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Fiji PM: Resolving The Political Crisis In Fiji

RESOLVING THE POLITICAL CRISIS IN FIJI

[ Interim Prime Minister of Fiji,
Mr Laisenia Qarase ]


The current political crisis stems from three events.

The first was the Coup d’etat of May 19th, 2000, when the democratically-led Coalition Government led by PM Mahendra Chaudhry was forcibly removed from office, and Mr Chaudhry, his Ministers and his Members of Parliament were held hostage for 56 days.

The second was the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution by the Fiji Military Forces on May 29th, 2000. They acted out of necessity to protect the safety and security of citizens and the security and integrity of the State. Law and order had deteriorated and there were direct threats on the life of the President himself and his family. At the request of the Fiji Police, the Fiji Military Forces, therefore, decided to take direct control of the country. They requested the President, the Rt. Hon Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, to step aside. They then partially declared martial law and abrogated the 1997 Constitution.

The third was the mass looting and destruction of property in Suva City and in certain rural areas of the Central Division, such as Muaniweni, Dawasamu, as well as in Vanua Levu in the Labasa and Dreketi areas. In all these areas, families were threatened in their homes and some were forced to relocate to a refugee camp in Lautoka. Since the perpetrators were mostly Fijians and the victims were mostly Indians, these incidents of violence and threats have severely damaged inter-racial relations.

On the Coup of May 19th, 2000, it was a relief that all the hostages were released without any casualty. The main perpetrators of the coup have been arrested and are now subject to the due process of law. The Police is continuing its investigations of other supporters and sympathizers, and action will be taken in accordance with the law. There have only been 4 deaths directly attributed to the Coup and its aftermath, 2 policemen, 1 soldier and 1 civilian Coup supporter. But the destruction of property and threats on people and their families have been very tragic.

On the Military takeover, the Fiji Military Forces is continuing its direct role in the maintenance of law and order. This is being reviewed on a 2-weekly basis. Many business owners and private citizens have requested their continuing direct involvement to ensure law and order and the safety of individuals, families and their property. The Military itself has given way to an Interim Civilian Administration led by the President, H.E. Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who was appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs, together with an Interim Cabinet led by Interim Prime Minister, Mr Laisenia Qarase. The Interim Administration has set itself a 2-year framework within which to restore constitutional democracy in Fiji and to rehabilitate the national economy.

There has been massive loss of jobs. This has been estimated at more than 7,000. In the Fiji Public Service, we have reduced salaries and wages by 12½%, at least for this year. However, investors are beginning to return. The tourism industry has also begun to recover. People are being taken back into their jobs. We are grateful to New Zealand and Australia that their sanctions have not extended to trade embargoes. We hope that Britain and the European Union will do the same. However, we ask New Zealand and Australia to lift their smart sanctions – the sporting bans in particular are only serving to be an irritant and are really not in the spirit of the Olympics in which we are all supporting Australia.

The main outstanding issue now is the resolution of the political and constitutional crisis. The complexity of the problem arises out of the fact that the two major races, i.e. the indigenous Fijian community and the Indian community are now literally pitted against each other.

From what the Interim Administration is proposing to do, together with proposals and positions which have been articulated by other political leaders and parties, the following are the main alternative options:

Option 1 – This is being promoted by Mahendra Chaudhry himself and that is the reinstatement of both the 1997 Constitution and his People’s Coalition Government.

Option 2 - This is coming from Dr Tupeni Baba and the Fijians in the People's Coalition. This is for a Government of National Unity drawn from within the parties in a reinstated Parliament under the 1997 Constitution.

