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The coup leader with a 'fanatical streak'

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by David Robie

USP journalism programme

SUVA: The leader of the kidnappers holding the Fiji Islands government captive in Parliament has been branded as a terrorist by both the Pacific country's president and the leading daily newspaper Fiji Times.

But just four days ago he was a local timber industry businessman with a modest profile and reputedly an undischarged bankrupt.

Although rumours of an impending coup attempt had been rife in Fiji for weeks, few people took them seriously. And self-proclaimed rebel prime minister George Speight, shaved-head with a measured voice, was not on the list of aspiring coup-makers.

Even though he regularly played golf with Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka, the man who staged Fiji's first two coups in 1987 which ended with the country becoming a republic and ostracised by the Commonwealth, Speight's armed takeover of Parliament was a surprise to the former military commander.

At first, Rabuka seemed an ideal mediator. He had been something of a cult figure among young indigenous Fijians after his early exploits and his first biography "Rabuka: No Other Way" and he was again a celebrity earlier this year with the publication of his life story in the book "Rabuka of Fiji".

He had been the dominant political figure in Fiji for more than a decade. Ironically, he was also a key architect of the 1997 multiracial constitution which led to his crushing defeat by Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party-led coalition a year ago this month.

However, after early "shuttle diplomacy" between the President, Sir Kamisese Mara, and Speight in several attempts to resolve the hostage crisis, Rabuka finally ran foul of the kidnappers.

Speight said he no longer trusted Rabuka.

The former coup leader was rather scathing about Speight and his fellow kidnappers in an exclusive interview with Fiji Television.

Rabuka scoffed at Speight's claims to have seized Parliament on behalf of indigenous Fijians.

"I don't know why he is claiming to be acting on behalf of indigenous rights like I did in 1987. I'm still waiting for him to say this in Fijian," Rabuka said.

Speight, a mixed-race fourth-generation descendant of a white settler in Fiji, is the son of Opposition parliamentarian Savenaca Tokainavo, who is among the hostages.

Tokainavo, a dairy farm farmer also known as Sam Speight, is reportedly depressed about his son's actions in seizing Parliament.

George Speight's paternal grandmother is from Naivicula village in Wainibuka, about 10km from Korovou in Tailevu, near Suva. His mother is from Ra in the western sugar cane belt of the main island of Viti Levu.

The family is popular over its local community development activities.

During last year's election, Speight stood as a proxy candidate for his father on a ticket for Rabuka's SVT party. Savenaca Tokainavo defeated nationalist Iliesa Duvuloco - now the "lands minister" in Speight's rebel government - at the polls.

"Nobody thought Speight had this sort of fanatical streak," said a colleague who declined to be named.

Last Monday, he pleaded not guilty on exchange rate and extortion charges in the High Court in Suva.

Rabuka said he was surprised by Speight's earlier brush with the law.

According to the Fiji Times, Speight is also an undischarged bankrupt.

"He was director George Speight of the Wattle Group, an Australian investment company which siphoned millions of dollars from the Australian police, Fiji citizens and life savings," alleged the newspaper.

Speight is seen by some associates as bearing a grudge against the Labour Party-led coalition and Prime Minister Chaudhry because he was dumped as chief executive from the Fiji Hardwood Corporation and also from the board of Fiji Pine Ltd. The coalition's Forests Minister, Poseci Bune, an indigenous Fijian, sacked him when the cabinet moved to halt privatisation policies of the Rabuka government..

Speight is understood to have earlier basked in the patronage of former Finance Minister Jim Ah Koy in Rabuka's government.

He has no apologies for what is seen as an unashamedly racist and pro-Fijian stance.

"We are not going to apologise to anybody and we are not going to step back, and we are not going to be daunted by accusations of racism, or one-sidedness," Speight said early in the crisis.

"At the end of the day, it is [about] the supreme rights of our indigenous people in Fiji, the desire is that it be returned - wholesome and preserved for the future."

Speight says people don't need to have the "mind of an Albert Einstein" to understand the plight of indigenous Fijians. He believes expressed grievances had fallen on deaf ears.

The irony is that while many indigenous Fijians distrust the Labour-led government's policies on land tenure for landless Indo-Fijian cane farmers, Chaudhry has initiated many far-reaching reforms for the benefit of all rural and urban poor Fiji Islanders and boosted education, health and welfare.

Asked whose coup was better planned and executed, Rabuka would not be drawn into comparisons with Speight, saying such judgements were best left to observers.

But he adds: "We went down a similar road in 1987. It led us nowhere. Speight should pull out of this treasonable act while there is still time."


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