FIJI was once a widely praised, stable, democratic South Pacific society. Indigenous Melanesians and south Indians prospered together amid lush fields of sugar cane, taro, and coconut trees. Now, Fiji is set for intercommunal and interreligious strife, its new military government disdained within the Pacific and by the Commonwealth. Its descent began in May 1987, when a coalition of Asians and western Fijians won national elections for the first time since independence in 1970. Up to that time, eastern Fijians, led by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, had organized the country Fijians by about 50 to 46 percent, with 4 percent whites and others. Indians have long controlled Fijian trade and commerce; Fijians have owned the land and controlled the government.
When that recipe for stability was overturned by a popular vote, the Fijian Army, almost wholly composed of Fijians, ousted the elected government and began military rule under Brig. Gen. Sitivena Rabuka, a 39-year-old, charismatic Methodist lay preacher.
In December, after Fiji had been expelled from the Commonwealth, General Rabuka retreated a little from his single-handed rule and nominally installed a measure of civilian authority. Ratu Sir Kamisese became prime minister again, and civilians were appointed to a Cabinet. But Rabuka, as military commander and minister of home affairs (internal security), retains real power.
In June Fiji introduced an internal security decree that empowers Rabuka to arrest or detain anyone indefinitely without charge or trial. It allows Fiji's rulers to close schools, search premises or vehicles without warrant, impose curfews, and seize land or buildings without any recourse to the courts.
So far there have been only a handful of arrests under the decree. Those detained have included foreign visitors, local university lecturers (one of whom wrote an unflattering review of a book by Rabuka), and presumed opponents of the military regime. The robust press has been cowed, and a once-open society is tense and fearful. Educated Indians - especially university lecturers, schoolteachers, and others with professional skills - have emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. The 8,000 who are believed to have fled Fiji in recent months include half the country's physicians, lawyers, and accountants.
When a new constitution for Fiji is decided, probably later this year, Rabuka wants it to declare that native Fijians will always have a majority in Parliament.
The new constitution will also establish Fiji as a Christian nation, despite its large number of Hindus and Muslims. Rabuka is a committed fundamentalist Christian. Last year he made it a criminal offense to engage in commerce (except in tourist hotels), run the buses on which islanders depend, or even go to the beaches (tourists excepted), on Sunday. Many Indians fear that Rabuka intends to force conversions to Christianity; he has threatened that non-Christians will find living in Fiji ``difficult.''
Rabuka has a firm grip on the country and the Army. Hence a recent radio interview with him chilled most non-Fijians: ``We are trying to make this place perfect for the Fijian people,'' he said, ``and if it's not perfect for others, then ... they will have to go.''
Military rule has hurt tourism, capital has flown, inflation has soared, and unemployment has grown. But Indians, so far, continue to mine gold and grow sugar for export. In the tropics, too, villagers can produce taro, bananas, papaya, mangoes, and pineapples with ease. Unless the economy deteriorates drastically, Rabuka will not soon be ousted by pocketbook issues.
Antagonism to his government from English-speaking nations (although the United States has equivocated) hurts, but has not proved decisive. Despite Fiji's comparative isolation, few local observers predict an early restoration of democracy there. The country's reputation for multiracial calm has been shattered, probably for good. Paradise will be hard to regain.
Robert I. Rotberg is academic vice-president for arts, sciences, and technology at Tufts University.