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PM Statement On The Fijian Hostage Situation

23 May 2000

Statement by the Prime Minister on the taking hostage of the Prime Minister of Fiji, members of his Cabinet and other members of Fiji’s Parliament.

As Members will know, the Prime Minister of Fiji, Mahendra Chaudhry, along with most members of his Cabinet and coalition have been held hostage in Parliament House since last Friday. Some hostages have been released, apparently having been coerced to resign from Parliament. Others have been humiliated, psychologically abused and in some cases beaten by an armed gang led by a local businessman, George Speight.

The sight of a democratically elected Prime Minister and his colleagues being held at gunpoint is utterly repugnant to all New Zealanders. The government deplores this criminal action by Speight’s group. It constitutes an attack on the democratically elected representatives of the Fijian people, and on the very constitution of Fiji itself.

Speight is the son of Fiji Opposition MP Sam Speight. He was sacked last year by Fiji's Agriculture Minister from the Board of Fiji Pine Limited. He has previously come to attention for shady business activities. We understand that his group includes some former members of the Royal Fijian Military Forces “Meridian” special forces unit. Meridian was a unit set up to resist terrorism.

Following the hostage-taking, Speight has purported to suspend the Constitution and to appoint various individuals as Interim President, Prime Minister and Ministers. None of the individuals named are prominent political figures in Fiji - and a number of others mentioned as candidates disavowed any connection with Speight.

The outrageous hostage drama unfolded on Friday while a large demonstration was taking place in Suva, petitioning the President to dismiss Mr Chaudhry. We were all appalled by the subsequent scenes of demonstrators rampaging through central Suva, looting and burning commercial establishments and terrorising shopkeepers. The damage is estimated at $30 million. There has also been damage to Fiji's international reputation and its economy. Over and above that, the true cost is the terror suffered by hundreds of Indian families who spent a day sheltering from rioters as their property was destroyed and the many others throughout Fiji who are deeply apprehensive about their future.

It was heartening that the state of emergency declared by President Ratu Mara has received the support of the Fiji Military Force and the Police.

Some nationalist elements, including members of the Opposition party, have expressed support for Speight’s action. But to date he has not received the widespread support he hopes for.

Yesterday there was potential for further widespread civil disorder, around the wake of a General Strike called by the Fiji Trade Unions. The Fiji Police and Military took a firm stand to contain the situation and ensure order in the streets.

Fiji is a popular tourist destination for New Zealanders with some 3000 on holiday there at this time. Another 400 New Zealanders are resident there. Fortunately most tourists are in resort areas in the South and West where no significant trouble has been encountered. But while the situation in Suva is still tense, a Travel Advisory issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade remains in force, emphasising that only those with essential business should travel to Fiji at this time.

The High Commission office in Suva, which closed at midday Friday, opened again for business yesterday. Contact has been maintained throughout, using satellite communications as necessary. An additional Foreign Affairs officer has been sent to reinforce staff at the post, along with two Police DPS squad members as advisers.

We are particularly concerned at the physical treatment and threats that have been made against the Prime Minister and the other hostages. Mr Chaudhry and his Ministers have been subjected to severe psychological pressure and in some cases physical abuse. Speight has repeatedly declared that any attempt to release the hostages by force would result in casualties and that Mr Chaudhry and Koila Mara, Minister of Tourism and Ratu Mara’s daughter, would be the first to be killed.

I conveyed to President Ratu Mara the support of all New Zealanders. This has been a very difficult time for him both as a father and as the legitimate President of Fiji. He has New Zealand's full support to resolve the situation within the parameters of Fiji's constitution.

That constitution, framed over 10 painful years after the coup of 1987, was a considerable achievement. It effects a complicated balance of rights and interests, including special recognition of the place of the indigenous Fijian people. It is within this constitution that the current legitimate government was formed. The New Zealand Government strongly believes that it is within this constitution that the current political crisis must be resolved.

International eyes are also focussed on Fiji at this time of turmoil. Australia, the UK, the US, South Pacific Forum members, the Commonwealth Secretary-General and the UN Secretary-General are amongst those who have condemned the action and this attack on the democratic process. Last night Mr Goff contacted the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has agreed to send a personal emissary (Sergio de Mello, UN representative in East Timor) to Fiji to reinforce the international implications of the situation.

This is particularly important as the Great Council of Chiefs begins meeting today. They do so in the knowledge that their decisions will be seen in an international context and not just as a response to local pressures. The experience of being a pariah state is one we hope Fiji will not want to repeat. The risk to all Fijians is not simply the possibility of an illegitimate government with strained relations with its neighbours. The true risk is that all of Fiji’s friends, the peoples of the Pacific, the Commonwealth, and the wider international community would find it hard to trust a community that did not abide by its own agreed constitutional processes.

Living in New Zealand are many peoples from the Fiji Islands. These last few days have been traumatic for them. We want to assure those visitors from Fiji whose permits to be here are close to ending, that those permits can be extended and that they should do that through the Immigration Service.

Mr Speaker, the government has made clear its view on the illegitimacy of Speight’s actions. I believe all of us present in this House should make equally clear our abhorrence of this challenge to parliamentary democracy in a South Pacific neighbour state.

I foreshadow that at the end of responses to this statement and my reply to them, I will seek leave to move a Notice of Motion expressing the condemnation of the New Zealand Parliament of Mr Speight's actions and our support for the upholding of the Fiji constitution.

ends

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