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Politics and Society in Post-Coup Fiji

On 7 April 1987 Fiji held its fifth general election since gaining independence from Britain in 1970. After months of hectic campaigning, the newly formed National Federation - Fiji Labor Party Coalition won over the long-reigning Alliance Party by capturing 28 of the 52 eats in the national Parliament. On April 12 the new government was sworn into office - only to be ousted a month later, on April 14, in the South Pacific's first military coup. The coup was undertaken, so its makers told the world, to protect the special interests of the indigenous Fijian community; others, however, suggested the real reason was the unwillingness of a ruling oligarchy of traditional chiefs to relinquish power. (The literature on the coups is vast, but for three contrasting explanations, see Scarr [1988], Robertson and Tamanisau [1988], and Lal [1988].)

The past four years have been a time of great uncertainty and anxiety for most people of Fiji, including the indigenous Fijians, as they struggle to comprehend a bewildering array of events that have changed their lives and altered the destiny of their nation. This article surveys some of the most important of these changes to understand the direction in which Fiji is heading, and concludes with some thoughts on how much the events in Fiji can be seen as an example of the indigenous struggles taking place in many other parts of the world: Indigenous people being marginalized in their own homelands.

Economics: Out of the Frying Pan...?

Many changes of fundamental importance have taken place in Fiji's economy since 1987. (The best succinct analysis of Fiji's post-coup economy is in Knapman [1990].) In the immediate aftermath of the May coup, Fiji's economy was on the brink of collapse, crippled by a massive outflow of capital, declining foreign reserves, and diminished foreign and local investment in the economy. Australian and New Zealand opposition to the coups, which translated into sporadic industrial action against the coup regimes, sporadic industrial action against the coup regimes, deepened Fiji's problems. Since then, however, the situation appears to have stabilized, in large part due to the government's new economic initiatives.

One of these was the creation of the Tax Free Zone (TFZ) scheme in 1988. Under this regime, companies exporting 95 percent of their products and services receive tax concessions (tax holidays up to 13 years, and no withholding tax on interest, dividend, and royalty paid abroad), freedom to repatriate capital and profit, various forms of customs concessions (e.g., duty-free import of capital goods and other production material, and a very low, 5 percent tax on dividends paid to resident shareholders (see Chandra 1990). By mid-1990, 90 companies were operating in the TFZ, about a third of them local. Most of them were in the garment manufacturing sector, which earned about $100 million in 1990. The TFZ's success has brought some relief to the country's foreign exchange problems and provided employment to unskilled workers, but at rates of pay as low as 60 cents an hour. Most of the workers in the garment factories are women, Indo-Fijian and indigenous Fijian, from broken homes and desperate situations. The TFZ, an ad-hoc, Band-Aid solution, is unlikely to provide long-term resolution of Fiji's economic ills. And if the low wages continue, it is very likely that an unemployment problem will be translated into a poverty problem.

To break away from its dependence on its traditional trading partners and aid donors, Australia and New Zealand, Fiji has begun to look at other sources beyond the Pacific. Fiji has approached economic giants of Asia - Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore - to invest, with some success. The Health Ministry is recruiting doctors from Nigeria, the judiciary is recruiting lawyers and judges from Sri Lanka, and the military is seeking equipment from Israel. Pakistan's Habib Bank began operating in Fiji last March. Malaysia has secured sole-source rights for Fiji's petroleum needs, and its Borneo Finance Group is beginning a joint venture with the government-owned National Bank of Fiji. The weakening of Fiji's neocolonial ties to Australia and New Zealand is to be welcomed, but this small, isolated, economically vulnerable nation is in real danger of falling from the frying pan into the fire.

Enduring economic and social stability will not return to Fiji unless the question of land tenure is addressed. Eighty-three percent of all land in Fiji is in the hands of indigenous Fijian landowners. Large fertile portions of it are leased to Indo-Fijian tenants under the Agricultural Landlords and Tenants Ordinance, which came into effect in 1966; the leases granted under it for 30 years will begin to expire between 1997 and 2000. Some 21,000 Indo-Fijian cane growers are apprehensive about what will happen to them: on what terms will the leases be renewed, if at all? Will the rentals be assessed at such a high level that the farmers will be reduced to being mere sharecroppers? Some Fijian politicians have argued that the leases should be terminated so that Fijians themselves can enter farming. At first appearance, this is perfectly understandable, but the fact is that when the Native Lands Trust Ordinance was passed in 1940, provision was made to set aside a certain amount of land in reserve for the exclusive use by Fijian people. Much of this reserved land still lies unused, or at least not used for cash cropping. Fijians do not face a shortage of land for their use. Be that as it may, land is a very sensitive issue in contemporary Fijian politics. Its resolution will require great feats of diplomacy and understanding on all sides, something that has been lacking in Fiji in the last few years.

