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Coup: Reflections on the Political Crisis in Fiji OPEN ACCESS

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: ANU Press
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    Book Description:

    May 19, 2000. Fiji's democratically elected multiracial government is hijacked by a group of armed gunmen led by George Speight, and held hostage for fifty days. Suva, the capital, is torched and looted as Speight's supporters gather on the lawns of the parliamentary complex, dancing, cooking food, celebrating the purported abrogation of the constitution that brought the People's Coalition government to power. The country is plunged into darkness yet again, enduring the pain of three coups in a period of just thirteen years. The process of healing and reconciliation, symbolised by the enactment of a new Constitution, unanimously approved by Parliament and blessed by the powerful Great Council of Chiefs, lies discarded, as winds of ethnic chauvinism sweep through the countryside, damaging the fragile fabric of multiculturalism that was carefully constructed by so many over many years. The economy is on the brink of collapse, investor confidence has vanished, and the best and the brightest are seeking succour on other shores. Fiji falls victim, yet again, to the prejudice and greed of a section of its people. This book gathers together a handful of memoirs of those tragic events in Fiji. They were written while the gun was still smoking; personal, anguished reactions of people from all walks of life, concerned about a country they all love but deeply distressed by the developments there. They are first reactions. They will in time become essential building blocks for a larger interpretive framework of academic analysis about origins, processes and impacts. Straight from the heart, these memoirs will be remembered as the people of Fiji and their friends elsewhere contemplate the wreckage and ruin brought about by that act of madness in the month of May 2000.

    eISBN: 978-1-921536-37-3
    Subjects: Political Science
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Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Brij V. Lal

    I met Bruce Hill only recently, but I feel I have known him for a long time. Now managing a public radio station in Melbourne, Bruce was for many years with Radio New Zealand’s Pacific program. Once a month or so, he would ring me to talk about Fiji, get my assessment of the situation there, pass on anecdotal information he had. Our talk would be interspersed with banter and political gossip. So, when he rang me around 9:30am on 19 May, I expected another casual conversation about Fiji. ‘Have you heard?’ he asked. I hadn’t. ‘Some thugs have marched...

  2. Brij V. Lal

    ‘Trust is like a mirror,’ says Apisai Tora, Fijian nationalist leader from western Viti Levu. ‘Once broken, it can’t be restored.’ It is arresting imagery, but coming from Tora, it sounds incongruous. Mr Tora is a veteran party-swapper, having been a member of virtually every political party in Fiji in a mercurial career spanning four decades. His latest handiwork is the spectacularly mis-named Party of National Unity, which fought the recent general election in coalition with Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry’s Fiji Labour Party. Two of its four members in Parliament are in the current Cabinet. Mr Tora wants them out,...

  3. Hugh Laracy

    Let me begin on a personal note. In mid-afternoon on 14 May 1987 I was hurrying along William Street in Sydney when I caught a glimpse of a newspaper billboard that I thought carried the words ‘Coup’ and ‘Fiji’. Curious but not concerned, thinking that I had either misread the notice or that it meant something other than what a literal reading would suggest, I carried on to the news-stand on the next corner. There, the reading of a newspaper confirmed that what I thought — or merely hoped? — had not happened, had in fact happened.

    The month-old, democratically...

  4. Tevita Baleiwaqa

    I stepped on to the Fenner Hall shuttle at 11:07 on the morning of 19 May 2000. I stopped short on the door when I heard the 11 o’clock Australian Broadcasting Corporation news, ‘…there is an unconfirmed report of a coup in Fiji!’ But as the shuttle turned on to Northbourne Avenue, the newsreader confirmed that Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet had been taken hostage. I was shocked but excited. This is a personal reflection on this crisis.

    This paper reflects on the coup in Fiji. The coup itself was a strategic operation. The coup operation, from the drawing board...

  5. Teresia Teaiwa

    The problem with Fijian nationalism is that there is no Fijian nation. There are Fijian provinces, and traditional Fijian confederacies, but the two military coups of 1987 and the current hostage crisis illustrate with disturbing insistence the erosion of indigenous Fijian social order and the fragmentation of indigenous Fijian leadership.

