Move to pardon Fiji’s 2000 coup leader could raise political temperature

By Shailendra Bahadur Singh

A possible pardon for the figurehead of Fiji’s violent 2000 coup has the potential to put the Pacific island country’s reformist government and its influential military at loggerheads.

The last time an amnesty for George Speight was proposed nearly two decades ago, it helped set in motion another coup and entrenched a role for the military in politics, a tension that Fiji continues to grapple with today. 

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The renewed speculation about the former businessman’s release from prison also highlights the possibility of political instability at a time when Fiji, one of the few Pacific island countries with its own defense force, is central to U.S. efforts to counter China’s increased influence in the region.

Fiji has suffered four coups since the late 1980s, all rooted in the economic and political divides between indigenous Melanesian Fijians and the descendants of indentured Indian laborers. 

Speight claimed to be acting in the interest of indigenous Fijians when his forces stormed parliament on May 19, 2000 and took Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry, and his cabinet hostage. 

The rebellion, which resulted in several deaths among rebel and loyalist soldiers, was eventually quelled by the military, but at the cost of dividing and scarring that institution. In 2002, Speight was condemned to death for treason, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison. 

The architects of the other coups, current Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and his predecessor Frank Bainimarama – Fiji’s strongman leader from 2006 to 2022 – were powerful enough to guarantee their own immunity from prosecution. 

The prospect of freedom for Speight and his conspirators was zero until Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party was defeated in national elections last December. 

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The supporters of two of the three parties in the current coalition government led by Rabuka are largely indigenous Fijian and, for that reason, the new administration seems willing to facilitate a Mercy Commission review of Speight’s petition for a pardon.

This has not been to the liking of the military which, under the 2013 constitution introduced under Bainimarama’s government, has “overall responsibility” to ensure the “security, defense and wellbeing of Fiji.” 

Earlier this month, Military Commander Jone Kalouniwai expressed his reservations about any move to pardon Speight.

In response, Acting Minister of Home Affairs, Filimoni Vosarogo, was respectful. He expressed appreciation that the commander had brought the military’s concerns to him, which he said was a demonstration of commitment to the rule of law. 

In his statement, Vosarogo was at pains to assure the commander that the government would consider his views, and explained in detail the process that the Mercy Commission was required to follow.

It was not the first time the military had expressed dissatisfaction with the new government. 

In January, Kalouniwai raised concerns about “sweeping changes” made by Rabuka’s coalition, which acted quickly to replace Bainimarama-era appointees in the civil service and opened investigations into alleged official misconduct.

That situation was quickly diffused by Minister of Home Affairs Pio Tikoduadua – formerly a lieutenant colonel in the Fijian military – who called Kalouniwai for a meeting, and assured the commander that all government actions were guided by the law.

The events in the months following Speight’s coup help explain why a pardon for Speight is anathema to Fiji’s military leaders.

Besides social and economic damage, the upheaval factionalized the defense force and threatened its previously unchallenged authority by unleashing rebel soldiers and civilian coup supporters against the establishment.

During the standoff, the emboldened rebels captured key security installations. The most serious incidents were the takeover of the Sukanaivalu Barracks in northern Fiji on July 7, 2000; the storming of a police station and the taking of 30 hostages; and the attempted mutiny at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in the capital, Suva, on Nov. 2, 2000.

The Sukanaivalu Barracks was recaptured six weeks later without the rebels putting up a fight, and while the Queen Elizabeth Barracks uprising was short-lived, it was bloodier. 

A rebel plot to assassinate Bainimarama – then the military commander – failed, but three soldiers loyal to the civilian government were killed, including one who was shot while he slept. Four rebel soldiers were reportedly rounded up, tortured and killed by loyalist troops.

A proposal in 2005 by a civilian government led by Laisenia Qarase to pardon Speight and his co-conspirators with a “Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill” only served to heighten social tensions. 

Those indigenous Fijians who saw Speight as a champion of their cause supported the bill while most Fijians of Indian descent, who felt they were the victims of a racist coup, opposed it.

In December 2006, Bainimarama made good on threats to remove the elected Qarase government. This coup, like the two that Rabuka led in 1987 and Speight’s 2000 overthrow of the civilian government, caused deep divisions in Fiji.

Rabuka, whose coups aimed to protect indigenous Fijian political power, now presents himself as a reformer who vows to right the wrongs of the authoritarian Bainimarama era. 

His government recently repealed a draconian media law that allowed fines and prison time for content deemed against the national interest. 

However, it also cannot afford instability or a loss of investor confidence as government finances are challenged in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and its damage to Fiji’s crucial tourism industry.

Kalouniwai, for his part, has previously called on soldiers to respect the result of the December election. 

Many Fijians, still picking up the pieces after the economic downturn, will be hoping he heeds his own advice.

This article was first published in Benar News and has been republished here with the kind permission of the author/editor(s).

Contributing Author: Dr Shailendra Bahadur Singh is an associate professor and head of the journalism program at The University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He has written widely on Pacific media, politics and development.

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