Ed: The following is a guest post by Collin McKenny, a 22-year expat and resort owner in Fiji who runs Lomalagi Resort. You can reach Collin by visiting the web site or via twitter.com/FijiLomalagi
Bula! I will try to be brief, but that may be difficult!
I’ve been in Fiji since 1997 so my knowledge of events prior to that time is anecdotal. Fiji was a British colony until 1971. The Brits brought Indians to Fiji to work the cane fields in the mid-1800’s — the Fijians wouldn’t do it. Neither would the Japanese who were brought in before the Indians. The “deal” for the Indians was a 7 year indenturement after which they could stay in Fiji or have a ticket back to India – many stayed and over the years, many have prospered. Most of the businesses in Fiji are Indian-owned.
The Brits helped set up a Parliament, a Senate (like the House of Lords – members are appointed), and the Great Council of Chiefs to protect the interests of the indigenous Fijians. They also set up British bureaucracy – never ending red tape. Fijians today still own 87% of all land in Fiji, either communally or in trust with the government like Crown Land.
Political parties formed which were mostly race-based and the Prime Minister elected in the 1986-87 time-frame was Indian which resulted in the two 1987 coups held within a couple of months of each other. The Fijians were afraid the Indians would completely take over the country. The 1987 coups were military by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka and there was some bloodshed.
When I arrived in Fiji in 1997, Rabuka was Prime Minister having been elected to the position by virtue of his political party winning the most votes in 1994 or 1995. Here, like other parliamentary systems, you don’t vote directly for the Prime Minister. The next election was in 1999. Rabuka formed a coalition with the business-focused Indian political party with the purpose of sharing power between the races. That caused the nationalistic Fijians to split off diluting the Fijian vote and resulting in Mahendra Chaudry (an Indian – Fiji Labour Party) becoming Prime Minister.
The constitution that’s just been abrogated has two worrisome provisions in it:
- The one that’s effectively caused the current situation requires that people can only vote for a member of their own race. Voter registration has to be redone for EVERY election – a big mess.
- Secondly, the constitution requires that if one political party doesn’t have a majority, they MUST “share” government with the second largest party. Not a “coalition”, full-out sharing. More on that later.
Chaudry really pissed off the Fijians, primarily over the sale of mahogany. Fiji has the largest mahogany reserve in the world. There was a contract in place under Rabuka with an American company. Chaudry “decided” to sell the mahogany to another company for less money. Parliament was in an uproar – the word on the street was that a no confidence vote was going to be held and Chaudry would be out. The Friday before that (in May 2000), the nationalistic Fijians marched on the Parliament (trashing stores in Suva on the way) and took it over – if only they’d waited out the weekend. They held the Parliamentarians hostage for almost 2 months. This coup appears to have been supported by the Methodist Church, the largest Fijian denomination. Later, Chaudry built up a huge fund, primarily from India-Indians which stated purpose was to help the Fiji Indians affected by the 2000 coup. Supposedly those millions are still sitting in an Aussie bank in Chaudry’s name.
Qarese was appointed as the new Prime Minister after the 2000 coup. He ran for reelection in 2005 and his party won but without a sufficient majority so he was required to “share” the government with the Fiji Labour Party (Chaudry) — what a mess. There were over 30 Cabinet Ministers (this is a country of 850,000 people!!) and lots of fighting about who got which portfolio. As a result, nothing got done. There was a lawsuit before 2005 with the High Court ruling that the Chaudry government had to be restored – Qarese ignored it. Interestingly, the Aussies and Kiwis didn’t raise a fuss about that at all!