Option 3 – This is being promoted by Filipe Bole and it is understood it has attracted support from some members of the Indian community. This is for a Constitutional Review based on amending the 1997 Constitution, but that the 1997 Constitution itself is not to be reinstated. This amended 1997 Constitution can become the new Constitution and this can be accompanied by a social contract for Fijians to hold the leadership positions of head of Government and Head of State. This option is mainly on the procedural aspects. The new Constitution is to be in the form of an amendment to the 1997 Constitution, just as the 1977 Constitution was an amendment to the 1990 Constitution. The 1990 Constitution, however, was a stand alone Constitution and was not an amendment to the 1970 Constitution.

Option 4 – This is the approach favoured by the Great Council of Chiefs and which is being adopted by the Interim Administration. The 1997 Constitution is not to be re-instated and a new Constitution is to be framed. This is to be undertaken by a Constitution Commission with representatives from all communities, and which will invite submissions from the public at large. Invariably, the Constitutional Commission will draw from the 1997 Constitution as its main point of reference, from which to consider the new Constitution. The National Reconciliation and Unity Council which the Interim Administration will also establish can assist in promoting the concept of Fijian leadership at the Head of Government and Head of State level and power sharing by all communities at levels below that. This concept can be incorporated into a social contract, with the Compact in the 1997 Constitution as the basis.

Position of the Interim Administration
Our position as the Interim Administration which draws its authority from the President and through him, from the Great Council of Chiefs, are as follows:

1. The political crisis in Fiji can be resolved by the people of Fiji themselves through dialogue and consensus. What Fiji needs from overseas Governments and organizations is not support or interference, but an understanding of the complexity of our situation in Fiji, and the patience to allow the people of Fiji to work out their solution within the 2-year time frame of the Interim Administration.

2. A return to the pre-May the 19th Coup d’etat situation is not a pragmatic solution. A re-instatement of the 1997 Constitution, the Chaudhry-led People’s Coalition Government, or a Government of National Unity drawn from within the Parliament under the 1997 Constitution, will re-ignite the widespread feelings of disaffection and dissatisfaction among indigenous Fijians.

3. No foreign intervention in any form such as a good offices mission, or a special envoy, will really help. Trade sanctions or smart sanctions will only hurt the innocent, the poor, etc. Equally important, it will not help inter-community reconciliation. It will only harden indigenous Fijian opinion against the Indian community, especially since it is mainly those in the Indian community who are calling for more, and tougher, sanctions from overseas. This in turn will not help with the Constitution review. And it will not help with the resolution of expiring agricultural leases, where more than 60% of the tenants of indigenous owned land are Indian farmers.

4. There will be no real solution to the political crisis in Fiji unless we address the central and core issue – which is the feeling of anxiety and insecurity among the indigenous Fijian community about their political future. There can be no lasting peace, harmony and stability in Fiji unless we deal with this issue. A new Constitution will again fail unless we do this. The point is again stressed that indigenous Fijians comprise more than 52% of the population and are growing at an annual rate of 1.8%. The Indian population has declined to 43% and is declining further, mainly through emigration and a low birth rate, at 0.3% a year.

The cause of the heightened feelings of insecurity among the indigenous Fijians is this. The 1997 Constitution might have been the most perfect Constitution as the framework for good governance, the guarantee of the equal fundamental rights and freedom of all citizens and groups, and for the protection of the indigenous Fijians and Rotuman communities in terms of their customary ownership of land and their right of self-determination to maintain their own separate institutions of administration, and their culture, custom and tradition. But for the first time in Fiji’s history, a non-indigenous Fijian became Prime Minister. And Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry showed within months of his People’s Coalition Government assuming office from May 1999, and despite the promises he made to the Great Council of Chiefs when he addressed it in June, that he would introduce policies, which Fijians have perceived to be a threat to their interests. It showed very clearly to Fijians that Constitutional protection and guarantees are of no real value unless they also control the key position of Prime Minister or Head of Government, who, in a parliamentary system of Cabinet Government, is the person who sets the direction of Government policies and directs the Government in its development support activities for the people. It is a reminder, too, that in looking at democracy, it is not enough simply to look at the democratic process of electing leaders; an equally important test of democracy, is the quality of leadership it produces. In the context of Fiji’s multi-racial and multi-cultural society, it is not enough to have a leader or leaders, who are elected through a just and fair democratic process; the elected leader or leaders must provide a leadership that cares for everyone – individuals, groups, communities, irrespective of ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, economic or social status. A leader is not a true leader if he or she is perceived by a section of society as discriminatory against it, and insensitive to its interests. This is precisely what happened in Fiji.

