On the Source of Inter-Ethnic Conflict in Fiji:

And on whether the Reeves Report and the 1997 Constitution offer a workable solution



John Davies

The author is currently Professor and Head, Department of Economics, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada


The first draft of this article was written in December of 1996, when the author was a visiting Professor in the Department of Economics at The University of the South Pacific. It was submitted to the Joint Parliamentary Committee that reviewed the Reeves Report, under the title of "Some thoughts on Fiji, its Peoples and its Constitutional Problems", but apparently not circulated within that group. Since then parts of it have been updated though some issues, particularly the 1999 elections, have overtaken it. However, the relevance of the key issues remains. Since 1996 I have received much encouragement to bring it to a wider audience but I have resisted – the issues are sensitive, the style is deliberately direct, and the conjunction might not find favour with everyone. But as the current parliamentary siege amply demonstrates, the time for delicacy and hesitancy is long past The paper argues that the Reeves Report failed to identify or address the root cause of Fiji’s constitutional problems, leaving thereby the 1997 Constitution fundamentally flawed in several critical areas. By missing this golden opportunity it paved the way for the country’s current crisis.

The views contained herein, of course, are solely those of the author.

Nova Scotia
May 24, 2000.



The Indian-as-Victim
The Fijian-as-Victim
Some differences between the perception of 'traditional' and 'modern' Fijians
The source of Fiji's constitutional problems
The Reeves Report

Also another short paper from Fiji:
A proposed remedy to the crisis (27 May 2000)



As someone who has had an association with Fiji for over 25 years now, and who has had the opportunity to travel widely within the country and yet see it from a distance, it appears that the current debate over its recent constitutional amendments is but an amplifier of a long standing argument as to who are the really oppressed people of the country - the Indians or the Fijians. To many the issue is not one of debate at all, simply fact. And the fact, of course, is the 1987 military coups which resulted in the overthrow of an Indian dominated but democratically elected government and the instigation of government practice and a written constitution that systematically discriminated against the Indian citizens of the country, especially in terms of political rights. End of story. But when I put that position to ordinary Fijians, the chorus has usually been to the effect "...what are they (the Indians) complaining of? They’ve got everything. It’s us (the Fijians) who are being kept at the bottom of the heap". This is often followed by anger that the rest of the world can’t see it, or chooses not to see it.

But how can Fijians feel themselves oppressed when they point the guns and run the government?

While the picture of the ‘Indian-as-victim’ is one which is almost universally painted in the press, both international and local, the story of the ‘Fijian-as-victim’ has been largely untold. It is, however, important for no constitutional arrangement or social order, as the Indian community here and experts overseas, constantly pronounce, can be acceptable if it allows for systematic discrimination against one group. Events since 1987 have shown that the world and local Indian communities will find unacceptable any constitutional arrangements that depart significantly enough from basic principles of democracy as to discriminate against the Indians, while Fijians will find unacceptable any social order that discriminates against them even if it is sweetened by a constitution safeguarding certain indigenous rights. And it goes without saying that political uncertainty and communal feelings of oppression herald not just a sluggish economy but possibly much more. No one needs reminding of what was once Yugoslavia.

In view of the above, this article seeks to explore the reality and the perceptions of injustice and oppression felt by the Indian and Fijian communities. Additionally it seeks to focus on the source of the nation’s constitutional problems and on whether the constitutional amendments recently unanimously passed by both houses of the Fijian government, and supported by all the main political parties, can form an enduring solution to decades of communal suspicion. Emphasis deliberately is placed on articulating the feelings and fears of Fijians since these have been, and remain, largely unvoiced. Our starting point, however, will be the case of the Indian community since its concerns are already well known, being widely and forcefully expressed by media, politicians, business leaders and academics alike.


The Indian - as - Victim

In essence, the oppression felt by the Indian community issues from three principal sources. First is the 1987 coups and their aftermath. The military overthrow of the arguably Indian dominated Bavadra government and the imposition of the 1990 Constitution are the most palpable manifestations of overt discrimination against the Indian community. In particular, the 1990 Constitution established:

(i) a re-weighting of the prevailing race-based communal voting system calculated to ensure ‘permanent’ Fijian control of government and permanent Indian opposition;

(ii) that only ethnic Fijians can ever be prime minister, president and head of the armed forces;

(iii) a system of affirmative action which, among other things, tries to ensure that at least 50% of all civil service positions are filled by Fijians and Rotumans.

The practice of the Fijian controlled government, as (almost) guaranteed by this new constitution, embodied many additional avenues of affirmative action, with scholarships for tertiary education and access to bank loans being two of the most controversial. The ire of many Indians has also been raised by what they see as preferential opportunities for promotion being given to Fijians, within not just the civil service but also statutory bodies and government controlled industries. Also arguably discriminating against the Indian community is the government’s fiscal policy in that claims abound that some 80% of total taxes are paid by Indians while government expenditures on infrastructure, civil service salaries, scholarships, assistance to business etc. benefit disproportionately Fijians. Fiscal policy, then, provides for a calculated redistribution of income from Indian to Fijian.

A second and more long-standing complaint of the Indian community relates to Fijians’ perception of them. The rank conscious Fijians initially borrowed the pejorative colonial coolie description of the indentured workers, perceiving them as the class naturally selected for menial labour. While elements of this thinking may still persist, today, after three generations of Indian settlement what grates with the Indians is the indigenes’ characterisation of them as vulagi, mere visitors in the house of the Fijians. They are guests rather than co-owners of the house of Fiji, guests who are tolerated for their industriousness provided that they abide by the house rules established by the Fijians. And like any house-guest, the Indians may be treated with courtesy but should not have the temerity to expect any decision making role in its governance. More recently there has developed amongst the Indian community the perception that they are no longer treated even with courtesy, that their person and their possessions are seen by some Fijians as legitimate targets. The criminal and delinquent components of the Fijian urban idle, it is felt, see the use of force to seize political power from the Indian community in the 1987 coups as in some ways sanctioning the forceful and violent taking of Indian property, or indeed the property of anyone materially successful. Along with this there has undoubtedly been an erosion of the basic respect accorded Indian citizens by Fijians; it manifests itself routinely in the tone of interpersonal relations, even in schools where Fijian students sometimes treat Indian teachers with a level of disrespect they would never use with teachers of their own community.

Third, is the question of land. The Fijians own 83% of the land area of Fiji and its nearshore fishing grounds. This land is communally owned and cannot be sold. The Indian community claims it does not want ownership of more land per se, simply the ability to exploit it, through long-term leases of the native land. The current system of short term, 30 year leases does not give the Indian tenant farmers sufficient security of tenure to enable them to make productivity enhancing investments like drainage, irrigation etc. Longer term leases, say 99 years, would be the answer but the Fijian landlords are reluctant to sign away control of their land for such long periods.

The above catalogue of complaint, though by no means exhaustive, endeavours to focus on the principal sources of discrimination visited upon the Indian community. Now whenever someone is discriminated against, somebody must be doing the discriminating. Since 1987 it is of course the Fijians but prior to that, and especially prior to independence in 1970, the British Colonial Administration has often been singled out as discriminating against Indians. Differential rates of pay between European and Indian civil servants and even military personnel were long a source of complaint (though Fijians were treated worse still). And certainly in Fiji the British did not create an environment as welcoming to migrant workers and entrepreneurs as they did in, say, Australia and New Zealand, or Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana which, like Fiji, saw the British bring in Indian indentured labour (subsequent to African slaves). But now British power is gone, Fiji is a republic and those now discriminating against the Indians are clearly the Fijians or at least those Fijians wielding political power. Given this it seems somewhat paradoxical for Fijians to claim that they are the principal victims of oppression and yet that is a most widespread view. But how can it be?


