Tue, 30 May 2000

Familiar race card played in Fiji crisis

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE (JP): We live in an era where information technology bombards us with so much news that it is becoming harder to process even one tiny fraction of it. In our effort to grab as much as possible, we tend to reduce our learning of events to little more than headline skimming.

So most people, the media included, like to simplify events into the certainty of black and white.

The crisis in Fiji, for example, has continuously been described as an indigenous Fijian versus Indo-Fijian conflict. This reductionist approach is convenient because it simultaneously lulls us into believing that we now understand the situation, as well as quarantining problems from our own affairs.

But it is a great deal more universal than that. It is a story of how at times opportunism can push to the surface, tribalism and social jealousy and tear open the veneer over existing lack of national cohesiveness.

It is also a story of a leader who has a vision and is good at planning, but alas, forgets to put his feelers out, or neglects to be regularly sensitive to them.

Teresia Teaiwa, lecturer in Pacific Studies at Victoria University, in Wellington, New Zealand, in her analysis of the crisis, wrote on May 22, "The problem with Fijian nationalism is that there is no Fijian nation. There are Fijian provinces and traditional Fijian confederacies, but the two military coups of 1987 and the current hostage crisis illustrate with disturbing insistence the erosion of indigenous Fijian social order and the fragmentation of indigenous Fijian leadership."

Some questions come to mind, one being, was there ever a uniform indigenous Fijian social order?

According to Victor Lal, a leading international authority on race and politics of Fiji at Oxford University in England, and author of a 1990 book, Fiji: Coups in Paradise -- Race, Politics and Military Intervention, precolonial Fijian society consisted of a series of tribes and tribal confederacies that were frequently in conflict with each other.

Tribes in eastern Fiji, heavily influenced by Polynesians from Tonga, are very hierarchical in their social structure, with great power in the hands of hereditary chiefs.

In the western regions, the social structure of the tribes was more egalitarian, as in the Melanesian custom.

Onto this landscape was transplanted an equally disparate Indian-descent population, which hailed from as far back as 1879 when the British colonial government brought in indentured labor from its other colony, India, to work in sugarcane plantations.

This also brought social division with the Indian-descent Fijians (now known as Indo-Fijians) on one side and the indigenous Fijians on the other, which continued into independent Fiji.

The other ethnic groups, such as the Chinese and Europeans who came at various times to Fiji, are too small to make a significant stir.

Since independence in 1970, over 83 percent of land in the country is owned tribally by indigenous Fijians (similar to the hak ulayat in Indonesia), represented by their chiefs. Fijians also dominate the Fijian army, and the Great Council of Chiefs are represented by their own nominees in the Senate.

These nominees have a veto over any bill affecting Fijian land, custom or tradition.

In the meantime, the Indo-Fijians occupy areas traditionally left "vacant" by the indigenous Fijians: business, trade, farming and a fair slice of the civil service. As traditional chief Ratu Sukuna once said to the Great Council of Chiefs in 1936, the Indo-Fijians had become producers on the soil owned by the chiefs.

While the chiefs may have differences among themselves about boundaries of their lands, ownership of certain titles, and other chiefly affairs, the Indo-Fijians have not always been in agreement with each other either.

Business, especially, often involves fierce competition. No doubt, race plays an important role here. It is a ready trump card that can be drawn any time to stir primordial sentiment. Once it is drawn, it quickly overwhelms other issues.

In 1999, the first Indo-Fijian prime minister, a former trade union leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, came to power, when his Labour Party won in the parliamentary election.

This was made possible after a constitutional review in 1997, acknowledging the multiracial nature of Fiji.

Inspired and encouraged by the victory, Chaudhry began to implement a lot of reforms, obviously taking for granted that he had the mandate to do so and would receive support from the majority of the population.

At first glance, what his government has done, and was in the process of doing, looks good, at least to those who had been living in poverty.

It abolished value added tax from cooking oil, flour, powdered milk and tea, forced major industries to rehire workers and made them drop plans to use contract services.

Seventeen other items were already on the government's list for price control, and funds were set aside for the provision of water and electricity in rural areas.

While Chaudhry was congratulating himself for making the poor happy, his support among Indo-Fijians, who were running small and medium enterprises, was eroding fast.

Then he turned to realizing his dream of making Fiji a burgeoning, agricultural producing country.

"Idle" lands should be developed and put to use, which in the indigenous land owner's understanding was leasing out their land to Indo-Fijian farmers, who were going to receive subsidies from the government. The tribal chiefs were outraged. Many indigenous Fijians were worried.

Chaudhry did not take any notice of public demonstrations, not even his own ministers' warnings, and went ahead with his plans.

Unfortunately for him, a Fijian of mixed European parentage, saw his chance and played the race trump card. With some of his gunmen, he stormed parliament on May 19 and took Chaudhry and his ministers hostage. He demanded that the government be sacked and appointed himself as interim prime minister.

To the local media, he repeatedly referred to the Chaudhry government as "this Indian government".

It was unlawful. It was undemocratic. Countries outside Fiji expressed their anger. But inside Fiji, George Speight, the rebel leader, is gaining support among indigenous Fijians at an alarming speed. And the Indo-Fijians have been relatively silent.

For now, Chaudhry, it seems, would have problems rallying support for himself.

Two of the trump cards that opportunists know never fail are race or ethnicity and religion. Fiji has both. Yet Speight only needed to use one.

The writer is a Melbourne-based journalist and novelist.