Forming a Constitution

A more immediate and politically charged issue facing Fiji today is the formulation and implementation of a new constitution. The 1970 independence constitution, which was negotiated by leaders of the various communities and parties in Fiji, provided equal representation for Fijians and Indo-Fijians in the lower house of the legislature and gave veto power to Fijian chiefs in the upper chamber on all important matters pertaining to Fijian people. No legislation that touched on land or on Fijian customs and traditions could be passed without their support. It was a constitution that served Fiji well for the 17 years after independence - until it was abrogated by the supporters of the coup, who argued that it was "inadequate to give protection to the interest of indigenous Fijians, their values, traditions, customs, way of life and economic well-being."

To secure these interests, a succession of military-backed post-coup regimes attempted to draft a constitution designed to further entrench Fijian, and especially chiefly interests, in Fiji's body politic. All these efforts failed because the National Federation-Fiji Labor Party coalition refused to acquiesce, believing that the draft constitutions failed to address the basic issues facing the people of Fiji, including the majority of the indigenous Fijian people, and because the drafts did not reflect the views of the majority. The interim administration persisted, however, and in July 1990 it promulgated a new constitution which, it hopes, will become the new supreme law of the land.

The new constitution provides for a bicameral legislature and an executive presidency. The president will be appointed by, and responsible to, the Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) for a five-year term. Given the composition and the power structure of the council, it is a foregone conclusion that the president be a high chief from the numerically small but politically powerful confederacies of eastern Fiji. More than a mere figurehead, the president will exercise wide-ranging powers, including the right to suspend the constitution and civil rights of individuals for acts that cause "disaffection against the President or the Government." The Upper House of Parliament (the Senate), appointed by the president, will consist of 34 members - 24 of them indigenous Fijians appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs, one nominee of the Council of Rotuma, and 9 others representing various sections of the non-Fijian community. As in the 1970 constitution, the Senate will have veto powers over any legislation affecting Fijian rights. The Lower House will consist of 70 members, made up of 37 indigenous Fijians, 27 Indo-Fijians, and 5 others (Chinese, Part-Europeans, Pacific Islanders, Europeans). All the seats will be contested on racial rolls, with each community voting for its own ethnic candidates. The office of the prime minister will be reserved for indigenous Fijians.

The constitution, then, entrenches the principle of Fijian - especially chiefly - paramountcy in Fiji's body politic. Yet there are provisions that will do a great injustice to many Fijians themselves. Among those most disadvantaged will be urban Fijians; of the 37 seats reserved for Fijians, only 5 will be allocated to Fijians living in urban areas, who today account for 33 percent of the total Fijian population. There is also a glaring inequality in the allocation of seats to Fiji's 14 different provinces. Ba, for instance, with a population of 55,296 in 1986, will have three seats, as will Lau, with a population of 14,000. The overall effect of the allocation of seats will e to favor those areas of Fiji, such as the eastern maritime provinces, which have dominated Fijian politics and political agendas since the advent of colonial rule in 1874. An opportunity has been lost to redress the imbalance of power in Fijian society, which was one of the reasons for the success of Timoci Bavadra's Fiji Labor Party in the 1980s.

There are other provisions in the constitution that the Fijian people may regret in years to come. Fijian customary laws will become the laws of Fiji, but in the event of any dispute relating to the interpreting and applying Fijian customs, traditions, and usages, or those concerning land ownership or hereditary titles, Fijians will be prohibited from seeking recourse in a court of law: the decision of the Native Lands Commission on these matters will be "final and conclusive." Nor will Fijians be able to use the courts of law to seek investigation of complaints against the president, the president's staff, or the director of public prosecutions, or the Great Council of Chief's Native Lands Commission, Native fisheries Commission, Native Lands Trust Board, or Rotuma Island Banaba Island Councils. In short, the most powerful Fijian institutions will be beyond the purview of public scrutiny and accountability. To exclude the judiciary, the coalition has pointed out, is inconsistent with the Convention on Indigenous People, which guarantees them the right to initiate legal proceedings to protect their rights.

