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Fiji: Ethnic Tensions And The Rule Of Law

Ethnic Tensions And The Rule Of Law: Lessons From Fiji Since May 2000

Article courtesy of Pacific Media Watch –

The attempted coup by George Speight on 19 May 2000 and the instability and dislocation that followed had severe repercussions for the rule of law. It underscored the fragility of the concept and its susceptibility to assault by destructive forces within our society.

By Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi

Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi is a former Fiji High Court judge who is now in private law practice.


Siwatibau Memorial Lecture, Honiara, Solomon Islands, 16 September 2004

The attempted coup by George Speight on 19 May 2000 and the instability and dislocation that followed had severe repercussions for the rule of law. It underscored the fragility of the concept and its susceptibility to assault by destructive forces within our society. In the case of Fiji tensions exist at two levels: the most obvious is the interethnic context with Indigenous Fijians and the immigrant Indian community with the other communities relegated to be sidelines. The second and more subtle being those between Indigenous Fijians themselves.

The challenges of a multicultural society that began with the advent of the first indentured labourers in 1879 have long been evident. For the first several decades this was not apparent with the two communities having little to do with each other. Fijians tended to live in villages where their lives were regulated by the colonial administration and reinforced by traditional leadership. Indians worked in the canefields and kept to themselves. As standards of education and living improved they began to move beyond the confines of the canefields into education, commerce and the professions. Their increasing numbers and visible presence triggered deep-rooted insecurities among Fijians and their leaders. These fears were a constant. In the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, measles epidemics and other diseases had almost wiped out the Fijian population. Fear was a constant companion and shaped the perspectives many Fijians have.

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It is the recurring nightmare of many Fijians that they will one day be a mendicant people without land, tradition, culture or soul. This deeply-held belief has its roots in our history. From first contact with the Christian missionaries when traditional belief systems were supplanted to colonialization, the effect of indenture and engagement with the modern world, Fijians have reacted and in doing so have yielded something of themselves. This background has made them susceptible to these insecurities.

In May 2000 George Speight presented himself as the new interpreter of Indigenous Fijian aspirations. He was given acclaim by many Fijians and their leaders who identified with what he claimed to be doing on their behalf. George Speight asserted that he was giving Fijians self-determination and autonomy by establishing a government that purported to function along traditional lines of consensus. Few paused to question George Speight’s origins or his new found commitment to the indigenous Fijian cause. They were persuaded by the rhetoric and the vision he projected of giving back to Fijians what had been taken from them ie. control of their own destiny.

The rule of law to Fijians is an arcane concept that they perceive is a foreign idea imported to subvert their way of life. It is for them an obstacle to their aspirations. It is because they conceive of indigenous rights as superior to and beyond the rule of law. This is not conceived in a rigorous intellectual fashion but with a great deal of passion and emotion. Fijian rights in this scenario can only be secured by force. In these circumstances, the critical element is political control and domination of the state apparatus. All other safeguards including constitutional checks are considered subservient or inferior to that. However, the problem with this state of affairs is that force and political power per se are notoriously fickle instruments. They are subject to whim and fancy and are dependent on the inclinations of those that wield authority. In comparison the rule of law in its reliance on systems, laws and regulations is a far more reliable instrument and shield.

In the days that followed the taking hostage of Prime Minister Chaudhry, the Cabinet and other members of Parliament, there was a constant and sustained campaign to convince Fijians of the unscrupulous intentions of the Indian community. George Speight emphasized the enormity of the differences between Fijians and Indians. This was reinforced by the tacit backing of some of the Christian churches, particularly the Methodist Church which emphasized the sectarian differences between the different communities. The tenor of this none too subtle appeal to racist sentiment was to incite and encourage acts of terror in various parts of the country. It was a fearful time. The passage of the years does not diminish the sense of dread and despair that one experienced. Under the pretext of asserting control, some Fijians took the law into their own hands to steal, loot and pillage. A certain number of Indian families were forced from their homes and made to resettle elsewhere.

The Interim Government which won the subsequent elections in June 2001 seized on Indigenous Fijian grievances to justify and legitimize its ambitious affirmative action programmes which it titled "The Blue Print". However, the programmes are based on the assumptions that Fijians are the most disadvantaged ethnic community. This widespread perception and belief, amounting almost to an article of faith, has not been confirmed by detailed research and analysis. Neither have there been any appropriate checks and balances put in place to monitor and assess the efficacy of the initiatives. Of particular concern are the particular groups being assisted and aided. There continues to be well-placed lingering doubts that a significant portion of the disadvantaged, both Fijian and for other communities, fall outside these affirmative action policies. Unless poverty and welfare are addressed in ways that allow the disadvantaged to be able to participate economically and sociably, adherence to the rule of law is significantly undermined.

Admittedly the present Government has a difficult, almost impossible load to juggle. It has concluded with the support of the Fijian people and their institutions such as the Bose Levu Vakaturaga and the Methodist Church that it must place Fijian ‘development’ at the head of its list of priorities. On the other hand, it requires the goodwill and understanding of the other communities who provide the greater part of its tax revenues for expenditure. The result has been a rather lopsided approach that accords precedence to indigenous concerns. At the same time, Fijians in collaboration with other communities are circumventing procedures and standards in place to take advantage of affirmative action schemes. This has only served to facilitate cronyism, corruption and other dubious activities. There is much defensiveness and a certain resistance to calls for greater controls, more detailed assessments and checks to ascertain the efficacy of these taxpayer - funded assistance schemes.

