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Political Crisis in Fiji and India’s Concerns

Balaji Chandramohan is editor of World Security Network for Asia.
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  • August 19, 2010

    The tiny island nation of Fiji located in the South Pacific Ocean is back in the news again. Fiji, frequently referred to as a ‘land of coups’, is coming out of its international isolation thanks to the help it receives from China.

    Fiji’s and China’s mutual attractions are understandable. Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum for its failure to establish liberal democratic rule. Politically isolated in the international community both at the regional and multi-lateral levels, it has found an apt ally in China to ward off any further pressure including in the form of United Nations Security Council resolutions. As a permanent member of the UNSC, China can veto any resolution against Fiji brought by the United States and Great Britain.

    With Fiji’s military government cozying up to China, and isolated in the region because of its rulers, the Indian community which accounts for 44 per cent of the population, are caught in a fix. According to the 2007 census, the total population of Fiji is 837,271 with native Fijians accounting for 475,739, Indo-Fijians accounting for 313,798 and other racial groups accounting for 47,734.

    The problems in Fiji are multi-faceted. First, Fiji’s present ruler and Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama appointed himself as Fiji’s ruler in a military sponsored coup in December 2006. He proclaimed like all dictators do that the democratic institution in Fiji was steeped in corruption and that he had come as a saviour. So far, the only assurance that the world has received from the Fiji leadership is that elections will be held in September 2014 under a constitution. Second, the biased judiciary’s pushing hard on ousted Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry charges of money laundering and tax evasion could be the trigger of more insecurity among the Indian community and even for mass emigration from the island nation. Mahendra Chaudhry is a charismatic Indian community leader who became Fiji's first ethnic Indian leader when elected prime minister in 1999 and was overthrown a year later in a coup led by dictator George Speight in May 2000. Because of the repeated military coups and counter-coups from 1987 to 2006, the Indian population had decreased from 52 per cent of the total in 1986 to 44 per cent in 2007. Many Indians had even left behind their properties and had emigrated to Australia and New Zealand.

    Against this background, one can understand the plight of Indians in a country where ethno-nationalism is supported by a revisionist state. On the other hand, the problems in Fiji could also be attributed to the legacy of the colonial British administration. The Indian community was ‘imported’ on a large scale by the colonial British establishment in the late 19th century to work in the sugarcane fields of Fiji. Most Indians came from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The Indian community settled in Fiji and started contributing substantially to the Fiji’s economy. However, with the increase in the Indian population fissures started between the indigenous community and Indo-Fijians. Indo-Fijians get tacit and active support from Australia. From Australia’s point of view, it has become a political issue with the ruling Australian Labour Party (ALP) playing to the ‘Indian’ gallery. Projecting military-led Fiji as a revisionist state, the Labour party wishes to get the support of the Fiji Indian community and Indian community who have empathy towards the situation in Fiji. The plot is simple as many members of the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) are influential in Australia and in the ALP in particular and wish to have leverage over the affairs of Fiji. Fiji’s ex-PM Mahendra Chaudhry is from the FLP and he has got his followers among the Indo-Fijians in Australia.

    Also, with the change of leadership in the ruling Labour Party in Australia from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard, there seems to be a change in the understanding of the plight of the Indians in Fiji. The Australian government wishes to project a more favourable image to the Indian community as a whole after the fiasco over racist attacks on an Indian student last year. This will help Gillard and the ALP ahead of the upcoming elections.

    On the ground in Fiji this conflict is very much felt. Many Indo-Fijians are disappointed with their military government as this prevents them from emigrating to Australia and New Zealand. Many Indo-Fijians wish to emigrate to these countries for work and study. Though the Australian leadership had made public its intention of not instigating a conflict between the indigenous Fiji community and the Indian community, the recent expulsion of Australian High Commissioner Sarah Roberts by the self-appointed Prime Minister of Fiji Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama can be understood in that context.

    On the other hand, from Fiji’s point of view the attraction of China is understandable as unlike countries such as Australia, New Zealand or any other Western power, China does not demand any democratic or human rights track record in return for grants and aid. China wants a market to sell its products and Fiji is ready to accept the deal. On the other hand, Bainimarama has astutely boosted Fiji’s relations with China since assuming power by appointing the former Finance Minister Sir James Ah Koy to its embassy in Beijing. Beijing also likes Fiji to be its arm candy in the South Pacific Ocean.

    Interestingly, when Fiji observes the 40th anniversary of its independence on October 10 this year, the high point will be the attendance of a delegation from the Chinese government. Earlier in February 2009, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Fiji. From India’s perspective, India had not given any official word on the plight of Fiji so far and neither has Fiji hosted any high-level delegation from India in the recent past. The last state visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Fiji was way back in 1982. To start with, the Indian High Commission in Fiji does not have a website though Indo-Fijians relations go back to 1970 when Fiji became independent. The word going on among Indo-Fijians in the streets of Fiji and among the influential ones who are settled in Western countries is that the Indian government has not done anything special to boost the confidence of its expatriates in Fiji.

    In fact, Fiji is a perfect test ground for India’s foreign policy with respect to the Diaspora. Though the Indian government is wooing the Diaspora through the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and the yeoman work done by The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs could be appreciated, what is lacking is a clear cut articulation of a definitive and coherent policy on the Diaspora. For example, each year 25 students from Fiji receive scholarships from India to take up undergraduate and postgraduate studies in India and 18 civil servants from Fiji travel to India to further their studies in various universities and institutes under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC). The scholarship for the students needs to be even more so that more talented students will be able to come to India to understand their roots.

    There needs to be a paradigm shift in India’s Foreign Policy when it comes to the Diaspora. In the early years of independence, Jawaharlal Nehru had made it clear that Indians settled abroad should owe their allegiance to their adopted countries and not expect the Indian government to play an interventionist role on their behalf. This was articulated in a bi-polar world when a weak India pursued a policy of Non-Alignment. However, with India rising in the international area, Indian communities like the one in Fiji wish that India would play a more pro-active and assertive role. The alternative is stark: China will fill the vacuum. This will exactly be displayed on Fiji’s 40th Independence Day when there would be no special Indian envoy in Suva, the capital of Fiji, whereas the ‘flag’ that will be hoisted will be made in China. Specifically with respect to Fiji, India could follow one of two courses. Either it could try and isolate the military regime internationally, or it should engage with the military dictator and influence the democratic transition. Going by the Indian experience with Myanmar, the second option sounds optimal. Presently, India is a dialogue partner at the Pacific Islands Forum and it can apply for a membership. It needs to open diplomatic missions in the South Pacific region and promote developmental activities there. The Look East policy should be extended to cover the South Pacific Ocean in general and Fiji in particular.

    India should also project its democratic ideals as well as its culture, which would appeal both to native Fijians and Indo-Fijians. India can effectively use Cultural Diplomacy and soft power through the Indian Cultural Centre which was established in the capital city of Suva in 1971. The Centre needs better funds to spread its wings. India’s soft power can thus be an answer to China’s Yuan Diplomacy.