Fiji: Racial peril

Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji Labour Party leader, recounts the attack on his government and against Fiji's democracy

Socialist Affairs, Issue 1 / Volume 49, 2000

It is now time to translate the international concern that has been shown about the violent overthrow of our democratically-elected government into a concerted plan of action for the restoration of democracy and constitutional government in the Fiji Islands.

The armed take-over of the People's Coalition government by terrorists on 19 May provoked condemnation by the international community, including the United Nations and the Commonwealth Secretariat. Other responses included the initiation of smart sanctions, especially by New Zealand, Australia and the US, and outright trade bans (imposed by the ACTU and the NZCTU).

Fiji is a small aid-dependent economy. The suspension of aid-related assistance would have a direct impact on the country. For this reason, sanctions offer crucial leverage in our struggle to restore democracy and constitutional authority.

However, it also needs to be understood that Fiji has the capacity to absorb the impact of sanctions if they are applied by just a few countries rather than comprehensively. Indeed, the authorities have already indicated that they intend to replace Fiji's traditional trading partners by countries in the Asian region. This course of action was actually taken after the 1987 coups when successive regimes cultivated 'friends' in the Asian region in order to circumvent the impact of the Australian and New Zealand sanctions.

Let there be no mistake, it would be a tragic setback for democracy both in Fiji and the region if an unconstitutional regime were to be permitted to get away with a coup a second time. It would also strike a blow at a grouping such as the Socialist International which is committed to the principles of democracy, rule of law, and social justice.

In my humble view, the political organisations that make up the SI Asia-Pacific group, have a moral obligation to uphold these principles. The Asia-Pacific socialist community must now put in place practical measures including a cohesive package of sanctions against Fiji, to which all members are firmly committed.

We recognise that sanctions will hurt in the short term. However, we believe that democracy is the foundation for economic progress, sustainable development and social equity. The only way to ensure that democracy is restored quickly in our country is through swift and comprehensive sanctions directed at the unconstitutional interim administration.

Let me devote some time to outlining briefly the developments in Fiji. The People's Coalition government was taken hostage by a group of terrorists on 19 May. The terrorists demanded the dismissal of the People's Coalition government, including the prime minister; the abrogation of the Constitution; the removal of the president; the setting up of an exclusively ethnic Fijian government; and the granting of a full amnesty for their unlawful actions.

Fiji's President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, assumed executive authority, declared a state of emergency, and on 27 May dismissed our government.

The military forces did not respond to the president's call to seal off the parliamentary complex and to help him solve the hostage situation. As a consequence, the terrorists were able to build up reinforcements of personnel and weapons with the parliament.

On 29 May, the military replaced the President as executive authority, abrogated the 1997 Constitution, declared martial law, agreed to a full amnesty for the terrorist group, and began negotiations with the terrorists over the shape and composition of a new, military appointed interim government. Through the Muanikau Accord signed between the military and the terrorists led by George Speight, all the key objectives identified by the terrorists on 19 May were achieved. In exchange for a complete amnesty, they agreed to our release and to return their weapons.

After our release the terrorists continued their efforts to influence the makeup of the interim government by entering into negotiations with the new President Ratu Josefa Iloilo. They proposed a slate of candidates, including a nominee for prime minister. Following a number of abortive attempts to set up a new government, the president reinstated the military-appointed civilian administration (with a few minor changes).

It is very evident from the events that unfolded from the outset of the crisis on 19 May, that there was an obvious complicity between some elements in Fiji's military forces and Speight and his terrorist group in the overthrow of the People's Coalition Government. Fiji's military manifestly lacked the resolve and commitment to uphold the Constitution, protect the democratically-elected government, and respond to the crisis as a hostage/terrorist situation.

By engaging in political negotiations with the terrorists and acceding to their principal (political) demands, Fiji may well have set a dangerous precedent in the global battle against political terrorism.

In terms of the political situation, there have been an encouraging developments. In particular, the military has rounded up Speight and his group who are now in custody awaiting trial. We feel that the way is now open for arriving at a political settlement that is within the framework of Fiji's much acclaimed 1997 Constitution.

This will happen if the international community demonstrates a cohesive resolve and agrees to an international plan of action to step up the pressure for a democratic settlement.

However, I wish to remind the Socialist International and the international community that the military has not shown any commitment to upholding the Constitution or defending the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Further, the underlying purpose of its recent detention of the terrorist ringleaders is simply to neutralise the threat they pose to its own appointed government. The rebels continue to defy the interim regime, essentially because they want more of their nominees in cabinet.

Make no mistake. The interim administration now operating is unlawful and unconstitutional. Approximately one-third of the interim cabinet comprises individuals who were actively and openly engaged in the destabilisation (and overthrow) of my elected government. They also supported the actions of the terrorist group led by Speight.

Contrary to some media perceptions, the line up does not comprise apolitical, professional technocrats. It is headed by Mr Qarase whose nationalist credentials were ably demonstrated in the few weeks leading up to 19 May.

Since his appointment as prime minister, Qarase has moved swiftly to set in place policies that are destined to establish an apartheid society. This is based on the dominance or paramountcy of the ethnic Fijian community, institutionalised racism and the marginalisation of all other communities, especially the Indo-Fijian population who together comprise around 50 per cent of the total population.

In 1987, the pretext of indigenous rights and interests found a receptive international community. We must not make this mistake again. The threat to indigenous rights and interests is a total sham. We are dealing with a crude racialist claim to political paramountcy or domination. We call upon the international community to recognise the situation for what it is, and to demonstrate through its actions that it is fundamentally unacceptable.