Within the country, there is at least grudging recognition that without law and order there can be no firm foundation for lasting stability. While opinion is divided, and remains so, on whether the Vice President ought to resign in the light of his conviction, the calmness with which the decision was received was significant. The process of setting the rule of law in stone is a slow and difficult process. Not five generations distant, Fijians were cannibalizing each other. The missionaries and the colonial administration imposed a veneer of civilization on their native subjects. However, it is not apparent that they imparted to them any profound understanding of the process involved in the maintenance and upholding of the law. What little they understood was that it was a system designed and intended to keep them in their place. In this paradigm, it was convenient for Fijians to see it as white man’s law as opposed to something that belonged to them or was theirs.

The vulnerability of our small economy to global forces may have generated some resentment in certain quarters of the Fijian community, But it also brought to us the weight and effect of international opinion and the consequences of trying to defy internationally accepted norms and practices. Even those in the remotest parts of the country have become used to the convenience and utility of imported goods. Those who would wish to turn back the clock or shake their fist at the outside world are an endangered species. There is no going or turning back. The transition from traditional island society to a modern market economy has been slow and gradual. But it has been constant. Our young have aspirations that reach beyond the villages and the small rural communities that dot the landscape of our country. Those aspirations can only be fulfilled pursuant to engagement with the world at large on its own terms. That is a harsh reality many of us who would otherwise not give a fig for the rule of law have had to reluctantly concede.

In the debate about the state of interethnic relations, there is a constant refrain about the need for Fijian unity. We must stand together to protect our rights else they be dissipated by others benefiting from our divisions. This unity is perceived most commonly in its political form. Because that is the means by which Fijians as an ethnic group can best protect themselves. I have little truck with the proposition. It is an arid concept conveniently used by politicians to advance their own interests and agendas. Fijians were only united with the coming of the British colonizers. With the erosion of traditional structures and authority, pre-existing differences have begun to re-emerge. The western provinces, rich in resources but removed from political leadership, have begun to assert themselves. Maritime provinces have different priorities from those in the main islands. Some of those decry their lack of development despite their proximity to urban centers.

Almost all Fijians espouse some sort of Fijian unity. It is because they place little faith in existing structures and the rule of law to afford them and their rights protection. However, Fijian unity is increasingly becoming more apparent than real. This is because of the rise of sectoral interests based on some form of shared economic activity that provides a more potent attraction. What is emerging is a more mature form of common interest. One that recognizes that we can unite on the issues and values are close to Fijian hearts whether it be land, resources, customs, tradition, language and religion. At the same time we are free to make common cause with others, Fijians as well as other communities, on other concerns which engage us. This is essentially an argument to remove Fijians from the straightjacket that keeps us all together for feat that we would be isolated apart. In any case, it has become a major challenge for politicians to keep Fijians together as economic and other interests fragment and dissipate their cohesiveness. That ought not to be perceived as a threat or danger but as a consequence of social change.

The mechanism of emigration to our metropolitan neighbours and further afield to Canada and the United States has to some extent helped to assuage ethnic differences. Many Indian families have concentrated their efforts in this regard. Yet, ironically I believe that interethnic relations in Fiji have also never been better. There are several factors which account for this phenomenon. First there is a large measure of acceptance by the Indian community of the primacy given indigenous interests. Second, the coups of 1987 and the attempted coup of 2000 emphasized the willingness of Fijians to assert their rights where they were believed to be under threat. Third, the increase in the indigenous Fijian population to over half have all contributed to this result. Above all it is attributable to the good sense and resolve of the ordinary men and women of Fiji. Despite the trauma and ordeal of recent events, they and their families have contrived to engage and relate to each other in myriads of ways and situations. That is not to say that there could be far greater scope for improvement. For integration is still comparatively restricted for people who have lived sis by side for a hundred and twenty-five years. But it cannot be forced and must be allowed to progress at its own pace.

It is over four years since the events of May 2000. The rule of law was subjected to great trials and it has emerged scarred but intact. However its challenges are far from over. Too many remain yet to be convinced that it is the only means of securing law and order and respect for group and individual rights. Ultimately, the best guarantor of the rule of law is not the state and the branches which comprise it but the recognition by people of its value and their willingness to fight for, and uphold it. Until that point is reached, the journey to it must be seen and appreciated for what it is: in a society such as ours where divisions exist both inter-ethnically and within communities the process of nation building of which the rule of law is an integral part requires a deft balancing of priorities in a fair and inclusive manner. This allows everyone to be a part of the challenges that we need to face together. The path to this point has been tortuous and at times strained because we have invariably compromised some of the detail of the rule of law by honouring the letter if not the spirit of the decisions handed down by the courts. However, it has also been a critical learning experience where we have had to combine political reality with legal principle. The result is an imperfect one but the rule of law is stronger for having weathered these sustained assaults on it.

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