The Fijian - as - Victim

The short answer is that Fijians feel themselves to be on the receiving end of the discriminatory exercise of economic power and a social, economic and political order whose evolution has been marginalising and eroding their identity and values.

Consider first the discriminatory use of economic power. Over 70% of personal income is earned by the Indian community - which is why it pays 80% of the taxes - and private sector business (other than multinational), and the private rental market for housing is overwhelmingly Indian owned. Of course not all Indians are rich and income tends to be distributed far more unevenly in the Indian community than in the Fijian, showing extremes of both wealth and poverty. But on average the Indians are clearly much richer than the Fijians and they both produce and consume a disproportionate share of the nation’s output. Visually, the contrast between the neon, concrete, chrome and steel, which proclaims in urban Fiji Indian affluence, and the ramshackle tin, block and wood shacks of the contemporary rural or peri-urban Fijian village - looking much like an aboriginal reservation in Australia or Canada - is something which is not lost on the Fijians. And in this private sector which is the root of the relative Indian affluence, Indian owned business, with few exceptions, employs overwhelmingly Indian workers.

Many Fijians have put to me the difficulties they have had when applying for employment in an Indian company or renting an apartment from an Indian landlord. To anyone residing in the metropolitan Western democracies where discrimination of this sort is outlawed and mechanisms and watchdogs are in place to root it out, the blatant, overt nature of the private discrimination visited upon Fijians in the areas of employment and housing is difficult to comprehend. And although the situation is in some ways better now than it was before the coups of 1987, the newspapers still regularly feature advertisements in the ‘to let’ and ‘situations vacant’ classifieds stating "Indians only" or "Indians preferred". Indeed, a head count of the racially specified adverts in the "To Let" classified of the Saturday editions of Fiji Times for 1996 shows 127 ‘Indians only/preferred’ compared to 0 for ‘Fijians only/preferred’. Some of the real estate companies also solicit for properties on a similar basis, the most blatant being "Prasad’s houses/flats wanted for Indian families only, near city, urgently needed." (Fiji Times, November 2, 1996).

It is one of the great ironies of the Fiji scene that its principal newspaper, the Murdoch owned Fiji Times, while berating and baiting the government at every opportunity and calling on it to adhere to Western democratic standards, wilfully departs from these standards itself by continuing to publish racially discriminatory advertisements that would be a criminal offence in the West. As for Indian leadership, it is uncharacteristically silent on the issue on the issue.

While Indians object to the attitudes of Fijians in referring to them as vulagi, Fijians have similar objections to the attitudes of the Indians. During the indenture period Fijians were often described by Indians as jungali, uncivilised bushmen, more animal than human. Fijians are often affronted by the behaviour they see practised by the Indian community, amongst themselves and when dealing with others: fawning and supplicatory when confronting authority, overbearing when wielding it. In both manner and tone this is a study in contrast to the quiet deference and respect typical of Fijian intercourse. These characteristic differences in deportment play themselves out clearly at the political level, with Indians relishing open, aggressive confrontation while Fijians do their best to avoid it, fearing disrespect or visiting embarrassment. Unfortunately this tends to result in disproportionate attention being paid to Indian concerns.

Still on attitudes, the overt pursuit of individual gain by Indians is often seen as grasping, avaricious and targeted on taking, behaviour that contrasts starkly with the Fijian emphasis on sharing, caring and reciprocity (though ‘taking’ is a practice that the unemployed urban Fijian community has certainly learned to appreciate in recent years.). Fijians feel, and see in the history of this century, that the Indians are never satisfied: they always want more and need no encouragement to push the envelop of propriety in pursuit of what they see as their ‘rights’, notwithstanding the Fijian toes or sensibilities upon which they trample. Not surprisingly it induces amongst Fijians the feeling that they cannot let their guard down, that sooner or later they are going to be taken advantage of.

Perhaps above all it is the attitude of condescension that galls the Fijians; the condescension of those who have acquired material prosperity conspicuously displaying it in the face of others who have not; of those representing a putatively ‘superior’ culture elevating and distancing themselves from another perceived ‘primitive and inferior’.

Of course it must be emphasised that pretensions to intellectual, cultural and social superiority, and the displays and attitudes arising from wealth, are not restricted to a subset of Indians. The established and expatriate European communities - who often live in a world isolated from anything Fijian (and often Indian) - are naturals at this, albeit in a usually more subtle way. Additionally, they often manifest the twin habits of perpetual complaint over everything local and the patronising desire to set an example, "to maintain standards", like some colonial memsahib. That said, in quantitative terms the problem of attitude, for Fijians, relates primarily to Indians.

The contemptuous regard shown by all too many Indians for Fijians manifests itself routinely in numerous diverse ways. You see it in the workplace, where a Fijian ‘boss’ or superior is often deeply resented by subordinate Indian workers. Evidently it is a situation that violates natural law, one that could only come about through preferential, discriminatory hiring practices. And within this strained relationship, Fijian superiors often feel their Indian subordinates would love nothing better than to bring them down, so that they can exclaim "... there, I told you so! I should have had the job".

You see the same contempt in formal education, where Indian teachers sometimes consider efforts directed at Fijian students a waste of time. In the university you see it in the attitudes of Indian students whose essays are often filled with anti-Fijian venom, in their dismissive attitude to Fijian students giving class presentations, and in their incredulity should a Fijian ever be awarded higher marks than a known good Indian.

In every day life it’s hard to avoid regularly encountering this contempt. You see it in the exclamations of taxi drivers, shop-keepers, landlords, gardeners etc in which Fijians are blamed for all the ills of the country, and are dismissed as backward, amoral, violent and lazy parasites. Even the more educated elites, when they feel they can get away with it, readily engage in similar vitriol.

Perhaps surprisingly, the ‘do-gooding’ community, those that see it as their duty to organise activities aimed at ‘creating awareness’ of important national issues (particularly democracy, multiculturalism and women’s issues), routinely display the same contempt, albeit in a usually more passive way. Thus it is not unusual to see meetings, panels, parties etc. totally devoid of any Fijian presence. And on those special occasions where Fijian representation is unavoidable, it always seems to be drawn from the same limited population of safe, compliant, Uncle Toms.

Perhaps the most palpable manifestation of contempt relates to the reaction of Indians when confronted with the existential reality of their own racist behaviours. Initially it is shock, for Indians are conditioned to perceive themselves as the perennial victims of racism, not perpetrators. Shock is usually followed by defensive rationalisations – "…do you know what those people can be like?"; "…we must have vegetarians on religious grounds"; "...they can’t speak Hindi"; "…how dare you accuse us of racism!", etc. Virtually never is there a recognition that their behaviour and attitudes can cut to the quick and be profoundly hurtful. The reasons for this appear twofold.

First, the cultural significance of respect and decorum in Fijian society means that Fijians rarely express their concerns or hurt in public. Accordingly they tend not to complain, even when grossly provoked. Additionally, and reinforcing this result, Fijians have become so inured to Indian attitudes, that behaviours shocking to the visitor (like the racist adverts) sometimes seem barely to register in Fijian consciousness. Accordingly, when confronted by the silence of Fijians, Indians sometimes can legitimately be unaware of the extent to which their actions can cause hurt.

