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Ethnic Relations In Fiji

(contributed article..)

Ethnic relations are inseparable from the resources of a state and the instruments of political power which control and allocate these resources. Furthermore ethnic relations develop over a period of time, they involve stress and strains, and contests in the sharing process; they are inseparable from the history of a state and cannot be analysed in isolation or divorced from its past or present aspirations and future hopes. They are contests concerning the interests of unborn generations. The fabric of ethnic relations, its strength, is tested in times of crisis.

The validity of these propositions is borne out by any examination of ethnic relations in Fiji.

Fiji is a small but complex island state of nearly 800,000 people of several ethnic groups. Of these indigenous Fijians comprise nearly 52% of the population, growing approximately at the rate of 1.8% p.a. compared to the national average rate of barely 1%. Of the others, those who came to Fiji from the Indian subcontinent Hindus constitute 35%, Muslims 7%, the remaining 6% comprise Pacific Islanders, Europeans, Part-Europeans, Chinese and Part Chinese(the parts are the result of marriages with Fijians) and Rotumans who are classified as indigenous.

In Fiji ethnic relations involve these several distinct cultural categories, each wishing to retain and perpetuate its distinctness. No culture in Fiji has ever desired assimilation. Even to integration, there has been some lip service and much resistance.

At best Fiji¹s inter-ethnic relations in times of normality can be described as COEXISTENCE. Partly this is a legacy of colonial rule (1874-1970), where life was lived in ethnic compartments, a consequence of colonial practices arising from the dogma of supremacy of the white man and the need to guard against miscegenation. It was equally a consequence of the desire of the different ethnic cultural groups to maintain separateness and distinctiveness ­ the separateness was self-imposed as much as willed by the objectives of the colonial overlord. Colonialism was not about nation-building, or about creating oneness among peoples, it was a law and order exercise premised on an economic strategy for solvency and balancing the government's budget.

One act of commission or policy of the British regime left a lasting negative impact on Fiji¹s ethnic relations. That was the British practice of insisting on separate schools for Fijians, Indians and Europeans. As late as 1937 the British opposed the opening of a multi-ethnic high school in Suva and would not support it when the founders persisted. The secondary school for Europeans in Suva was only open to all at the highest level in 1956 and not made fully multi-racial till the 1960s.

Governments after independence tried to change this separation but two factors inhibited progress. First the British legacy of separate teachers¹ unions for Indians and Fijians, this remains entrenched. Though these unions confederate to fight jointly for salaries and working conditions, their ethnic membership results in pursuing parochial interests for preserving largely ethnic staff rooms to further the material objectives of their members. Second the three elite Fijian schools the British established continue to cling to separatism ­ - - the impact of this is significant as from these schools come many of Fiji¹s political and professional leaders. Several generations of colonial indoctrination cannot be erased by the stroke of the pen writing policies. The FLP Coalition skirted the thorny problems of ethnicity in education by appointing an Education Commission to find answers. Though parents and students today are choosing increasingly on the basis of quality this has not permeated to all levels of society as a result of economic costs as well as ethnic attachments, in a situation where most of Fiji¹s schools are community owned and managed by religious and cultural organisations (Methodist, Roman Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Chinese etc).

Such a policy was compounded by one of omission disabling Fijians in the economic sector. The colonial regime developed Fiji using European/Australian capital and Indian labour and Fijian land obtained cheaply without consideration of a fair return for the Fijian landowners.

Where Fijians did show promise as the few who in the 1930s displayed potential for success in the sugar industry, they were discouraged. Similarly in the 1930s and 1940s where Fijian in rural villages were relating to Chinese shop keepers and learning enterpreneunal skills from them as well as competing successfully against them, the colonial regime removed the Chinese from Fijian villages and imposed cooperative schemes without the expected success.

By the time the British left Fijians were largely in subsistence poverty, outside the cash economy. Thirty years of independence (1970-2000) despite positive policies have not been able to overcome ninety-six years of neglect. Fijians were left economically unprepared, all the while Indians were growing in numbers (by 1946 they outnumbered Fijians) and extending their tentacles into the commercial sector.

