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Comment: Can Fiji pick up the pieces again?

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By Debbie Singh
© USP journalism programme

SUVA: Its been 11 days since Fiji was once again plunged into the abyss of uncertainty and despair that the country experienced following the two military coups of 1987.

Those of us who were around in 1987 also know that this time the country may not recover. And if we do, it certainly will not be as fast.

So why yet another coup? What prompted an almost unknown civilian such as George Speight to gather an elite military squad, storm Fiji’s Parliament and take its democratically elected coalition government hostage at gunpoint?

What prompted the madness that engulfed the nation following the overthrow of Fiji’s Parliament on May 19?

What prompted the looting, burning and pillaging of Suva, the millenium city, just minutes after the coup?

As in 1987, the race card was once again drawn and the coup blamed on differences between the Fijians and the Indo-Fijians. However, as events

have unfolded over the past 11 days it has become clear that this is not the real issue and that Fiji’s problems are more Fijian than Indian.

Since the takeover, little has been said about what allegedly prompted the act of treason on May 19, that is, the differences between the Fijians and Indo-Fijians and the lack of sensitivity of the country’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister for the Fijian “cause”.

Yes, the now former Prime Minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhry did have an abrasive style of leadership which, coupled with a fair amount of arrogance, ensured he received his fair share of fire from both Fijians and Indo-Fijians alike.

However, he appeared to be delivering on his party manifesto, albeit in his own often undiplomatic manner.

But surely this would not be reason enough to take his democratically elected coalition government hostage at gunpoint on the anniversary of its first year in office?

It has now become apparent in some quarters that this was not the case and the real reasons have since reared their heads as constant calls have been heard from George Speight and his supporters ordering the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara to step down.

Provincialism has reared its head as Fijians from the East and West battle over land issues they claim have been ignored by Ratu Mara and former Prime Minister and 1987 coup leader Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka.

And how can George Speight help?

Prior to May 19, little was known about the articulate man with a shaved

head except that he was a local timber industry businessman and an undischarged bankrupt, or as one journalist described “a crook with his back against the wall”.

Just four days before he staged the coup, Speight appeared in Suva’s High Court on extortion charges. It is also alleged that he bore a grudge against the Chaudhry government for its dumping of Speight as Chairman of Fiji Hardwood Corporation following allegations of shady dealings.

Fiji Hardwood Corporation was last week razed to the ground following a 2.30am fire which ironically occurred while the country is under a curfew.

Does Speight, a mixed race fourth generation descendant of a white settler bearing a European name, really care about indigenous Fijian rights?

About 1500 of the country’s 400,000 indigenous Fijians camped and feasting inside the Parliamentary complex seem to think so.

Whatever he is, Speight has since received international exposure following his act of pure terrorism on May 19, probably fuelled by the fact that he seems to be partial to staging numerous press conferences on a daily basis.

The international media has come under fire for its coverage of the coup and hostage crisis and calls have been made by the Pacific Islands News Association for all journalists to take a more critical anaylsis approach to coverage.

However, as the saga has unfolded and drawn on and out journalists have themselves stopped filming Speight at every turn and asking “where?” everytime he utters the words “press conference”.

Perhaps the change has come about following the brash attitude of Speight and his mob, the bullet wounding of a BBC cameraman, the rampaging and trashing of the Fiji One television station and the fatal shooting of a police officer at the weekend. Journalists and their editors have now become more wary of personal safety as threats are made to journalists at their


And what has Speight achieved thus far?

Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs have met over three days to broker a deal

with the hostage taker and the Commonwealth and the United Nations have visited the country in an effort to resolve the crisis.

Australia and New Zealand are calling out “trade sanctions” and the Commonwealth is threatening to kick Fiji out (yet again) if the hostages are not released.

On May 29, the President stepped aside following countless dead-end negotiations with Speight and his followers and the country is now under

martial law with the military in command.

Tomorrow, June 1, the military is set to announce an interim military government and three new decrees have already been gazetted as amendments to the 1997 Constitution. It is expected that five more decrees are to be gazetted before a final agreement is reached between the military and Speight.

It has been said that the 1997 Constitution, of which Major General Rabuka was a key architect, is a balanced and racially fair document. It is a document which was agreed to by all quarters and which also saw Fiji’s readmittance to the Commonwealth following her removal in 1987.

But one continues to beg the question: “Should a terrorist be allowed to

call the shots to such an extent, simply because he has the ability to also fire them?”

It certainly seems that way here in this once Pacific paradise which does not want to have any more blood of innocent people on its hands.

And so we wait as endless negotiations continue. However, we do so with a little more comfort now as men in green walk the streets with rifles in hand offering far more protection than we have seen in the past 11 days.

As someone recently said: “Probably the least damaging of the bad solutions”.


This document is for educational and research use only. Recipients should seek permission from the copyright source before reprinting. PASIFIK NIUS service is provided by the niusedita via the Journalism Program, University of the South Pacific. Please acknowledge Pasifik Nius:

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