The indigenous Fijian community’s fear of domination is exacerbated when Fijians realize that they already lag well behind other races in the country’s economic and social development, and if they also lost political control in the country in which they own 84% of the land, what is there for them to hang on to, to protect their future as the only indigenous Fijian community in the world. Even Chaudhry has been welcomed in India in the Home State of his ancestors. For Fijians, there is only one motherland and fatherland, and that is Fiji.

5. Taking into account these current prevalent feelings of insecurity and anxiety among indigenous Fijians, the most pragmatic and judicious approach to the resolution of the current situation in Fiji is to work with the Great Council of Chiefs. Right from the Deed of Cession in 1874, there was recognition by the British Government that high chiefs in Fiji had the authority to act for their people {section 7 of the Deed of Cession}. And this is precisely what the Interim Administration is doing. It is consulting with the Great Council of Chiefs and is being guided by it. At every step in developing this solution, it is so critically important to carry with it the indigenous Fijian community. This means consulting with them at all levels, the Village and Tikina Councils, the Provincial Councils, and the Great Council of Chiefs. It is to provide ample time for these consultations and for the Elections preparations that the Interim Administration has set a time frame of 2 years for Fiji’s return to constitutional democracy. The new Constitution is to be promulgated by the end of August 2001 and Elections before September 2002.

6. In the form it is being approached, what is to be prepared by a Constitution Commission is a new Constitution. One reason we are not confining the review to a review of the 1997 Constitution and making amendments to it, is that we really want the Commission to take a good look at the system of Government that is appropriate for Fiji, given the complex nature of its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. The 1970, 1990 and 1997 Constitutions were all based on the premise that the Westminster model is the ideal. We inherited it as part of our British Colonial heritage, but the question we must ask is: is it really ideal for Fiji? The system of decision-making by majority, rather than consensus, in Parliament is divisive, and in Fiji this has racial implications. Further, racial or ethnic based feelings or bias are so strongly ingrained, that people vote in on a racial basis, and even if Members of Parliament were voted in a one-person-one vote or common roll basis, when they visit their constituencies, they will still tend to concentrate on their own ethnic or cultural community. This is compounded by the religious divisions in Fiji. Fijians are mostly Christians. Indians are mostly Hindus and Muslims. There is also the lack of cultural appreciation of each other. Everybody communicates in English. But in the main we do not speak each other’s language, or understand each other’s culture. Our social structure and values are also different. Indians stress the importance of equality of rights and the sanctity of their rights, as individuals. Fijians have a hierarchical social structure. They value their individual rights in a democratic setting, but in the traditional Fijian society, they know and accept their place in the social hierarchy. Loyalty, obedience, mutual care and sharing, their spiritual well being, rather than statistical or horizontal equality of rights or privileges, or acquisition and accumulation of material wealth, are the values they treasure most.

7. Whether the new Constitution will be in the form of a stand-alone document, or in the form of an amendment to the 1997 Constitution is a matter on which the Constitution Commission itself can make a recommendation. But there are three crucial aspects.

First, the equal fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals and groups as provided in the 1997 Constitution will be maintained. So, claims that anyone or community will be disenfranchised or made 2nd or 3rd class citizens have no real basis. It is a lie. It is political propaganda.

Second, there must be a way to address the concern of the indigenous Fijian community. The ideal way to do this is through a voluntary agreement or social contract between the communities in Fiji – that Fijians are to hold the positions of Head of State and Head of Government, and power sharing can be accommodated under that. The Compact Chapter of the 1997 Constitution, in fact, already provides a broad framework for this.