Second, Indians are often unaware of the feelings of Fijians because they have little interest in understanding the Fijian world. The Indian community is inward looking and by-and-large preoccupied with its own concerns. Perhaps nowhere is this more clearly illustrated that in the research carried out by Indian academics. Historical research is often a naked celebration of Indian achievement; research in social science, an account of Indian oppression, the legitimacy of Indian demands and the triumphs of Indian economic enterprise; literary research, a lauding of Indian expression. There is little evidence of any interest amongst Indian academics in intrinsically Fijian (or Pacific) research topics unless they can be used as a foil or benchmark against which to demonstrate their own successes. Similarly, and of more concern, academic writing is sometimes used to try and create or accentuate divisions within the Fijian community by, for example, emphasising the feudal and undemocratic character of the chiefly system, or the marginalisation of western Fijians by the eastern chiefly elites. Thus much ‘objective’ academic research, in truth is a thinly veiled vehicle for pursuing communal politics.

In short, it is Indian things which interest Indians, not the feelings or life-world of their Fijian neighbours.


Still within the realm of attitudes, Fijians often bristle at the suggestion, widely and disingenuously purveyed in the press and by many Indian political commentators, that racial troubles in Fiji began with the coup and are consequently the singular product of Fijian bigotry. This, of course, is nonsense. While race relations are generally very much better than might be expected, there has always been simmering tension between Indian and Fijian with neither community being above reproach. That said, the coup nonetheless impacted on attitudes in several different ways. It served to precipitate suspended tension and make manifest what was latent. It served also partially to transfer the whip hand from the Indian community - which previously dominated both civil service and private sector employment - to the Fijian. The effect of this was to create amongst Fijians an attitude of arrogance that hitherto was largely the preserve of immigrant communities, while amongst Indians it encouraged the projection of a posture of injured innocence and the convenient exploitation of exaggerated claims of injustice and oppression.

While the Fijians do not seem as negative over the colonial period as the Indians nonetheless they see betrayal in the practice of the colonial government. The country was voluntarily ceded to the British in return for protection of Fijian interests. The notion that Fijian interests consequently would be paramount in the running of the country was a theme repeatedly acknowledged by the early colonial government and assurances were given that Indian settlement would be minimal, that the country would always be ‘Fijian’. This, of course, was not to be. And while virtually all Fijians accept the current reality of a permanent Indian presence, the notion that Fijian interests be paramount - the other side of the colonial bargain that led ultimately to Indian settlement - is widely held to be non-negotiable.

Still on the theme of attitudes shaped by history, the contrasting efforts of Fijians and Indians in WW2 is a subject of perennial consideration. While 2,201 Fijian soldiers saw active service in the Solomons (and 42 lost their lives) and despite numerous attempts to mobilise an Indian regiment, only one Indian saw active service - a non-combatant doctor. Contemporaneously, back in Fiji, the Indians went on strike, demanding higher prices for their sugar cane! Fijians see in this history an asymmetric concern for the welfare of the country. Similarly, the readiness and desire of Indians to migrate to the more prosperous economies of Australia, New Zealand and Canada - even before the coup - suggests to Fijians a lack of commitment to the country. Together with the wartime experience, this lack of commitment is often extrapolated by Fijians and interpreted such that they alone can be trusted with its current and future guardianship.

But when it comes to history nothing is more troublesome to Fijians than the vision of the country that was held by the Indian community, a vision that to this day still mobilises and sanctions its constant labour for political "rights".

Sustaining the Indian community throughout the undoubtedly degrading episode of indenture was the Girmit dream of establishing in this land a home free of the oppressive and hated colonial yoke, where Indians would be second to none and where their values, culture and language could freely flourish. But what was the role of the indigenous inhabitants in this dream? The short answer is that they did not figure at all. At best they were simply passive spectators in the Indians’ struggle, spectators who were literally out of sight and out of mind in their villages and who appeared to be a dying race. Later, when it was evident that the path to extirpation had been halted, Fijians became simply a problem: willing collaborators with the colonial power in the oppression of Indians, and people who were, by historical accident alone, the adventitious owners of the land and resources needed by the Indian community for its own developmental objectives.

And so it came to be that in the hopes and dreams of the of the Indian community Fijians were relegated to the background were they served only as an additional source of grievance, something more to complain about. Being so positioned, the primary political activity of the Indians was targeted on securing parity in terms of status, wage levels, educational opportunities and political representation not with the Fijians (who were, after all, perceived by many to be inferior) but with the British. Parity with the British, coupled with the pursuit of independence - which, of course, led to the expulsion of the British in India - was seen as the instrument for the realisation of the Girmit dream, in which they would be the natural heirs to British rule. In the process, this dream became, for Fijians, the Girmit nightmare.

With time, with the recovery and eventual absolute and relative growth of the Fijian population, with the development of political awareness amongst Fijians, with the constitutional compromises that actual independence in 1970 brought, and, most importantly, with the coups of 1987, the Indian vision has been forced to confront the existential reality of the Fijian presence, their political and cultural assertiveness, military power and land ownership. The response amongst the Indian political activists emphasises the notions of equality of opportunity, equity, human rights, democracy, media freedom and multiculturalism, Western ideals that would allow business acumen, administrative skills, and educational achievement to rise to the top through inherent justice and the natural selection of the market. What could be wrong with that?

Take multiculturalism for a start. This raises the hackles of many Fijians for two principal reasons. First, multiculturalism embodies the perception that the islands are home to many distinct cultures which, in the interests of equality and non-discrimination, should be similarly encouraged and projected. Accordingly the Fijian culture is no more, but no less, important than Indian, European or Chinese. On the world stage, however, one finds Hindu, Muslim, European and Chinese cultures loudly trumpeted from many quarters; by contrast Fijian culture can find expression only in Fiji. And within Fiji any relegation or diminution of European, Indian or Chinese cultures will have no effect on their global resonance. By contrast, any similar diminution of the projection of Fijian culture could potentially extinguish its already small flame. Thus the arithmetic of multiculturalism makes it discriminatory: it implies not the projection of one culture but an emphasis distributed across the several, with the inescapable dilution of the emphasis accorded any one. This, in turn, disproportionately discriminates against Fijian culture in its representation on the world tapestry.

Second, ‘multiculturalism’ is often used, especially by those believing themselves to be educated and of liberal outlook, to advance a subtle though pernicious form of racism. This is the racism that argues that my own culture is so important and so superior, while that of the host community is so palpably inferior, that I will not assimilate, that I will not allow my children or grandchildren to grow up with Fijian as their first language or to identify themselves with Fijian culture. Thus the noble, tolerant and progressive virtues of multiculturalism, as trumpeted by its advocates, in point of fact are often used to conceal condescending views on the inferiority of Fijian culture, views that are anything but noble, tolerant or progressive.

The same arithmetic that renders multiculturalism discriminatory also evokes fears in some over intermarriage and miscegenation. A mixing of European, Chinese or Indian blood with Fijian inconsequentially affects the integrity of the ‘pure’ stock of the former groups, while it will effect a much greater proportionate dilution of the latter. The October 1996 visit to Fiji of the lily-white Maori rugby side, virtually all sporting English names, no doubt is seen by some as confirmation of the results of this process. Of course we all know that any talk of racial purity is both morally odious and biologically fictitious. Yet the fact remains that the indigenous inhabitants of the various Pacific Islands were, and with few exceptions, still are, visually distinct and that this distinction was, and is, seen not as a basis for discrimination, but as an emblem of identification and the pride that comes from heritage and belonging. Should it materialise, the loss of this visual distinction would be yet another avenue for the modern erosion of all that is prototypically Fijian or Pacific. Reinforcing these fears is the unmistakable practice of modelling agencies, advertising outlets, tourist brochures etc. heavily to feature mixed-race girls, seeming to suggest that the characteristic Fijian features are just not good enough. It is for these sorts of reasons, as opposed to the plain bigotry of racial purists (though Fiji has its complement of them), that fears of miscegenation reside even in minds of some ordinarily tolerant and level headed Fijians.

