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Thursday, June 1, 2000

Democracy vs. ethnicity in Fiji


LONDON -- There are rare occasions when a military takeover may be the least bad solution to a country's problems. Monday's military coup in Fiji may be one of them.

One year ago, Fijian citizens of every ethnic variety voted a multiracial coalition government into power. But on May 19, George Speight, a half-Fijian failed businessman, seized control of the national Parliament, took Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and most of his Cabinet hostage, and declared himself the new leader of Fiji.

Not only Chaudhry but also President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and the entire constitution would have to go before the hostages were released, said Speight. The country must have a new constitution in which only people with ethnic Fijian blood in their veins are eligible for the presidency, the prime ministership or any of the high offices of state.

Speight claimed he was defending the rights of the narrow 51 percent majority of "indigenous Fijians" from people like Chaudhry, who belong to the 49 percent of citizens descended from more recent immigrants. But his real motives had much to do with personal problems -- and what happened next had a lot to do with the cumulative long-term effects of drinking "kava," the favorite Fijian narcotic (which has about the same effect in terms of paranoia as an equivalent amount of time spent consuming speed.)

After 10 days of continuous drinking of "kava" in the parliamentary complex, on May 28 some of Speight's supporters murdered an unarmed policeman during one of their looting excursions into Suva's city center. That was the deed that convinced the commander of the Royal Fiji Military Force, Commodore Frank Bainamarama, to seize power the next day. The only alternative, many people believed, was massacre and civil war.

But why did so many ethnic Fijians back Speight's racist demand for a constitution that banned half the country's people from high political office simply because they are of Indian or Chinese or European descent? Why did the Great Council of Chiefs, the highest ethnic Fijian authority, "have a lot of sympathy for the views expressed by his followers"?

Why did Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara agree to dismiss Chaudhry's government and grant immunity to Speight and his thugs, even though he knew it would lead to trade boycotts and international isolation? ("I have been warned by a number of countries that we will be at the worst end of the pariah list," he said. "We are going to face not only purgatory, but hell." )

One reason was that Mara's own daughter, a minister in Chaudhry's government, was among the hostages, and Speight was threatening to kill her first. Another, however, was that as much as Mara deplored Speight's means, he realized that there was widespread sympathy for his project among ethnic Fijians.

What justifies this open racism, in the view of Fijian tribalists, is the fact that their Polynesian ancestors were Fiji's first settlers, arriving around 1,200 B.C. Annexation by Britain in the 19th century narrowly saved them from conquest by their Tongan neighbors, but it also brought a variety of other immigrants: Chinese, Europeans and, above all, Indians. Fijians of Polynesian ancestry are now only 51 percent of the population, while the descendants of 19th-century Indian immigrants account for 44 percent. They also dominate the economy.

The roots of the current crisis lie in 1987, when a multiracial coalition government enjoying the support of many ethnic Fijians was overthrown by Gen. Sitiveni Rabuka in the name of "indigenous rights." Faced with suspension from the Commonwealth and worldwide pariah status, Rabuka eventually allowed free elections under a new nonracial constitution -- and that produced Chaudhry's government, the first led by a non-ethnic Fijian. It also created the pretext for Speight's attempted putsch.

Speight's personal motives for this move are transparent. Speight's father, a minister in the previous Cabinet, appointed his son to lucrative patronage jobs that ended when the Chaudhry government dismissed him last year over suspected kickbacks. Speight was also due to appear in court on May 12 on fraud and extortion charges arising from his subsequent job as local head of an international health-insurance firm.

But why such broad support for his actions among ethnic Fijians? Because Fiji is an anomaly in a world where most democracies either have a jumble of different ethnic groups (the United States, South Africa, India), or else a single dominant ethnic group that is economically and demographically secure (France, Thailand, Samoa).

In those cases, justice and political common-sense go hand in hand when defining citizens' rights: All the people born here, and all legal immigrants, have equal rights before the law. It's not so simple for Fiji, or Latvia and Estonia, or a few other democracies where the "original" population has almost lost its majority, and where the immigration that caused this demographic shift happened under foreign rule.

The question now is whether the armed forces will risk blocking Speight's racist project in the name of justice and long-term political stability, or give in to it in order to avoid having to use force against Speight and his many supporters (who are, moreover, drawn from the same ethnic group as most of the army's soldiers). There is only one ethical and sensible choice, but one does not envy Commodore Bainamarama's options.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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