Third, we also need to address the fact that indigenous Fijians lag behind other communities in their participation and success in business, industry, the professions, education, etc. Indians pay more than 70% of tax in Fiji because they comprise more than 80% of those with regular income from employment, business and other means. The 1993 Household Income Distribution Survey also showed that Fijian households are the poorest in Fiji, with the lowest level, on average, of weekly household income. The 1997 Constitution went into details about political power sharing through a multi-party Cabinet. On equity of economic and social development opportunities, it only provided in general for equal access and equitable sharing of benefits. But the Social Justice Chapter is largely a general expression of intention. This is why the Interim Administration is giving the Constitution exercise and the Blueprint for Fijian and Rotuma development equal importance. But the point is also stressed that affirmative support and welfare assistance will also continue to be available to the needy and disadvantaged in all communities.

8. Finally, there is a historical basis to what the Fijians want. Right from the Deed of Cession of 10th October, 1874, through 96 years of British Administration, and from Independence on 10th October, 1970, indigenous Fijians and Rotumans have always looked to Government as having a special trustee responsibility for them. This was well articulated by the British Secretary for Indian Affairs in 1932. He wrote in “A Survey of the Position of Indians in Fiji”, September 1932 {Quoted in Chapter by Robert Norton; Colonial Fiji, Ethnic Divisions and Elite Conciliation in Brij V Lal {ed.}, Politics in Fiji, Brigham Young University, Hawaii, 1986, p.52}:

“The {Fiji} Islands are very definitely held in trust for the Fijian race and Fijian interests must be of paramount importance.”

Several land-related policies implemented by Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry were seen by Fijians as directly against the long-standing policy of paramountcy of Fijian interests and the trusteeship responsibility of Government for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans. The Compact of the 1997 Constitution provided for the paramountcy of Fijian interests as a guiding principle. Prime Minister Chaudhry acted against it. This is why the majority of Fijians are opposed to the reinstatement of his Government. And this is why Fijians want to control the position of Prime Minister and Head of Government as well as the Presidency and Head of State. To fully control their political destiny, Fijians now realize that it is not enough to rely on Constitutional protection alone. As the numerically majority community in Fiji and the biggest landowners in the country, they must control Government, including the critically important positions of Head of Government and Head of State. Other communities, for their part, are welcomed to live in Fiji. It is their home and they will continue to have and to enjoy equal basic rights and freedoms.

The indigenous Fijians own more than 84% of land in Fiji, but they have made available their best and most fertile arable lands for on leasing to the other communities. The majority of tenants, more than 60%, are members of the Indian community. The tenants have benefited greatly from their leased native land. For example, in the period of the Lome Convention between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, from 1975 to 1999, total earnings of Fiji from its sugar exports to the EU under the Convention’s Sugar Protocol were estimated at $3.5 billion. About half of this comprised premium from the high EU sugar prices compared to world free market sugar prices. In the sugar industry in Fiji, this $3.5 billion is shared 30% to the millers, Fiji Sugar Corporation, and 70% to the farmers, more than 75% of whom are tenants of Fijian-owned land. But not a bit of that windfall $3.5 billion is shared directly to the Fijian landowners. This is because lease rent for their land is based on 6% of the UCV of the land. In reality, the rent income to the landowners from their leased land is no more than 2-3% of the gross income of the tenant farmers from their commercial cane production. International economists have pointed to this as the lowest in the world. There is, therefore, a need to review the rental formulae to facilitate the renewal of leases if there is to be an acceptable solution to the big issue of expiring agricultural leases, which involves Fijians as the landowners, and Indians are the majority of the tenants.

What is clear is that the Fijian and Indian communities, as the two major communities in Fiji, must co-operate on an amicable solution to both the Constitution and the land issue. The two are inextricably linked.

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