji.

The lack reaction from Fiji's elites suggests the support of the wealthy oligarchs whose power-base, authority and ability to manage a country to its own advantage, was being undermined by the reformer, Mahendra Chaudhry.

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