Fiji has long sought the world’s attention as a vacation getaway. It has won the headlines in recent months, but for the wrong reasons. Fiji is in the midst of political turmoil that threatens to divide the country, uproot the rule of law and damage relations with neighbors and friends.
Fiji’s political upheaval is the product of simmering ethnic tensions between indigenous Fijians and Indians. The Indians were brought to the islands by British colonizers to work the sugar-cane fields in the 19th century. They now represent 44 percent of Fiji’s 800,000 people. In a strange irony of history, the Indians dominate the sugar-cane industry that is, along with tourism, one of the pillars of Fiji’s economy.
The recent troubles erupted May 19, when indigenous rebels led by Mr. George Speight, a failed businessman, seized the Parliament building in Suva and took 27 hostages, including Fiji’s first Indian prime minister, Mr. Mahendra Chaudhry, and a number of his ministers. They were released 56 days later after lengthy negotiations with the military over the establishment of a government to Mr. Speight’s liking. In addition, he demanded that the country’s multiracial constitution be revoked and power reserved for native Fijians.
The country’s tribal leaders and the military, which had declared martial law when the Cabinet was taken hostage, bowed to those demands. The president, who had opposed the rebels, was also forced to step down.
When the hostages were released and the rebels turned over their arms, it looked as though Fiji’s political problems were over. The army announced it would end military rule by July 31 and that civilian government would be restored. Mr. Josefa Iloilo was chosen president with the blessing of the rebels. Last Tuesday, he was scheduled to swear in 20 new ministers, including acting Prime Minister Laisenia Quarase, the choice of the military.
Predictably, things did not work out as as planned. The president failed to show up for the ceremony, allegedly because of illness. That is plausible: Mr. Iloilo suffers from Parkinson’s disease and heart and liver ailments. The rebels claimed, however, that they had blocked the installation of the new Cabinet, the composition of which was not to their liking after all. They warned that forming the new government could lead to civil war.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Chaudhry, whose democratically elected government was ousted by the rebels, insists that his government be reinstated. He is allegedly considering the establishment of a separate government in the western part of the main island of Vitilevu, which is the center of the Indian-controlled sugar-cane industry. This course would divide the country and could spark another round of violence.
In a sense the country is already divided. Since the rebels took over Parliament, there have been sporadic outbursts of violence and looting, usually targeting the Indian population. Isolated cases of ethnic cleansing against the Indian communities have been reported. Indians are beginning to leave the country. Properties have been taken over by indigenous Fijians, prompting travel advisories from foreign governments. The economy is under assault as the tourist industry dries up and sugar cane rots in the fields.
Last week, Mr. Speight declared that constitutional democracy in his country was “finished.” He demanded that he no longer be referred to as a rebel or terrorist; he prefers to be known as “a crusader for indigenous Fijian rights.” Rarely is history so generous to an individual whose intent is denying others their rights and opportunities.
Many native Fijians are said to share Mr. Speight’s anger and grievances. The military has chosen to deal with the man and his supporters, and the Council of Chiefs has agreed to his demands. That is a mistake. Once the gun prevails over the rule of law, there is no reason why other people will not resort to the use of arms when they feel similarly aggrieved in the future.
It is tempting to dismiss Fiji’s plight. It is a tiny, distant island with few people. But the issues at stake are the very same that have triggered communal violence around the world, from Sri Lanka to Sarajevo. The government of Fiji panders to ethnic prejudices and suspends democracy at its peril. Yet we are all diminished when an entire population is turned into second-class citizens.
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