Fiji coup's end just a beginning

Despite a newly named president and release of all hostages, economic and political challenges remain

Fifty-six days after taking him and 30 other people hostage, the plotters of the coup who brought turmoil to Fiji released the elected prime minister yesterday. But the release of Mahendra Chaudhry and the remaining 17 hostages has only reinforced how much has changed in a young nation that only two months ago seemed to have the rosiest future of any of its South Pacific peers.

Once a clean-shaven trade-union leader with a reputation for stubbornness and even arrogance, Mr. Chaudhry emerged from captivity gaunt, tired, and bearded. The quasi-regal parliamentary complex where he was being held has become a bedraggled campsite for supporters of coup leader George Speight. Yet below those changes lie deeper ones that could mean Chaudhry's release marks the end of simply the first chapter in a constitutional crisis.

Over the past two months, some of Fiji's most important political institutions have been severely undermined, analysts say. The tourist- and sugar cane-driven economy has sputtered to a stop, causing widespread unemployment. Racial tensions between indigenous Fijians and the 44 percent of the population descended from migrants from the Indian subcontinent have been heightened, and disillusionment has hit some of the most vital sectors of society.

Quietly worn out

"The silent majority is silent because it's depressed," says Teresia Teaiwa, a Fijian who teaches at New Zealand's Victoria University. "In the intellectual and professional classes, morale is at rock bottom. And these are the people who you'd hope would get the country back on track."

According to Ms. Teaiwa, the slump is the result of the constant giving in to the demands made by Mr. Speight, the former insurance salesman who claims to have launched the coup on behalf of Fiji's indigenous population against the economic dominance of ethnic Indians.

Speight and his gunmen stormed Parliament on May 19, much as leaders of two military coups had in 1987. But the crisis has devolved further than it did then: The country has been rudderless for eight weeks as first politicians, and then the military, which seized power two weeks into the crisis, have tried to find a peaceful resolution.

"Nineteen-eighty-seven was a Sunday picnic compared to what is happening now," says Mesake Koroi, an editor at the Fiji Post newspaper. "In 1987 there was a direction right from the beginning. This has brought back the law of the jungle, you might say."

Chaudhry, who last year became the country's first ethnic Indian prime minister, was released only after Speight and his followers secured promises of an amnesty, the dismissal of both Chaudhry and Fiji's longtime president, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and the throwing out of the 1997 multiracial Constitution that brought Fiji back into the international fold after the 1987 coups.

Speight has won an almost complete victory, analysts say. As part of an accord signed between the rebels and the military government Sunday, the Great Council of Chiefs, the country's top indigenous body, yesterday began the process of installing a new government by naming as the new president a Speight nominee, Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

But installing a new government is just the first stage in bringing a return to peace. For instance, the issue that fueled much of the indigenous Fijian unrest ahead of the coup - that of land ownership and leases given to ethnic Indian sugar-cane farmers - remains unsettled. And Teaiwa argues Speight has only aggravated the land issue.

Just this week, indigenous landowners seized four tourist resorts, including the exclusive Turtle Island - setting for the 1980 Brooke Shields film "The Blue Lagoon" - and argued they want to renegotiate ownership with resort owners, who are mostly Westerners. The moves on the resorts prompted the State Department to recommend all US citizens leave Fiji immediately.

There are also signs of more land disputes between indigenous Fijians developing, Teaiwa says. "It's going to cause a lot of competition amongst indigenous Fijians themselves. For every claim there will be a counterclaim."

Sanction threats

Australia, New Zealand, and the US have threatened economic sanctions, and there are big questions over whether the European Union, which in the past has bought the vast majority of Fiji's sugar crop at a better-than-market rate, will continue to do so.

The textile industry could also lose Australia as its major customer. And the tourism industry will likely take years to recover and move on with the kind of growth that last year pulled in more than 400,000 visitors, the equivalent of half Fiji's population.

Already, says Koroi, the editor, new hotel projects are on hold. Existing resorts may soon again see crowds - tourists love a bargain. But "whether new investors will want to invest is a real question," he says.

The situation could also be aggravated by an exodus of ethnic Indians from Fiji, like the one that followed the 1987 coup. This time, Teaiwa says, educated indigenous Fijians could follow.

But that may all be speculation for the longer term. The question floating around Suva yesterday was just what future Mahendra Chaudhry has in politics. Some supporters already predict he will resume the fight for both Indian rights and democracy, much as he had after the 1987 coup when, as a minister in the toppled government, he was imprisoned for a time.

"He is not going to be a guy who is going to sit back and say 'that's too bad,' " Felix Anthony, head of the Fiji Trade Unions Congress, told Australian radio. "I expect him to be talking to the international community to make sure democracy is restored in Fiji and the Constitution is upheld."

Chaudhry was more cautious, refusing to say whether he still considered himself prime minister. "That is for the people to decide," he told reporters. He said he held no animosity toward his captors and had spent two hours with Speight before he was freed. But he declared "getting Fiji back on its feet" his top priority. "I am an optimist," he said. "Fiji is a great country and if we have a future we have to work together."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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