The media in Fiji, far from being equitable, manifests discrimination. The TV stations feature plenty of imported English and Hindi programming and many local Hindi adverts. By contrast there is only one half-hour programme per week in Fijian and virtually no Fijian language adverts. Moreover in the (English and Hindi) adverts often you have to look hard to see any Fijian faces. The same pattern is displayed even more one sidedly in movie theatres. Of course there is nothing conspiratorial in this - the natural order of economies of scale and consumer buying power - but the end is the same. In their country, the language of the Fijians is barely discernible on these most modern, pervasive and influential of media.

A similar picture is displayed, though more subtly, in print. The nation’s principal newspaper is foreign owned, its magazines - which have a regional audience - have Indian editors. The anti Fijian agenda of these outlets is scarcely concealed and it is all too common to see Fijian institutions, values and rituals openly mocked. And as for the rest of the world, it reads accounts of Fiji filtered through the eyes and ears of transient foreign journalists or as reported to them by their local - mostly Indian - counterparts. Accordingly Fijians are more than a little uneasy with the press, feeling both constrained in their ability to articulate to the world their own views, their side of the story, and more than a little angry over the biased, one-sided accounts published by both local and foreign media.


In a similar vein the idea of democracy, of one person one vote, is treated with suspicion in the Fijian community. Democracy at the municipal level has traditionally resulted in Indian dominated town councils, given the concentration of Indian settlement in urban areas. The policies of these municipal governments are not only naturally targeted on the interests of those who elected them but they have also embodied some practices perceived by Fijians to be particularly insensitive and inflammatory. Attempts to change the official names of streets or landmarks, renaming them after prominent Indian business or community leaders, is a case in point. The image projected by the country, particularly whether it be Fijian or Indian, remains a delicate issue, especially for Fijians who have no stage other than these small islands upon which to assert their identity as a people.

Democracy at the national level is more sensitive still. Fijians note that Indian preoccupation with democracy started in the late 1920s and early 30s when the Indian population first approached the Fijian and Fijians were often erroneously dismissed as a dying race. Today, given differential birth rates and Indian emigration that was substantially accelerated by the coups, Fijians now comprise a slim majority, though a majority that looks set to increase. But still the fear of an Indian dominated government is almost palpable. Why? First, there is a feeling that once in positions of political power, Indian politicians would behave like Indian businessmen, favouring in civil service appointments and government policies the community they understand, are comfortable with and whose language they speak. This would leave Fijians essentially bereft of voice in either the public or private sectors of the land of their fathers. Second, sooner or later, in one form or another, land, inevitably, would find its way on to the agenda. Third, the Fijian vote has tended to be somewhat less concentrated than the Indian. There are, and have been, more characteristically Fijian political parties than Indian and any split of the Fijian vote across parties provides an opportunity for the more consolidated Indian vote to triumph, as essentially happened in 1987. Fourth, and really most telling, it is not simply the political force of Indian numbers in a democracy that worries Fijians but that this cumulatively adds to their private sector influence and the imprint in little Fiji of the globally massive Indian culture.

Fijians even see threats to their integrity as a culture and people in land - the supposed firmament of Fijian interests. While it is true that 83% of the country’s land area is ‘inalienable’ native land, the majority of this is mountainous and economically marginal, worth, it is said, only about 20% of the value of the prime agricultural freehold land owned by Europeans, Indians and the Crown. And what agriculturally and commercially valuable property the Fijians do possess is typically leased by the Native Lands Trust Board to Indian farmers or expatriate property developers but on terms that often do little material good to ordinary Fijians. Rents tend not only to be pitifully low – a typical 10 acre farms can often be rented for less than 50 cents per day - but are often unpaid for years at a time. Some landowners feel lucky if they can receive 50% of the annual rents due them. For land leased for property development the situation is potentially more serious. Owners can only recover their land for their own use after having paid compensation, for economic improvements, to any tenant whose lease is not to be renewed. Given the low rents, the value of construction, and the economic position of Fijians generally, such compensation is clearly impossible. Thus the signing of a lease for property /hotel developments is seen by many Fijians as a funeral; they lose their land just as decisively as if it was sold but without the corresponding material advantages of an exchange at market rates.

It is agricultural land, however, that brings to the fore one of the starkest ironies in Fijian history. Deeply scarring the Indian consciousness, as noted previously, is their Girmit past, which saw Indian workers being initially brought to Fiji and toiling under the hated indenture system. The essence of this system was twofold: first, workers were contractually bonded and unable to use their labour when and where they chose. Second, they were exploited by being paid a wage less than the market value of their economic contribution to production. While the indenture of labour came to an end in 1920, the principle of indenture did not end. It was simply transferred to native land. Thus all the various leasing arrangements that have existed since then have embodied the twin pillars of indenture, with Fijians being essentially compelled to lease their land to Indian tenant farmers and at exploitative rates well below any semblance of market value. And today, when current leasing arrangements are under review, the very same Indian politicians who rile against the injustices of their indentured past, want to perpetuate the indenture of land, preventing Fijians from using what is often their only asset in the manner they choose, and resisting attempts to introduce market based rentals.

Existing land arrangements, then, serve to keep Fijians economically marginalised while giving the illusion to the outside world that they can luxuriate and dictate like feudal landlords.

Fijians also see discrimination in the concessions they are encourage to make for the sake of adapting to the putative economic and social realities of modern multicultural Fiji. They are told that aspects of their communal culture are incompatible with individual initiative and economic advancement and that their traditional, hierarchical, chiefly leadership system is antiquated and violates egalitarian, democratic sensibilities. Fijians must be willing to make it easier for immigrant entrepreneurs to use their land, we hear. They must encourage more Indians to join the army. They must be more accepting of Hindi culture and language. They must be prepared to relinquish their political monopoly. But what are the Indians (or Europeans for that matter) asked to give up to facilitate their adaptation to Fiji and the Fijians? Why nothing. They seemingly are champions of all that is virtuous, noble and economically efficient. And remember the Indians are the victims of the coup and the racist government and constitution that followed it. So demanding, or even asking for, accommodations from them would be adding insult to injury. Thus we arrive at the Alice-in-Wonderland situation where evidently everything Fijian is wrong, everything immigrant right, where the world community is asking that the Fijians at the bottom of the economic totem pole make all sorts of concessions to accommodate the interests of those at the top. Small wonder, then, that Fijians often respond with incredulity at the pronouncements of many an overseas constitutional expert or ‘in-depth’ media account of the Fijian political scene.

In summary, the Fijians’ perception of injustice and discrimination resolves into a fear that everything prototypically Fijian is both undervalued and potentially vulnerable to assault, and that the Fijians themselves are rapidly losing the ability to fight back. Fiji is small and the Fijians but few. The only arena within which their aspirations of cultural pride and nationhood can be played out is in Fiji itself. But a relative lack of economic strength, a feeling of backwardness or inferiority reflected and projected by the commercial success of others, the manifold discriminatory impacts of being a small people, a small culture, in a big world, the power of mass media and money, all conspire to diminish their role in this arena.

