A second coup attempt in the South Pacific has many wondering what has fouled the tropical air. The answer is simple: corruption and inefficiency. In both Fiji and the Solomon Islands, ethnic groups have used the cause of indigenous rights to shield practices that often verge on the criminal. Inept governments have perpetuated poverty and fostered racial divisions. Contrary to the calls for racial and ethnic set-asides, the solution is more democracy, not less.

In Fiji, Mr. George Speight, a disgruntled Fijian businessman — who incidentally was about to go to trial on charges of fraud and extortion — took the prime minister and his Cabinet hostage on May 19. Mr. Speight has demanded a new constitution that would only allow native Fijians to rule and a new government. The native council of tribal chiefs apparently acceded to his demands. After rioting last month, the armed forces declared martial law. The standoff continues, however. Mr. Speight’s demands keep escalating. He is now demanding a veto over the government. The military has refused. There is little sign that the rights of the 49 percent of nonindigenous Fijians will be respected no matter who eventually prevails.

In the Solomon Islands, an 18-month-old insurgency spilled over into violence last week when a group took that country’s prime minister hostage as well. The roots of the unrest go back to World War II, when the United States took control of the island in 1942. It set up a capital on the landing site of Guadalcanal, and people from neighboring Malaita island were brought in to populate it. They kept the best jobs for themselves. That too fostered an indigenous rights movement.

The situation came to a head a year and a half ago, when the Isatabu Freedom Movement was created to drive out the Malaitans. Malaitan militants responded with the Malaitan Eagle Force. Battles between the two have claimed at least 60 lives and another 20,000 people — mainly Malaitans — have been expelled from Guadalcanal. After Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu was taken hostage, fighting broke out that left several people dead and the rest of the population terrorized.

The militias agreed last week to a 14-day ceasefire to allow a Commonwealth delegation to visit the island and assess the situation. Mr. Ulufa’alu was released from house arrest, and he resigned Wednesday, the day before a no-confidence vote in Parliament that was designed to provide a constitutional exit from the crisis.

In both cases, the banner of indigenous rights has been raised, but race is really incidental to the crises. The real issue is power. Both Mr. Speight and Mr. Andrew Nori, who heads the Malaita Eagle Force, have left office under suspicions of illegality. Fiji and the Solomon Islands are relatively poor countries, heavily dependent on natural resources and tourism. Both of those industries are closely linked to government policy and decisions — for licenses, for example. Race is a screen for political aspirations, which masks little more than greed.

The turmoil will make a bad economic situation worse. Tourism is already on the decline, and Australia and New Zealand, the two countries’ main trading partners are ready to impose sanctions. Fiji’s Labor Ministry says the crisis has already cost the country more than 2,000 jobs, mostly held by indigenous Fijians in the low-paying manufacturing sector, as a result of a trade ban imposed by Australian unions. The Commonwealth is also contemplating sanctions.

It is tempting to see these episodes as yet another legacy of imperialism. Both countries were once members of the British empire, and the troubles do spring from the introduction of ethnic groups into the islands. In Fiji’s case, the history goes back centuries, to when Indians were brought over to work as indentured servants. But the real problem is the unwillingness of governments to take their commitment to democracy seriously. Racial politics is always a trump.

The chief danger is that this thinking will spread. After East Timor was given its freedom last year, separatists are flexing their muscles in Aceh and Irian Jaya. Independence is one thing, however; the politics of racial exclusion are another.

Mr. Speight and his supporters may yet reap what they have sown. Tribal chiefs from the western part of Fiji met last week to decide whether to declare their own independence. The west is the richest part of the country, and accounts for at least 60 percent of Fiji’s revenue. Yet, it has been divided between two of the three existing confederacies in Fiji and has been denied political clout as a result. A decision to strike out on its own would leave a much diminished and impoverished country behind. Such are the rewards of racial politics.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.