Qarese made lots of promises to the nationalistic Fijians (who do not want ANY Indians here). His government gave millions of dollars of equipment (tools, boats, motors) to the Fijians in the months before the election. The pro-indigenous legislation that was in the mill caused the 2006 coup by Bainimarama. The bills included a “tribunal” to determine monetary recompense to Fijians whose ancestors had sold their land (who determines the value and pays for that?); a “get out of jail free” card for the 2000 coup perpetrators and the ceding of ownership of all Fiji waters to the indigenous Fijians. Shoreline, water, reefs, sand – all of it. There was a similar attempt by the Maori in New Zealand which failed there – “the sea belongs to everyone and cannot be owned”. Bainimarama announced he was taking over the government but instead of it happening that Friday, it was delayed until the following Monday so everyone could enjoy a previously scheduled rugby game! There were soldiers at check points in Suva where residents said they’d never felt safer, as burglary is a big problem there. The check-points kept the bad guys out of Suva. The Aussies & Kiwis threw a fit – travel advisories; warnings that Fiji wasn’t safe. I maintained then and I still do that it’s a lot safer HERE than on the streets of Sydney or Auckland! Or LA, London.
Developments over the last few years:
Bainimarama formed a group of NGO’s, politicians and “regular people” to draft a Charter. It’s stated objectives are pretty simple:
- “One man = one vote” instead of race-based voting
- To get rid of the endemic corruption in government
Supposedly, 64% of Fiji residents support it. I don’t know how the polling was done which is why I say “supposedly” but it’s a GOOD document. Idealistic, but good.
After the 2006 coup, I spoke with lots of people, especially other business owners and expats as well as educated Fijians & Indians. The common thread was that Bainimarama effected the coup the wrong way for the right reasons. Does that make sense? Nobody wants to see guns on the street although in many parts of the world, that’s the norm – police carry guns in America but not here. The guns went off the streets after a very short time. LOTS of political pressure from the Aussies & Kiwis, especially, to “restore democracy”. What continues to amaze me is that they don’t understand that we did NOT have democracy! How can you be “democratic” when people can only vote for a member of their own race??? Mixed into that is the Fijian chiefly system. The chiefs tell their people what to do (i.e. who to vote for) and mostly they do what they’re told. I don’t see how you can EVER have “democracy” with those traditions in place. Nor do I want the culture to change and be “modernized”. It’s a real Catch-22.
Late last year, the High Court ruled that the President (Iloilo) had been within his prerogative to dissolve the Qarese government and appoint Bainimarama as Prime Minister.
Qarese took it to the Appeals Court which ruled a few days ago that
- Iloilo was wrong
- A caretaker Prime Minister not a party to the lawsuit was to be appointed
- Elections should be held immediately under the existing constitution
Bainimarama asked for a stay to appeal to the Supreme Court and the Appeals Court said NO which meant that there was no longer a government. The Appeal was set for June. Iloilo has been a firm supporter of the tenets of the Charter. Nobody knows who advised him to abrogate the constitution – Bainimarama says he did not advise it be done. Who knows? The history books of the future perhaps.
So, here we are. Bainimarama’s intention is to implement the Charter (which would make an excellent constitution, by the way) and have elections on the basis of “one man = one vote” no later than 2014. Key words = no later than. In the meantime, there’s obviously lots of negative international press and new “travel advisories”.
There’s a 30 day “emergency rule” in place (that happened in 2006 also) under which the government is censoring the press. The stated purpose is to avoid causing dissension. I don’t like it – a free press is incredibly important. But the press here HAS been stirring the pot in the past couple of years and all that’s done is to get the politicians making claims and counter claims with lots of finger pointing. In 2006 the censorship only lasted a couple of days – we’ll see what happens this time.
Personally, I think Iloilo should have named someone else as PM. Since Bainimarama heads the Fiji military, that sends out the “military strongman” message which is really negative to the rest of the world. But, he didn’t. I’ve met Bainimarama and I liked him but the military “cloud” is still there. I do believe he has the best interest of the people of Fiji in his heart. Bainimarama says he will soon be in touch with various governments and I truly hope he can make them understand why democracy in Fiji wasn’t possible under the 1997 constitution and that the Charter WILL create democracy (as much as possible with the chiefly system).
Fingers crossed! This is a wonderful country and the people are fabulous. If we could only get rid of the politicians (everywhere!)
What do you think?
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