Can a truth and reconciliation commission help solve race debates in Fiji?

The Fijian community including the Fijian Diaspora must ensure that racial grievance, of any form and by any community, is allowed to be communicated, debated, and addressed within a multiracial governance framework.

By Sanjay Ramesh

Following the May 1987 Coup, the Indigenous Fijian iTaukei Movement, held noisy demonstrations throughout the country with the support of the military and the police in favour of Indigenous rights, arguing that iTaukei land was in jeopardy by the newly elected coalition government led by late Fiji Labour Party leader Dr Bavadra.

At the time, the attack from iTaukei nationalists was directed at the late Prime Minister Dr Timoci Bavadra and his Attorney of General late Jai Ram Reddy.

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Debates on race and racism were played out in the halls and corridors of the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva where iTaukei nationalists argued in support of Indigenous Fijian political dominance and aggrieved for the loss of that dominance of indigenous Fijians at all levels of government, following the election of the multiracial coalition government in April 1987.

For the Indigenous Fijian iTaukei Movement, the Fiji Labour Party-National Federation Party Coalition was “Indian-dominated” and as such had Ministers who could undermine Indigenous Fijian land and customary rights because they could not be trusted on iTaukei affairs due to their race.

On the other side of the debate were supporters of the Labour-led Coalition who labelled the deposed government as “multiracial” and argued that Indigenous Fijian culture, customary rights, and land were fully protected under the 1970 Constitution with Indigenous Council of Chiefs and their permanent veto powers to disallow any move to undermine iTaukei land rights.

At times heated and emotional debates ensued and those who argued in favour of the Coalition were effectively cancelled or silenced because race matters were seen as the sole domain of iTaukei indigenous nationalists.

Indo-Fijians were seen as apologists for the Coalition Government, which according to the iTaukei nationalist, who used race to elbow their way into political power following the election of 1987. The argument by the nationalists against the elected coalition government fails to acknowledge that since independence in 1970, the country was led by the iTaukei-dominated Alliance Party and any failings in policies towards the iTaukei lay at the heels of the iTaukei Alliance government and its misguided supporters. 

Strangely, the multiracial coalition government in 1987 was deposed by a military coup led by the current Prime Minister of Fiji, Sitiveni Rabuka, in less than a month and since 1987, there has been a trend in Fiji on either the Indo-Fijian and Indigenous iTaukei Fijian sides to invoke race, ethnicity and political entitlement to claim control of the country.

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The term race has a different and unique ethnic reference point in Fiji. A more elaborate race concept emerged following the implementation of the 1997 Constitution.

Indo-Fijians longed for political justice in the form of equal political rights whereas Indigenous Fijians wanted cultural, economic, and social justice as part of the constitutional and political settlement between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians. Both communities articulated their injustices as national grievances, but their narratives never intersected or were not allowed to intersect by the political class.

These contending race discourses amplified racial conflict and set in motion disjunctive narratives within ethnic groups as each tried to spin their position as a national strategy for peace, stability and good government.

In 2000, Indo-Fijians argued that race was a factor in deposing the government led by Indo-Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry whilst the rebel Indigenous Fijian ITaukei nationalists argued that an Indo-Fijian-dominated government led by an “Indian” Prime Minister were the reason for the chaos and mayhem at the Fiji Parliament House for 56 days, where government ministers were held at gunpoint and often beaten for refusing to acquiesce to the demands of their captors. Both communities, Indo-Fijians, and Indigenous Fijians used race to justify their political positions.

Are both communities using race to air their variety of racial injustices or perhaps there are more covert intra-communal social forces at play beyond race?

For example, elite, sectional, and intra-communal interests exploit racial divisions for their political and economic benefit. In Fiji, the questions of race are rarely settled, and they cannot be addressed unless there is some form of meaningful Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Fiji’s troubled past. The moment an Indigenous Fijian raises an issue of racial injustice, it is assumed that the intended target of such claims is the non-Indigenous race or Indo-Fijians and vice versa. Such perceptions stifle critical discussions on race since it is aimed at cancelling or silencing or reducing race discussions before it even starts. The Fijian community including the Fijian Diaspora must ensure that racial grievance, of any form and by any community, is allowed to be communicated, debated, and addressed within a multiracial governance framework.

In 2018, the former Prime Minister of Fiji Voreqe Bainimarama dismissed requests from the opposition to establish a truth and reconciliation commission. However, the current Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, during the election campaign in December 2022, indicated that his party “the People’s Alliance Party (PAP) plans to set up a truth reconciliation commission that will look at the mistakes of the past, and the recent past”.

While a truth and reconciliation commission is yet to be established, the debate on race has started once again as Indo-Fijians re-assess their political position in the country, following the defeat of FijiFirst Party at the polls, and a different kind of re-assessment is taking place within the iTaukei community with a stocktake on the economic gap between Indo-Fijians and iTaukei Fijians as well as growing poverty in the community.

Contributing Author: Dr Sanjay Ramesh is Senior Fellow at the University of Sydney.

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