Reconciliation in Fiji
This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 24 2013
In 2005, amid much controversy, the government of Fiji proposed a Reconciliation and Unity Commission with power to recommend compensation for victims of the 2000 coup, and amnesty for its perpetrators.
What was the need for reconciliation? As in many other conflict zones covered in this series, we see a background of ethnic strife exacerbated by colonialism. Fiji was a British colony for almost a century until 1970, when independence within the Commonwealth was granted.
Between 1879 and 1916 the British brought in girmits, indentured labourers from India, to work on the sugar plantations. Later, Gujerati and Punjabi immigrants arrived as free settlers. Indo-Fijians number 313,798 (37.6%) (2007 census) out of a total of 827,900 people.
There were two military coups in 1987. The first coup, in which Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra was ousted, took place on May 14. A second coup on September 28 ended the Fijian Monarchy, deposing Elizabeth II. A republic was declared on October 7. The Governor General was replaced by a non-executive president. Both coups were led by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka cited ethnic Fijian concerns about discrimination in favour of Indo-Fijians. The elections in April 1987 resulted in the replacement of the indigenous government of Sir Kamisese Mara, Prime Minister with a multi-ethnic coalition supported mostly by Indo-Fijians.
Rabuka himself became prime minister in 1992, following elections held under the new 1990 constitution. The offices of president and prime minister, along with two-thirds of the Senate, a substantial majority of the House of Representatives were reserved for indigenous Fijians. GARD (Group Against Racial Discrimination) was formed to oppose the unilaterally imposed constitution and to restore the 1970 constitution. Rabuka established the Constitutional Review Commission, which in 1997 led to a new Constitution.
Speight’s Coup 2000
The May 1999 election resulted in a decisive victory for the People’s Coalition, a multiracial grouping that was dominated by the predominantly Indo-Fijian Labour Party, but which also included indigenous Fijians. Mahendra Chaudhry had become the country’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. A group led by George Speight, a businessman who had been declared bankrupt, entered the Parliament buildings on May 19, 2000, and disaffected elements of the Fijian population rallied to his cause. Claims have been made that Fijian nationalism may have been nothing more than a political ploy to attract supporters to what was, in reality, a personal grab for money and power on the part of Speight and his co-conspirators. Several of his accomplices were undischarged bankrupts. Chaudhry claimed the true purpose was to loot the treasury. A military administration took office on May 29. Commodore Frank Bainimarama assumed executive power and 2,000 soldiers went on a rampage.
The High Court ordered the reinstatement of the constitution, and in September 2001, a general election was held. New Prime Minister Qarase found pretexts for not implementing the power-sharing provisions of the Constitution.
Bainimarama handed down a list of demands to Qarase after the Reconciliation and Unity bill was put forward to parliament, part of which would have offered pardons to participants in the 2000 coup attempt. He gave Qarase an ultimatum date of December 4 to accede to these demands or to resign from his post. Qarase adamantly refused to either concede or resign and on December 5, parliament was dissolved.
Fiji was fully suspended from the Commonwealth in 2009. CMAG concluded Fiji could not be reinstated until it had restored democracy by holding elections and addressed pressing human rights and legal issues. Fiji has had a chequered relationship with the Commonwealth. It was expelled in 1987 after two military coups, but was re-admitted ten years later when democracy was restored. It was also suspended in 2000 for 18 months. The only other country to be fully suspended in the Commonwealth’s history was Nigeria.
Fiji has been under military rule since 2006. Since the government’s abrogation of Fiji’s Constitution in April 2009, the government has ruled by decree and enforced Public Emergency Regulations that limit basic freedoms. For a country of its size, Fiji has large armed forces. A significant number of Fijians have served in the lucrative security sector in Iraq.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to cease curtailing the rights of Fiji Islanders. The Fiji Trades Union Congress, in a submission to the country’s constitutional commission, has called on the government to hand over control to an interim administration three months before elections scheduled for 2014.
The country, with a current population of 900,000, depends heavily on tourism, but tourists will hardly want to visit a country in crisis. The US has threatened to suspend aid – Fiji is one of the world’s largest per capita recipients of aid – and its neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, are likely to impose sanctions, including a travel ban.
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