Fiji – the end of the coup d’état for a divided island nation

Harrison argues that despite Fiji appearing to be a tranquil archipelago oasis, the country has been ruled by an unchallenged dictatorship for years. This starkly exposes the double standards from the Western world as other more important states suffer intervention.

Whilst Europe awaits the Scottish referendum on 18 September, many Polynesians will be eyeing the day prior. On 17 September 2014, Fijians head to the polling stations for the first time in almost a decade of military dictatorship. Emotions are set to run high as racial and ethnic tensions may bubble up to surface as they have so often done in the recent past between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians who have been engaged in bitter argument over inclusion and equality.

Ethnic Indians find themselves in Fiji due to the colonial past of the country. Tens of thousands were transported to work in plantations, mainly in the sugar industry. As of 2012, Fiji registers 874,742 inhabitants of which an increasing proportion are now ethnic Indian equating to 44% of the population. Herein lies the problem. Mutual distrust, antagonism and racism run like a current through the 800 islands of this south Pacific nation-state.

Since 2000 a series of coups and alterations to the legal system and judiciary in Fiji have rocked the island nation. Recent grievances trace back to the successful and legitimate election of the first ever ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry in 1999, the first political tilt towards the ever-increasingly successful ethnic Indian population. This was a landmark year as Chaudhry’s Fiji Labour Party (FLP) formed an alliance with two small ethnic Fiji political parties to take power. Much was hoped for both from the previously downtrodden ethnic Indians and from the wider international community wanting free, fair and equal representation. Chaudhry started well with grand promises of tackling corruption and nepotism, particularly in the public sector, however his election merely set in motion a series of coups, counter-coups and co-opting political ethnic Fijian elites.

Since the 2000 coup, when Fijian businessman George Speight seized power, little has changed. The army is still dominated by ethnic Fijians and, whilst there have been moves towards privatisation and structural adjustment, economic foes have descended from the declining importance of sugar. In 2006, a counter-coup occurred with former banker Laisenia Qarase assuming control from Speight, who is now imprisoned, but the central tenet of ethnic Fijian supremacy has been perpetuated. Indeed the core problem remains that the electoral system is racially flawed. The voting system in Fiji is ethnically-based, permitting Qarase, as interim Prime Minister, to secure power in spite of the fact that the FLP had totalled 35% of the electoral vote, once again coming out on top. In 2006 Commodore Frank Bainimarama rose in Fijian politics replacing Qarase. Whilst Bainimarama has continued the military’s role in the Fijian government he has laid the groundwork for this month’s elections by publically asking the question ‘how can an election, on its own, solve the deep differences that our constitution has perpetuated between the different races in our country?’, thus advocating for reform of the Fijian constitution. As of 2009, with the combination of Chaudhry as Finance Minister and Commodore Bainimarama leading the nation-state, a People’s Charter was drafted. The aim of which, if unimpeded, will deliver a non-racial intermixed nation. The key to this process is the inclusion of ethnic Indians under the title ‘Fijians’ moving this cohort into the category of ‘itaukei’.

So what  significance do the constitutional reforms and the September vote hold? Put simply, security. President Obama, has outlined his ambitions of increasing Asian economic and political ties in the US new ‘pivot’ to the region, which requires new partners and renewed alliances. However, the rising power of China challenges this pivot. Chinese influence is already evident in infrastructure projects that are underway with road and port building throughout the archipelago. A Chinese floating hospital ship called the Peace Ark in the port of Suva and fiscal help with debt restructuring and basic services have strengthened the visible bonds to Beijing.  This has filled a void left from Australia and New Zealand who have politically isolated Fiji since 2006. Currently tourism is holding the Fijian economy together and economic forecasts are favourable. The vote next week will hopefully put an end to electoral racial segregation and a full stop to the cycle of coup after coup. Let’s hope that there will not be a fourth occurrence of military intervention after this landmark return to democracy.

By Harrison Hegarty who is currently studying for a Master of Science (MSc) in Political Science (International Security and Global Governance) at Birkbeck University in London. Harrison specializes in War Politics and Society, International Security and Middle East Politics.

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  • T. Hegarty

    RE Scottish independence ;
    I think many of us in the south overlook one aspect concerning the desire of the Scots for independence;
    Whilst the economic/ financial considerations are important they are not necessarily the primary motivation of the Scottish citizens.
    Countries do not always fight for independence to become rich, they fight to become free!

    Re; Opedspace, good work Harrison, keep it up


  • PH

    Although I despair that the Scots seem to be voting with their hearts rather then their heads I do celebrate the fact that seeing a peaceful democratic process at work is heartening. If they can end 300 hundred years of history without firing a bullet then that is impressive!

    Interestingly, it seems to me there are several common features between these two distant struggles, from Fiji to Glasgow we can note that if people don’t feel included, valued and able to get a fair share of the cake of prosperity then suspicions, mistrust and antagonism will spread and auld enmities rear their ugly heads and the heart rules.

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