Socio-economic disparities along ethnic lines emerged and worsened, disadvantaging Fijians and causing fear, tension and deep feelings of insecurity. A few examples will suffice for our purpose. In 1968, two years before independence there were 464 Indians with university qualifications, compared to 77 Fijians ­ 600% more Indians when Indians were 51% of the populations and Fijians were 42%. It is important to note that from 1946 till 1988, Fijians were a minority in Fiji¹s population, and Indians a majority ­ in the population census of 1901 Fijians were 79% of the population and Indians 14%. In 1987, there were only 12 Fijian lawyers compared to 197 Indians in that profession. Figures from the Registrar of Companies in June 1987 showed Indians owning 50% of the registered companies and Fijian 15%, with 20% owned by others, and 15% being joint venture. In the sugar cane industry where most of the farmers use Fijian land only 20% of the farmers are Fijians compared to 80% Indians.

Ethnic relations in Fiji are characterized by Fijian fears of economic domination by Indians, in some quarters of anxiety of perpetual exclusion. Indian business networks were established in the 1940s and 1950s by Gujratis coming as free immigrants from India and going into the retail sector where through clan solidarity and networks they drove out other competitors and rapidly established a virtual monopoly in the wholesale and retail trades. Today these networks extend internationally to kinsmen of the Indian diaspora. Fijians have little hope of success against such a cartel. Fear and resentment exists on the Fijian side but this is dismissed by Gujratis who consider Fijians as incapable of doing business and attribute their own success to industry and competitiveness. The Gujrati community is single-minded in utilising its entrepreneurial skills to make profits; Fiji is seen as a place with cheap labour and as a stepping stone for ventures abroad. Most of these merchant families have permanent residence visas for elsewhere and they do business on borrowed money ­ their risks are limited, their profit motives limitless. When this is placed alongside Indian dominance of the professions such as law, accountancy, medicine, university teaching posts, Fijians feel margalised. Thus the divisions of culture become chasms, two societies dwelling in different worlds, one jealous and suspicious of the other, hostility quickly surfacing in any crisis, especially in contests for political power.

Fijian reaction to their own perceived disadvantage and social poverty is to strive to ensure that political power lies in their hands, as it is their sole means of redressing the imbalance. To Fijians this is a logical outcome of history and reality, sanctioned by their being the indigenous people. Indians however do not see it in such terms, they argue that Fiji is as much theirs as anyone else¹s, they deny the validity of political paramountcy deriving from indigenousness. Fijians contend that to relinquish political control of their native land in their current socio-economic status viz a viz Indians would be to allow themselves to be forever disinherited and risk becoming second class citizens permanently. Like other indigenous groups, such as Malays in Malaysia, they are willing to share political power but not to relinquish it to others. That is the Fijian political agenda designed towards their own socio-economic upliftment and preservation of their resources, especially land, their sole asset. Grasping this fact is fundamental to understanding the coups d¹etat of 1987 and 2000 as well as an appreciation of the fragility of inter-ethnic relations in Fiji.

Again one needs to put this in its historical context. When the Fijian chiefs on 10 October 1874 entered into a treaty, (Deed of Cession) with the British Crown to protect their political sovereignty and identity, the British responded by acknowledging the paramountcy of Fijian interests while agreeing to ensure trade and rule along Christian principles.

Fiji¹s political progress was slow as the British wished to keep control in their hands as a protective device to ensure Fijian paramountcy. They did however bring Indian indentured labourers some 60,500 of them from 1879 to 1919 to work the sugar cane plantations which developed by the Australian CSR Company Limited and which had become Fiji¹s economic livelihood.

>From the outset, Fijians objected to the introduction of Indian laborers and in 1888 at the Council of Chiefs the fear was expressed that "we shall be blotted out by the number of these people who keep coming", Fijians offered to provide the labour themselves. British economic expediency, however, took priority. When Indians began clamouring for political power the Council of Chiefs emphatically in 1933, it stated that Fijians would not accept any political change that might put their political destiny in Indian hands. This was the tenor of Fijian representatives in the Legislative Council throughout the 1950s and 1960s and political independence was negotiated on an understanding, though not written, that political control of Fiji would be theirs. There was again a very strong statement and a resolution passed to this effect of political control residing in Fijian hands, in 1982. The coup d¹etat of May and September 1987 reiterated this article of Fijian political faith. The vanua coup of 15 May 2000 and what followed reiterated this most strongly. Indigenous Fijians want the political leadership of their native land to remain in their hands ­ that is a sine qua non for peace and stability in multi-ethnic Fiji ­ without it, comes turmoil.

What this paper is suggesting is that ethnic­relations in Fiji have always been fragile, beneath the surface calm lurks a storm, violence among its ingredients. While Fijians remain at the socio-economic margins, they will insist on retaining political leadership as insurance for survival.

That is why the instigators of 19 May were able to hold their hostages for fifty five days with impunity and civil disturbance took hold of the country and continued unchecked for days and weeks on end. For nearly four weeks, Vanua Levu, the second largest island in the Republic, was outside the control of the authorities and only the fear of the army constrained lapse into complete chaos. Parts of Tailevu remained in rebel hands.

The electricity generating plant at Monasavu was held by rebels for weeks while commerce, industry and daily living struggled on power rationing. The capital, Suva, was burnt and looted on 19 May and thereafter those who dwelt in the capital city and its environs lived in fear. Apart from the smaller islands, totally Fijian in their population, elsewhere civil upheaval reigned, in Ba generally there was ostensible calm. In fact from 19 May till almost the first week in August ethnic relations had broken down, and were at their lowest ebb in Fiji's history. The sense of helplessness remains widespread, and people have been displaced. Indians did not expect the reaction they encountered from their Fijian neighbours, and had seemed oblivious to the fear, hostility, and anger that followed the installation of Mahendra Chaudhry as Prime Minister in May 1997, and his year long rule where he sought to impose policies resented by Fijians, especially as these policies seemed to disregard not just Fijian protocol but also the wishes of a majority of Fijians and their traditional indigenous institutions ranging from the Native Land Trust Board through the tikina and Provincial Councils to the Great Council of Chiefs.

How does one explain the complete breakdown of law and order and spread of chaos through the countryside of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. destroying multi-ethnic coexistence. Given the constraints of space let me use two references. First from an astute observer of the Fiji political scene for some decades, Fiji-born and bred Robert Keith-Reid, a European and no supporter of coups: " The Prime Minister¹s mistake was to delude himself by imagining that fatal preferential voting gave him a mandate of genuine Fijian support. The fact is that a vast majority of Fijians are not ready to accept an Indian as Prime Minister, as deputy Prime Minister, probably yes. When will they be. Not in my lifetime" (Fiji Sunday Times 18/6/2000).

The second comes from the Qaranivalu of Naitasiri, a Fijian chief who helped resolve the political crisis and free the hostages. He told the press that Indians were "members of the household not owners of this house and a member of the household should abide by the rules of the head of the house" Thus leadership of Fiji should be left to indigenous Fijians "because they own the land".

The rapid spread of support following the take-over of Parliament on 19 May was a consequence of it being a vanua coup. The filling of the parliamentary complex with Fijians, bringing food, vegetables, root crops and even live pigs, all captured on television along with masses of support of men and women and even the holding of church services for the hostage­takers cannot be ignored. Thus the meaning of vanua requires exposition and this can best be done through reference to Professor Asesela Ravuvu, an expert on Fijian social structure. He wrote (the Fijian way of Life. 1983 p. 70):

"The Fijian term vanua, has physical, social and cultural dimensions which are interrelated . Its social and cultural dimensions are a source of security and confidence. It provides a sense of identity and belongingŠ. The vanua contains the actuality of one¹s future. It is an extension of the concept of the self. To most Fijians, the idea of parting with one¹s vanua or land is tantamount to parting with one¹s life.

Unfortunately Fiji¹s Indian leaders and their people are not aware of such sensitivities and nuances of Fijian life. They are much versed in Western learning and technology, given to the pursuit of material success and are intolerant of anything that deters or delays them from their goals along these paths, as for their learning about Fijian history and culture that is not at all a priority.

Similarly Fijians have not grasped the imperatives that drive an immigrant community whose forbears worked in near-slavery conditions and saw salvation and security through an undeviating path to materialism. Ignorance and inadequate human communication prevent a firm foundation for durable ethnic relations.

