Tue, 30 May 2000

Fiji's racial divide

The situation in Fiji took a turn for the worse ... as supporters of coup leader George Speight looted the television station and fired shots aimed at harassing President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara into resignation.

For Speight, it is not enough that the president has sacked the country's elected prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, who, along with dozens of officials and members of parliament, has been held hostage inside parliament for 10 days. Speight's latest tactic is aimed at sapping Ratu Mara, who led Fiji to independence 30 years ago and whose daughter is one of the hostages, so that no one with sufficient authority will stand in his way to becoming supreme leader of the country.

With a victory for Speight, Fiji would probably return to being a pariah nation, just as it became after another native Fijian, Sitiveni Rabuka, led troops to oust a democratically elected government in 1987. Like Mr. Rabuka, Speight said he was motivated by an attempt to preserve the rights of indigenous Fijians who could not accept the descendants of Indian immigrants, now almost 50 percent of the population, as fellow citizens with equal rights.

The Indians were brought to Fiji as indentured laborers in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations. When Fiji gained independence after 96 years of colonial rule in 1970, the country was also left with European, Chinese and Rotuman minorities.

While the races managed to live side by side peacefully under British rule, there was little integration among them and virtually no intermarriage between Fijians and Indians.

Mindful of tension between the races, the constitution provided that the House of Representatives had an equal number of Fijian and Indian representatives, while the Senate comprised tribal chiefs and members nominated by both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition. Unfortunately, not even such meticulous effort to ensure racial harmony and political stability succeeded in keeping chaos at bay.

When a colony gains independence, one taxing issue it must address is the rights of immigrant settlers brought in by its former colonial master. The history of Fiji, and that of a number of Southeast Asian countries where racial tension remains high, shows a solution has yet to be found.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong