Wed, 24 May 2000

Race and land fuel Fiji power struggle

By Paul Tait

SUVA (Reuters): Fiji's current battle for power is being fought with the double-edged sword of race and land, and President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and captive Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry could end up the biggest victims.

Businessmen and ordinary Fijians said on Tuesday that the abrasive Chaudhry has to go to end a long-simmering crisis that broke into the open last Friday when gunmen led by failed businessman George Speight stormed parliament.

Speight took Chaudhry, the South Pacific island's first ethnic Indian prime minister, hostage with a number of others in the name of indigenous Fijians.

Mara, a wily 80-year-old politician, declared a state of emergency to quell looting and restore order.

Now, he and Speight are battling for the hearts of ordinary Fijians.

They both claim to have the support of Fiji's powerful Great Council of Chiefs, which began an emergency meeting on Tuesday in a military barracks overlooking Suva's palm-fringed waterfront to decide how to resolve the crisis.

The coup attempt is likely to have many casualties, not the least of them tourism and sugar, Fiji's two main export earners.

But some native Fijians say their ties with the land are more important than upholding a democratically elected government.

"For Fijians, the land is something that they cherish," said Joji Tamani, one of hundreds of Fijians who flocked to parliament on Tuesday in an unexpected show of support for Speight.

"If you take it away, you take part of them. The land issue is more important than democracy," Tamani told Reuters.

Indigenous Fijians make up 51 percent of the 800,000 population, while the economically powerful Indian community accounts for about 44 percent.

Most of Fiji's land, particularly on the main island of Viti Levu, is held on 99-year leases. Indians have been brought to work sugar plantations on the leases since last century, and many have grown rich running the plantations.

Many of the leases are due for renewal over the next 10 years. Fijians want to cut leases to five years but fear that Chaudhry, with Mara's support, either wants more 99-year leases or will press for outright Indian ownership of the land.

"Fijian land owners want shorter, more flexible leases so they can have ready access to land because their villages are growing," one diplomatic source in Suva said.

"Rents on many of the leases are minimal, but the commercial return from them is high for those who hold the leases."

On the other side of the city, islander Tamani was among hundreds of Fijians who arrived at parliament by bus, taxi and on foot in a sudden show of support for Speight in defiance of Mara.

Many were angry with Mara, saying he sold out ordinary Fijians in 1997 when he approved changes to the Fijian constitution, which now allows for a multi-racial parliament and for non- Fijians to become prime minister.

"Ratu Mara should step down," one Fijian man said.

"He's 80 years old and he's full of pocket (wealthy). George Speight, he fights for the Fijian," he said.

Such an outcome would leave the council to nominate a new president. Local media have reported that some among the 50 chiefs from 14 provinces have already been jockeying for power.

But for Fijians, many of whom trace their ancestry back to the 1800s when Fiji was known as the Cannibal Islands, land is still their primary concern.

"Chaudhry interfered with the land, he sold us out," said another Fijian, who voted for the 57-year-old former finance minister in last year's election.

The hostage crisis comes just as Fiji is recovering from two years of lower sugar production because of floods and droughts.

Fiji's GDP shrank 2.3 percent in 1998 but was forecast to grow 7.8 percent for 1999 and 3.2 percent for 2000.

Two sugar labor unions have backed a call from the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) for a nationwide strike in support of Chaudhry, a former trade union leader.

But the impact of the strike has so far been limited to the Ba sugar mill on Viti Levu's northwest, where production halted at the weekend. Fiji's other three mills are not scheduled to begin sugar crushing until mid-June.

Fiji's total sugar export receipts for the current year are forecast at around F$227 million (US$105 million), the Fiji Reserve Bank said. Sugar production amounts to around 400,000 tons of raw sugar a year -- less than one-tenth that of Cuba or Australia -- and most of it is exported to Europe Union nations.

Fiji's tourism industry set visitor records last year, and even better figures were expected in the coming two years.

The crisis has so far been limited to Suva, one of the least popular tourist destinations among Fiji's 300 islands, which offer a seemingly endless choice of clear blue water and golden sand.

But industry analysts fear the current crisis will have the same impact as a 1987 army coup.

"The 1987 coup absolutely devastated the tourism industry in Fiji," said David Carroll, editor of Traveltrade magazine.