Which business should I start in Fiji

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The island nation is deeply divided

Land conflicts, income differences between ethnic groups and power struggles among the elite are behind the coup in Fiji

In May, a small group of armed men overthrew the elected government and repealed the constitution in the Fiji Islands. The coup leader claimed he was representing the interests of native Fijians vis-à-vis Indians who have immigrated since colonial times. But ethnic tensions are not a sufficient explanation for the coup. Because with it, conflicts within the elite of the locals were also fought out.

by Manfred Ernst and Holger Szesnat

When a group of heavily armed masked men stormed the parliament in Fiji on May 19 of this year and took the cabinet and parliamentarians hostage, at first glance the trauma of the coup of 1987 seems to be repeating itself.

On this day, the first anniversary of the government is celebrated in government offices before the parliamentary session. At the same time, an initially peaceful protest march by around 5000 supporters of the ultra-nationalist begins in the city center of the capital Suva at ten o'clock Taukei-Move. But at 10:40 a.m., the radio stations interrupt their current programs and report the storming of parliament. Everyone tries to get home as quickly as possible. Total traffic chaos is the result. Then otherwise peaceful churchgoers, housewives and even schoolchildren begin looting and setting fire to shops. The police, unprepared, unarmed and hopelessly outnumbered, can only stand by and watch. After three hours of raging, 176 stores and businesses were looted, 15 of which were burned down. The damage is later estimated at $ 15 million.

Little by little, details are revealed: the coup is being led by the 44-year-old Fijian businessman George Speight and Major Ilisoni Ligairi, the retired instructor of an elite Fijian unit. While Ligairi started his business as a member of the British Special Air Service (SAS) learned, Speight is largely unknown in political circles.

In its first press conference, Speight announced the abolition of the 1997 constitution; he is acting at the express request of the indigenous population. The hostages are to be held until his demands have been met. Any attempt at liberation would lead to a bloodbath and social unrest that was previously unknown in Fiji. A day later, a military spokesman confirmed that the insurgents had stolen large quantities of weapons, but stressed that the military was loyal to the constitution and to President Sir Kamisese Mara.

When the Council of Traditional Leaders met from May 23rd to 25th Great Council of Chiefs (Grand Council of Chiefs, GCC) meets to discuss the demands of the coup plotters, a swift resolution of the problem is expected from this highest traditional body. The negotiations center on three demands: the abolition of the constitution, an amnesty for all insurgents and the resignation of President Kamisese Mara.

In a ten-point declaration published on May 26, the Grand Council of Chiefs responded to almost all demands, but confirmed the president in his office and gave him the power to form an interim government. The proposal is harshly rejected by the putschists - a snub for the country's traditional leaders and a sign of the rapid decline of traditional patterns of order.

Violence escalates as negotiations continue. Two soldiers and a cameraman are wounded in an exchange of fire at a military roadblock near the parliament. Despite the curfew imposed by the president, a group of around 200 rebels marched from parliament into the city the next evening. It storms and devastates the only television station in the country and threatens the journalists who work there. On the way back, the rebel group shelled the presidential palace, killing an unarmed police officer. A security guard dies of a heart attack. Faced with mounting tensions, the head of the military asks Commodore Frank Bainamarama, the president, to resign. The latter complies with the request and leaves the executive power to Bainimarama, who proclaims martial law. When Bainimarama appoints a military government in a next step, this leads to unrest outside the capital.

Supporters of the rebel leader Speight erect roadblocks, occupy holiday centers for tourists, police stations, a barracks and an airport. The military is negotiating with the rebels with no demonstrable success. The traditional Fijian guides (Chiefs) are divided on the support of Speight's group. Old rivalries between the various provinces come to light.

Finally, after a long tug of war, on July 9th, Bainimarama and Speight sign an agreement that leads to the release of the hostages. In return, an amnesty was agreed for all crimes that were declared "political" in connection with the coup. All weapons stolen from military stocks must be returned. Furthermore, the Great Council of Chiefs is to meet on July 13th to appoint a new President and Vice President from among its own ranks. After that, the military government is to resign and hand over the official business to the new president, who then has to set up an interim government and a constitutional commission. All of the original requirements of Speight's group are thus met. The last putschists left the devastated parliament complex on July 20th.

