Ousted Fijian leader enlists support

Former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry looks beyond the Pacific region for help in restoring democracy.

The deposed prime minister of Fiji, Mahendra Chaudhry, has recovered from the bruises inflicted by the butt of a captor's rifle. He has also survived the death taunts and racist jibes about how an Indian should not be leading a South Pacific nation.

Mr. Chaudhry even says he bears no malice toward George Speight, the indigenous Fijian who on May 19 led a coup against Chaudhry and his year-old Labour government, then held them hostage in the Parliament for two months. On the day he was released, Chaudhry even agreed to a contrived embrace with Mr. Speight in front of TV cameras. "I'm not a vindictive person,'' he says. "But I can hardly be generous with him, not so much for what he did to me, but for the pain and suffering and violence he inflicted on innocent people. The coup has brought shame to us in the international community, because it has happened once too often. It has shattered faith in Fiji as a stable nation.''

But more than that, Fiji's coup, the third in 13 years, suggests an instability that makes the South Pacific look like West Africa, with its overthrows, tribal violence, and refugees. Chaudhry sees the region as a cauldron, which could soon resemble anarchic states like Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Liberia. "The gun culture has crept in,'' he said recently in Sydney, where he was lobbying Australia to tighten sanctions against Fiji's interim government.

In India last week, Chaudhry gained the support of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and he will pressure other Commonwealth leaders, including South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, to apply sanctions.

Fiji's proposed new constitution, the fourth in 30 years, would disenfranchise the 42 percent of the population who are descendants of Indian laborers brought to Fiji in the 19th century by the British.

"They have a blueprint that is racist, justified in the name of enhancing indigenous rights to ensure greater participation in commerce,'' says Chaudhry. "Non-ethnic Fijians will become second-class citizens.''

Col. Sitiveni Rabuka set the pattern in May 1987, when he ousted Fiji's first elected Labour government, claiming Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra had given Indians, then 48 percent of the population, too much influence. After Bavadra and his predecessor, Ratu Kamisese Mara, forged a government of national unity that September, Rabuka rebelled again, ultimately writing a new constitution in 1990, that all but locked Indo-Fijians out of power.

In the 13 years that followed Fiji's coup, tension also erupted elsewhere in the South Pacific. In the Papua New Guinea province of Bougainville, rebels established their own government. In 1996, the Vanuatu Mobile Force abducted the country's president, stoking existing tensions between Francophones and Anglophiles just west of Fiji.

So when Speight led his rebels into Fiji's Parliament three months ago, claiming Indians were again dominating Fiji, he appeared to be closing the circle on a decade of regional upheaval.

Two weeks after Speight's coup, decades of tension in the Solomon Islands, between the Guadalcanal and Malaitan peoples, boiled over. On June 5, a gun-wielding Malaitan lawyer, Andrew Nori, forced Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu to quit. "The faultlines are everywhere,'' says Brij Lal, director of Canberra's Centre for Contemporary Pacific Affairs. "This is very much a Melanesian phenomenon. There is huge linguistic and cultural diversity that you do not find in Polynesian countries.'' East of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and the Cook Islands, Professor Lal says, are far more homogenous, with established leadership structures.

Chaudhry even sees potential civil war in Fiji. "The makings are there unless the illegal arms are removed and all the perpetrators of the coup brought to justice.''

Speight and other plotters are now in jail on treason charges, having been lured out of their siege with the promise of a now-overturned amnesty. But Chaudhry believes at least five members of the interim government, including Vice President Ratu Seniloli Naucabalava, should be tried for collaborating with Speight, who also suspended the 1997 multiracial constitution that allowed Chaudhry's coalition to win a huge majority.

Between 1990 and 1997, Fiji operated a quasi-apartheid state, restricting the number of Indians who could sit in Parliament. It effectively barred anyone but an indigenous Fijian from the prime ministership, which Rabuka occupied until Chaudhry's victory last year.

Thrown out of the Commonwealth because of its racially discriminatory Constitution, Fiji's economy slumped, due mainly to a fall in tourism, and its largely skilled Indian population fell from 48 percent to 42 percent.

Still, Chaudhry insists the tensions between Indians and Fijians are less volatile than relations between Fijian tribes and confederacies. "It is not an ethnic conflict. That's a very convenient horse to flog, but it's a grab for power.''

It is not just racial or tribal tension that echoes the tribal conflicts of West Africa. According to Lal, fights over resources also inflame the South Pacific.

While forces in Sierra Leone compete over diamond mines and the Ghanaians argue over gold, in Bougainville the disputes center on copper, and in Fiji on hardwood timber, such as mahogany, currently valued at about $500 million.

Roger Hearn, regional manager for Africa in the Australian branch of the Oxfam aid agency, also sees African-style instability in the Pacific. In Nigeria, a religious cleft exists between the Muslim north and the Christian south, while in Fiji, Speight made a major issue of the differences between Hindu Indians and the largely Protestant Christian indigenous people.

"But I think the real likeness [between the regions] is the legacy of colonization,'' Dr. Hearn says. "In most cases, the departing powers, usually the British and the French, simply handed over power to local elites.''

Certainly in Fiji, the tribal chiefs, including Mara, prime minister from 1970 to 1987, inherited most of the authority.

While the Pacific has yet to see anything like the refugee problem in Africa, where millions are on the move, the instability is starting to cause dislocation. Three hundred Indian, mainly farming, families were forced to flee to Lautoka, in the west of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu, after indigenous mobs looted and then burned their homes. In the past year 20,000 people have become refugees in the Solomons.

Chaudhry - recalling the consequence of the UN's absence in Africa during tribal clashes, and seeing its relative success in East Timor now - wants UN monitors in Fiji. There is nothing like Sierra Leone-style violence in his country, but law and order is breaking down and pockets of dissent remain within the military and police.

"We have seen the destruction of property and businesses, people assaulted and taken hostage, our economy ruined - and, for many more years, people will suffer,'' says Chaudhry.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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