Though the two communities have lived alongside one another for one hundred and twenty-one years the routes of interaction are very limited, by choice. of all of Fiji¹s ethnic groups. Inter-marriage, for instance, is statistically inconsequential. They not only worship separately, their Object(s) of worship are different.

The so-called Indian community has its divisions as well. Hindus and Muslims interact with each other as little as they do together with others. They do not intermarry generally and remain fiercely proud of their distinctness. Muslim since 1909 have insisted on having Urdu in the Persian script available in schools, they see it as an identity marker in contradistinction to Hindus with their Hindi in its Devnagri script. Since 1929 when electoral franchise was accorded to Indians, Muslims have insisted on separate representation for their community because religious communalism has been an enduring feature of voting behaviour. This demand has been resisted by Hindus successfully in the name of preventing the fragmentation of the Indian community, in this they were and still are helped by the Government of India. In 1987 following the coups the Fiji Muslim League was openly sympathetic to indigenous aspirations, in 2000 it is more reticent because of the methods used by Speight and sufferings of Muslims in the ethnic violence in the country-side. But even in 2000 the Fiji Muslim League has not joined with Hindu organisations in open expression of antagonism to Fijians or in support of the 1997 Constitution ­ - - they still harbour a desire that any future Constitution might accommodate their wish for their own representation.

Muslims remain apprehensive of Hindus and complain of discrimination against them where Hindus have control in allocation of jobs or resources. Because of the Koranic categorisation of Christians as the People of the Book Muslims see some affinity with Fijian Christians and show various degrees of sympathy on indigenous issues. This makes Hindus all the more determined to prevent separate political representation for Muslims lest affinity be transformed into political alliance between Muslims and Fijians. Hindus are determined to maintain Indian solidarity for with Muslims they are 42% of the population, without Muslims they became 35%, closer to a third than half and without any hope of political control in Fiji. Just as Hindus are inimical to Fijian appeals for indigenous rights so are they antagonist to Muslims for invocation of minority rights conventions.

In fact when one considers the concerns of Fiji¹s smaller communities, such as Pacific Islanders, Europeans and Part-Europeans, Chinese and Part-Chinese and Rotumans they all prefer closeness to Fijians. That has been throughout their history in Fiji; they prefer distancing themselves from Indians especially their political aspirations, which these minorities have always interpreted as ambitions to dominate. These who like the Chinese and Europeans have had encounters with Indians in commerce have found them relentless competitors who use their large numbers to form solid blocs and create impenetrable networks.

Indians are feared economically and socially avoided and not to be supported politically. Where these minorities have religious affiliations they tend to be Christian and are drawn to fellow- Christian Fijians. For their part Indians resent these groups and are especially opposed to Chinese immigration into Fiji. Indians also tend to look down on Pacific Islanders and Part-Europeans as inferior and untrustworthy. This is another dimension of ethnic tension that persists though the surface layer of daily contact suggests calm. Furthermore all these groups have sought political recognition through representation of their own in Parliament. They have had the support of Fijians but encountered opposition from Indians who labour in the delusion that all should be one and refuse to accept that difference and diversity are realities, which cannot be wished away in idealist dreams which dwell in the minds of the Indian political elite, but not in real life. Unless and until these minorities gain political recognition a source of lingering disaffection will continue leaving such groups as latent and potential supporters and sympathisers of Fijian ethnonationalism. Hence they have not been calling for the restoration of the 1997 Constitution nor have been part of any organised condemnation of the take-over in parliament on 19 May. At best they have been silent onlookers wondering how their own communities might benefit. They watch subscribing to the view that a crisis also creates opportunities for some. Without genuine political rights to choose their own representatives, the problems of unemployment and visible poverty among the minorities will worsen leaving their young ready to participate in any overthrow of a system from which they remain alienated.

These pressure points in ethnic relations are potentially no less explosive than the simmering volcano that sits below Fiji¹s land relationships. Some 18,000 Indian sugar cane farmers most with farms on leased land have expiring leases continuing in large numbers for the next six years or so. The land leased belongs to Fijian mataqali who are increasingly wishing to utilise their land for their own gain or are prepared to renew leases on new market value terms. Indian came farmers, organisations, and above all, Indian political leaders, refuse to accept what the owners are offering.

