Fiji Coup Supplement
26 July 2000
Inside Fiji's Peculiar Political Coup
By Gavin de Becker
SAVUSAVU, Fiji (APBnews.com)
In many ways, it was a most peculiar sort of political coup that just ended in the capital city of this South Pacific island nation.
Played as a faraway sideshow by most U.S. media outlets, the takeover of the Fijian Parliament was spectacle that suggested a complete breakdown of law and order. But, as all things Fijian, it was more complex than that.
This is a nation whose indigenous Fijian population lives mostly in small seaside villages of two or three hundred people. It remains, despite recent events, one of the world's least violent cultures. I have a second home here and have enjoyed close ties to the Fijian community since I first arrived in 1995 to do research about violence for my book, The Gift of Fear.
Pulled into the turmoil
Last week, I learned even more about how incredibly different Fijian culture is from America's when I was pulled into the turmoil of the final phaseof this eight week political crisis.
In May, rebels entered the Parliament compound and took the Prime Minister and most of his government hostage. Against a backdrop of some looting and takeovers, the old government declared a state of emergency. The President stepped down and left the city as the military assumed power. And, after a popular luxury resort was taken over, the U.S. Department of State directed all Americans to leave Fiji as soon as possible. It all must have sounded very frightening to the outside world.
The police headquarters building just down the road from my house, was also taken over.
But the word "takeover" conjures an image for American news readers that is far from the reality of what actually happened at many places around Fiji. In the case of our police building, fifteen villagers arrived early one morning and told the four police officers on duty that they intended to take over. The officers requested a few minutes to lock up some files, and they left.
Voila: political takeover.
'Liberating' police headquarters
Late last week I was part of "liberating" police headquarters. Local village chiefs asked me to go with them to meet with the rebels. We loaded up a truck with fruit, vegetables, and a chicken, and set out toward the building. Along the way, the chiefs of other villages waved us down and joined the delegation by climbing onto the back of our truck. As we slowly approached the police compound, our truck was halted by a tourist's worst nightmare: a gang of serious-looking rebels manning a check-point, like something you'd see in news photos of a revolution in Zambia.
But this is Fiji, a culture woven together with peacefulness, friendliness, and respect for elders -- even during political upheavals. Within five minutes, we were sitting inside police headquarters laughing and exchanging stories around a huge bowl of Kava (Fiji's traditional ceremonial drink).
In Fiji, "rebel" is not a full-time job but rather someone from a nearby village. The chiefs showed respect for the rebels by giving the offering of food; and the rebels returned the respect by agreeing to go back to their homes. They asked only for an opportunity to apologize formally to the chiefs and the military for any harms they may have caused.
Not everything that's happened here in recent weeks is so innocent, of course, but to put it all in perspective, more people were shot in my home state of California in the last hour than were shot during this entire 56-day political crisis. That any people at all were shot makes this the worst lawlessness and civil unrest in the nation's history, but a thousand people are shot every week in California, and we barely even pay attention.
As reported around the world, American guests were asked to leave Fiji's Turtle Island Resort when it was taken over by people from a nearby village. But what didn't get reported is that there's been a 20-year land dispute about Turtle Island, and villagers have staged similar demonstrations three times in the past. It was not part of the coup attempt.
Safer than American downtowns
When you boil it down, fifteen Americans enjoying a tropical vacation had to leave a resort by ship and go to another resort on another beautiful beach. More tourists are inconvenienced when there's bad weather at O'Hare. And even when occupied by Fijian villagers, walking around Turtle Island is safer than walking around a downtown hotel in just about any American city.
Even though not a single tourist has been hurt here, I certainly understand why the lack of effective authority would persuade the Department of State to advise Americans to leave Fiji. The irony is, however, that they'll be far less safe back home in Detroit or Chicago.
Can you imagine if foreign governments advised their citizens to leave America every time there was a violent incident, like say, a Laker's game? It seems we expect a much higher standard of safety from small foreign governments than we demand from our own.
I don't minimize the seriousness of rebels taking over Parliament, but here's the context: Fiji is a young country, having gained independence from Britain less than thirty years ago. During that time, they've had three bloodless coups. It's unreasonable to expect that power will always change hands the way we'd like, for indeed, Fiji is profoundly un-American.
Power in Fiji does not flow from its impersonation of a Western democracy, but rather from the people's commitment to peacefulness and decency.
In America, we'd have had a commando team go in and free the hostages, but in Fiji, the military just waited it out and set up a temporary Government down the street. Sounds crazy perhaps, but all the hostages went home safely, and in true Fijian style, when the Prime Minister was finally released after weeks in captivity, he first hugged the coup leader who had just ousted his government.
Also in true Fijian style, the coup leaders had a ceremony to apologize to the Chiefs and the nation for any harms they may have caused, and then the military did the same thing.
People and not governments make up countries, and we have something to learn from Fiji -- even at its worst moment.
Fiji Coup Supplement