Thursday, May 03, 2007

The big man in paradise

The beautiful Polynesian nation of Fiji! The very name evokes images of sand, surf, palm trees and ... military coup d'etats. When Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama launched his successful coup d'etat in December of 2006, he knew it would generate shock and disgust in international circles. He simply didn't care. As it stands now, he was probably onto something.

While the United States, Canada, and the European Union were all quick to denounce Bainimarama's naked grab for power, what were they going to do about it? Australia, Oceania's longtime policeman, also vociferously deplored the coup, but they declined to send a military force to intervene on the embattled deposed government's behalf. New Zealand followed suit, issuing statements "condemning" the coup, but also couldn't be bothered to send warships to Fiji to restore democracy. Needless to say, Commodore Bainimarama weathered the storm of indignant squawking and waited for them to forget about it so he could get down to business under the radar.

Nearly five months after taking power, Bainimarama has kept a tight leash on the press, and extended Fiji's state of emergency citing shadowy, and probably fictional, threats to state security. When his coup failed to gain the recognition of Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs, he simply dissolved the Great Council. Even the council's lone "chief for life" former dictator Sitiveni Rabuka was powerless to stop Bainimarama. Fiji is certainly no stranger to coup d'etats, but few in the West are aware of why they keep happening.

"We can argue on the legality of the government until the cows come home."
- Frank Bainimarama

Few in the west are aware of Fiji, and even fewer know about the political and social tensions that have led to four coups in the past 20 years. When the English absorbed Fiji into the British Empire in 1874, they realized that their occupation of Fiji would have to turn a profit to justify the costs of colonization. They also realized that there weren't enough native Fijians to employ for large scale commercial agricultural ventures, and what's more, forcing the natives to do so could result in a revolt the tiny British military presence in Fiji might not be able to suppress.

The lack of labor proved to be a somewhat serious impediment to British goals to turn Fiji into a cash crop economy based on large scale sugarcane plantation farming. The British, however, hit on a solution to this problem by bringing thousands of indentured servants from British India to Fiji. The British relied on their labor to make owning Fiji profitable, and preserve their relationship with the native Fijian rulers . Problem solved! The Indians provided the labor, the Fijian chiefs tolerated the British presence, and the British made Fiji a self-financing possession. Over time, the number of Indians in Fiji increased, both because of transport from India, and from Indians born in Fiji. By the time Fiji gained independence from Great Britain, Indians in Fiji comprised a little more than half of the population. Naturally, as the majority, Fiji's Indians strove for a measure of political participation relative to the size of their population and contribution to Fijian society.

And this is where things started to become a bit difficult.

1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka

Fearing that urban Indians would dominate the more rural native Fijians politically, a compromise solution was worked out where legislative power was allotted along ethnic lines. The prime minister, however, was a native Fijian. That is until an Indian prime minister was elected in 1987, at which point, the aforementioned Sitiveni Rabuka, himself a native Fijian, launched a pair of coups to depose the new prime minister. Rabuka called the coup a preemptive assault against discrimination against ethnic Fijians, but more to the point, the coup preserved the political supremacy of native Fijians.

2000 coup leader George Speight

The scenario repeated itself in 2000, when Indian Fijian Mahendra Chaudhry was elected Prime Minister, only to be overthrown in a bizarre coup by a native Fijian nationalist named George Speight. Speight, who claimed to have acted preemptively to prevent the oppression of the now majority native Fijians against the tyranny of the now minority Indian Fijians, held Prime Minister Chaudrhy and 35 other government ministers hostage for nearly two months. Speight lost control of the government when, who else?, Commodore Bainimarama took control of the government, declared martial law, and lured Speight out into the open with a false amnesty pledge. Commodore Bainimarama appointed a native Fijian Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, who remained in power from 2000 until his ouster last December by, yes, that's right, Commodore Bainimarama.

4 coups in 20 years isn't a sterling track record, but Commodore Bainimarama is willing to bet that the same countries that are "outraged" now will forget all about it sometime this year, and they may be right. The economic cornerstones of Fiji aren't seriously being threatened, and the Commodore himself isn't a brutal dictator in the mold of Saddam Hussein or the like. He's simply another one of a long line of military leaders who covets power, and even in paradise, they're a dime a dozen.

1 comment:

Chief said...

Hi - Nice piece, just a correction to your first line: Fiji is a MELANESIAN country NOT a Polynesian country - although there are many with Polynesian blood or a mix.