Written 19 June 2000
as the lead story for TU Mai magazine, July 2000, Issue 15


A Colonial Legacy - The Third Fijian Coup

By Ross Nepia Himona


The constitutional crisis in Fiji, lasting over a month, has finally brought to the attention of the world the long festering grievances of the indigenous people of Fiji. The world however, doesn't seem to be listening.

As it was in the two 1987 coups d'etat staged by Major General Sitiveni Rabuka, the world in 2000, led by Australia and New Zealand, has chosen only to acknowledge the injustice done to the Indo-Fijian population. The Commonwealth has chosen to focus only on their preoccupation with ideals of democratic representation, and on the criminal act itself. Politicians and media alike have ignored the grievances and underlying causes leading to the coup, and continue to ignore these and the genuine aspirations of indigenous Fijians.

This article will now refer to indigenous Fijians as "Fijians", and to Indo-Fijians as "Indians"

The article is both an analysis of the coup and its causes, and the story of my own journey, providing a dissenting media view on it. It is a story, not only about the crisis in Fiji, but also about New Zealand's reaction to it, as I have experienced that reaction in the course of reporting and commenting with an indigenous bias.

From the beginning it was obvious that politicians and media in New Zealand and Australia were themselves presenting an extremely biased and loud point of view, which was overpowering the complete story of Fiji. It was also apparent that Fijians had little or no access to any media to make their story known, and that Indians, in Fiji and elsewhere, were able to dominate the story-telling. The world was hearing a very one-sided story.

From Day 3 of the crisis I started reporting and commenting in Te Karere Ipurangi, my internet news site ( ), on the unfolding events, from an indigenous perspective. As the crisis deepened over the following days I opened a special Fiji Coup Supplement to cover the crisis ( ). From the beginning I was subjected to emailed criticism and abuse from non-Maori.

It seemed that no matter what sound evidence and analysis was presented to clarify the genuine concerns of Fijians, non-Maori New Zealand was not interested. More than that, they seemed angered by any attempt to present an alternative viewpoint. The tenor of these objections indicated to me that deep anxieties were being stirred in the collective New Zealand sub-conscious. It indicated that these anxieties and fears had more to do with a fear of the increasingly stronger Maori political presence in this country, than it had to do with Fiji. It was as though the coup in Fiji had instantly unleashed dark and hidden unspoken fears in this country.

I will develop that theme later.



From the beginning, I was accused of being a supporter of George Speight and a supporter of the coup d'etat. I found it increasingly necessary to proclaim at least once in every article I wrote on Fiji, that just because I support the Fijians, I do not support Mr George Speight or his coup d'etat. And the fact that I support the causes of Fijians does not mean that I do not sympathise with the plight of Indians, and agree that one way or another, their concerns need to be addressed as well.

In this story I will question the suitability and workability of the 1997 Fijian Constitution, and present the case for a new constitution to be drawn up. This stance has drawn bitter criticism and accusations of anti-democratic sentiment, and I have been compelled to strenuously deny that accusation as well.


A brief history

For many centuries prior to colonisation by the British, Fiji was a collection of tribally autonomous groups, who exercised their autonomy as family groups or as small collections of family groups.

By the 1870s, the islands of Fiji were under threat of attack by their Tongan neighbours. According to Fijian Mrs Taina Woodward, in a speech at the United Nations on June 8, 2000, the dominant chief, Ratu Seru Cakobau, was also "being blackmailed by the local American Consul and had no means of paying the extortionate payment demanded by this man for having accidentally burnt his own house down during a drunken 4th of July celebration." Mrs Woodward said that "American warships were on the way", and that "Queen Victoria rescued us from these situations at the invitation of our paramount chief and we 'voluntarily' if you can call it that, became a colony under a Deed of Cession." Thus it was that in 1874 Fiji became a British Crown Colony.

At the time of Cession to Great Britain there were certain understandings and misunderstandings surrounding the terms of the Cession, as there were with our 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. These were understandings that Fijians would continue to be led by Fijian chiefs, and that Fijian land was inalienable and not for sale.

The British started growing cotton on land leased from Fijians, and when it was realised that sugar would provide greater economic returns they switched to that crop. Fijians were reluctant to work on these farms, on the basis that they had plenty of food and didn't need to slave in the cane fields. They were branded as lazy by the British, as the British and other colonisers had labeled most Pacific people, who saw no need to become wage slaves to European farmers.

The solution to the shortage of labour in Fiji was to import indentured workers from another British colony, India.

The Indians were welcomed with open arms by the Fijians, as all people are welcomed by Pacific peoples. In time however they multiplied, until today they number about 44% of the population compared to the Fijians 51%. In 125 years the Indians have also prospered, and today they almost completely dominate the economic sector of Fiji.

Until 1987 the Fijians had dominated politics in Fiji, and retained control of all the political institutions. From 1987 onwards that political dominance has been under threat, and three coups have been the result. Fijians have also maintained control over the armed forces, and continue to provide nearly 100% membership of the Royal Fiji Military Forces. The Police Force is more racially integrated but is controlled by Fijians.

There is therefore an uneasy balance of power in Fiji. The populations are closely balanced, the economy is in the hands of the Indians, the military in the hands of the Fijians, and there is a relatively neutral Police Force. There has been a thirteen year long struggle for political dominance, marked by two coups d'etat in 1987, and a third in 2000.

From the moment they assumed authority in Fiji, the British introduced their own centralised systems of governance, and reshaped previously autonomous Fijian structures along provincial lines, thus overriding traditional Fijian organisation and structure.

On October 10, 1970, after 96 years as a colony, Fiji became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth. The 1970 Constitution retained the colonial institutions and political systems, and did nothing to placate the wishes of those Fijians who wanted to regain their traditional autonomy. In the period from 1970 to 1987 nothing was done to make the constitution more politically "Fijian".

Thus in this highly centralised model of government, there has been a buildup of political rivalry between the Fijians of the many regions, confederacies and tribes, vying for control in Suva.

The April 12, 1987 elections resulted in an Indian dominated government being elected for the first time. That government was headed by a Fijian, Dr Timoci Bavandra.

A month later on May 14, 1987 the then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka led a military coup and took over the government. In September that year an interim bipartisan government was formed, and a few days later, on September 25, Sitiveni Rabuka staged a second coup. Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth.

On October 7 1987 Sitiveni Rabuka declared Fiji a republic and established a care-taker government until the promulgation of a new constitution in 1990, and the election of a civilian government two years later, led by Rabuka himself.

In 1997 Sir Paul Reeves led a three-man commission to rewrite the 1970 Fijian constitution, and after much debate, the 1970 constitution was amended.

Sitiveni Rabuka's ruling Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei Party (SVT) formed a coalition with the Indian-dominated National Federation Party and the mixed race United General Party in 1998. However on May 19, 1999 they were routed at the polls and Mahendra Chaudhry was sworn in as the first Indian prime minister.

By May 2000 there was a groundswell of Fijian discontent and the Taukei Movement staged two anti-government rallies. On May 19, 2000 businessman George Speight and seven armed men staged what was called a civil coup d'etat.


The Coup of May 19, 2000

A Taukei march and demonstration was staged on May 19. It was said to be marching to Government House to present a petition to the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

Between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., seven armed and masked men entered the parliament house, ignored the protests of the Speaker of the House, shot twice in the air, and took Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his cabinet and held them hostage. The Prime Minister and his cabinet were having a meeting to celebrate the first year anniversary of the Labour-Coalition government. Thus began the crisis that has lasted over a month, at the time of writing.

The Fijian hostages were separated from the Indian hostages, and they have been held apart ever since.

The marching protestors made their way to the parliament house and remained on the parliament grounds for the rest of the day chanting anti-government slogans asking for Prime Minister Chaudhry to step down.

Later that day looting and rioting broke out in Suva and many buildings and shops were burned. It seemed to strangely fulfil a prophesy made in the late 1960s by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara himself, when he declared that the day the Indians gained political control of Fiji would be the day that Suva would burn to the ground. He said then that the only thing Fijians would lose would be Indian records of Fijian debt, referring even then to ill-feeling about the economic dominance of the Indian population.

In this instance Ratu Mara declared a state of emergency, giving himself power to govern the country in the absence of the legally elected government which was being held hostage.

In the first days of the coup all telecommunications with Fiji were cut, except for some internet links. Thus the only information coming out of Fiji was provided by a website called Fijilive ( ).

