Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Indigenous Fijian rights in Fiji's politics

Posted on Coup Four Point Five - 22 November 2011
Presentation by Niko Nawaikula at the FDFM AGM in Melbourne.

I am putting the title Indigenous Fijian rights in Fiji's politics to this paper and within that I will attempt to answer the questions that I am assigned by the organizers of this conference.

The population of Fiji has been and continues to be a colorful mixture of many different races. About 48% each of that population is made up of ethnic Indians and indigenous or native Fijians. So that together they make up more than 96% of the total populations. The remaining 4% is made up of others.

In 1986 the appearance was that the people of all races in Fiji were living in harmony. Indeed when Pope John Paul II came there for a short visit in that year he said Fiji was the way the world should be. But he was proved wrong shortly after that when on 14th May 1987, nationalist Fijians, under Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka over threw the democratic and constitutional government of Dr Bavadra in a bloodless coup.

We all know that indigenous Fijian rights and interests lie at the heart of Fiji’s politics. It was one of the key factors as well as a reason and motives for the 1987 coups by Sitiveni Rabuka, the 2000 coup by George Speight and the 2006 coup by Frank Bainimarama. Rightly or wrongly these individuals and their collaborators blamed indigenous Fijian rights and interests as a reason for them doing what they did.

The coup of 1987 was executed by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka on behalf of those who said that it was necessary to restore and maintain the paramountcy of Fijian rights and interests.  George Speight and his gang also did what they did to restore the paramountcy of Indigenous Fijian rights and interests.

Frank Bainimarama’s reasoning was the opposite but still having something to do with indigenous Fijian Rights. He did what he did to remove a government dominated by what he called were ethno-nationalists and racist Fijians bent on imposing their rights and interest at the expense of all others.

So what then is this so called indigenous Fijian rights? Are they paramount or should they be. Is the fear that they were being compromised, neglected or removed real? If they are indeed how can they be addressed and considered in a manner that will not be discriminatory against other races in Fiji. Is there a political solution apart from the whims of military officers conducting coupes one after another.

Before I define for you the meaning of indigenous rights generally and in the context of Fiji and native Fijians, I for one am sincerely of the view that Fijian rights and interests that were originally nurtured, protected and held paramount by a benevolent colonial administration has been badly ruined.
They were compromised, ignored or simply neglected. Individual right and commercial progress was talk of the day and a measure of success. And native Fijians were left behind wondering why everyone else had progressed economically.

I hold the view that there was a sincere need to review government policy and the legislation that recognize and regulate native rights and interests. The task was always how to recognize those rights and balance them with the rights of other citizens. But the way to do it is not through a coup. A coup for whatever reason is selfish, illegal and sinful.

But first let me define Indigenous rights before I come back to tell you how much of native Fijian rights has been removed or compromised and how that can be resolved in a multicultural country like Fiji.

 3. Indigenous Rights

In May of this year I was invited by the UN Voluntary Fund to attend the 10th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. And as expected we were each given a pamphlet outlining the 46 articles that constitute the rights recognized by the UN for the indigenous people

They include the right of self determination, the right to maintain their social and cultural institution, the right to maintain their ethnic identity, the right to practice their culture and customs, the right to language, land right and others.

If you are a native Fijian or if you have lived in Fiji you will probably say we know all those and they all sound too familiar. Native Fijians have been recognized the right to self determination for a very long time by virtue of their matanitu Taukei established under the Fijian Affairs Act.

Native Fijians do maintain their social and cultural institution by virtue of their Mataqali, Yavusa and Vanua. Native Fijians have been given and recognized the right to maintain their ethnic identity and to practice their culture and to speak and learn their language.

Fijians have the right to their lands and they have a selfish share of 86% of all the land in Fiji when they only constitute half the population. They have the Native land trust act to protect and give to them the investment value of their land. They have their provincial council and the Great Council of Chief to look after and promote their customs.

But the truth is, in my view is, that all those things are not what they seem. They are facades of what a benevolent crown had given to them initially. They are the last remains of what successive governments beginning with the communal government of 1904 had taken away.

Those that were too entrenched in legislation like the Native Land Act, Native Land Trust Act and Fijian Affairs Act they either stripped them of their function or it used those institutions to control and submit native Fijian to state authority.

Ironically, they are the same rights that are now recognized under the UN declaration of Indigenous Rights. Except that the UN declaration is saying where   rights exist together with those of others it is imperative that they must not be exercised at the expense of the right of others.

Article 46(2) says “ in  the exercise of the rights enunciated in the present Declaration, Human rights and fundamental freedom of all shall be respected. The exercise of the rights set forth in this Declaration shall be subject only to such limitation as are determined by law, and in accordance with international human rights obligations. Any such limitation shall be non-discriminatory and strictly necessary solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for meeting the just and most compelling requirements of a democratic society. 


What had happened initially in Fiji is that the crown colony had conferred upon native Fijians the totality of what you may call indigenous rights similar to those that are now recognized under the UN Declaration.

These where all institutionalized under its laws and policy under what was then called Native policy making indigenous Fijian rights and interests paramount. In 1904 onwards successive governments have been trying to take this away. There is now an even more urgency to do this by the present regime

Let me show this by example. Firstly, the recognition of indigenous rights under Native Policy: Here you can see the recognition of Fijian right to land under the Native Lands Ordinance of 1882.  The rights to maintain cultural institution was recognized under the Native Affairs Ordinance.