However, after the composition of the future interim government has been announced, Speight's rebels do not feel adequately represented. Shortly before the scheduled swearing-in ceremony, Speight's supporters set eight cars on fire on the grounds of Parliament and threatened to burn down the complex, which was only a few years old. As a result, the appointment of the interim government is canceled for the time being. The tug of war continues. Speight and a group of around 400 supporters settled in a school twelve kilometers outside the city center and announced that they would continue fighting until the "right" people were appointed to the government.

When Speight and some advisors and bodyguards did not stop at a roadblock set up by the military on the evening of July 26th, the group was violently stopped and arrested for carrying weapons despite the ban. At dawn on July 27, the military stormed a coup-occupied school and arrested 369 rebels, including Major Ligairi, the second key figure in the coup. The soldiers, who had previously been criticized by parts of the public for their indecision and ridiculed by the coup plotters, this time proceeded extremely decisively with the use of tear gas and firearms. The pent-up frustrations discharge into violence. 40 men are taken to hospital with facial wounds, broken bones and other injuries. A fifty-year-old man dies from the effects of tear gas and internal injuries. The military spokesman said that decisive action was inevitable because the rebels did not return all weapons as agreed, threatened the new president and spread a climate of fear and terror.

The eagerly awaited swearing-in of the government appointed by the new president will take place on July 28. The majority of the cabinet consists of technocrats who have not previously held any political office. There are no direct supporters of the putschists, but there are a few sympathizers of the coup.

The motives for the coup can hardly be understood from these current events alone. However, a look at the history of the country shows the tensions underlying the rebellion. These go back to the beginning of the colonial era.

With the help of the British, Ratu Seru Cakobau became the most powerful after his conversion to Christianity and several wars Chief ascended. He surrenders the Fiji Islands in 1874 Deed of Cession the British Crown. As a result, for the first time in the history of the Fiji Islands, the previously often warring family clans, tribes and the territories of the Chiefs are united. For the traditional high chiefs and their descendants, working with the British pays off in privileges and material benefits. All of the defining Fijian politicians of the past 50 years have traditionally come from powerful tribes. The fact that these tribes are now hopelessly at odds with one another does not make solving political crises any easier.

The decision of the first British governor Arthur Gordon to hire around 500 contract workers from India in 1879 to set up and work on sugar cane plantations had a lasting influence on the development of Fiji. Over the years, more and more workers are needed, and their families bring them up and stay in the country permanently because the young colony offers them many opportunities and more personal freedom. In 1986 the Indo-Fijians are the largest closed ethnic group with 48.7 percent.

At the beginning of independence in 1970, political life was dominated by two parties, most of which represented the indigenous population Alliance Party and the Indo-Fijian dominated National Federation Party. The first constitution of 1970, drafted under the leadership of Sir Kamisese Mara, has been criticized by various interest groups. As this constitution seeks to strengthen cooperation between the various ethnic groups, divisions within the Indo-Fijian as well as the Fijian populations are becoming increasingly apparent.

In April 1987 a coalition of the new, deeply rooted in the unions wins Labor Party together with the National Federation Party the elections. Although Timoci Bavadra becomes a Fijian prime minister and the cabinet is made up of an equal number of Indo-Fijians and Fijians, the election victory leads to strong political tensions. After only a month, the then third-highest military officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, gave the starting signal for a military coup. The constitution is abolished. As a result of the coup, Fiji was excluded from the union of the Commonwealth of Nations and declared a republic.

In 1991, Rabuka ended his military career and entered the political arena as a civilian. He founds a new party, the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulwa ni Taukei (SVT, the Fijian political party). The latter won the 1992 elections, the first elections under the new constitution of 1990, which was criticized as racist from abroad. Incapable of pooling diverging Fijian interests, criticized by Indian parties and abroad, and battered by a series of corruption scandals, Rabuka seeks to regain the international community's standing and the trust of investors.

He has a new (third) constitution drawn up, which is supposed to give all population groups equal political rights. In this way, he initially found broad support from the established parties, the urban population, the rising middle class and abroad. But divisions within the Fijian population are becoming obvious: eight of the 14 provinces, essentially from younger ones Chiefs the middle level reject the draft constitution. In contrast, the higher-level body of the Grand Council of Chiefs, as well as parliament and the Fijian-dominated Senate, unanimously approve the draft. The adopted constitution in 1998 paves the way for Fiji to return to the Commonwealth.