The nominal leader of the coup was quickly identified as George Speight, a businessman who had prospered under the Rabuka government, but who had been dismissed from key economic posts by the Chaudhry government. He later held a press conference where he claimed that it was a civilian coup, staged on behalf of the indigenous community, to preserve indigenous rights. He "revoked" the 1997 constitution and the authority of the Great Council of Chiefs, and attempted to "dismiss" the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

The Great Council of Chiefs is a constitutional body representing all the chiefs of the different provinces in Fiji, and is designed to represent the traditional hierarchy of Fiji. Under the 1997 constitution the Great Council appoints the President, and apart from that, has power in the affairs of indigneous Fijians only.

Later, Speight held a swearing in of his own cabinet ministers and tried to form an interim government in which he would have been prime minister.

The real leaders of the coup have remained in the shadows. It has been revealed that George Speight was only approached to front the coup two days before it happened. Sources close to Sitiveni Rabuka revealed that the actual leader of the coup is Colonel Ilisoni Ligairi (60). Ligairi was previously a member of the British SAS before he was brought back to Fiji by Rabuka in 1989 to form the elite special forces Meridian Squadron, a Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRWU). Members of that unit were involved in the most recent coup.

It has not been publicly revealed who else was behind the coup, whether politicians or chiefs, but it seems that quite a few might have been involved.

I became aware quite early that one of the Fijian hostages was a personal friend, married to a friend of some 34 years standing. The crisis became therefore an event of intense personal interest to me.


A coup becomes a long-running crisis

Over the ensuing five weeks Speight and his backers have managed to generate considerable support amongst Fijians, although it would appear that the majority do not support him. The coup makers seem however to have drawn strength from that support and have refused to back down on any of their demands.

At first Sitiveni Rabuka tried to act as negotiator until they rejected him. They refused also to negotiate with the President, and demanded that they deal only with the Great Council of Chiefs. When that was not to their liking they changed their demands.

Throughout all of this the military played a low-key unarmed role in support of the Police, helping them to enforce curfews and roadblocks.

On May 28 during another mob riot in Suva a policeman was shot, and later died. This prompted the military to become more involved, and after a formal delegation secured Ratu Mara's resignation as President, the Military Commander, Commander Frank Bainimarama, declared martial law and assumed executive authority over all of Fiji. The constitution was suspended and the parliament dismissed.

On Radio NZ the spokesman for the military government, Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Tarakinikini, explained why they thought this was necessary. Most of the officers of the Royal Fiji Military Forces have served in Lebanon, and in other war-torn countries. They know well that once blood starts to flow, the killing becomes contagious. They were fearful that this might happen in Fiji, and determined to prevent it by declaring martial law to maintain law and order. Colonel Tarakinikini has served as commander of the Fijian peacekeeping battalion in the Lebanon, and as a military observer during the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan. He spoke from first hand experience.

The negotiations between George Speight and the military have been long and drawn out, with frequent "breakthroughs" that are later repudiated by Speight. As of June 19 it seems that the military have relented and agreed that Speight and his nominees will play some part in a civilian government.

The aim of all actors in this long running drama has been to achieve their goals without harming the hostages. There seems to be agreement that if any hostages are killed Fiji may well become ungovernable by anyone.

In the process of this long running refusal by Speight to negotiate, Fiji's economy has been hit hard, with Tourism reduced to almost nil, and the labour unions refusing to harvest the annual sugar crop which, with tourism, is the mainstay of the Fijian economy. Added to that have been the cargo bans imposed by Australian unions, and the threat of bans by New Zealand unions. These bans have been at the request of the Indian dominated Fijian union movement. Both Fijian and Indian workers are suffering much hardship. Fiji will take a long time to recover her economy.



The crisis was initially portrayed simplistically by Australian and New Zealand politicians and media as an attempt by Fijians to disenfranchise Indians, and to remove constitutional democracy from Fiji in order to achieve this.

This is indeed what George Speight has been saying, but it appears unlikely that the majority of Fijians actually support that stance. They do however want to ensure that Fijian language, culture and tradition is not swamped and submerged beneath the Indian culture. They look at New Zealand and Hawai'i as examples of cultural dilution that they do not want to happen in Fiji. It is a very real fear.

