Legendary Fiji rabble-rouser a diplomat now

The Solomon Islands - When Sitiveni Rabuka emerged onto the world stage some 13 years ago, it was as a military officer and Fijian nationalist who led not one but two coups in his South Pacific country.

But General Rabuka, who peacefully left the prime minister's chair and politics after losing an election last year, is now in the midst of a transformation that has caught some in the Pacific by surprise. The one-time coup leader, who was once a vitriolic voice for indigenous rights, has become a peace-brokering elder statesman in monogrammed shirts.

For the last year, Mr. Rabuka has been shuttling to and from the Solomon Islands, whose population at 455,000 numbers a little more than half of Fiji's. He is trying to help bring an end to an ethnic battle on the island of Guadalcanal, one of World War II's most infamous battlegrounds. And his biggest asset, diplomats say, is his coup-leading rsum.

"He just has fantastic credibility around the Pacific," says one regional diplomat. "He's seen as the person who stood up for Pacific Islanders." For years, Rabuka was the ultimate strongman of Fiji, an iron-pumping decathlete and rugby fanatic who flexed for campaign posters. In the aftermath of the two 1987 coups, he built a reputation for making policy on the run, and caused thousands of ethnic Indians to flee the former British colony as he exploited racial politics and lashed out at the imported elite.

BUT through the 12 years he ruled after that, his rhetoric gradually mellowed. It's a "maturation" Rabuka himself refers to, after learning an important lesson on seeing more than one side to a story. "At that time I hadn't really tasted national leadership. And once you get to be a national leader, you are a national leader for all the races. You cannot afford to be an indigenous nationalist," he says.

According to Brij Lal, head of the Center for Contemporary Pacific Studies at Australian National University in Canberra, Rabuka grew wiser after seeing many of his efforts at promoting the cause of indigenous Fijians fall flat. For instance, a 1990 Constitution that gave ethnic Fijians primacy over other ethnic groups led to a massive brain drain. Rabuka eventually pushed through another, multiracial Constitution eight years later with the help of ethnic Indian politicians, whose forebears were brought to Fiji as laborers for the British.

"I have no doubt that his leadership on the 1998 constitutional review has angered some of his supporters," says Mr. Lal.

The role of global diplomat is not something Rabuka likes to claim for himself - although it's clear he sees things on a grander scale, and the last chapter of a recently authorized biography is in fact entitled "international statesman."

"It's not a role that you aspire to," he says. "You just do what has to be done...."

He is now an avid golfer (with a seven handicap) rather than a decathlete - and he no longer has the WWF physique of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. But he is still opinionated and can be brusque at times. For example, he likes watching NBA basketball, but he resents the fact that his own Fijian culture doesn't have a greater profile on the country's own national television.

"I worry about our young people," he says. "I don't worry about them speaking like Michael Jordan or walking like Michael Jackson. I worry about them losing their own identity."

Still, to resist would be like standing on a beach and trying singlehandedly to stop a tidal wave, he admits. And unlike some who see an isolationist return to traditional ways as the only option for small indigenous groups the world over, he is willing to recognize that cultures evolve and there may be some good in the culture radiating out from Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

For instance, as indigenous nationalism rises more and more in the Pacific, the former nationalist sees universal culture as a potential barrier to greater strife. Things like the NBA and rap music, he argues, may in fact reduce the potentially aggravating differences between ethnic groups thrust together under colonialism.

Not everything about Rabuka is as conciliatory. In what looked like a carefully calculated move, Rabuka stormed the Fijian political scene again earlier this year when in his biography he claimed that the current president of Fiji (who begs to differ) gave him his tacit approval to overthrow the government in 1987. That prompted a libel suit and moves to have the book banned in Fiji.

But it also may signify that while he is now strutting the international stage, Rabuka is not yet done with Fijian politics. He currently heads Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs, the top representative group for indigenous Fijians. And, he says, if the political climate is right at the time of the next election, he could run for office again.

"Once all the dust settles, he is the obvious figure around which the ethnic Fijians can coalesce," says one diplomat who keeps a close eye on the region.

But Lal thinks Rabuka may instead be "carving a role for himself as a national leader free from the obligations of party politics, who can comment on issues as he sees fit."

For his part, Rabuka says he still sees himself as more of a soldier than a politician, and he sees politics more as a necessity than something he enjoys. But it's hard to read just how genuine he is being when he says that.

"It's like the NBA," he jokes, moving into a mocking American accent that makes it hard to detect the irony he's putting into the slogan. "I love this game!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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