    The problem with prevailing analyses of the political situation in Fiji is the notion that the conflict is between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. The ‘race’ card is misleading and mischievous, and unfortunately, Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, played right into it with his abrasive leadership style. But in...

  6. Yash Ghai

    One of the most interesting issues in constitutional theory today concerns the political organisation of multi-ethnic societies. A key question is the extent to which ethnic identity should be recognised in public as opposed to private life.

    A major criticism directed at the liberal democratic is that, in its preoccupation with individual rights, it refuses to acknowledge ethnic differences. It is argued that under the cloak of individualism, the values and mores of the dominant community are imposed on minorities, whether of gender, religion or culture.

    The response to this criticism in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Estonia and Hungary is...

  7. Mere Tuisalalo Samisoni

    George Speight has the support of the vanua and therefore informally the Bose Levu Vakaturaga (BLV), who are the trustees of Indigenous Fijian traditions and culture. Make no mistake, the issue for this third coup d’état, as with the first two, is indigenous rights and self-determination. Despite the design of indigenous structures, institutions and legislation to achieve that objective, it remains an ivory tower ideal. The system was unable to process a culture of development in tandem with indigenous aspirations and dreams for a better quality of life, even though the leadership role was in place. Ratu Mara did not...

  8. Taina Woodward

    By now most of you have heard of the coup in Fiji. About 30 of our people are being held hostage. The President has been forced to resign and the Constitution put in place in 1997 has been revoked. The army has taken over and for the most part law and order have been restored. Most of the world thinks that little is being done to resolve the crisis. They are wrong.

    I have been invited to this meeting as a Fijian, a housewife, and mother of three. In addition, with my husband I look after my mother and a...

  9. Usha Sundar Harris

    On Friday 19 May, Fiji once again felt the cruel hand of racism grip the island nation as it laboured to build fragile structures of social cohesion. Once again there have been calls in the streets of Suva to ‘send the Indians back home’. As the hooligan element rioted in the streets, looting shops and burning property, the spirit of Indo-Fijians was broken again. Their home, their businesses, their very being felt threatened.

    To them, this was another betrayal in a long line of betrayals through a history which saw the British colonisers bring Indians to Fiji as labourers, then...

  10. Vijay Mishra

    Race and ethnicity are not identical. In Fiji one suspects no one really cares about this crucial distinction. On 14 May 1987, Rabuka’s rhetoric was racial; since 19 May 2000 George Speight’s has been even more so. I begin my story with race because my Fiji was primarily colonial and racial. By the time I left Fiji for good in 1974 I had seen only a year and a half of post-colonial Fiji. By the flukes of colonial educational system and scholarship grants I had been in New Zealand and Australia between the mid-sixties and early seventies. Fiji called itself...

  11. 11 PEACE IN FIJI (pp. 65-68)
    John D. Kelly and Martha Kaplan

    Much about ethnic Fijian culture is truly wonderful. But one of Fiji’s most precious cultural resources is in grave danger. And this precious cultural resource is not part of ethnic Fijian culture. It is not kava circles, nor mataqalis and generalised reciprocity, nor tabua and the dignity of ritual hierarchy. This most precious cultural resource is non-violence, and while it has strong roots in the loloma (kindly love) that is the mana of Jehovah in Fiji, its widest and deepest roots in Fiji are Gandhian, and its most profound expression is now and long has been the forbearance and tolerance...

  12. Christine Weir

    Tonight, I am haunted by an image from the evening news. In a theological college, surrounded by garden, with a circular chapel as its centrepiece, military men and armed terrorists meet to decide the fate of a nation and probably to tear up its constitution. The press swarm around, and on the roadside youths with stones taunt passing cars. The staff and student houses on the campus are empty, vulnerable; among them are the homes of my friends. Fifteen years ago I taught English here to the students’ wives, and it is a place of happy memories.

    I had been...