Metaphorically, Fijians see their country as a nest into which immigrant eggs have been deposited by the colonial cuckoo. The alien hatchlings come pre-programmed to aggressively compete for resources in ways not understood by the accommodating and apathetic native chicks. And even though the cuckoo’s hatchlings may not have chosen to be born there, and individually may not consciously seek to squeeze out the native chicks, their combined presence threatens to accomplish this just as effectively as if they had. Democracy, capitalism and multiculturalism, the touchstones of Western conceptions of political and economic justice, are not merely passive bystanders in this process, they actively abet it through sanctioning the force of numbers and dollars. Equality in principle becomes discrimination in practice. And to the plight of the discriminated, the world at large is either indifferent or hostile. The Fijians consequently are somewhat bewildered and unsure of how to respond except in the most direct and unpopular of ways. And for the immediate future, during which the new constitution is to be implemented, the real threat posed by this perception of multifaceted assault is that again Fijians will remain silent over their real fears, bottling them up until once more the pressure becomes intolerable.


Some differences between the perception of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ Fijians.

While the sentiments outlined above, in whole or in part, tend to resonate with Fijians generally, there is nonetheless an important distinction in attitude within the Fijian community. This distinction originates in the simultaneous presence of, and conflict between, modernity and tradition, education and superstition, enterprise and conformity, effort and indolence. Those Fijians who possess what one may call a modern outlook, who have acquired an education, who are disciplined and prepared to work, and who have achieved and accomplished through personal effort, often see their own people as being at least partially the authors of their lagging economic position. Business success requires enterprise and effort: a profession or career in the civil service requires education and training. Yet the efforts of the government to stimulate Fijian enterprise and professional representation are often hamstrung by the very people they strive to help and the social environment in which they live.

The village, the wellspring of Fijian culture and a wonderfully supportive organisation, nonetheless has several pervasive characteristics that conspire to militate against material progress and commercial success. The social control achieved through the myriad of small taboos and superstitions, which, rather paradoxically, have now been supplemented (as opposed to replaced) by the teachings of the church, impose a conformity on behaviour and a reluctance to experiment that is inimical to the stimulation of enterprise upon which business success depends. Additionally, ventures that may bring financial rewards are all too frequently killed off by the kerekere system, the convenient disregard of property rights by the less productive members of the village (or nearby village), mismanagement by mataqali leaders who often insist on controlling purse strings regardless of personal contribution or financial acumen, time commitments due to social obligations and demands by the church, or by jealousy and sabotage within the village.

The village likewise breeds educational problems. The ease with which parents can abandon their children to often indifferent or exhausted grandparents, or other extended family members, in combination with the above noted time required of adults by social obligations and an increasingly demanding church, serve to subtract alarmingly from the investments of time and resources parents or guardians make to the education of children. This problem has been compounded by the recent introduction of television. And children themselves often fail to see the advantages of educational attainment, observing that the village will readily supply the necessities of life; supplications to employed urban relatives some of its luxuries.

Village attitudes and incentives, when transposed in an urban context, have served to create recently some major economic problems. In particular, the enormous pressures which Fijian society can place on individuals (in particular the terrible burden of saying "no" to a relative), the less than adequate educational attainment of too many Fijians, the feeling - galvanised by post-coup, paramountcy rhetoric - that Fijians are somehow above the law, when coupled with the current government’s strong commitment to affirmative action for Fijians, has led to both widespread corruption and financial mismanagement. For the educated, independent and productive members of the urban Fijian community, this has been a source of acute embarrassment: more than anyone it is this group which is emphasising the need for diligence and application, qualifications and accountability and a sea-change in Fijian attitudes. One sometimes gets the impression that even the Prime Minister and executor of the coup, Major General Sitiveni Rabuka, in his recent statements and emphasis on multiracialism, and their incarnation in the 1997 constitutional amendments, is himself exasperated with his own people - that he’s given them their chance and they’ve blown it.

At the same time, it should be pointed out that some of the most progressive and Westernised members of the Fijian ‘elite’ are hardly in a position to cast the first stone. Too many are preoccupied with themselves, with financial and material accumulation and the display of Western lifestyles. This is especially problematic when the public trust wielded by those in positions of authority - government officials, church leaders, and chiefs in particular – is used as the instrument of pecuniary accumulation. Amongst the ordinary Fijians this is certainly a major source of discontent. And it is not just by politicians and chiefs, and it is not just for money, that the ordinary Fijian sees himself being sold out by the progressive ‘elites’. Thus of the all too few Fijian academics, you see a goodly number who, on the one hand, take evident personal pride in projecting an exaggerated confidence, rejoicing in their position, strutting around the campus like peacocks. At the same time these very individuals are often so desperate to be accepted as real intellectuals by their Indian and expatriate peers (who often determine their contract renewals or promotion prospects), that they throw themselves into anti-coup, anti-Fijian, anti-tradition, and pro-liberal/western rhetoric with all the enthusiasm of the converted. The upshot is that many Fijian students who arrive on campus armed with all the youthful ideals of inquiring into and promoting the Fijian cause are often desperately disappointed with their experience. They leave empty, beaten down by a relentless diet of overt and veiled anti-Fijian propaganda, having had few, if any, role models and mentors that can simultaneously empathise and guide, and bitter about being made to feel unwelcome in their own university.

Of course these disparate issues can be traced back to the difficulty confronted by a traditional, subsistence society in adapting to a modern market economy and the values, economic imperatives and modes of thought that sustain it. At the best of times this is an incredibly difficult adaptation (witness the ongoing difficulty of the native populations of North America, Australia and New Zealand all of whom have access to far greater state resources than do the Fijians). It is also an adaptation confronted by all the peoples of the South Pacific. But while other islanders have the luxury of managing this transition at their own pace, the Indian presence robs Fijians of the same discretion in tailoring and implementing policies for managing change. It means that any government initiatives aimed at facilitating cultural adaptations - like educational scholarships, the nature and content of the education system itself, or access to soft loans for commercial developments – will inevitably be watered down by the Indian insistence on equity and fair shares, even though they do not face the same adaptational challenges. Additionally, the condescension flowing from a general inability to appreciate just how profoundly difficult this adaptation really is, and the associated comic relief provided by the inevitable examples of Fijian failure, compound the problem through eroding the confidence and therefore the willingness of those Fijians struggling to make the necessary adjustments.


The Source of Fiji’s Constitutional Problems

All this takes us to the present with its debate over the newly passed 1997 constitutional amendments. Of course to judge whether they will work, whether they are able to walk the tightrope and balance the fear and feelings of Fiji’s principal peoples, it is imperative first that we have a clear understanding of the root cause of Fiji’s constitutional difficulties. To isolate this root cause it may be interesting, as a thought experiment, to imagine various scenarios where reaching a generally acceptable constitution would be easy:

Scenario 1 – The Ethnic Cleansing Model.

If the indigenous population of Fiji, as in North America, the Caribbean, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, had been eliminated or reduced to relic levels, there would be no consequential conflict between indigenous and immigrant sensibilities. The indigenes would be without political power, democracy could prevail in an undiluted form and any lingering conscience on the part of the immigrant cultures could be salved by handouts or some special recognition of indigenous rights, but a recognition of no political consequence. Alternatively, a similar but opposite result could have flowed had the 1987 coups resulted in an Idi Amin, or even worse, a Kosovo or Rwanda style solution, that by forced emigration or genocide, eliminated the Indian population. Under this scheme, special allocation of parliamentary seats to Fijians would be a moot point, democracy (perhaps modified by the traditional hierarchical order) could prevail and who knows, perhaps in a generation all would be forgiven and Fiji might be welcomed back into the international fold, much like present day Uganda.

Historically the practice was similar in each of the above cases, the results differed simply in terms of which group - immigrant or indigenous - triumphed. I take it as axiomatic that no thinking person sees anything to justify the elimination of either indigenous or the non-indigenous populations. I offer it for consideration simply to emphasise that democracy and socially acceptable constitutional arrangements are much simpler to effect in situations where the great majority of a population is either indigenous or else immigrant than when they are split. To reemphasise this, consider the political landscape of an Australia in which 50% of the population was Aborigine! What kind of apartheid would be in place?