Indians see land as an economic commodity and a national asset despite the fact that 83% belongs to Fijian owners. They contend that it be developed in the national interest which should take priority over the wishes of landowners who. Indians frequently state, have surplus land and cannot farm it successfully themselves. The Indian cane farmers form the backbone of any successful Indian political party hence the concern for their interest. Indian cane farmers have always been portrayed by their Indian political leaders and scholars as victims of capitalist exploitation. While that is true to a degree, they also have been fortunate unlike participants in any other industry or economic activity in Fiji, in having a guaranteed market with a guaranteed price for their product. There is however no doubt that if their leases were not renewed there would be severe difficulties but they should have realized that leases do terminate and they needed to prepare for that day. Besides Fijians are not denying them leases but offering them an alternative, a more equitable one for both parties, in the view of the landowners.

Again Indians have not fully grasped the meaning of land for Fijians. It was earlier conveyed through a quotation from Ravuvu on the meaning of vanua. It is even more poignantly expressed by Australian historian Dr Deryck Scarr: "All the oral literature of the Islands people shows that while Pacific peoples might give rights in land, they took land to be the basis of human existence. Rights in the adjoining sea were an extension of this beliefŠ. Land was sovereignty, subject to challenge and to be defended to the death, like honour." (The History of the Pacific Island ­Kingdoms of the Reefs (1990)p.185).

Had the FLP Coalition Prime Minister been conversant with such a view he might not have kept insisting on his Land Use Commission for the utilisation of Fijian land, a concept rejected by the Great Council of Chiefs in 1986 but kept in cold storage for later use by Chaudhry and his FLP.

His stubbornness with that plan exacerbated the already charged atmosphere between himself and the Fijian community by his refusal to accept the decision of the NLTB, the Great Council of Chiefs and the landowners, that future lease would be governed by the Native Lands Trust Act (NLTA), and not the Agricultural Landlord Trust Act (ALTA), which Chaudhry had promised to perpetuate for Indian farmers as it was to their advantage.

Recent research by Dr Ropate Qalo at USP and Professor John Davies of Arcadia University in Canada has shown that ALTA rentals are uneconomic and disadvantaging the landowners, who want current market value rentals to enable them to become participants and beneficiaries in their country's cash economy.

Unless this issue is resolved uncertainty will prevail. The impasse is the result of the unwillingness of Indian leaders to accept anything less than their own wish despite the fact the land concerned is someone else's private property. It is interesting that concerning land leases Indian leaders do not wish to apply the terms of a capitalist liberal market economy but when it comes to the Constitution they are pressing the imposition of liberal democratic values suitable for a homogeneous developed society. Similarly they want free enterprise capitalism and open competition to commerce and oppose alternative action policies to increase Fijian participation.

Currently Fiji¹s ethnic relations are at a very low point with widespread suspicion and mistrust between the two major communities. That is unlikely to change in the near future unless the causes of conflict are removed. The calm that has returned in the last few weeks can be quickly disrupted with a return of violence. While the security forces are maintaining peace and the rule of law has returned uncertainty prevails, and if the Fijian community finds its aspirations thwarted then another civil uprising far worse than experienced over May, June and July will occur with no gain for any individual or community.

It is important that the interim administration be given the opportunity to put in place policies for the recovery of the economy, initiate action on its blueprint for affirmative action and begin the review of the constitution ­ the last being inseparable for continuing stability and long-term ethnic harmony. At the same time it needs to help those displaced from their homes, and provide help for the victims of burning and looting in the countryside; most of these are Indians, and their confidence needs to be restored.

The tasks ahead are not insurmountable but they can only be achieved if the people of Fiji with the interim administration are permitted freedom and provided assistance to implement their objectives.

Those outside such as the Commonwealth and European Parliament, need to bear in mind that Fiji¹s current difficulty owes its origins more to the neglect and machinations of foreign rule and the imposition of foreign values than to any wilful malice on the part of the people of Fiji.

It is time the people were given an opportunity to pursue genuine dialogue and find realistic solutions without the coercion of the world outside.


© Scoop Media

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