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Fiji Commentary: Wandering between two worlds

Fiji Commentary: Wandering between two worlds

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By Brij V. Lal

The promises have gone
Gone, gone, and they were here just now

- W.S. Merwin

The abrogation of Fiji’s 1997 constitution has saddened me immensely. Part of the reason is personal. As a member of the three-man Fiji Constitution Review Commission, I had a small hand in devising it. Our report was a comprehensive document based upon the most extensive consultation in Fiji, a close first-hand examination of the constitutional arrangements of jurisdictions with problems somewhat similar to Fiji’s, and expert advice drawn from the South Pacific region and international experts in Europe and North America. The constitution, based on our report, was unanimously approved by an ethnic-Fijian dominated parliament and blessed by the Great Council of Chiefs. Now it lies tattered in the dustbin of Fijian history. I feel deeply sorry for the ordinary people of Fiji as well who will have to pick up the pieces from the wreckage of the last twelve days and start all over again. The task of re-construction will not be easy. The fabric of multiculturalism and harmonious race relations has been severely strained. The philosophy of multi-ethnic cooperation on the basis of equal citizenship has been discarded. The economy, which was beginning to show signs of recovery after years of stagnation, is hobbled. However you look at it, the hostage crisis is a huge disaster for Fiji.

Fiji has failed the ultimate test of democracy: to survive a change of government. We now know what havoc a gang of armed thugs can wreak. George Speight, front man for an assortment of interests, has achieved virtually everything he wanted. The People’s Coalition government headed by Mahendra Chaudhry is out of power. The President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, has been forced, however gently, to vacate his office. The constitution is out, and Mr Speight and the seven men who hijacked parliament and held Prime Minister hostage, have received amnesty. Mr Speight, volatile, dangerously delusional, the self-appointed saviour of the indigenous Fijian ‘race,’ even though he himself is half-indigenous, is savouring his gains and asking for a place at the country’s political table. There will be more Speights in Fiji in the future and, one fears, in other South Pacific states as well coping with the collapse of law and order and imported conventions of governance.

There are other casualties of this crisis as well. Among them is the Great Council of Chiefs. Sadly, they stand today a diminished body of dithering men and women, confused, partisan, manipulable, unable to exercise their much sought after -- and much hoped for -- role as the custodians not only of indigenous Fijian but Fiji’s broad national interests as well. They listened to Speight’s pleas for Fijian paramountcy, but there was no place in their deliberations for the voice of a multi-ethnic democracy and the defence of a constitution which they themselves had blessed just three years ago. They have showed themselves to be the chiefs of the Fijian people only, not chiefs of Fiji.

Fiji’s much praised military forces, too, have had their reputation tarnished. They vacillated while the country burned. Why, it will be asked for some time yet, did they not intervene earlier, and more decisively, to prevent a catastrophe they knew well was coming. Allegations of complicity cannot be dismissed and, one hopes, would be investigated by an impartial body. Be that as it may, there is no doubt now that the military is deeply divided, its ranks infected by the deadly virus of provincialism. Had the crisis gone on longer, and regional and personal loyalties to chiefs and vanua (land, place of birth) tested, it is not too far-fetched to say that the army would have fragmented into separate provincial militia. In view of its lacklustre performance in protecting the security of the state, and its blatantly partisan and racially exclusive character, the people of Fiji may well ask whether Fiji should have an army at all. If that is not countenanced, then it will be in the interests of the indigenous Fijian people themselves to have more and more non-Fijians enter its ranks to diffuse provincial tensions. Keeping the status quo is a recipe for disaster.

This crisis, everyone now knows, was more about the re-structuring of power in indigenous Fijian society than it was about race. It was also in some sense about a cry of those Fijians marginalised by modernisation and globalization, feeling left by the wayside while others marched on for reasons they cannot understand. Speight’s mesmeric rhetoric and simple solutions touched a chord with them. Get rid of the Indians and revert to Fijian tradition, and the world will be well. It is not as simple as all that, and Speight and his advisors know that, but they manipulated innocent and confused Fijian emotions for their own ends. The crisis was not about Fijian identity and tradition. In any case, identity is a process that changes with time, and there is no one single, cohesive Fijian identity and tradition to speak of except in opposition to other groups.

Indo-Fijians are the meat in the sandwich. They are trapped, terrorised into silence. They are still regarded as ‘vulagi’, foreigners, in their own land of birth, where they have lived for four to five generations. They have no land although they drive the engine of the country’s agricultural economy. And now, once again, they face the stark prospect of political disenfranchisement and unequal citizenship, and that, too, for one, and one reason, only: because they are of a different ethnicity. Their plight deserves more sympathy than is usually shown. Unwanted and humiliated, many will understandably seek to re-build their lives in other countries, and one hopes that countries which have benefited from their labours, especially Australia, will show sympathy.

Meanwhile, Fiji drifts, divided and uncertain, into uncharted waters. An era has come to an end, and another is in the throes of a difficult birth. In the words of Matthew Arnold, Fiji is poised to

Wander between two worlds One dead and the other powerless to be born.

* Brij V. Lal, Fiji-born and grandson of an indentured labourer, is a Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Contemporary Pacific at The Australian National University.

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