Fiji's business-as-usual coup d'état

Personal feuds and ethnic tensions Tuesday sparked Fiji's fourth coup d'état in two decades.

Quietly sobbing outside the official residence of the besieged Fijian prime minister Tuesday, Vani Diani could hardly believe what was happening to her political hero.

"It's just terrible. This is Fiji. We're meant to be a peaceful country and here are all these soldiers frightening people with their guns," Ms. Diani said.

Peaceful, indeed. Four coups d'état in nearly 20 years have spilled little blood on this archipelago, whose thriving agricultural and tourism sectors makes it one of the South Pacific's wealthiest island nations. But even as Christian hymns and heartfelt prayers were offered outside the premier's home Tuesday, Fiji's elected leader, Laisenia Qarase, could do little to save himself from the same fate as his predecessors.

As in previous military coups, the trouble in this paradise stems from personal rubs among the leadership, as well as simmering tensions between native Fijians and ethnic Indians, who make up 44 percent of the country's population and dominate its economy.

After spending all day under house arrest, barricaded by renegade soldiers, Prime Minister Qarase was summarily dismissed from power by Fiji's maverick military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. The commodore's announcement that he had seized control of the government marks a climax to months of rising tension between the military and the democratically elected government.

Tuesday's slow-cooked coup has undermined Fiji's tourism business, which attracts 400,000 visitors a year and is Fiji's biggest earner. After the 2000 coup, Fiji saw a 10 percent contraction in the economy, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.

"The crisis has already affected the tourism industry – our hotels are only 20 percent full," says Virisila Buadromo, head of the Fiji Women's Rights Movement. "What the military is doing is illegal and at the end of the day we'll all suffer from it."

But some observers expect tourism to rebound quickly. Despite an Australian government travel advisory that "political tensions could lead to mob violence and civil disorder," Australia's national airlines, Qantas, reported few cancellations Tuesday. That may point to travelers' business-as-usual attitude toward Fiji's history of coups d'état.

Qarase says he was deposed illegally and that the coup has made Fiji "a laughing-stock" in the international arena. But Commodore Bainimarama says he was forced to act because the prime minister refused to accede to his demands that Qarase dump controversial legislation and dismiss allegedly corrupt ministers from office.

Six years ago, Bainimarama was credited with rescuing the nation from chaos when he brokered a peaceful resolution to the country's last coup, led by failed businessman George Speight. That reputation is now in tatters, with the naval commander leading the kind of overthrow which earned Mr. Speight worldwide condemnation and a sentence of execution, commuted to life imprisonment on a lonely island off the coast of Fiji.

"It is hard to believe that the man who stood up for the rule of law in 2000 is today its main threat," the Fiji Times noted on Monday.

Anger among some Fijians over Bainimarama's intervention spilled over a few months after the 2000 coup when mutinous soldiers attempted to assassinate him during lunch in the officers' mess of Suva's main barracks. Bainimarama fled down a jungle-clad hillside. Since that attempt, he has been incensed that some of the coup plotters and mutineers were let out of prison early. Two were made cabinet ministers by Qarase.

"To see people responsible for the crisis rewarded with positions in cabinet and diplomatic postings – it was a huge slap in the face [to Bainimarama]," says Brij Lal, an academic from the University of the South Pacific in Suva.

The military chief announced that he was "stepping into the shoes" of Fiji's ailing president in order to sack Qarase, dissolve parliament, appoint an interim prime minister, and form a caretaker government. The naval commander also pledged to hold democratic national elections, without specifying when.

Bainimarama and Qarase have been at loggerheads for months over land rights legislation, which the commodore claimed would unfairly discriminate against the Indo-Fijian minority.

Fiji's three previous coups were partly motivated by fears among indigenous Fijians that they were losing control of the country to Indo-Fijians, the descendants of 19th century cane farmers recruited by the British colonial authorities.

Tuesday's coup also revealed stark racial divisions. Many indigenous Fijians were outraged that Qarase, a nationalist, had been dismissed after they reelected him in May. "I feel my rights have been violated," says farmer Ratu Yavalanavanua. "This will put us down into darkness."

Meanwhile, Bainimarama, an ethnic Fijian, is popular with low income Indo-Fijians, who regard him as the protector of a multi-racial Fiji.

"Ninety percent of Indians support Frank," says Anand Prasad, a businessman. "Qarase is a racist. The Indians built this country but the government wants to take away all our rights."

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