Soon after I posted my Fiji Coup website on the Internet I was contacted by Professor John Davies, Head of the Department of Economics at the Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He has been visiting Fiji over a 25 year period, has lived there for 5 years, and is married to a Fijian. He provided me with a lengthy background paper that explored the source of inter-ethnic conflict in Fiji, which I posted into the website.

His paper showed that there are definitely two sides to the ethnic conflict in Fiji, and that while there is and has been discrimination by Fijian against Indian, the opposite is also true. Davies claims that the Indian is at least equally to blame for the conflict.

He cites numerous examples of Indian discrimination and racism, and refutes the worldwide one-sided perception of the Indian-as-Victim.

Davies also explores the phenomenon of the Indian as coloniser. Usually when migrants go to live in another country they adapt to the culture of the host country, including the host language. Whilst first generation migrants cling to their own heritage, their descendants are usually absorbed into the host culture. The only exception occurs where by force of numbers or arms the migrants intentionally intend to colonise, rule, and submerge the host culture and language.

In Fiji the Indians in general have retained their own language and culture, few bothering to learn the Fijian language and to adapt to the Pacific view of life. To all intents and purposes they have created an Indian homeland in Fiji, preserving intact their own language, religious and educational institutions and customs, seemingly without any acknowledgement of the host culture.

This too causes much consternation among Fijians and indicates a great deal of cultural imperialism by the Indian communities.

The paper notes that even in the matter of democracy the Indian preoccupation with democracy only started in the late 1920s and early 30s when the Indian population first approached the number of the Fijians, and Fijians were often erroneously dismissed as a dying race. We've heard that in this country.

Davies also explored the inadequacies of the Reeves Report, and the resulting 1997 Constitution. He comes to the same conclusions as Maori lawyer Moana Jackson, who in 1997 predicted that the 1997 Constitution would not last, and that further political upheaval would ensue. The constitution does not address the real problems caused by the lack of cohesiveness between the Indian and Fijian communities, and does not address the real problems caused by trying to govern through a highly centralised model, tribes and regions that have centuries of traditional autonomous governance behind them.

Nearly all commentators assume that the Fijians should adapt or discard their own culture to make the British democratic model workable. Few seem to understand that it makes more practical sense to adapt the British model to the Fijian cultural and political reality, or to start again to design a specifically Fijian democratic model.

Another paper was made available to the website by Dr Jonathon Fraenkel, a lecturer in economic history at he University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva. In it he showed that the electoral system used in the 1999 elections which brought Chaudhry to power was a failure of electoral engineering, and delivered a skewed and unfair result. For instance, under the 1999 system Sitiveni Rabuka's SVT Party got the largest share of the ethnic Fijian vote (38%) but only 8 seats in Parliament. Under most voting systems the SVT would have obtained closer to 18 seats. His Indian coalition partners, under Jai Ram Reddy, secured 32% of the Indian vote but no seats in Parliament.

Chaudhry's Labour Party gained only 24 seats in the 71-member parliament, but transfers of preference votes from three mainly Fijian-backed parties gave it another 13 seats, virtually annihilating the opposition. Those transfers of votes were not, according to Fraenkel, a genuine expression of voters interests.

Fraenkel describes other voting idiosyncrasies that contributed to a skewed result, and largely unrepresentative parliament. He states that because opposition was effectively stifled in parliament by this failure of electoral engineering, it was bound to move outside into the streets.

A further paper by Professor Davies and another economics lecturer at USP Suva, Courtney L. Gallimore, was written in 1999 and updated during the crisis. It describes how Fijian land leasing law disadvantages Fijian landowners despite the fact that they own almost all the arable land in Fiji. One of the problems there is that under present leasing arrangements the Fijian owners have found it difficult to obtain a fair return on their land. This is another legacy of a colonial system, that we in Aotearoa well understand.

The Chaudhry government did little that was obvious to address these concerns, thereby creating another cause for direct action.

These and many other real causes were explored by the above academics and by my Fijian correspondents and contributors. None of this analysis has found its way into mainstream analysis and commentary in New Zealand, despite politicians and media being made aware of it.


