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Chaudhry government did not fail Fijians: Rabuka

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by David Robie USP journalism programme

SUVA: Great Council of Chiefs chairman Sitiveni Rabuka says he believes Fiji's Mahendra Chaudhry government held hostage by rebel gunmen has not failed indigenous Fijians.

He admitted this in a media conference called last night to announce the decision of the council to support the President's steps to return Fiji to constitutional rule.

The council meets again today to consider demands by rebel leader George Speight and details of President Ratu Kamisese Mara's plan to end the five-day-old hostage crisis.

Badgered by reporters questioning Rabuka about claims that he had said the government of Chaudhry, the Pacific country's first Indo-Fijian prime minister, had not served Fijians well, he denied this.

When pressed further, he said that not much more could be expected in the first year of the Fiji Labour Party-led multiracial coalition government.

As he stood up to leave, he added strongly: "I don't think it has failed indigenous Fijians."

Chaudhry was detained by Rabuka's troops in the first coup on 14 May 1987 when he was finance minister in Dr Timoci Bavadra's deposed Labour-led government.

Ironically, Fiji's Sunday Times published a two-day interview with Chaudhry assessing his first year in office two days after the prime minister and his government had been seized at gunpoint in Parliament.

Headlined "Reducing poverty is our poriority," Chaudhry told the newspaper that his government was "making good on its promise to alleviate poverty" and that most Fiji Islanders had "faith" in his government.

Outlining his government's achievements, which political observers compare favourably with the seven-year rule of the post-coup elected Rabuka government, Chaudhry cited:

* A reduction in the price of basic food items by removing customs duty and value added tax on such food.

* A reduction in charges for basic utility services, such as electricity and water.

* Introducing a micro-finance scheme which makes it possible for poor people and those on lower incomes to be able to access loan finance to begin small ventures and become economically independent.

* Assistance for women to become economically independent (mainly through the micro finance scheme).

* Boosting budget assistance for education, health and welfare programmes.

* Agricultural development in depressed rural areas.

"[Alleviating poverty] has been our first priority and, of course, at the same time we have been active in taking initiatives and promoting measures to attract investment to promote economic growth," Chaudhry said.

"Overall we achieved an economic growth in 1999 of around 7.5 per cent which is quite remarkable," Chaudhry told the paper.

Asked about the land tenure issue, he replied: "Why [has Rabuka's] Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei party (SVT) not resolved this problem while they were in power for seven years?"

"Because they found that it was not an easy thing and there should be a balanced approach to it.

"So they are accusing my government of not giving in to the Native Lands Trust Board (NLTB). But our reasons for saying ALTA [Agriculture Landlord and Tenant Act] should be retained are borne out by two independent reports which the SVT government had itself commissioned.

"We have hardly been in government for 12 months and they want us to do what they did not do in seven years."

* Meanwhile, as international condemnation of the armed civilian takeover of Parliament continued, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark ruled out military intervention.

But Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton called for a New Zealand ban on any Fiji Islander involved in the insurrection.

He also said he wanted an examination of any bank accounts held in New Zealand by any of the perpetrators and for "Pinochet-style" prosecutions in New Zealand against those accused of human rights violations.


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