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FIJI: The defiant Mr Chaudhry

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THE DEFIANT MR CHAUDHRY
The Age, Tuesday 1 August 2000

Free but fearful: deposed Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who met Australian Prime Minister John Howard in Sydney yesterday.

Fiji's deposed prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, is a smaller, physically weaker man than he was eight weeks ago. If the way he grimaces between sentences is a guide, he is also in considerable pain.

Chaudhry's ribs were cracked during a beating at the hands of supporters of coup leader George Speight, suffered the day after he was taken hostage. He is physically weak because, for the best part of eight weeks, he received just one meal a day.

And yet, at a small meeting with journalists in Sydney yesterday, Chaudhry allows himself a smile when reminded that Speight is now sleeping on the bare mattress that Chaudhry had been forced to occupy.

Asked to describe his treatment at the hands of Speight's supporters during the eight-week hostage drama, Chaudhry says: "We were treated as hostages. We were intimidated. I was beaten up, once. I was threatened a number of times. I had racist remarks flung at me. We went through a lot in that time.

"There were some quite anxious moments, especially with the shooting outside. At those times, we all feared for our lives because it had been made clear by the rebels that if they were attacked, they would use us as human shields."

Asked if he was therefore pleased to see Speight (who was arrested by the military last week) now getting a "little of the same" Chaudhry says: "I have never been a vindictive person. I certainly didn't like what he did to me. But yes, he's getting a bit of his own medicine back right now. I'll leave it at that."

While detained, Chaudhry met Speight twice. He, like many international observers, regards him as dangerously unstable.

"He seemed to be a very, very confused man," Chaudhry says. "He seemed quite unstable. He hadn't worked out anything. He had a lot of theories but no practical details about anything. He seemed completely a man in a world of his own."

He says Speight could be believed when he says he was motivated by racism.

"He came out of the blue. He hadn't featured in the political life of the country and suddenly he was there. Nobody expected him to launch a coup, but in my two meetings, he was very forthright. He believes that the government of Fiji should be based on the supremacy of ethnic Fijians."

While refusing to express outrage at the way he, personally, was treated by the coup leaders, Chaudhry says he is angry about the pain that Fijians of Indian origin suffered when Speight's forces seized power, adding that the extent of the violence was "quite unnecessary, quite unbelievable".

"We were completely in the dark for eight weeks, we had no access to newspapers, we had no idea what was happening outside and it was only when we came out that we came to terms with what had actually happened," Chaudhry says.

"There was lawlessness, basically. In Suva, shops were burnt, looted. In the rural communities, there was violence, people were assaulted, they were robbed, their homes were set alight. People acted with impunity because it was not until later that the military decided that they should do something. Of course, the military was somewhat constrained because we were held captive and they feared for our safety. Once we were released, they decided to do more."

Asked if the military might have taken action earlier, Chaudhry says he concurs with a "body of opinion" that suggests that "if they had moved swiftly on the day of the coup, things might have been different. They were not seen for a number of days, which allowed Speight and his supporters to consolidate their position."

Chaudhry says he feels sure that the coup has devastated the Fijian economy, and that this will take decades to rectify. He expects tourists to stay away because their safety cannot be guaranteed.

"It took us a long time to rebuild the economy after (the earlier coup in) 1987, and in 1999, we inherited an economy with two successive years of negative growth, widespread poverty, deteriorating infrastructure. Our health services were in bad shape. These were the issues on which we campaigned and what we did in the 12 months was exactly in our manifesto.

"Our priority was the poverty issues, because there was widespread poverty. We moved quickly to reduce the cost of basic food items, reduce the interest rates on loans for the poor, and bought about measures to make the cost of education lower, and in the process, we managed the economy prudently.

"By the end of 1999, we had economic growth of around 7 per cent and it was anticipated that this year's growth would be around 5 per cent. We had great prospects, but all that is now completely shattered and I don't know when it will come right. Not for a long, long time. In a country where you have three coups in 13 years, the international community and the business community loses faith. There are a lot of other places where people can invest."

Of Fiji's political future, Chaudhry says democracy is "the best thing for Fiji, as it is for any country". He is encouraged by the support of the international community, but still believes that a United Nations-sponsored referendum is the best way to find out what Fijians want. At the same time, he concedes that violence would almost certainly accompany the vote. Such action has been ruled out on the grounds that it would create more instability.

If democracy is not restored, Chaudhry fears an exodus of Fijians of Indian background, a situation that depresses him, but which he nonetheless accepts and understands.

"People of Indian origin are feeling very insecure," he says. "We were a multiracial government and I would like to pin my hopes on our return but if this does not happen, then, yes, something like 300,000 people are talking about leaving. I don't blame them for having those feelings, seeing what they had gone through. If you have a group of thugs come up to your house, rob you, and set your house alight, what do you expect? It will be very difficult for me to convince them to stay if they have experienced this kind of ethnic cleansing. That is the nature of any human being. You and I would do the same."

Despite fearing for his own safety, Chaudhry says he will continue to campaign to be recognised as the legitimate prime minister of Fiji.

"We cannot just close shop and leave it to the new regime," he says. He and his supporters will continue to maintain their opposition to the new government from the west of Fiji, where there is more stability. Conversely, there has also been more damage, for it is the west that has wealth: the gold is there, as is the timber, sugar and most of the tourism.

"Of course, if we continue with our campaign to be recognised as the legitimate government of Fiji, we have been warned that we'll be dealt with in accordance with law, but we have to continue the struggle," Chaudhry says.

"We risk our own safety, our lives because, this time around, there are a lot of guns out there. Nobody is sure that all the guns that went missing have been returned. That adds a new dimension to the situation."

He feels confident of support from the west, "where the economic devastation means that jobs have been lost in the thousands". His supporters have, however, ruled out an offshore, "government in exile" until it has been proven that they are completely unable to operate in Fiji.

He is confident that the deposed government retains popular support, "and that's why I've suggested a UN-supervised referendum".

Of the international community, Chaudhry says he is satisfied for the "time being" by the actions being taken, but hopes tougher measures will be implemented if "the new regime decides to be stubborn, and the situation did not improve".

He is likewise satisfied with the stand taken by Australia, but anxious that so-called "smart sanctions" not be the end of the matter.

"Maybe in the future, more could be done, if the situation does not improve," he says.

Chaudhry says the Australian Prime Minister John Howard seems to be waiting to see whether Fiji's new Review Commission, which will oversee the construction of a new constitution, was "independent and transparent, and all that stuff".

"But I have pointed out, how many times are we going to have a review of the constitution? Every time somebody loses an election, we end up having an armed takeover of government, and a review process. It is not a very satisfactory way of dealing with the situation."

Copyright © The Age Company Ltd 2000.

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