New Zealand's reaction to the crisis

The response of the New Zealand government and media seemed to me to be based on inappropriate value judgements, and questionable or false assumptions.

The Clark government demonstrated in 2000, as the Lange government had in 1987, that its foreign policy is driven by moral, intellectual and ideological values, rather than the pragmatic approach taken by most other countries in the world. The pragmatic approach accepts different countries and cultures for what they are, unless and until they commit gross human rights indecencies or abuse against their own citizens, or their neighbours. The values driven approach seeks to project one's own values into the world, regardless of the differing value sets that operate out there in the wider world. In that sense it is a missionary or colonial approach to foreign affairs.

The values most proclaimed by New Zealand during the crisis were democracy and human rights.

Democracy in that context means that Fiji should uphold the present political system and constitution regardless of its flaws and unsuitability. Democracy in that context means holding to the British democratic model, regardless of whether or not it works.

The human rights as proclaimed by New Zealand during the crisis invariably referred to human rights for Indians at the expense of human rights for Fijians. They assume that a single set of human rights values, that apply in countries with an Anglo-European heritage, are equally applicable in all other cultures.

However Indigenous and Fijian rights also include the right to preserve and retain language, intellectual property, land and other economic resources, and political and governmental structures. In the case of Fiji, it is also the right of Fijians to be treated cordially by migrants, and for migrants to adapt to the host culture, rather than the other way around.

A major assumption made by New Zealand is that the Indians are right, and the Fijians are wrong, in their own land. Professor Davies paper showed that the Indians do not have a mortgage on righteousness.

Another assumption is the right of New Zealand to dictate what should happen in Fiji, and the right to interfere in Fiji's internal situation. The test of this assumption is to ask whether New Zealand would accept similar interference from Fiji.

In the first week or so, New Zealand's response to the crisis, by both government and media, was driven almost entirely by these essentially moral values and assumptions, and sounded somewhat like a moral crusade. The tone was shrill, and the condemnation largely uninformed. In fact, throughout the whole crisis, my website hosted the only in-depth and detailed analysis to appear in any New Zealand media. It was as if they didn't want to know.

The browbeating of Fiji continued relentlessly, and continues still, with little attempt at analysis and understanding.

Once the media were able to fly to Fiji they descended in a pack. For the most part they knew absolutely nothing about Fiji, its history and cultures. Then for weeks on end this uninformed media pack proceeded to shape the perceptions of the whole world, based only on their own lack of understanding. This pack phenomenon is well known to real foreign correspondents, and is not confined to reportage on Fiji.

The media at home also proceeded to interview various participants in Suva via telephone and satellite links. None of these journalists and commentators knew the first thing about Fiji, and they too proceeded to inform the nation about their understandings.

Throughout this crisis I also received a large volume of email in response to my own articles, which criticised government and media attitudes. Many supported my approach, but there were also many that criticised or abused me. Surprisingly most of those were not actually commenting on Fiji at all, but were abusing me for advocating similar action in New Zealand, which I did not once do. It became obvious that all of these correspondents had, in their own minds, transposed their own fears about New Zealand onto my writing about Fiji.

This went on, day after day and week after week, until it became very clear that the crisis in Fiji had uncovered a deep vein of fear and insecurity in New Zealand. That fear and insecurity had to do with vague thoughts that perhaps Maori might eventually resort to similar strategies, and to fear about perceptions of growing Maori political power. This was not a scientific validated statistical survey, but it kept up for so long with so much intensity that the conclusion was inescapable.

I then started to study the responses of politicians and media, and detected the same underlying fears and insecurities there. They were less strident and abusive than my email correspondents, but the same themes predominated, and the legitimacy of any Fijian indigenous rights totally denied.

The rawness and vehemence of this expression of an underlying and normally unspoken undercurrent in New Zealand was sobering and sometimes frightening.


The Future

In Fiji they have a long way to go to face up to all the root causes of this crisis, and to find remedies. In my opinion their task is not made any easier by New Zealand's sermonising, and hectoring stance. But I am confident they will eventually sort it out in their own Fijian way, and that that way will be fair and equitable for all citizens.

But it will take time.

What concerns me is the future of our own country, given the rigidity of our attitudes and response to Fiji, and the fear and insecurity that has been exposed.

[back to Fiji Coup Supplement]



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