Fiji Coup Supplement


12th July 2000
Fijian Nationalism -A Colonial Legacy
(by Robert Norton, a long time resident of Fiji who currently lectures at Macquarie University, Sydney)


Media reports on the political crisis in Fiji shifted their focus from the opposition of indigenous Fijians to the immigrant Indians to divisions among the Fijians themselves. Provincial and regional tensions are likely to strengthen if a new constitution restores Fijian political dominance. The internal Fijian conflicts do not, however, diminish the importance of the ethnic factor in the crisis. Whatever the motives of the coup makers, and the indigenous rivalries their action reflects and intensifies, there can be no doubting their dependence on a groundswell of indigenous Fijian antagonism against the government of Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first Indian prime minister.

The mood reflects a longstanding and widely held conviction among Fijians that power in the state rightfully belongs to them, as "the people of the land". Since the late colonial period, attempts to devise equitable constitutions have been made against the force of this conviction. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Fiji’s now retired President, struggled with this sentiment, and sometimes exploited it, as he assumed national leadership near the end of colonial rule. For General Rabuka pressured to work for constitutional reform in the 1990s, the struggle with ethnonationalism was made all the more difficult by his earlier success in securing ethnic supremacy by military coup. The 1997 constitution introduced inter-ethnic power sharing despite the demand in the hundreds of Fijian petitions to the Constitutional Review Commission that their political dominance be preserved.

The constitutional reform, in conjunction with an unprecedented political fragmentation among Fijians, enabled the electoral victory of a coalition depending mainly on Indian votes. Ironically, much of the Fijian discontent on which Chaudhry also depended was directed against General Rabuka partly because he agreed to the reform. Rabuka had justified the reform to Fijians by claiming that it would redeem Fiji’s international standing while allowing them to retain political power. Although at the urgings of Rabuka and Ratu Mara the Fijian Council of Chiefs endorsed the reform proposal, many chiefs were later criticised in their provinces.

Chaudhry was vulnerable from the start. After relying on Ratu Mara to secure him in office against a challenge from his own Fijian allies, he brought to his new authority a combative style and an impatience with the Fijians’ mistrust of proposals affecting their lands. For all his good intentions he seemed to many Fijians to embody their long imagined threatening Indian leader.

The fragility of ethnic accommodation in Fiji highlights the contradiction that has long beset indigenous leaders who attempt to reconcile popular interests and perceptions in the Fijian ethnic and provincial domains with the needs of the wider society and the pressures of the international arena. Their dilemma can be traced to the contradictions of colonial rule.

After the leading chiefs ceded their islands to the British Crown in 1874, the governors resolved to protect indigenous society and land from the vicissitudes of the modern economy then controlled by white settlers. But the officials had to promote economic growth to finance their administration. Labour was needed, and Fijian lands would have to be made available if the sugar industry, eventually monopolised by the Australian CSR Company, was to expand beyond the company’s freehold estates.

Most of the indentured Indian workers who supplied the labour chose to remain in Fiji and their numbers were supplemented by free settlers. The Indians’success in farming and small business averted an expansion of white settlement that would have compelled the governors to compromise their protection of the Fijians. Indian settlement was thus a crucial support for the colonial project of reconciling the preservation of Fijian society and land with the promotion of economic growth.

But the way in which the British positioned the two ethnic populations favoured the Indians’ economic achievement, while impeding the indigenous Fijians’ progress. Colonial "indirect rule" through chiefs prevented most Fijians from learning to live in the modern economy. They were not legally free to reside and work away from their villages until near the end of colonial rule.

In sharp contrast, the "protectionist" Fijian policy supported Indian commercial farming by ensuring the availability of cheap land leases and minimising competition. So long as most Fijians remained village cultivators, they would accept miniscule income from their clan lands because their need for money was small. The Fijian "communal system" subsidised the Indians’ economic advance. At the same time, colonial government created a powerful institutional and ideological framework for the Fijians’ defensive ethnic unity. The importance of the Fijian Administration, the Great Council of Chiefs, and the Fijian dominated army encouraged a conviction of privileged identity and political strength in counterpoint to non-Fijian economic power.

There had been moments when the colonial governors encouraged Fijians to enter the market economy. In the 1930s, government promoted "individualism" among the Fijians, helping some to take up cash cropping ("to fit the Fijian for competition with his Indian neighbour"). But the all-powerful CSR Company was soon disappointed with the new farmers and alarmed by a trend for Fijians to obstruct Indian attempts to acquire or renew leases. The governor asked the leading chief, Ratu Sukuna, to persuade the Council of Chiefs to allow government to manage the leasing. Sukuna expounded on Biblical injunctions to share with neighbours and warned the chiefs not to reject his proposal lest "our house be forcibly put in order from without". Colonial officials hailed his success as a breakthrough for economic development and praised the chiefs for their "statesmanlike attitude towards the general affairs of the colony".

Sukuna had once warned that "the Indian community, having shown us the way, cannot expect to continue to hold all the agricultural land in the sugar districts where the plough mints money". But he now conceded that Indian interests should be paramount there. The attempt to encourage "individualism" was abandoned as a threat to Fijian society, and a much strengthened bureaucratic system of chiefly authority was reinstated with Sukuna as its head.

