Coup leader says Fijians must hold to tradition

For the first time in three months, the rain is falling on the drought-stricken cane fields and parched lawns of Fiji. ``It must be a blessing from the gods,'' says one supporter of Col. Sitivena ``Steve'' Rabuka, who last Friday staged his second military coup in less than four months in this former British South Pacific colony. ``He banned business, sports and public transportation on Sundays, everything but church services. So they must be thanking us.''

To many of Fiji's native Melanesians, the actions of Col. Rabuka, have other benefits. They appear to be the only answer to the dominance of ethnic Indians in their country. Indians, descendents of indentured laborers sent to the British colony in the 19th century, make up just over 50 percent of the population.

Spearheading the Melanesian interest in Fiji is the Tauki or Fijian movement, which feels a new constitution is needed to guarantee Melanesian control and preserve the traditional authority of Fijian chiefs. The victory of the new Indian-dominated Labor coalition in April's parliamentary elections was seen as a direct shift in power away the chiefs.

But staging the coup has also meant Rabuka defied his paramount chief and mentor, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, who as governor general had only two days earlier finally brought a bipartisan government into being. With that, Rabuka usurped the very authority of the chiefly system that he launched both coups to preserve.

In his first interview since the most recent coup, Rabuka said the governer general must be pressed harder.

But, he said, ``anything that smells of disagreeing with the chief is very, very difficult for us. For me in particular, because I'm a traditionalist. The governor general Ratu Sir Penaia is my paramount chief, and we've been very, very close together. The perception is I'm going against him. I don't think I am. I'm doing this for a cause, and it's just unfortunate that he is the authority in power while I do it.''

The coup has also meant defying another senior figure of immense status in both the traditional and modern political system, Ratu Sir Kemasese Mara, prime minister for Fiji for 17 years after it gained independence in 1970. Rabuka said it was the decision of this man to join with the prime minister he deposed in May, Timoci Bavadra, in a bipartisan counsel of the state, that finally convinced him that a second coup was needed if his aims were to be achieved.

At the time of this writing, Rabuka had still not declared his republic, and had been persuaded by the governor general to sit down at the table with Dr. Bavadra and Ratu Sir Kemases to try one last time to salvage the Constitution. He is willing to discuss the issue, but is demanding immediate changes in the Constitution that would guarantee Fijians 41 seats in the 71-seat Parliament. The four men have agreed to meet on Monday.

Rabuka since May has that he still hopes Fiji can remain part of the Commonwealth, but he says his actions will be unpopular and misunderstood.

``I think they [the other countries] will be very, very hostile ... they'll say `Oh, they were just coming to a peaceful solution, and now you've just put your big boot in it again.' That doesn't matter. They are entitled to their views. All I am asking them is ... let us sort this out.''

``Australia is just a European outpost surrounded by Asiatic and Pacific peoples. It has a set of values and ideals and a particular brand of democracy it is trying to impose on us.'' Col Rabuka said.

Rabuka, Methodist lay preacher, rugby fanatic, and absolute gentleman, says he is unconcerned about his own future.

``I just want this thing done and that's it.''

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