Fijian language was promoted, written, taught and was the official second language. Village communities where regulated under the Native Affairs health regulation. There was a Fijian court system to adjudicate on customary law and minor offences.

On the other side of the coin, there are many examples of the removal and striping away of indigenous rights.  Legislation was introduced in 1905 to enable the sale of Native Land. If not stopped by Sir Arthur Gordon there would be no more Native Land. Legislation was passed in 1940 namely the Native Land Trust Act. This took away control of native land and put it in a government agent known as Native Land Trust Board.

 By virtue of this legislation native Fijians where forced to give out their land to subsidize development at the expense of investment at the market rate. There are many examples here and I know this very well because I have worked for the Native Land Trust Board.

The Fijian court system was removed totally. The Fijian administration was stripped of its function to regulate health and regulate custom.

The provincial council and the great council of chiefs were turned into institution of the state to control and make Native Fijian submissive to state authority.

Examples from the current regime include the announcement that the great council of chief function and role is useless and they are better of drinking home brew under the mango tree. Restrictions have been but permanently on the Great council of chiefs holding any meeting.  Amended legislation were introduced to allow the regime to control the great council of chief and provincial council by giving the regime discretion to appoint sympathizers.

On land the current regime has established committees to work with its agent the NLTB to coerce native land owners to renew their lease. There are also policy announcement and amendments made to give to the government in unilateral power over Native Land . The Land Use decree now allows the state to set aside portions of native land under direct control.

Amendments to the Fiji Hardwood Decree has terminated all claims against the state by native Fijians and allows the state direct ownership and control. The irony is that Fiji's Mahogany Plantations were intended initially to be owned by native Fijians to compensate removal of native timber. As its potential and financial value became obvious the state moved in to take control.


I have expressed my views on the way forward for Fiji in at least one of my speeches in parliament. I approached it from the need to create a common identity for all who live in Fiji. And I apply the principle guide of the UN Declaration that Fijian indigenous right must not be held paramount but is to be balanced with the rights of other communities.

On common identity I submit that the common identity for all people who live in Fiji is the Fijian identity.

Let me illustrate this by example. Many times while I was in Australia as a student the final climax of every major function we go to is the singing of a very unique Fijian song the “Isa Lei”. When the time comes for that every person who identifies with that song, with the country, with that land in a very unique way would rush up to the stage to sing that very special song the Isa Lei.

When I look around me in that crowd everyone from Fiji is there Native Fijian, Indian, Chinese, European, part European. And I look around and see that everyone is singing their hearts out.

Even many who cannot speak native Fijian were feeling well and truly Fijian. But the reality is that they cannot speak the language of what they were uniquely feeling inside on something that sets them out as unique which is what identity is all about.

There is a need to promote those common bond that make us unique, like all having to know the Fijian language and the basics of Fijian custom and the need for these to be taught and promoted in schools. Much like what New Zealanders are doing, adopting Maori as their identity.

We do not become that by forcing the “ Fijian “ label upon us because that label implies some commonness like the language and custom associated with that label which we must all learn and acquire.

The problem in Fiji is that if you promote the teaching of Fijian language and culture in schools some will say you are discriminating against Indians and we must also teach Hindi. But I'm talking about our common identity here. I think it will be an all inclusive thing to do.

Moving from there to our community and its institutions, including political institutions, we must begin to break down barriers. For example what is wrong with the Rewa provincial or the Cakaudrove provincial council having  Indians in that province represented there when they truly consider themselves Rewans and the Rewa Chiefs as their chiefs.

What is wrong with Indians being represented in the Great Council of Chiefs . The GCC is not sacred or sacrosanct; it is simply a council of representatives.

On political institutions my model of Fiji’s parliament is to have the Great Council of Chief to replace the senate to manifest that the sovereign power of Fiji is held by them but they delegate that to a parliament for democratic process and they reserve the right for review. It will also be an inclusive symbol at that level and unifying symbol of our common identity with the appearance they are chiefs to all who live in Fiji

For my model the Fijian indigenous right is no longer paramount but is balanced with the rights of others. On land rights for example to remove the feeling of insecurity of tenants of land and a third type of title to native land called the Native freehold can be introduced which can give better security.


To conclude Mr. Chairman, I say that indigenous rights that is now only recognized by the UN was nurtured and promoted for Native Fijians a long time ago between the period 1874 – 1904 under Native Policy making those rights paramount.  From 1904 – 1987 colonial administration have systematically tried to remove them totally. One reason is obvious and it is because Fiji was then becoming a very plural society. The coups of 1987 and 2000 were vain attempts to restore those paramount rights. The current regime is again trying its best to remove them totally. As a way forward, I submit we should be guided by the UN Declaration for Indigenous Rights which now recognize that Indigenous Rights are Human Rights. The challenge however, is for us or any future government for Fiji in that matter is to balance those rights against the rights of others. I am suggesting here that if we accept that the Fijian identity is our common identity we should therefore be able to work about balancing those rights and using the institutions that are already there to create for us a society that is truly Fijian and harmonious not only in name but in a true Fijian character maintaining the uniqueness of its language and custom in a way that is inclusive to all.

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