FIJI: The day of the parliamentary gunmen
By Matelita Ragogo, a Fiji Times reporter who has won an AusAID/Pacific Media Initiative scholarship to complete her Diploma in Pacific Journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Semester 2, 2000 © USP Journalism Programme
SUVA: As reporters who were usually in the thick of Fiji's national protest marches, my former workmate and now The Fiji Sun reporter John Kamea and I were just complaining about missing out the Taukei Movement-organised protest march on March 19.
What luck to be sent to Parliament on May 19, the day another exciting national protest march was supposed to be held, especially when the crowd estimate was 2000 more than the last national protest march.
To add to our woes, the Parliament meeting was delayed, the public gallery was filled with Fiji Institute of Technology graphic artist students and most of the members were in their respective seats.
At about 10.30am (instead of 9.45am), the bell began ringing for members to enter Parliament and so procedures began, members rushed in, the then Speaker, Dr Apenisa Kurisaqila, came in and said the prayer.
Then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Tupeni Baba then stood up to report on the Parliamentary Sub-committee for Social Services on its discussions on a one of the proposed bills.
At precisely 10.50am, he was stopped in mid-sentence as three men, two holding guns and one walking calmly towards the Speaker's chair entered among screams.
That is when our complaints about being stuck in Parliament just about stopped - guns? We looked at each other, realised our good fortune and started counting the gunmen.
Dr Kurisaqila was demanding to know: "What is this? What is this?''
In a more composed manner with his books in hand, Dr Kurisaqila said: "This is an illegal takeover!''
Within seconds all seven doors were shut by gunmen and the FIT students were told to leave.
In the press gallery, we were told to stop recording things, stop writing and just remain seated; the door to our room was locked from outside.
In the meantime, George Speight was telling Dr Kurisaqila to sit down. He turned to Opposition members and told them to leave the chambers. All left except Opposition Leader Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Sam Speight (George's father), Jim Ah Koy and Ofa Duncan.
Speight's repeated request for the lot to leave was backed with a gunshot at this point, Dr Kurisaqila and these Opposition members refused to barge.
Another gunshot tore at the silence that had descended the Parliamentary complex - the second gunshot convinced this group to leave.
About three men came out then with plastic handcuffs. One passed a wastebasket, a large Fijian basket, weaved from coconut leaves, for all Parliamentarians remaining in the House to give up their mobile telephones.
Elected Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry was then dragged out of his seat, handcuffed and then kicked behind his knees to force him to kneel in front of his Government members.
Next was Dr Baba who had initially refused. He was dragged out and forced to kneel too. Because of lack of space to move around in, the gunmen dragged Chaudhry across the general secretariat's desk to ensure more space for the rest of the Government members who were being forced out of their chairs to repeat their prime minister's footsteps.
Then it was Attorney-General Anand Singh, Regional Affairs minister Manoa Bale, Home Affairs minister Joji Uluinakauvadra and Agriculture minister Poseci Bune.
At this point, someone must have said something about journalists, because both gunmen and parliamentarians looked up to the press gallery.
I remember saying to John: "This is us, we are getting out of here." Someone opened the door and two gunmen escorted us downstairs.
As a journalist, I would not have asked for a better place to be at that time.
For once, I was glad I had a late night the night before which made me about half-an-hour late subsequently laying the most boring job of the day on my laps - but which turned out to be historical.
I may go back to school now and I would not have asked for a better farewell to my first seven years in journalism than what happened on May 19, 2000.