Good Vibes in the South Pacific

Ten years ago, on 14 May 1987, Lt Col Sitiveni Rabuka stormed the Fijian Parliament with his troops, arrested the entire Indian-dominated Cabinet and declared himself leader of a military government. The putsch was staged, he said quite simply, to restore control of the country to indigenous Fijians: "Everyone is welcome to come and live here as our guest, as long as Fijians run the nation." For three years, Prime Minister Rabuka governed by decree and then he rammed through a constitution in 1990 which the Indian opposition likened to an apartheid period document. Under it, the Indo-Fijian parties were relegated to a position of serving as a "permanent opposition", with no hope of achieving power through the ballot.

A decade later, Prime Minister Rabuka has come full circle. In May, he conceded to demands and agreed to the concept of a multiracial cabinet. In July, both houses of Parliament passed constitutional amendments to that effect. Opposition leader Jai Ram Reddy of the National Federation Party (NFP) said after the parliamentary vote that he was "very happy for our country and all the people of this country". The nation´s main daily, The Fiji Times, carried a front page picture of Mr Reddy warmly shaking hands with Prime Minister Rabuka. The amendments also include, for the first time in Fiji, a bill of rights.

Some had thought, with the many examples of failed statesmanship all over the world, that Fiji would never be able to bring itself back from the brink. Today, however, the polity seems set to mend itself.

Constitution and Race
Situated in the South Pacific, Fiji is made up of more than 300 islands, about a hundred of which are uninhabited. The 1996 census put the country´s population at 772,655, consisting of Melanesians (indigenous Fijians), Indians (or South Asians), Polynesians, Ratumans, Chinese, Europeans and those of mixed-race.

The Indo-Fijians are descendants of indentured labourers brought to the islands by the British, beginning in 1879, to work in sugar cane plantations. Since then, sugar has become the country´s main export and the backbone of the economy, while the Indians through hard work, education and enterprise have become a powerful economic force. When Fiji was granted independence in 1970, political power was transferred to the indigenous community, while the migrant (Indian) community held the economic power.

Ever since the Great Council of Chiefs ceded Fiji to the British Crown in 1874, on the understanding that the rights of the indigenous people would be protected, race has played a major role in the constitutional history of the country. As the British were departing, Indians who made up the majority population by a thin margin wanted voting on a "Common Roll", whereas the indigenous Fijians argued that they would have a say in the governance only through a "Communal Roll" where voting was ethnically segregated.

The 1970 constitution was a compromise with members chosen under both rolls. However, it gave rise to a situation in the 1987 elections where the Alliance Party representing the indigenous community got only 24 seats while the combined Indian-dominated opposition consisting of the NFP and the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) got 28 seats.

This was what precipitated Col Rabuka´s coup and, later, the 1990 constitution. According to its provisions, the Lower House had 70 seats, 37 of which were reserved for Fijians, 27 for Indians and 5 for General Electors. The voting was done entirely on a communal roll. Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT) the political party aligned with the Great Council of Chiefs and now led by Col Rabuka won two elections under the 1990 constitution.

"It was a racist constitution imposed on the people by presidential decree, with entrenched discrimination against the Indian community," says Mahendra Chaudhry, leader of the FLP. Under pressure from the opposition, a constitutional review commission was finally appointed by the government in 1995, headed by former New Zealand Governor-General Paul Reeves, with Canberra-based Indo-Fijian historian Brij Lal and indigenous Fijian businessman and former parliamentarian Tomas Vakatora as members.

Their report was submitted in late 1996, and a parliamentary select committee began to prepare a blueprint for a revised constitution. While many indigenous provincial councils rejected the key recommendations relating to voting rolls, the Reeves Report gathered support within Col Rabuka´s own party, and in the community at large. Under the amended constitution, there will be 71 seats in parliament, out of which 23 will be reserved for indigenous Fijians, 19 for Indians, three for General Electors, and one for Ratumans (Polynesian mixed race). Voting for these will be on the communal roll, while the other 25 seats will be contested on an open roll.

The new provisions also enshrine the principle of multiracial government, which requires the leader of the party with the highest number of seats to invite other parties which have won a specified number of seats, to join the government. Though this requirement will not be active until the general elections slated for 1999, Col Rabuka has indicated his intention to form a multiracial cabinet.