The constitution also provides for positive discrimination in favor of indigenous Fijians and Rotumans. The cabinet retains the authority to direct any public body to reserve scholarships, training opportunities, and other such things exclusively for these two groups. On the face of it, the provisions do not appear objectionable; indeed, the coalition itself subscribes to the principle of positive discrimination in favor of disadvantaged groups. But whereas the interim regime's approach is racially oriented, the coalition's position is that there are disadvantaged groups in all of Fiji's communities and that government efforts should be directed to helping them all. One hopes that if the government persists with this policy, it will make concerted efforts to help those Fijians in the poorer parts of Fiji who suffered government neglect both in colonial and postcolonial times. Unfortunately, if recent history is any guide, then it is more than likely that the eastern provinces of Fiji will once again be the major beneficiaries of the government's policies.

When he promulgated the new constitution President Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau hoped that it would "lay the foundations for a Republic with a stable, caring and productive society." "We see a new order of hope," he said, "of peace, reconciliation, and progress in which the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens are guaranteed. We seek understanding, tolerance and trust." His words were not reassuring to those who have been politically marginalized by the new constitution. The majority of the Indo-Fijians have rejected the constitution as iniquitous and discriminatory, seeing it as a way to reduce them to permanent servitude in a country where they are third- or fourth-generation inhabitants. Possibly as many as 20,000 Indo-Fijians have migrated to other lands, and others with qualifications and skills are waiting for an appropriate opportunity to leave. The coalition, too, has rejected the draft as undemocratic, authoritarian, and racist (see Coalition 1991). "We cannot participate in an election based on a racist system which seeks to entrench the interests of a few indigenous Fijian leaders," Adi Kuini Bavadra, the coalition leader, said. (She became leader after the death of Dr. Timoci Bavadra in November 1989.) The road to developing a constitution broadly acceptable to the majority of Fiji's people looks rocky.

the Ideology of Indigenous Power

In one respect, however, there is some cause for relief. The racial conflagration that appeared imminent in the immediate aftermath of the coup has - mercifully - not taken place, although many violations of human rights continue. Nor, so far, has there been the widespread mayhem that often occurs after military intervention, as has happened in Africa and Latin America. Part of the reason for this relative Calm is the feeling among many indigenous Fijians that they have already attained their objectives, and that there will be no return to the pre-1987 days. Indo-Fijians, on the other hand, have neither the means nor the opportunity to retaliate. For them, in the words of the poet T.S. Eliot, "There is only the fight to recover what has been lost/And found and lost again and again: and now under conditions/ That seem unpropitious."

Sitiveni Rabuka, the man who mastered the coup, remains an important public figure, and might acquire a more prominent political role after the departure of the octogenarian chiefs Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. For the moment, however, Rabuka has promised to return to the barracks - leaving no doubt that he will make his bid for power at an appropriate time, the army, nearly 5,000 strong and with a budget of nearly $30 million, remains perhaps the most important institution of power in the country. It enjoys the support and patronage of the Fijian establishment, not least because it bolsters the establishment's power and serves as its ultimate guarantor. The army sees itself as the ultimate guardian of Fiji's national interests, and there is no reason to think that it will change this view in the 1990s; indeed, the draft constitution places the military under the command of a senior military officer rather than a civilian authority, and gives it the "responsibility to ensure the security, defense and well being of Fiji and its people."

Over and beyond the details of politics and economics, the Fiji crisis raises a number of issues that appear to resonate in other areas of the world. The coup in Fiji is seen as the assertion of indigenous power over an immigrant community - a view that has much sympathy among indigenous communities in many parts of the world. Indeed, the members of the interim government have striven hard to project this ideology of indigenous power. They have argued that their actions are congruent with the provisions of the International Labor Organization's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Conventions in Independent Countries. But the convention applies to indigenous and tribal peoples who have been unable to enjoy their fundamental human rights - people whose customs and values have been eroded by the impact of immigrant communities, whose survival as a community is at stake, and who wield little political and economic power. Since the time the Islands were ceded to Britain in 1874, Fiji's indigenous people have always been in control of their cultural and social affairs. Sir Arthur Gordon created a separate system of administration for the Fijians that projected their culture (at least those aspects that did not contradict Christian teachings), preserved their land rights intact, nurtured indigenous leadership, and generally allowed the people to live by their traditional subsistence lifestyle. It was the Fijian chiefs, through the Great Council of Chief's who were the effective rulers of their people, not the colonial government.

