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Ethnic Conflict In Fiji Puts University At Risk

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Ethnic Conflict In Fiji Puts University At Risk


By David Cohen

© The Chronicle of Higher Education

Ethnic tensions are on the rise at the regional University of the South Pacific, in the Fijian capital Suva, mirroring those that led to an attempted coup in Fiji, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Last month, scores of indigenous students, angered at the recommended promotion of a Fiji Islander of Indian descent to be the institution's chief executive, staged sit-ins.

A leading academic at the university said that the institution faced a mass exodus of faculty members because of ethnic turmoil in the island nation.

The coup was directed against the government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who, along with others, was taken hostage at the country's Parliament House. The military has responded to the coup by taking control of the government, although the rebels continued to hold hostages last week.

Meanwhile, Fiji witnessed unprecedented rioting, with supporters of the ultranationalist Taukei Movement -- from whose ranks the insurgents came -- destroying as many as 200 buildings.

Those events followed months of growing tensions between the majority population of indigenous Fijians and the 43 percent of those who trace their roots to Indian migrants who came to Fiji as indentured laborers in the late 1800s.

Today, the Indo-Fijians play a leading role in the nation's commerce and at its only university. That has led to widespread resentment against their perceived good fortune, not least because of the recent election of one of them, Mr Chaudhry, as prime minister.

"Everybody knew there are unresolved ethnic issues here, but nobody, I think, was prepared for what happened," said Dr Vijay Naidu, a professor of development studies who is Indo-Fijian.

The University of the South Pacific serves 12 member countries and territories across 20 million square miles of ocean. It enrolls 4,700 full-time students and has about 300 faculty members.

The university's recommended leader, Professor Rajesh Chandra, was chosen over Savenaca Siwatibau, an indigenous Fijian economist. Amid the current unrest, the university's council has deferred a final decision on the appointment.

Dr Naidu, a sociologist who was detained without trial during a similarly motivated outbreak 13 years ago, believes that the latest violence suggested that time is fast running out for Indo-Fijian educators.

"I believe the situation gives a very clear message that we're not wanted," he said. "For Indo-Fijians, this could be time to leave."

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