Scenario 2 - Cultural Assimilation

Imagine if, upon their arrival in Fiji, the indentured Indians adopted not just kava drinking but the Fijian language and Fijian customs, much like immigrants have traditionally been encouraged to do in modern USA. Four generations down the road the values and beliefs of native and immigrant would be essentially indistinguishable and intermarriage hardly exceptional. Perhaps many of the descendants of the indentured labourers would even be recorded in the Vola Ni Kawa Bula - the native land register. Now if your values are the same it does not matter who represents you in government or what he or she looks like. By contrast, suspicion and fear - which is perhaps the principal impediment to a mutually satisfactory constitution - is most pronounced not when others don’t look like you but when they don’t think like you. Consider Arab and Jew in the Middle East, or Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, Serb and Muslim in Bosnia.

Notice that unlike Scenario 1 there is no symmetrical presentation here of the indigene accepting the culture of the immigrant as a substitute to his own. This is deliberate. When one chooses to become an immigrant one voluntarily relinquishes home and has a duty, I believe (and I am an immigrant myself) not to renounce one’s culture or religion but to fit in, to do what is necessary to accommodate oneself to local practice and belief and to accept the fact that our children are likely to grow up very different to ourselves. Failure to make cultural adaptations and single-mindedly resisting assimilation of one’s children by the host culture is to invite sentiments of vulagi, or "if you don’t like it here go on back to you motherland".

In Fiji, of course, the lack of cultural assimilation of the Indians by the Fijians is due not simply to stubbornness on the Indians’ part. Colonial governments kept Indian and Fijian apart. So today we have arrived at a situation where we have two very proud and distinct cultures and the languages, religions, beliefs, values etc. that go with them.

Given that cultural assimilation has not happened one may legitimately ask what is the relevance of even bothering to consider it? Similarly, with reference to Scenario 1, given that the population is split, what is the relevance of imagining a Fiji in which either Fijian or Indian predominate? In each case the answer is the same: it is precisely because we have a racially split society, precisely because there has been little cultural assimilation, that we have a constitutional problem. As argued above, if we had only Fijians or only Indians, there would be none of the current problems (though no doubt there would be others). Similarly if we had a racially split population who shared the same culture and values (like, to a limited degree, Hawaii), there would be no problem. It is the simultaneous combination of a racially split society and the lack of cultural assimilation that creates the problem.

The real test of a constitution, and indeed of political leaders of all persuasions, is how they can accommodate this reality while at the same time handling the legitimate fears, feelings of victimisation and the aspirations of both the Indian and the Fijian communities. Let us now, then, turn to the Reeves Report.


The Reeves Report

The Reeves Report is a comprehensive, well researched and well written document which is obviously the product of great effort, given the relatively short time scale in which it was prepared. Parts of it - especially those addressing good governance - are balanced, sensible, not really contentious and should consequently create little difficulty in terms of acceptance by Indians and Fijians alike. But in the critical areas relating to the institutions of government and national identity, goals and values, it ignores certain realities that must be addressed lest the exercise be purely academic.

Problem 1: it fails sufficiently to appreciate and address the political problems created by the simultaneous presence of a racially and culturally split population subject to economic and other inequalities. Since culture and race are coincident and since the values and interests of the two cultures are significantly different, individuals see their interests protected by voting for their race. And so long as we have a cultural split, this pattern will surely continue. Now if the outcome of an election is such that the Indians cannot form a government - something to which they have grown accustomed - the loss is not inordinate since they still control the private sector. But if through election the Fijians lose the ability to govern, the cost is much higher since neither political nor economic power is available to serve their interests. This asymmetric cost of election defeat, this Fijian fear of being rendered powerless by modern democracy, must explicitly be addressed.

The Reeves Commission missed its chance here. It proposed a bicameral parliamentary system based on the American model of an elected Lower House and a differently elected Upper House (or Senate). The Great Council of Chiefs was recognised and even judged to be "important". But it was marginalised and invested only with sufficient power to veto entrenched legislation relating to Fijians and Rotumans. The concentration of virtually all real political power in the elected houses and the contemporaneous marginalisation of Fijian affairs and veto power is hardly a workable remedy to the asymmetric cost of election defeat problem. More than anything, this is the root of the widespread Fijian ‘rejection’ of the Reeves Report. Calling the Great Council "important", and proposing Fijian names for the Lower and Upper Houses, is no answer.

A simple solution, however, is readily at hand. Rather than structuring parliament on the American model, it could be based on the more locally familiar and more Fiji-compatible British example comprising an elected House of Commons and a House of Lords whose composition is determined through a mix of ancestry and appointment. An Upper House, based on the House of Lords, comprising the current composition of the Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) and, say, a complement of appointed members (perhaps 15) would be in line with international precedent, would be an overtly Fijian institution and its presence would be an explicit accommodation to Fijian ways. The current practice of separating "Fijian" interests from the wider national interests - a practice continued in the Reeves Report - is artificial, divisive and unnecessary. Increasingly what affects the indigenous population affects everybody and vice versa. In contemporary Fiji the Chiefs and the Upper House in general have a duty to address the interests of the entire populace of the islands, not simply the indigenous component. It would also reinvest a necessary sense of responsibility and purpose with the Chiefs, something which the post independence political system had been eroding. At the same time, were this Upper House to be invested with full power to veto - but not initiate - all legislation proposed by the Lower House, its presence could serve at once to accommodate the asymmetric cost of election defeat, at the Lower House level, shouldered by Fijians.

An hereditary and appointed Upper House, based on British (and American Samoan for that matter) precedent, by serving to balance the cost of defeat in elections to the Lower House of Representatives between the Fijian and Indian communities, would make an immediate move to complete common roll elections to the Lower House much easier. And common roll, in one form or another, must come. It cannot be denied to the Indians any longer. With Fijian interests protected through a strong customary Upper House, there would be no need for transitional Fijian or Indian seats to the House of Representatives and common roll could come straight away.

At the same time it should be remembered that common roll does not mean that political problems would be removed at the level of the Lower House. Given that in contemporary Fiji race and culture are coincident, and given the incentive this creates for individuals to vote for their race, communal tensions will always be present, multi-ethnic political parties will not develop, true parliamentary democracy will not properly work and long term political stability will be unlikely even in the presence of common roll. This pattern will only be broken when race, culture and values are no longer coincident. Until this happens, election results, even those based on common roll, will simply yield a temporary stalemate in the competition for the vision, values and image that Fiji is to promote and project. This brings us to the thorny issue of cultural adaptation and assimilation, an issue that Reeves chose to duck but one that is vital to a stable, politically healthy, Fiji.

Problem 2 The Reeves Commission Failed to Appreciate the Costs of Multiculturalism and the Benefits of Cultural Assimilation.

Many commentators, including Reeves, have extolled the rich variety of cultures, traditions and languages to be found in Fiji and judge this obvious fact to be a blessing, a source of strength. In many ways it is. But there is another side to the multicultural coin - the tragedy of separate solitudes. In the schools, the university, on the street, in social gatherings, everywhere, one observes uniracial groups of Indians, Fijians, Europeans, chatting as though oblivious or indifferent to the others around them or to the context in which they find themselves. Through a narrow lens, the European groups would be indistinguishable from those in Europe or Australasia, the Indian from those in India, as would their language of discourse. Voluntary interaction between groups is minimal, particularly between the Indians and Fijians. It is as though in the 3 or 4 generations of immigrant presence, the immigrants have absorbed nothing of the Fijian and the Pacific context in which they find themselves. The steadfast retention of the values, culture and language of the respective motherlands, imposed by colonialism, though not needing much encouragement thereafter, while contributing to the contemporary ‘rich, multicultural tapestry of Fiji’, nonetheless has been accomplished at the loss of the opportunity of partaking in the host culture. And for the host culture it must surely be a slap in the face to see how few immigrants see fit to adopt their language and ways.