In the spring of 1999 there will be a regular parliamentary election in which an unprecedented number of political parties will take part. The election result brings surprises. The SVT suffers a crushing defeat; she won only eight seats in the new parliament. The People’s Coalition under the leadership of Labor Party wins the absolute majority with 37 seats. The ultra-nationalists only play a subordinate role in the new parliament with only two representatives. The election result makes it clear that a large majority of the population with the reform concept of the People’s Coalition wants a fresh start and rejects ultra-nationalist tendencies. For the first time, a Fijian of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry, becomes the leader of the Labor Party, nominated for the position of Prime Minister and appointed by the President.

The coalition government is trying to keep its election promises - including land reform and the fight against poverty and corruption - and has drawn a host of influential enemies from day one. The predominantly Indo-Fijian, but also Fijian business people, for example, are against the introduction of minimum wages. And many Fijians fail to understand why, when their contracts expire towards the end of the 20th century, Indian tenants receive a settlement of Fijian $ 28,000 or an offer to resettle on state land.

The main debate among the population is about the rights of the indigenous people. George Speight has consistently given as the reason for the coup and the hostage name that he wants to give the indigenous people more rights. The Fijians undoubtedly also represent this position, which the rebels proposed as political leaders, and especially the simple supporters of the coup, i.e. above all Fijians from the rural areas, hundreds of whom moved in front of the parliament building after May 19 and there, as a human shield, had prevented a quick violent takeover by the military.

They are about self-determination for the indigenous people, explain the supporters of the putschists. You see this affected by the constitutional reform of 1997 and the subsequent coalition government under the Indo-Fijian Chaudhry. However, few are able to give concrete details in the constitution that justify such an attitude. After the constitutional reform of 1997, there were hardly any attempts to bring this closer to the general public. In a society where democracy is a relatively new and controversial political system, this has fatal consequences.

Four factors play a role in demanding a right to self-determination for indigenous Fijians: an interest in political supremacy, racial prejudice, economic privilege and conflicts over land ownership.

The 1990 constitution sought to guarantee indigenous Fijians political supremacy. But that failed because of the fragmentation of the Fijian parties. With the constitutional reform of 1997, the ethnically fixed distribution of seats ended, which the coalition government under Chaudhry made possible. Many indigenous Fijians do not accept that an Indo-Fijian is prime minister, not even that someone is in the cabinet. However, the way former trade unionist Chaudhry ran his government is also viewed as arrogant by many Fijians.

Furthermore, racist prejudice is widespread among the 775,000 inhabitants of the Republic of Fiji. Even the colonial power did not exactly encourage rapprochement between the population groups. More than a century after the first Indians immigrated, few Indo-Fijians speak a Fijian dialect, and almost no Indigenous Fijians speak any of the Indian languages. Mixed marriages are few. In companies and in the public service, posts and jobs are predominantly assigned to one's own group, which is very disadvantageous for the indigenous people given the Indo-Fijian dominance in the economy.

The Indian stereotype is that of a greedy, power-hungry businessman; on the other hand, Fijians are considered lazy and only looking for free handouts. It is no coincidence that George Speight openly built on these prejudices at the beginning of the coup: "Indians are different from us [Fijians]: they speak a different language, they look different and they smell different." However, not everywhere in Fiji are the relations between the two large population groups so strained. Especially on the western side of the main island Viti Levu there is hardly any friction between them. But it is very easy to use these prejudices to find widespread support, even if many Indigenous Fijians insist that they are not in favor of a violent coup.

Above all, income differences fuel the conflict. The country's economically leading class and educated elite consist predominantly of Indo-Fijians.The median income of indigenous Fijians is much lower, which they often emphasize. However, they hardly notice that Indo-Fijians also make up half of the poorest 30 percent of the population.

Finally, there is the land problem. Culturally and spiritually, ethnic Fijians (like the Pacific population in general) have close ties to their country; at least that's how it is from a historical perspective. The British colonial administration has taken this into account and - in contrast to the colonial government in Kanakie (New Caledonia) or Hawaii - according to the promise of the British crown in the Deed of Cession The land rights designed accordingly: In theory, every male adult Fijian has over his mataqali (Clan) inalienable communal land rights. Fijians own over 80 percent of the country.

In practice, however, much of this land was long-term leased, often to Indo-Fijians. This is especially true in the most fertile lands. Many of these leases were only valid until the end of the 20th century. The penultimate government under Rabuka and the last under Chaudhry thus faced the difficult question of how to solve the land problem: On the one hand, it had to be taken into account that the Indo-Fijian rural population depends on leasing land for their livelihood, on the other hand the rights of the traditional landowners had to be respected, most of whom reclaimed their land.