The return to indirect rule, enforcing village life for most Fijians, bound the the chiefs more firmly with the colonial government, and their newly privileged position in the state favoured their continued role in reconciling conflicting Fijian and Indian interests. But their compromising provoked Fijian opposition. The land reform was condemned by a banished charismatic leader who had united many Fijians in an agricultural marketing venture. He accused the chiefs of "giving leases to Indians against the wishes of the people", and promised the coming of a "New Era" of momentous events for Fijian progress, including the end of European and Indian economic dominance and "the destruction of the haughty chief".

Discontent with Sukuna’s administration led many people to abscond from village life, and urbanisation and the trade union movement reinforced disaffection with chiefly leadership. A shared class and colour consciousness began to emerge between Fijians and Indians. But a strengthening of ethnic tensions in the 1960s re-vitalised support for the chiefs as symbolic rallying points for solidarity. Fijian ethno-nationalist sentiment flared as the British prepared the colony for self-government.

While Indian leaders called for independence and equality under a common franchise, the Fijian response was suspicious opposition to change from fear that the ending of British rule would lead to Indian hegemony and the loss of land (Indians were then 51% of the population). Fijian leaders insisted on approving any change and asked for the retention of a protective relationship with the UK. So vehement was their demand that the governor cautioned London not to try to impose change lest this provoke disaffection and threaten stability and security.

The Colonial Office relied on the most progressive chief, Ratu Mara, to soften the Fijian resistance. Mara curbed the ethnonationalist stance of many of his colleagues in the Fijian Association, the main body in the Alliance Party through which he would rule from 1970 to 1987. His rejection of the call for a "Fiji for the Fijians" was crucial for the achievement of an independence constitution acceptable to Indian leaders and the British government. Even so, the Alliance Party, a coalition of ethnic organisations, was promoted to Fijians as a device to secure them in power when colonial rule ended.

The decisive turning point came in 1968, when Fijian Association leaders orchestrated mass protests against the Indian party. The rallies almost erupted in violence before leaders subdued them. The episode encouraged Indian leaders to agree with Fijians on a joint proposal for independence which shelved the question of a common franchise and gave special powers to the Council of Chiefs.

But optimism about nation-building was shaken in the early years of independence by the rise of the Fijian National Party. It revived the ethnic power demands Mara had suppressed, attacking him for agreeing to a constitution that did not guarantee permanent Fijian rule and for neglecting Fijians while favouring Indian business interests. The nationalists intimidated Indian tenant farmers and urged that the Indians be repatriated. They joined protests against a predominantly Indian based government 1987. This "Taukei Movement" encouraged Rabuka’s coup and was a major pressure for the 1990 constitution which entrenched Fijian dominance.

One of the most ethnocentric Fijian submissions to the Constitutional Review Commission in 1995 came from Rabuka’s governing party, the SVT. It insisted Indians must accept a status as "vulagi" (foreign guests) and defer to the people of the land, the Taukei. Rabuka withstood Taukeist pressure while working with Indian leaders to reform the constitution. But his defeat in the first elections under the reform resulted partly from resentment against him for betraying the promise of his coups by compromising with the Indian demands.

Chaudhry pragmatically drew on the Fijian ethnonationalist sentiment against Rabuka. Not surprisingly, his political base began to fracture soon after his appointment as prime minister and his initiation of action on matters most sensitive to Fijians. The Fijian protest movement, which the coup makers have exploited, involved elements in parties allied with Chaudhry, as well as leaders in Rabuka’s SVT. Like the Taukei Movement in 1987, the protestors demanded another constitutional change to ensure Fijian political control.

The legacy of colonial cocooning of the Fijians persists today in their inferior status in the commercial economy and their general demand for a dominant position in government to sustain a sense of strength and prestige in the wider society. Although since the eve of independence, Fijian leaders have assumed a responsibility for national leadership, they have continued to depend on economically backward constituencies where outlook remains predominantly ethnocentric. The impact on the Indians of protectionist Fijian policies has been double-edged. The policies favoured their economic advance by supplying cheap land and minimising competition from Fijians. But the Fijians’ ethnocentric political vision, also a product of these policies, continues to thwart Indian aspirations for a political order based on equality.

The present crisis poses again Fiji’s long-standing dilemma: How can the indigenous claim to political pre-eminence accommodate the non-Fijian citizens who form nearly half the population and contribute so crucially to Fiji’s economic well being? The principle of indigenous political paramountcy has in the past been valued especially as a counterweight to non-Fijian economic and demographic strength. While this dominance actually brought little material benefit to most Fijians, it was compatible with continued Indian access to lands and business opportunities. However, at least since 1987, control of the state has been seen by many Fijians as a way to economic benefits (jobs, commercial opportunities, and finance), and not simply as a reassurance of security and strength.

The coups of 1987 and 2000, like many in the developing world, were influenced by these raised economic stakes of political power. A reinstatement of Fijian political dominance will not lessen the force of this factor, and the precedents for violent usurpation set by Rabuka and Speight might be repeated in future power struggles among Fijians. The probable renewed exodus of many Indians with their capital and professional skills will only exacerbate such conflict by deepening economic recession.

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