Of course the separate solitudes need not be as distant as portrayed above. In Nadroga, parts of Vanua Levu and Taveuni, for example, there has been much interaction between Indian and Fijian, Fijian is commonly spoken by the Indians, Fijian culture understood and appreciated, and social relations are very good. These areas provide testament to what is possible. However, in areas where the Indian population is not small and dispersed, separate solitudes, unfortunately, is the norm. The tragedy of this is that so long as the great majority of Indians steadfastly adheres to the traditions of their motherland and resists adoption of host traditions, they will always be perceived as outsiders in both Fiji and the Pacific.

Now in proper multicultural fashion, Reeves emphasises that people have the rights to freedom of religion and retention of language, culture and traditions. While at one level this is obviously balanced and fair, at another it is a Trojan Horse. It perpetuates the identification of culture and values with race and thus serves to guarantee indefinitely the maintenance of political and constitutional problems. Moreover, given the arithmetic of multiculturalism, as addressed previously, it heralds the slow but inevitable erosion of Fijian culture and ways. Further, it sanctions the patronising attitudes, developed under colonialism, but perpetuated thereafter, that the European community has the ‘right’ to demand and expect in their adopted home ‘proper British (or now New Zealand) standards’, that the Indian and other immigrant communities have the ‘right’ to create in these islands a home away from home, almost as though the land was empty. The problem, of course, is that such ‘rights’, expectations or objectives clash with the desire of the indigenous inhabitants for their islands to remain visibly and unmistakably Fijian. It also diverts attention from the duty of immigrant communities to make the effort to fit in.

Nowhere is culture more concretely manifest than in language. In the interests of equality and non-discrimination, Reeves asserts that Fiji should recognise three official languages, English, Hindi and Fijian. Given the power and influence in the mass media of both English and Hindi, this equality of recognition will inevitably lead to the submersion, marginalisation and erosion of the Fijian language - much as has happened to many indigenous languages in the Pacific - and with it, the gradual but unstoppable succession of immigrant culture over Fijian. It is unforgivable that Reeves did not address this obvious point. The process, however, is not inevitable and constitutional avenues to arrest language imperialism are practised even in the west. Take Quebec, for example, a province in multicultural Canada where French is the only official language. Surrounded by English speaking North America, and a powerful, aggressive and pervasive American mass culture and media, Quebec sought to preserve and encourage its distinctive French culture, by, amongst other things, recognising only one official language - French - through laws which (for a time) outlawed any signs in any language other than French, and through its provincially controlled education system (which arguably developed into the best in Canada).

Fiji, then, could borrow a leaf from the Quebec book and be much more aggressive in promoting the Fijian language and with it, culture. At this stage it may be impractical and unwise for Fijian to be the only official language. English is the language of international business, it was the colonial common denominator of dialogue between Fijian and Indian, it has traditionally been the language of government in Fiji, it is widely used across the Pacific, and it is the language of regional higher education. Given such momentum, English really has to continue as an official language, at least in the short term. The same is not true, however, for Hindi. Simply because after four generations of settlement the Indian community, by and large, has chosen not to learn the language of their new home is no reason to elevate Hindi to the status of official language. And having the languages of two recent immigrant communities recognised as official is a bit much to expect of any independent country whose indigenous population has not been reduced to relic levels. Is there any other country in the world where this has happened?

The education system should also be much more active in promoting competence in Fijian. The Fijian language should be a compulsory subject taught in all schools in all years. Fijian could also be installed immediately as the prime language of the Upper House of government. On the TV screens the Fijian language should be much more in evidence (though it could never hope to rival the prevalence of Hindi or English). Encouraging the much wider use of Fijian would serve as a much needed wake up call to all immigrant communities that they are in Fiji and better get used to it. It would also serve to facilitate the integration of immigrant cultures into the Fijian, thus promoting the kind of genuine acceptance and understanding one witnesses in those areas where the Indian community is fully conversant in Fijian. The country desperately needs of its population, shared experiences, common perceptions, a singular vision. A common language of expression and thought is the most powerful, as well as the easiest to effect, instrument promoting such a singular vision.

While it may seem unfair to pursue cultural compromise through the direct promotion of only the Fijian language and culture, it must be remembered that given the power of the English and Hindi media, given the economic success of immigrant communities and given the recognition by the educated Fijians that the modern world requires modern attitudes, Fijians will inevitably be forced to adapt the more economically stifling aspects of their own traditions and learn from the example of the Indians, as many openly admit to having done. It won’t be one way traffic in culture.

Problem 3 The Reeves Commission excessively confines concepts of ‘Indigenous Rights’ and the Paramountcy of Fijian Interests.

Reeves surveys various documents and conventions relating to the concept of "indigenous rights" and concludes that they are not wholly applicable to Fiji where land and political representation are secure, legislation exists that can be used to prevent violations of certain indigenous rights (mostly to land and traditional governance), and the indigenous are in any case in the majority. In Reeves and amongst many western commentators, the idea of indigenous rights is seen as being primarily applicable to cases like the Yanomani in Brazil, or the Aborigines, Maoris, and Hawaiians, each of whom are numerically grossly subordinate to, and subject to rule by, the colonising populations. The Fijian situation does not generate the sort of sympathy evoked by these cases for the simple reason that the Indians were not the colonising population. So although Fijians often feel the Indians to be an alien, colonial presence that is marginalising them economically and culturally, little different in kind (though clearly not to the same degree) from the impact of French control and settlement on the Kanaks, the rest of the world, through the eyes of the afore mentioned foreign owned press, sees a different situation - a picture of two peoples each of whose lives was transformed by colonialism, with the industrious Indians as deserving of sympathy as the landlord Fijians.

Evidently, unless and until an indigenous population is reduced to relic levels, threatened with cultural extinction by direct colonial expansion, special protective measures that might accord it ‘rights’ not generally available to immigrant communities are not warranted. This is especially true if such measures compromise basic principles of democracy and equality of treatment, as these are seen as higher, indeed transcendent, virtues.

Within this scheme of things, the colonial promise of Fijian paramountcy is seen by Reeves simply as requiring that indigenous interests are not subordinated to the interests of other ethnic communities. Paramountcy thus loses its literal definition of pre-eminence and becomes interpreted to mean equality of treatment. Nothing more, nothing less. This notion is most forcefully embodied in that most quoted sentence of the Report (p.50)... "We have found no basis on which the paramountcy of Fijian interests or Fijian political paramountcy can be elevated into a right".

At the political level, Reeves’ sentiments are undoubtedly correct. Historical bargains notwithstanding, there can be no justification for Fijian political paramountcy achieved through disenfranchising the Indian community: it will bring nothing but international condemnation and political and economic damage. Its promotion is a battle that cannot be won. But the situation is very different at the cultural, social and economic levels. Here income distribution and the global reach of English and Hindi culture mean, as noted previously, that equality of treatment can be calculated to reinforce the relative position of the strong and diminish that of the weak, to erode the Fijian and accentuate the Indian and immigrant character of the islands. This can be reversed through according explicit primacy - paramountcy - to the host language, culture and traditions, as is done widely throughout the world. There is no international convention stating that immigrant communities have a right to establish their own language as official, to recreate in their adopted home a clone of the country they forsook, especially if it involves eroding the image presented to the world of the host culture. As the twenty first century dawns, cultural imperialism is no longer regarded as acceptable or inescapable.

