Volume 1 Number 2
Fiji: Still Hope for the Pacific Way
01 October 1987

Looking deeper one could see the destructive potential of forces that have broken many another country. The most obvious tension is between Fiji's Indians, who comprise 49 per cent of the population of 715,000, and the ethnic Fijians (46 per cent).

Landing at Fiji's Nadi airport at dawn, I found a country bewitching in its beauty and bewildered about its future, after the first military coup in the South Pacific. Last May, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka deposed the newlyelected government of Prime Minister Dr Timoci Bavadra, throwing this nation of 844 islands into political and constitutional turmoil.

The morning sun, emerging between distant mountains, breathed life into chocolate soil and verdant tropical growth. I felt warmed as well by the ready smiles of Fijians on the bus rattling towards the capital, Suva. First impressions seemed more hopeful than recent media reports might suggest: the fields of sugar-cane were being harvested (after being delayed by political action); the Governor-General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, in his opening remarks to the Great Council of Chiefs, reaffirmed individual constitutional rights; the local papers were free enough to carry quite strident dissent; and soldiers in combat fatigues riding through Suva streets - though far from `withdrawn to barracks'-were relaxed enough to wave and smile from their jeep in front of us.

But looking deeper one could see the destructive potential of forces that have broken many another country. The most obvious tension is between Fiji's Indians, who comprise 49 per cent of the population of 715,000, and the ethnic Fijians (46 per cent). Under the 1970 Constitution, all were assured equal rights. But the aim of the present Constitutional Review is clearly to assure political dominance for the ethnic Fijians. This manifests itself in a strong movement among the ethnic Fijians to reinforce the traditional `chiefly system'. Fiji was ruled by its chiefs unfit Britain took over in 1874, having been asked to do so three times by a Fijian king, in return for payment of foreign debts. The ancestors of the present Indian population were imported by the British to work the sugar plantations, and have made considerable economic advances. Now many of them are desperately planning how they can emigrate from Fiji.

In a letter to the Fiji Times, Rev Akuila Yabaki, Communications Secretary of the powerful Methodist Church of Fiji, made his own list of dangers: `a nationalistic ideology... a convenient scapegoat in another racial group and culture who have done better than the indigenous inhabitants, simplistic interpretations and expectations... a thirst for power, a group of ill-trained but uniformed and armed soldiers who can burst in on people without explanation, a fast-dwindling economy... and most strikingly, more than a few in the church willing to back the ideology with dubious theological argument.'
Such forces of destruction - which can be reduced to basic attitudes like superiority, fear, greed, lust for power - cross all racial barriers. The arrogant emotions of some spokesmen of the radical Fijian Taukei movement have been plainly demonstrated in public; more subtle but no less real is the superiority with which some Indians regard less-educated Fijians. These raw forces of human nature cannot be contained or reformed simply by a new constitution. But reformed they must be if disaster is to be averted.

Fiji's public service was facing budgetary and salary cuts of 20-25 per cent in the face of a severe economic downturn and the Army was expanding rapidly - possibly doubling in size. Newspapers carried lists of young Fijians being called for training, many of them sixth form students and some apparently who had not even volunteered. New weapons have been purchased and vehicles from other government departments commandeered. For what? I could only assume that the coup leaders had realized that whatever is gained by force always requires more force to maintain.

On the other hand there were voices from all sides advocating conciliation. Fijians have put much store in recent years on what has been called `the Pacific Way'- a tradition of peaceful, talkedout consensus. One Indian commented that this approach `can yet triumph if the pressure of the gun is removed. The Indian has often not appreciated
Fijian fear because he has seldom taken the trouble to understand the Fijian psyche. In all my schooling nothing was taught of Fijian culture and ways. It is a good thing that Fijians are coming out with the hurts meted out to them by the insensitivity of us Indians. There is a humanity in the average Fijian that could take some of the hardness out of the goal-oriented Indian.'

A Fijian former MP, Kolinio Qiqiwaqa, in a submission to the Constitutional Review Commission, referred to the Indian contribution of `millions of dollars saved' through their expertise and labour, and warned, `To grab power at this stage... will provide fertile ground for corruption, suppression, dictatorship and the wholesale prostitution of the institution of chieftainship... through greed for power and wealth.'

Grafting of new and old
A Fijian academic now in Australia, Ropate Qalo, in a letter to the Fiji Times that caused much comment, bluntly warned his own people, `to which I belong through accident of birth: any race which oppresses another cannot itself be free'.

Such perceptions may well provide a basis for a conciliatory `Pacific Way' of approaching the issue particularly if the country's considerable spiritual resources are brought to bear.

Indeed, Dr Bavaria has recently been reported to have changed his position, saying that he would be ready to join a caretaker government wit backers of the coup. He proposed that he and former Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mar form a two-year interim `government of nations unity'.

Whether such grafting of new and old plant would work remains to be seen. But in Fiji's fertile soil, things grow quickly, and Fiji's friends could do much to nurture the growth of something constructive.