By Sanjay Ramesh
Following the May 1987 Coup where a third-ranking Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka overthrew an elected government and the supporters of the coup, the Indigenous Fijian Taukei Movement held noisy demonstrations throughout the country with the support of the military and the police.
For the Indigenous Fijian Taukei 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 because of 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, where Indigenous Council of Chiefs had permanent veto powers to disallow any move to undermine Taukei rights.
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 own ethnic grievances as urgent issues but their narratives never intersected or were not allowed to intersect by the political class. These contending race viewpoints amplified racial conflict and set in motion disjunctive narratives within ethnic groups as each tried to spin its position as a 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.
Both communities use race to raise a variety of racial injustices including elite, sectional, and intra-communal interests that 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.
However, such as the commission is a distant memory because truth-telling, ethnic reconciliation and monetary reparations for those who have been wronged are caught in a complex cultural, traditional, and ethnic web. 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 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 should ensure that racial grievance, of any form and by any community in Fiji, is allowed to be communicated, debated, and addressed within a multiracial governance framework.
Following the 2016 coup, Taukei Fijians were removed from positions of authority and influence, and many fled the country as the political class that came to power in 2006 promoted their friends and families in the public service and in state-owned companies and corporations. Many Indo-Fijians felt that their political rights were finally restored and large numbers of the community voted for FijiFirst Party in the 2014, 2018 and 2022 elections.
However, while Indo-Fijians were doing well under FijiFirst, Taukei Fijians fell further behind with high unemployment, poverty and unable to leverage the equal distribution of lease money. Many Taukei Fijians filled up prisons and turned to hard drugs, including Marijuana cultivation which was seen by many as an alternative to a life of misery and poverty.
There was hope for the Taukei community following the emergence in 2018 of the 1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, went on to form the Peoples’ Alliance Party and formed a coalition with the National Federation Party and Social Democratic Liberal Party to win the December 2022 election.
Immediately afterwards FijiFirst claimed that racially motivated attacks were widespread against Indo-Fijians for their support for the defeated FijiFirst Party and called on the police and the military to intervene. However, rumours of racial violence were unfounded, but it drew the police and the military into the race and ethnicity debate, raising concerns of perhaps another coup.
The 2013 Constitution, imposed by a decree, ensures that the military remains the guardian of the constitution and tensions between the military and the government have been brewing, following the announcement of Filipo Tarakinikini as Fiji’s representative to the United Nations, replacing Dr Satendra Prasad. Tarakinikini was a key negotiator between the George Speight Group and Fiji military at the height of the crisis in 2000.
Whilst Tarakinikini was acquitted on allegations of being a supporter of the 2000 coup, he was declared a deserter by the Fiji military and his appointment to the UN has caused friction at the military barracks in Fiji.
Furthermore, the return of Ratu Uluilakeba Mara, the son of former President and Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara caused further unease with the military high command. Before his escape from Fiji to Tonga, senior members of Fiji’s Military Council, Ratu Uluilakeba Mara along with Pita Driti, criticised the Bainimarama regime of being influenced by the former Attorney General Aiyaz Khaiyum, who was accused of dismantling Taukei Fijian institutions and land rights.
Following the election of the coalition government in Fiji, former Attorney General Aiyaz Khaiyum was charged with abuse of office along with the former Prime Minister Voreqe Bainaimarama and former Police Commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho.
It has been confirmed by the Minister for Home Affairs, Pio Tikoduadua, that Voreqe Bainimarama is
related to the Commander of the Fiji military, Major General Jone Logavatu Kalouniwai, who has repeatedly called on the new coalition government to adhere to the 2013 Constitution and advise against the release of George Speight.
There are a number of issues intersecting in Fiji including the new coalition governments’ unhappiness with the imposed 2013 constitution, the election promise to bring back out of cold previous players such as Filipo Tarakinikini, Ratu Uluilakeba Mara and George Speight, and move the country forward with some form of national reconciliation or truth and reconciliation commission.
The question is can the coalition effectively manage disparate and conflicting interests and move the country forward while keeping the military at bay, and well away from getting embroiled in the political affairs of the country when the constitution of the country has given the army licence to intervene at its discretion at any time.
Contributing Author: Dr Sanjay Ramesh lives and works in Sydney.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The Australia Today is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts, or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of The Australia Today and The Australia Today News does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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