Today, Fijian culture, language, and traditions flourish. The Fijians constitute half the total population of 750,000. Their rights were so entrenched in the 1970 constitution that not even Fijian chiefs - had they wanted to - could temper with it. The convention provides for indigenous and tribal rights within the framework of basic human rights enshrined in international charters. Therefore there can be no comparison between the situation of the Fijian people and the sorry plight that faces Hawaiians, Maoris, Kanaks, and Indians of North America.

Two other points need to be made. What passes off as "tradition" in Fijian society today is in fact an amalgam of British ideas and customary Fijian practices. The British systematically destroyed or outlawed those precolonial, pre-Christian cultural and magical Fijian practices which it found offensive to their notions of "proper" behavior and "civilized" conduct. (See, for example, Kaplan [1990].) They borrowed titles and land-use practices from one region of the islands and gave them universal application throughout the group (see France 1969). They rewarded those who collaborated with them or facilitated their rule and punished those who challenged their power, such as the hill tribes of Viti Levu. The notion of a single, homogeneous Fijian society is little more than a myth. Beyond the public appearance of struggle between indigenous and immigrant communities, there are important struggles between segments of Fijian society itself, each trying to gain a measure of independence. These struggles have taken place throughout this century, beginning with Apolosi Nawai's efforts in the early 1900s to wrest economic control of the country from the hands of European traders.

The idea of preserving Fijian culture and traditions in the face of the dreary, universalizing forces of the modern world is one that should receive worldwide sympathy. Yet the very Fijian leaders entrusted with this task have promulgated policies whose ultimate effect will be to undermine foundations of Fijian culture. Promoting Western education and competitive examinations, which reward individual talent over social status; encouraging a capitalist market economy run with the assistance of World Bank funds (with strings attached) and multinational corporations; selling choice real estate to foreign buyers to gain short-term economic recovery; privatizing local public concerns - all these measures will do little to preserve traditional Fijian culture under chiefly leadership. What is required is a massive rethinking about the kind of development that is appropriate for Fiji, and the Fijian people - to promote growth, but not at the expense of their culture and tradition. Alternative, culturally sensitive strategies will have to be conceived and implemented. Little, if anything, is being done in this direction. If the capitalist system is to continue, however, as the present administration clearly intends it to, then the Fijian people will have to make a choice. Dr. Rusiate Nayacakalou, the distinguished Fijian anthropologist, wrote three decades ago that "one of the greatest obstacles facing the Fijians today is the failure to recognize that there is a contradiction; they must now make a momentous choice between preserving and changing their way of life." "The belief," he goes on to note, "that they can do both simultaneously is a monstrous nonsense with which they have been saddled for so many years now that its eradication may be very difficult to achieve" (Nayacakolou 1975:135). That "choice" cannot be postponed as the Fijian people stand on the threshold of the next millennium.


Chandra R.

1990 Fiji's Tax Free System. Honolulu: East-West Center.

National Federation-Fiji Labor Party Coalition

1991 The Fiji Constitution of 1990: A Fraud on the Nation. Nadi, Fiji: Sunrise Press.

France, P.

1969 Charter of the Land: Custom and Colonization in Fiji. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Kaplan, M.

1989 Luve Ni Wai as the British Saw it: Constructions of Custom and Disorder in Colonial Fiji. Ethnohistory 36(4):349-371.

1990 Meaning, Agency and Colonial History: Navosvakadua and the Tuka Movement in Fiji. American Ethnologist 17(1):3-11.

Knapman, B.

1990 Economy and State in Fiji Before and After the Coups. Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs 2(1):59-86.

Lal, B.V.

1988 Power and Prejudice: The Making of the Fiji Crisis. Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.

Nayacakalou, R.

1975 Leadership in Fiji. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Robertson, R.T. and Tamanisau, A.

1988 Fiji - Shattered Coups. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Scarr, D.

1988 Fiji: The Politics of Illusion: The Military Coups in Fiji. Kensington, NSW. Australia: University of New South Wales Press.

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