Failure to do this will set a dangerous precedent for security and stability across the region. At the international level, it threatens to weaken and undermine the cherished principles and institutions of democracy, racial equality, and religious tolerance.

Within Fiji itself, there is an assumption on the part of the authorities that they can get away with an unlawful seizure of power for a second time, and that recognition from the international community will eventually be forthcoming. It is most important that the authorities, including the military, are reminded that the international environment has changed considerably since 1987. They need to be reminded that there is a much firmer resolve against the armed overthrow of governments and a more resolute commitment to eliminating racial discrimination.

In the spirit of goodwill and national reconciliation, the People's Coalition has proposed a constitutional solution based on a Government of National Unity. A formal proposal has been presented to President Iloilo. It draws on the existing constitutional provisions for multi-party government in our multi-ethnic society. While the composition of our Government (and Cabinet) reflected the multi-party character required by the Constitution, we are willing to extend this concept further to include other parties currently excluded.

We ask the members of the Socialist International to use their influence to persuade the president and the military to accept this democratic and constitutional solution, in the national interest. It should be noted that a precondition for a Government of National Unity would be the reinstatement of the 1997 Constitution.

For those of you who are less familiar with Fiji's history, our Constitution has a special place in our society. It is the product of a five-year long comprehensive review process that involved all political parties, civil society, indeed the widest possible cross section of Fiji society. This inclusive process was unprecedented.

We are also proud of the protection of fundamental human and social rights and freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. At its heart lies a comprehensive Bill of Rights, including unparalleled provisions on racial discrimination, an electoral system that fostered ethnic cooperation, and even specific protection of key workers and trade union rights.

Of particular relevance in regard to the current crisis in Fiji, the Constitution embraces an unequivocal commitment to protecting and enhancing the rights and interests of the indigenous Fijian community. It does this through specific provisions for affirmative action, special entrenchment of laws affecting Fijian land and governance, and a guaranteed majority for ethnic Fijians in both Houses of Parliament.

The representatives of the traditional Council of Chiefs in the Upper House enjoy a veto power over all legislation affecting Fijian land, administration and rights.

In fact, I am aware that our Constitution is regarded internationally as a model for the protection of the rights of indigenous people.

Further, in the spirit of the Constitution (as well as our own Labour philosophy of social justice and equity), my Government had, during its 12 months in office, initiated a series of far reaching policies and programmes aimed at tackling indigenous Fijian poverty and economic marginalisation.

Ironically, in the absence of the 1997 Constitution, indigenous interests and resources such as forestry, fishing and mineral resources, are now at serious risk. Quite apart from the broader issue of democracy, the protection of indigenous Fijian interests itself demands the reinstatement of the Constitution.

A matter of grave concern to us at this time is the drastic state of lawlessness and terrorism that have engulfed the community since 19 May. There have been widespread human rights abuse; orchestrated attacks by armed militia on defenceless communities, particularly the Indo-Fijian community; and systematic burning, looting, intimidation and violence, including sexual assault against women.

The violence has extended to bitter conflicts between competing provincial and tribal (Fijian) groups which have been jostling for power since the armed takeover of Parliament. The scale of violence and anarchy is unprecedented in Fiji's history. It now threatens to fragment the national state following the declared intentions of secession by several provinces.

In our view, this alarming breakdown of law and order and national security could have been avoided. It is a direct outcome of the complicity of our security forces in the destabilisation and take-over of the People's Coalition Government.

What is abundantly clear is that if we are to deal effectively with this situation, a number of tough measures must be taken. Locally, it is essential that those senior security officials who were involved in the destabilisation campaign and unlawful activities since 19 May be brought to justice.

In addition, we believe that the gravity of the situation warrants the deployment of a special United Nations mission to monitor the situation, restore law and order, and generally stabilise the country. While modest improvements have been observed over the past week, it is very evident that our security forces are incapable of protecting the community from orchestrated terrorist attacks and restoring law and order.

A UN presence would be very reassuring for our community at this time, in particular the Indo-Fijian community which has borne the brunt of the terrorism and violence. As you may be aware, the numbers of families who have been forced to flee from their homes and seek refuge have continued to increase. There are now two refugee camps providing support to displaced families on the two main islands.

Fiji has gone through a cycle of coup and painful, protracted recovery once already. It took us more than a decade to come out of the 1987 crisis - a decade in which our economic and social fabric was shattered. For this reason, it is imperative that the interim administration be removed without delay. We must have a return to constitutional and democratic government. This much we owe to our people, the vast majority of whom are peace loving and law abiding.

We ask you to join us in standing firm against the forces of terrorism and unlawful government. We ask that you support our call for the interim administration to be replaced by a government of national unity under the 1997 constitution.

The international community must implement and sustain a comprehensive range of measures to ensure Fiji's swift return to democracy and constitutional rule.

These measures, some of which already have been implemented, have been notified to and discussed with the Secretary General of the Socialist International. They have also been conveyed to the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations, regional governments and institutions.

We ask all member organisations of the SI to give strong and specific support to these measures. Fiji must regain its place as a respected member of the international community.

Fiji stands at a crossroad today. The future of peace, justice and democracy is at stake. To be sure, this is our struggle. But what has taken place in our small island nation strikes at the very heart of international standards of justice as well as our shared philosophy and values as members of the Socialist International.

We therefore entreat the international community to support us at this traumatic time in our history. We must heal the wounds inflicted on our people and rebuild our democracy. We humbly ask for your solidarity as we embark on this painful journey.



© 2000 Socialist Affairs. All rights reserved.

Signed articles represent the views of the authors only, not necessarily those of Socialist Affairs or the Socialist International