The Colonel´s Turnaround
In a fortuitous turnaround, it was Col Rabuka, the very man accused of promoting the growing racial divide, who came to lead the movement for the revised constitution. He played a key role in persuading the Great Council of Chiefs and the sceptics within the SVT to back the amendments.

The Prime Minister was helped greatly by a change in the leadership of the Methodist Church, which claims membership of more than two hundred thousand of the population, primarily indigenous Fijians. Earlier, the church was closely identified with the 1987 military coup and attempts to declare Fiji a Christian state, which would have excluded the mostly Hindu and Muslim Indo-Fijian community.

The Rev Ilaitia Tuwere, the church´s new president and a liberal theologian, publicly opposed the proposal for a Christian state, maintaining that it would go against Christian principles. He said, "Fiji is now a nation that urgently needs national unity and development at all levels. Because of this it is necessary to involve all powers at work in our community. It is for this reason we support religious freedom."

After the parliament´s decision, partially as an attempt to pacify those in his party who felt the paramountcy of the indigenous population had been bartered away, Col Rabuka declared, "We lost some things we would have liked to retain, but on the other hand so did everybody else." For his part, NFP leader Mr Reddy said that there were now "very good vibes and a general realisation that we need to work and move forward together." The new model adopted by the parliament was ideal for any multicultural society, he said.

Mr Reddy explains that it was demographic factors which paved the way for the historic compromise on the race issue, a different climate having developed in the country since 1987. Indigenous Fijians are now the single largest group and growing fairly rapidly, while the Indian population has been shrinking due to erosion at both ends – lower growth rates and emigration.

Says Mr Reddy, "Before the military coup we were 48 percent (of the population). Now we are 43 percent. Projections are that in 10 years it could be as low as 35 percent. The demographic change has made the Fijians a lot more confident." This, Mr Reddy believes, is why the Indigenous Fijians were willing and ready for some form of power-sharing.

Moods and Trends
Demographic trends support Mr Reddy´s analysis. The results of the 1996 census, recently released, shows that for the first time since the 1901 census, indigenous Fijians form a significant majority, having overtaken Indo-Fijians who are down to 46 percent from a high of 51.1. The country´s population has grown by 8 percent during the last decade, but the Indian component has actually declined. At the last census taken just before the coup, Indians made up 48.7 percent of the population and indigenous Fijians 43.6 percent.

During the last decade, 53,800 Indo-Fijians emigrated, most of them doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, teachers, managers and businessmen. The majority have gone to Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the United States.

"The attempt by the post-coup government to divide the races in Fiji was very strong. They tried to divide trade unions, political parties and so forth along racial lines. These policies were based on the thinking that it is race that brings people together," observes Tupeni Baba, an indigenous Fijian and a Cabinet minister in the government overthrown in 1987. Mr Baba believes that the worsening economic situation in Fiji is what forced Col Rabuka and his supporters to rethink their strategy of cementing indigenous Fijian control over the country.

"There was a realisation by Rabuka and other protagonists of the coup that a racial government consisting of (indigenous) Fijians alone cannot run the country; there´s an economic price to be paid. That realisation is a good one," says Mr Baba, who is now Professor of Education at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. "The coup-makers were finally confronting the consequences of their action. Their own people were the ones suffering badly."

Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, a young Fijian chief tends to agree with Mr Baba´s view. "They didn´t lift the economic profile of indigenous Fijian significantly… In terms of concrete achievements for the community as a whole, it´s been slow in coming." His point of view is supported by a UNDP study on poverty in Fiji, released in March, showing that indigenous Fijian households overall had the lowest incomes, while the average income of Indo-Fijians in the highest bracket was 42 percent higher than the highest income of indigenous Fijian households.

"Our people are more likely to sit back and be complacent, whereas Indo-Fijians are more likely to be wanting to improve their status. They are more competitive," observes Nina Seru, an indigenous Fijian youth leader.

The failure of race-based policies to uplift the economic profile of indigenous Fijians, lack of investment by Indo-Fijians in the local economy, and the flight of both their capital and professional skills overseas, along with the demographic changes taking place in the country, are the elements, then, which combined to create the current mood for reconciliation and compromise. The concrete manifestation of all this is the newly amended constitution, which makes multiculturalism the new national credo. The communities of Fiji may yet be able to come up with a workable and historic compromise in Fiji, under which Asia and the Pacific will co-exist and prosper.

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