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Commentary: Fiji's ironies and muddled myths

Commentary: Fiji's ironies and muddled myths

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By David Robie


© USP Journalism Programme

SUVA: One of the ironies of embattled Fiji is that today is Constitution Day. But there is no constitution - the multiracial document was abrogated by decree by the then military regime on May 30 at the start of martial law.

Nevertheless it's still a welcome public holiday, even if there is little to celebrate.

And at least one wit has dubbed the occasion "Reconstitution Day".

Now the country has two "governments" since the military handed executive power (or has it really?) back to civilians.

One is the caretaker government in Suva awaiting reappointment by then interim President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo. Its formal swearing-in was called

off last Wednesday after further threats.

The line-up was condemned by the country's moderates for including rebels and their Taukei Movement allies, while insurrection leader George Speight rejected it as a betrayal of his indigenous "cause".

The other government of national unity is being formed at Sorokoba village in the west of Viti Levu by deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and more than half of the 71 MPs elected under the 1997 constitution - including many of the former hostages.

There is even a third "government", which still seems to be pulling most of the strings. These are the ratbag remnants of Speight's so-called Taukei civilian government that are camped at Kalabu Fijian School on the outskirts of Suva, near the airport town of Nausori.

Already their supporters have left a trail of theft, car burnings, hijackings and assaults since leaving Parliament after the 60-day siege,

During the hostage drama, Fiji has had four "heads of state" (if you count Speight's brief self-appointment at the start of the crisis), and five "prime ministers".

As the silent majority of Fiji Islanders come to terms with feelings ranging from confusion to resignation, or anger, over the country’s road

to ruin and despair, the moderate civil society opinion and optimism is tentatively beginning to emerge.

Living and working here, as I have for almost three years with a regional institution, has its comical and bewildering sides. Teaching with the use of digital and computer technology is a challenge with three power-cuts a day thanks to the rebels - 10am to 12noon, 2pm to 4pm

and 8pm to 10pm.

And a surreal staff cafeteria lunch by candlelight when the frequent rain turns the day gloomy.

The disillusionment and frustration over a discredited Fiji military - in spite of its past proud record in Lebanon, Sinai, Bougainville and East Timor as peacekeepers - and police force in failing to restore law and order is growing daily.

A cartoon in one daily newspaper sums up the paradox of the police leadership vacuum.

Depicting young Fijian thugs burning and looting shops and homes in the background, police officers are shown asking each other where is their commissioner.

"I think on vacation," says one.

"I can’t take this anymore - they have brought shame to the force. I'm quitting for my own safety," replies the other.

Police Commissioner Isikia Savua considered it was an appropriate time to attend a security conference in Vanuatu last week. His deputy, Assistant Commissioner Operations Jahir Khan, is on a month's leave in the United States.

In a sarcastic open letter to Speight, the Fiji Sun says: "Cut it out George, it's not funny anymore!"

Citing a long list of damage wrought on the country - such as 5000 people out of jobs, international sanctions, a drop in sugar exports and

a fall in tourism - it adds: "George, you are the man!

"The burning of the vehicles at the parliamentary complex leading up to the hour of [the abandoned swearing-in of interim ministers] was clever.

The majority of the people of this country are starting to hate what you are doing.

"They don’t understand you anymore … The majority of the people blame you for the lawlessness … for everything bad that has happened since May 19.

"This country is dying a slow death."

A court has issued a warrant for the arrest of Speight for dangerous driving. This could be the start of legal actions against the coup leader outside the scope of the amnesty.

There is also irony about the disenchantment of many grassroots indigenous Fijians with Chaudhry and his constitutional mentor, ousted President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the country’s 80-year-old elder statesman who as the Pacific’s elder statesman has had an extraordinary political career spanning five decades. The Labour-led "people’s coalition" government was the first to seriously address the problems of

the urban and rural poor of all races.

Chaudhry arguably achieved more in one year than his predecessor, 1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, managed in seven years. But he alienated the business community by rolling back privatisation policies and restoring protectionism.

His government's attempt to solve the thorny land leases problem - misrepresented as putting Fijian landowner rights in jeopardy - were in fact essentially policies introduced by the indigenous Rabuka government.

The claims by Speight that the "cause" of the revolt was to "protect" indigenous Fijian interests and culture are a sham.

Yes, the objective was certainly to regain indigenous Fijian supremacy lost after the demise of the 1990 constitution .

But the 1997 constitution had entrenched safeguards to ensure indigenous

Fijian aspirations could not be thwarted by any government.

The main problem was that it was drawn up in the expectation that it would be catering for mainstream politics in the country — a coalition of the middle ground of Indo-Fijian and indigenous Fijian politics.

However, the Fiji Labour Party won power in the May 1999 election with an overwhelming Indo-Fijian and urban Fijian mandate. Although it formed

a coalition with Fijian parties, the result fuelled insecurities among the rural and poorly educated vanua - the landowners.

Indo-Fijians had no ambitions for "cultural imperialism". In their post-coup submissions of the Falvey Committee 1987, Manueli Committee 1989, and Reeves Commission 1995, they endorsed the belief that indigenous Fijians needed special provisions to protect their culture and tradition.

This was symbolised by National Federation Party leader Jai Ram Reddy’s emotional statement to the Great Council of Chiefs in 1997 that the chiefs were the chiefs of all Fiji Islanders.

The deposed Parliament was never Indian-dominated, as widely reported in

the media. Fijians had 51 per cent representation in the House of Representatives (elected lower house) and 72 per cent in the Senate (appointed upper house).

Overall, Fijians had 57 per cent representation in Parliament during a session of both Houses. (Fijians number 51 per cent of the 800,000 population).

The government of national unity is likely to mount legal challenges to the status of the interim government and abrogated constitution based on the doctrine of necessity. But another Commonwealth precedent has also been canvassed in the Fiji media - the doctrine of duress as demonstrated in Trinidad and Tobago.

On 27 July 1990, a heavily armed radical Muslim group - "Muslimeen" - seized Prime Minister Arthur Robinson and his government hostage in Parliament, and stormed the state-run television station. Robinson was wounded in the foot and was freed by his captors to negotiate an accord for the release of the rest of the hostages.

When the siege was over after six days, Robinson rejected the settlement

signed under duress and the rebels were later arrested and jailed.

A final paradox from a local Fijian newspaper correspondent: "Try and draw horns on Speight's, [Ratu Timoci] Silatolu's and [Colonel Ilisoni] Ligairi’s faces and you'll see Satan in three different forms," he wrote.

"I've tried hard to comprehend how ordinary Fijians could show undying support for terrorism, murder, violent robberies and total disregard for

law and order - and still sing hymns and talk of God."

* David Robie is a New Zealand journalist and educator living in Fiji.

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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: niusedita@pactok.net.au http://www.usp.ac.fj/journ/nius/index.html


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