So it is in the sphere of language and culture that Fijian paramountcy can be vigorously and legitimately pursued. The constitution can be much more direct in asserting the cultural roots of Fiji, in promoting the Fijian language and traditions, in presenting to the world an unmistakably Fijian and Pacific image - as opposed to a non-descript, multicultural pastiche - but an image to which all are welcomed and encouraged to embrace. It is precisely the diminution of this image, as opposed to abstract debates on the theory of democracy and various electoral practices, that lies at the heart of Fijian discontent over the current social order.



That Fiji needs a constitution which is broadly acceptable to its people and to the rest of the world is unquestionable. To be acceptable domestically, it must address the legitimate interests and fears of Fijian and Indian alike. To be acceptable internationally, it must embody objectives and instruments the purposes of which are understood and judged reasonably necessary and acceptable in the sense of not being out of line with international precedent and conceptions of fairness. Complicating the exercise is the fact that, for whatever reason, the root of Fiji’s current constitutional problems does not seem to be properly understood, especially internationally.

Fundamental to the constitutional problems are two related issues. First there exists a simultaneous combination of a racially split society and a lack of cultural assimilation, which induces individuals to see their interests protected by voting for their race. Second, the economic, social, political and cultural environment in which the two groups find themselves admits of numerous powerful assymmetries which decisively shape conceptions of both fairness and community interest. Since the first problem can be addressed in part by tackling the second, let us initially summarise these asymmetries.

Perhaps the most basic asymmetry is the asymmetry of discourse. While the concerns of the Indian community are widely debated and understood, those of the Fijian are not. While the post-1987 political discrimination against Indians is universal knowledge internationally, the entrenched private sector discrimination against Fijians seems to be the country’s dirty little secret. Related to this pattern of discrimination is the asymmetric distribution of political and economic power - the former residing with Fijians, the latter with Indians and multinationals. Then there are the asymmetries that flow inescapably from size: the power of the English and Hindi media contrasting with the Fijian. In turn, the asymmetric distribution of economic and media (or cultural) power serves to create a further asymmetry, the most dangerous of all, the asymmetric cost of election defeat, a cost much greater for the Fijian than for the Indian.

The existence of these asymmetries means that the normally noble ideal of equality of treatment and of opportunity can be calculated to reinforce inequalities, to accentuate the power of the powerful and weaken the position of the weak. Unlike in boxing there are no weight categories in economic, political and cultural contests. And the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules, even when equally applied to both contestants, do not assure a fair fight when the contestants are of unequal size. In competition between unequals the big can be expected to champion notions of ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’, not necessarily on principle but because it promotes their self interest. The small, however, see their interests served by special rules. Perhaps an apt summary of much of the political debate seen in Fiji over the last 50 years.

But what can be done to surmount such inequalities? Fortunately much. To combat economic inequalities, affirmative action programmes for Fijians and Rotumans needs to continue. However, without a much greater degree of commitment to education and entrepreneurship, and a significant modification of those aspects of Fijian society that tend to suffocate initiative and education, they are likely to be of limited success. As is widely acknowledged both without and within the Fijian community, attitudes must change. Additionally much more aggressive legislation is needed to combat private sector discrimination. As in the west, it should be a criminal offence to engage in racially discriminatory advertising. And efforts must be directed at ensuring that ethnic representation in both the public service and the private sector is proportional to the ethnic composition of the country, another measure increasingly demanded in the West. In relation to political power, common roll at the Lower House could combat the current asymmetric distribution of political power that weighs against the Indians, while an Upper House consisting largely of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga, which has the power to veto but not initiate all legislation (initiating legislation being the sole prerogative of the Lower House) could address the asymmetric cost of election defeat shouldered by Fijians.

To combat the cultural asymmetries posed by the powerful English and Hindi media, a commitment must be initiated to try to ensure a much greater Fijian presence on the TV screens. At the level of the cinema, the same is obviously impossible to achieve. However, through a much more vigorous commitment to the teaching of Fijian in all schools and by establishing Fijian as the principal language of the nation (along with, at least in the short term, English), one could compensate and additionally project a much more visibly Fijian image while also encouraging much needed cultural assimilation and the promotion of shared perceptions. And this is what is really needed to overcome the political gridlock caused by tendency of individuals to vote for their race.

None of the above measures could reasonably be seen as inflammatory or controversial. They aim simply to combat inequalities and to nurture the host language, culture and institutions. As such they draw from established and respected international precedent. What is undoubtedly a more challenging task is to change the ingrained behaviour and attitudes of the populace. For Fijians, they must accept that the idea of paramountcy is a legitimate goal only at the level of culture, language and national image. It cannot be used to disenfranchise the Indian community without correctly precipitating international isolation and condemnation. Similarly no attempt to address income inequalities can hope to succeed without a far greater degree of emphasis placed by individuals, families, communities and the church on the need for education, commercial enterprise, sound business practice and plain hard work. The nation cries out for more good Fijian journalists, businessmen, teachers, professors etc. Failure to recognise and correct the institutional impediments to commercial success that reside in Fijian traditions can only condemn Fijians to a subservient future. The example of the Indian community in its business and professional accomplishment must serve as model to all. Additionally, discipline and respect must reassert themselves and be vigorously championed by politicians, chiefs, elders and parents. Finally, Fijians of all persuasions must welcome, encourage and support attempts by immigrant communities to learn and absorb the Fijian language and culture and to project it as their own.

As for Indians, they must wake up to the fact that they are not innocent hostages to the constitutional problems of today. The chauvinistic attitudes manifested by many Fijians over the last decade or so - and embodied in the 1990 Constitution - are not simply the product of jealousy at the business and professional success of the Indian community, convenient though it may be for some to believe it. In no small measure they are a direct reaction to the decades of condescension, marginalisation and all too frequent naked racism levelled against the host people, culture and traditions. Any vision of creating here a "Little India of the South Pacific", of developing a society in which Fijians play a secondary role, is a dangerous and futile illusion. As events have shown, the normal passivity of the indigenous population cannot casually be assumed when it feels itself powerless, that its very existence is under assault. To create a society where both chauvinism and racism cannot flourish Indian and other immigrant groups must be willing to adapt, assimilate and embrace the Fijian and Pacific character of the nation. It is a character that is not theirs to change. If not they will condemn their children to labour with the same problems they have inherited.

It is no easy task; but with genuine effort and goodwill all round the example of community relations in rural Vanua Levu and Taveuni may be writ large in the nation as a whole. No lesser bequest is deserved by the next generation.

Turning to Reeves, its strength lay in the details of good governance, its weakness in a failure to appreciate the asymmetries that galvanise legitimate political and cultural fears and which accordingly serve to create the nation’s electoral problems. As such it is not a finished edifice but a foundation upon which, with goodwill and realism, a proud structure may yet be completed.

Finally, on a personal note, I recognise only too well the horrendous generalisations I have made, the sins of stereotyping to which I have been guilty, my seemingly pathological emphasis on identifying that which is ugly. I am, however, unapologetic. Political, social, economic and constitutional progress demands that problems are confronted head on, that real fears, aspirations and motivations are nakedly portrayed, even if this is at the cost of creating some offence. That said, it must be pointed out that as well as being the home of some of my most frustrating encounters, these islands and their peoples have been the source of the most joyous, moving and enduring of experiences. Though clearly imperfect - like everywhere else - it is nonetheless a wonderful country. In the often sordid constitutional exercise, no one should lose sight of this.


[back to Fiji Coup Supplement]


Click Here!