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Revival of Racism in Fiji

Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 10, 2005

    Several events in Fiji have once again opened the festering wounds of racism and revived the apprehensions of Indo-Fijians about their future in this island State. The first was when the former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka stated that Indo-Fijians should emulate Sonia Gandhi and not stake a claim for the office of the Prime Minister, even if they get a majority in the Parliament after the next elections. Adding, that even though Sonia wore Indian clothes and spoke the language, she still felt that India should be led by an indigenous person. Indian leaders in Fiji should follow her example because none of them have assimilated the Fijian character, he extolled. Recall, Rabuka had staged two coups in Fiji in 1987 while he was an army colonel.

    The second event, which is more ominous, has been the appointment of Samisoni Tikoinasau, brother of the 2000 coup leader George Speight, as the country's new Minister of Lands. He replaces Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, who resigned following his conviction for his involvement in the 2000 coup. One of the first statements of the new Minister was to press for full pardons for those involved in the 2000 coup.

    On top of these the former Land Minister, who was sentenced to an eight-month prison term, was let out of the jail after just nine days, to serve the rest of his sentence outside the prison walls. The release sparked severe criticism, including by the Military Commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama, a fierce critic of the Government's handling of the coup plotters, who said the release had grossly undermined the judiciary and labelled it a "farce". "One wonders whether the principle that everyone is equal under the law still rings true in Fiji," he said in a statement. The solicitor general of Fiji, however, stated that the ex-Minister and another Senator were eligible to attend Parliament while serving their sentences outside prison.

    They were subsequently suspended from the Parliament by the Speaker thereby blocking them from resuming their seats in the Lower House until they served out their sentence. The Speaker, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, said the suspension of the former Land and Minerals Cabinet minister, was for the "good of Parliament and for the good of this country". Earlier in November 2004, the Attorney-General had ordered the release on health grounds of then Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli after he had served just 14 weeks out of a four-year prison sentence for supporting the coup. That release was also condemned by the Army and the Opposition parties. Two other members of Qarase's coalition are serving jail terms for coup offences and the Transport Minister Simione Kaitani goes on trial in May for allegedly taking an illegal oath to serve as a minister under Speight.

    During the last few years since the coup, the Government with the prodding of the judiciary and the military, had initiated a number of steps, which led to reconciliation between the native Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Slowly but certainly the Indo-Fijians had started feeling reassured about their role in the country. One of the most important steps in this direction was the penal action initiated against the perpetrators as well as the supporters of the 2000 coup. Many of these were highly placed in the Government and included the Vice-President and a few ministers. Though the Government did not include the members of the Fijian Labour Party (FLP) in the Cabinet as required by the Constitution and affirmed by the court, yet it initiated the process of reconciliation between the communities and took steps to revive the economy.

    The two institutions that have stood out clearly as the pillars of support for the Constitutionalism and the creation of a multi-ethnic society have been the judiciary and the Armed Forces. The judiciary has always been independent and had ruled against the coup and the non-inclusion of the FLP members in the Cabinet. It passed strictures and awarded sentences to the collaborators and the perpetrators of the coup. More significant has been the emergence of the Armed Forces led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama as the champions of Constitutionalism. After vacillating for a while the Armed Forces have come out strongly against the perpetrators of the coup and those involved have been court martialed. The military spokesmen have even voiced strong objections to the remission of the prison sentences on counts of 'good conduct' awarded to some of those who were involved in the coup.

    The Armed Forces have also initiated steps to recruit Indo-Fijians into the Armed Forces, though their number continues to be insignificant. Bainimarama himself has been quite vocal in criticizing the Government and was particularly harsh about the recent release of the ex-Minister. He had stated that freeing the MPs, both of whom are tribal chiefs, 10 days into their eight-month sentences made a mockery of the Fiji military, police and judiciary.

    Adding, that there would not be any reconciliation in Fiji unless the people recognised that the events of 2000 were wrong he said harping about reconciliation in recent months was a sham when those responsible for the political turmoil were let loose. His utterances have brought him into direct conflict with the Government and the Home Affairs Minister, Josefa Vosanibola has told the Commander not to make any more public remarks about national security or public order without consulting him.

    One of the major problems that continues to fester relates to the Land Lease. Most of the land is owned by native Fijians who had leased it to Indo-Fijian farmers for sugarcane cultivation under the British rule. Since the 1970s, the Indo-Fijians have argued for Crown Land (State owned) leases to be granted to the Indo-Fijians in perpetuity but the native Fijians have been demanding the return of all crown land and freehold land to them. The land leases of most of the Indo-Fijians are expiring this year.

    The native Fijians have refused to renew the land leases and as a result most of the land has not been cultivated. This may hammer the last nail in the coffin of the ailing sugar industry in Fiji. A number of native Fijians including the former Military Commander, Ratu Epeli Ganilau who is the interim President of the newly formed National Alliance Party has recommended cash incentives for land-owners to renew leases for most Indo-Fijian tenants.

    The reason for the sudden volte-face by the Government on the ethnic issue seems to be the fear of losing the elections scheduled in early 2006. As the economy slows down and with the sugar industry and the garment industry, the largest employers in the State, in doldrums, on account of non renewal of land lease and termination of multi-fibre agreement; a large number of citizens including vast majority of urban native Fijians are looking for a change.

    In the past whenever, the ethnicity has not been an issue the population has tended to vote for FLP. Moreover, the recent mushrooming of political parties led by native Fijians is likely to lead to fragmentation of native Fijian vote and may bring the FLP and Mahendra Chaudhary back to power. The revival of racism appears to be an attempt by the Government to mask their dismal performance on the economic front and to encourage voting along ethnic lines.