Speight and his supporters accused Chaudhry's government of endangering traditional land rights. Chaudhry's bills were mostly just drafts prepared by the Rabuka government. In addition, under the 1997 Constitution, both the Grand Council of (Fijian) Chiefs as well as the Fijian-dominated Senate a kind of veto right against all bills that affect traditional indigenous rights such as land rights.

Another problem is the dispute over land, which is either owned or owned by the state Freehold land can be freely sold (about eight percent each of the entire country). These lands mostly go on land sales from before Deed of Cession Back in 1874. Most of the airports, barracks, tourist resorts, a hydroelectric power station and the like are located on such properties. Such properties in particular have been occupied by indigenous peoples since the Speight coup, who demand a fair payment for their traditional property and often also express their support for the Speight group.

Lease income has always not been lucrative for landowners. Lease agreements must have the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) to be closed. The NLTB, which is often viewed by landowners as arbitrary and corrupt, goes back to colonial laws and has not been fundamentally changed in the 29 years under the political leadership of the Fijians. It has been completely ruled by Fijians since independence, even after the constitution of 1997. This begs the question to what extent the NLTB and thus Fijians themselves are largely responsible for the current land crisis.

For the first time since colonial times, intra-Fijian conflicts are again coming to light. In the course of the coup in 1987 it became clear that the government of Timoci Bavadra had been ousted, not least because Bavadra came from the western part of Viti Levu, while almost exclusively since the colonial era Chiefs of the eastern part represent the political aristocracy of Fiji.

It became even clearer in the course of the Speight coup that the masterminds behind Speight are fighting intra-Fijian power struggles. Political support for Speight and his group comes mainly from the eastern provinces such as Bau, Naitasiri and Tailevu, part of the Kubuna Confederation. This is one of the three historical confederations that are superordinate to the 14 provinces today. Speight has also called for the removal of President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara because Mara is accused of at least tacitly tolerating Chaudhry's government, but also because he comes from the Lau group in the south-east of the country as a member of the traditionally powerful chief family , part of the Tovata Confederation.

In the western provinces, the economic center of Fiji, voices have been heard since May 19 to form a government of their own. They feel left out of the wrangling over power in the other provinces. In fact, there have been no riots against Indo-Fijians in the west since May 19, in contrast to some provinces in the east of Viti Levu, where Indo-Fijians in particular are now often subjected to violent attacks by young Fijians in rural areas have suffered. Only in the West have there been public protests by ethnic Fijians against the Speight coup since May 19.

Of course, there are also purely personal motives among some supporters of the coup, such as that government policy ran counter to their business interests or that they had something to fear from the threatened investigation into corruption under the Rabuka government. And some politicians who lost their seats in the last election simply want to return to power. The multi-layered breeding ground for the coup of May 19 makes it difficult to find a lasting political solution.

In contrast to Rabuka's coup, the coup showed that a small number of armed men is enough to shake the political system. The propensity for violence, especially among young Fijian men, is worrying. There is now a lack of social conflict resolution procedures. Traditional apology rituals are used more and more to shelve offenses cheaply and thereby devalue them. Both the traditional authority of the Chiefs as well as the modern democratic system collapse. The churches, especially the Methodist Church, to which 60 percent of the ethnic Fijians belong, are unable to influence developments positively because their members are themselves too deeply involved in the political process.

Mass unemployment, income disparities and land conflicts still await a solution. The head of the current interim government, the banker Laisenia Qarase, who is supposed to pay more attention to the rights and concerns of indigenous Fijians, tends to promote Fijian entrepreneurs, which will serve little for the masses of the population. Something similar can be expected of the masterminds behind Speight, should they come to power.

The looming economic consequences of the coup are extremely worrying. 6,000 people have lost their jobs in the last two months and the trend is still increasing. As the main source of foreign exchange, the tourism industry recorded a decline of 60 percent. As after the coup of 1987, a wave of well-trained Indo-Fijian skilled workers emigrated. The state budget shows a deficit of 61.5 million US dollars. The sanctions announced by the main trading partners Australia, New Zealand, the EU and the USA would undoubtedly exacerbate this crisis. The outlook for Fiji is anything but favorable.

from: the overview 03/2000, page 80


Manfred Ernst and Holger Szesnat:

Dr. Manfred Ernst is a political scientist as well as a project manager and lecturer in church and society at Pacific Theological College, Suva, Fiji Islands. Dr. Holger Szesnat is a theologian and lecturer in biblical studies as well as interim director of the distance learning department at the same college.