Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The ups and downs of Fiji politics

Dr Brij Lal

Monday, April 30, 2007

Twenty years, four coups, unprecedented social and political convulsion: the past two decades have been the most tumultuous in Fiji's modern history.

This most advanced of Pacific nations has been strangely prone to debilitating self-inflicted wounds.

Fiji is a strange paradox, a bit like Churchill's Russia: 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.'

People of my vintage, now marching lock, stock and barrel into niggling middle age, will have seen Fiji lurch from one crisis to another, soaring hope at one moment mingling freely with deep despair at another.

So much has changed, and yet so much remains the same.

The leading political players of the past two decades have either gone (Dr Timoci Bavadra, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Mr Sakiasi Butadroka) or departed the political stage (Jai Ram Reddy, Sitiveni Rabuka, Apisai Tora).

Only Mahendra Chaudhry of that era, indefatigable as ever, still remains in harness.

Old political parties which dominated Fiji for decades are either dead (Alliance) or in twilight (the NFP).

Many of the younger generation would not have heard of the All Nationals Congress, the Western United Front or the Fijian Nationalist Party, which once so energised the political stage.

The SVT is fast receding into vanishing memory. Only Labour survives. Election campaigns were a rousing theatre in the 1980s.

There was no television in Fiji then, no internet, no mobile phones, no text messaging.

Radio (a single station) and newspapers were the main sources of news.

People in their hundreds attended campaign rallies and heard witty, chest-thumping speeches full of fire and pretended fury.

Now pocket meetings and televised debates and slick manifestos are the standard campaign fare.

Race dominated political debate.

"Race is a fact of life," leaders said.

Every issue of public policy was assessed through the prism of race, ignoring the sweeping changes brought about by modernity, travel and technology.

The 1987 coup was, in part at least, caused by the clash of old habits of thought nourished by the politics of racial compartmentalisation, and new ways which questioned the salience of race in every day life.

The 'fear of Indian domination' underlay Fijian political discourse.

If Fijians didn't unite, Indians would take over. Fijian land, identity, indeed their very existence, would be at risk.

Demography did not help.

In 1987, Indo-Fijians were about 50 per cent of the population, indigenous Fijians fewer.

Population statistics provided a powerful rallying cry for 'racial' unity. Voting became a racial census. In this respect, a fundamental change has occurred.

Since 1987, more than 120,000 Fiji citizens, mostly Indo-Fijians, have emigrated, ironically twice the number of indentured Indians who entered Fiji in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The result has been the growth of a Fiji diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and North America, whose contribution to Fiji's economy through remittance has been enormous.

But emigration has also drained Fiji of some of its best and brightest, skills and resources the country can ill afford to lose. The haemorrhage will continue.

The decline in Indo-Fijian population has other consequences.

With the fear of Indian domination diminishing, greater space has opened up within Fijian society for debate and discussion (and dissension). In the 1980s, the internal debates about the structure and sharing of power within Fijian society were closed to most outsiders.

But subjects once considered taboo are now discussed freely and openly, to the delight of some and to the discomfort of others.

The political unity of the Fijian society was fostered by both by racial phobias as well as the presence of paramount chiefs of personal mana and overarching political influence who were tutored for leadership in the post war years by the United Kingdom.

That unity is now frayed, manifested most visibly in the plethora of political parties which emerged to represent a diverse range of Fijian concerns.

The SDL was able to halt the fragmentation through a variety of means, some arguably unsavoury, but it is a temporary state.

And this, too, is a feature of post-1987.

People of my vintage may recall the anger and anguish we felt when Sitiveni Rabuka, then little known officer of the Fiji military forces, overthrew the Bavadra government.

We will all recall the horror of the massive abuse of human rights by soldiers in the months following the coup, the religious bigotry and chauvinism of the Sunday Ban, the rampant racial discrimination, the pervasive atmosphere of violence. Many of us despaired whether Fiji would ever be able to recover again.

But recover we did, in our own haphazard way.

'No Other Way' was the title of Sitiveni Rabuka's authorised biography.

But as he grew in office through exposure to multiracial influences denied him at school and in the military, he realised there was 'Another Way'.

The way of dialogue and discussion, which he initiated with his once arch foe Jai Ram Reddy, worlds apart in training and temperament, led to the setting up of a constitution review commission whose report forms the basis of Fiji's 1997 constitution.

That is another lesson of the last two decades: despite all the provocations and temptations, Fiji refused to fall over the precipice.

We once again voluntarily embraced the democratic path.

The inclusion of the multi-party power sharing provision in the 1997 constitution and its brief working life after last year's elections promised to take Fiji into a new era.

Whether that is, yet again, an opportunity missed, remains to be seen.

The present crisis, in its own chaotic way, raises questions which have haunted us for a long time and which have profound implications for the kind of political culture we want to nurture in Fiji. Keeping the recent demographic transformation firmly in mind, should Fiji finally move away from its corrosive obsession with the politics of race to an open, non-racial one? I, for one, would be happy to see this occur.

The Fiji military was once considered the ultimate bastion of the Fijian establishment, but now finds itself at odds with it, as the latest impasse between it and the Great Council of Chiefs shows.

What to do?

We can either abolish the military altogether, as some suggest, which is unlikely and unrealistic.

Or we can think creatively about how it can be accommodated within an overarching framework of parliamentary democracy.

And, finally, we need to think seriously about the role and function of traditional institutions in the modern political arena.

With enough good will, we can square the circle, as we have done in the past.

The ordinary people of Fiji have suffered much. They deserve better.

Dr Brij V Lal is Professor of Pacific and Asian History at The Australian National University.

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