  13. Bruce Connew

    My two elder daughters both have Fijian partners. I hadn’t thought this so extraordinary — until the coup. Then I began to think, how do I deal with this? One is an Indo-Fijian who arrived in New Zealand with his parents after the last coup, and the other an indigenous Fijian here on a university scholarship. They are almost as dear to me as my daughters. They get on well, and in fact once lived not far from each other in a middle-class suburb of Suva. But when we sat around the table talking after Speight had stormed Parliament, it...

  14. Sir Vijay R. Singh

    We live in unusual times, almost like Alice in Wonderland, where things are seldom what they seem or are claimed to be.

    Most of us have friends of all races — many of them very close and almost like members of the family — but at this tense hour we do not know on whose integrity to the rule of law, commitment to uphold the constitution and concepts of decency we can really rely.

    Most of those whom we had chosen as our leaders in calm times on the strength of their self-advertised commitment to champion democracy and protect the...

  15. Daryl Tarte

    Over the past weeks as the devastating consequences of the events of 19 May have begun to have their real impact on the nation, I have been trying to rationalise my own reactions. I suppose my overpowering emotion is one of anger. Anger, that a small group of armed men should have the arrogance to proclaim that they know what is best for our people and our country. Anger, that they apparently have no care or consideration for the disastrous consequences of their actions.

    But the other dominant emotion is one of sadness. Sadness, that the aspirations and hopes of...

  16. Phil Thornton

    The villagers of Muaniweni have had enough. Since Fiji rebel leader George Speight’s armed coup, masked men have terrorised them, battered them, stolen their possessions, killed their farm animals and trashed their homes.

    Now the villagers say they can’t take any more of the violence so they’re leaving. They have taken advantage of the long weekend to break out.

    They’ve been briefed to tell military roadblocks that they are on their way to a religious ceremony in Nadi.

    ‘We lost our security ... we can’t live here,’ says villager Rudra Deo, whose wife had a razor-sharp axe held to her...

  17. 17 GUNS AND MONEY (pp. 98-102)
    Mark Revington

    Sometimes power in Fiji doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun. All it takes is a threat. During the first 10 days of the Fijian coup, some of the best reporting and analysis came from the journalism students at the University of the South Pacific (USP), on their Pacific Journalism Online web site. On the 11th day, the web site was closed down. The previous night, supporters of George Speight had trashed the studio and offices of Fiji Television, following criticism of Speight during a current affairs show.

    Pacific Online immediately posted a transcript of the program, with its...

  18. Jone Dakuvula

    Yesterday I was reading an article I received on the internet by Kathy Marks of the Independent in the United Kingdom in which she said Major General Sitiveni Rabuka had told her that Colonel Ilisoni Ligairi, Mr Speight’s head of security and former head of the elite Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit, had telephoned the former and said: ’Come here and watch me shoot Mahendra Chaudhry.’ I understand that my uncle, Colonel Ligairi, from Nabalebale Village in Wailevu, Cakaudrove, was angry with Rabuka because he had sided with Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

    This incident prompts me to write about my visit...

  19. Roderick Ewins

    At the time of British colonisation, there existed three large confederacies, in Fijian called matanitu. They were a result of geographical propinquity, kinship ties (often engineered by strategic marriages), and conquests and/or military alliances. They were called Kubuna (grouped around the powerful island kingdom of Bau), Tovata e Viti (formed by a 19th-century alliance of two smaller confederacies, Cakaudrove and Lau), and Burebasaga (grouped around Rewa). The central highlands of the main island of Viti Levu, and the west and northwest, were not traditionally part of these confederacies, but the colonial government found their hierarchies far easier to both comprehend...

  20. Victor Lal

    In a cruel twist of irony, George Speight and his band of racist and criminal henchmen, are clamouring for freedom from their temporary prison on Nukulau Island, a popular picnic spot outside the capital Suva.

    The island is, ironically, a former departure point to Fiji’s sugar fields for Indian coolies, the ancestors of deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhry and other Indo-Fijians, whom Speight removed from power at the point of a gun because they, according to him, ‘smelled’ differently from the native Fijians.

    George Speight, like Sitiveni Rabuka before him, cut short the tortuous journey of Indo-Fijians from plantation...

  21. Sanjay Ramesh

    Race is a crude fact of life in Fiji. But the recent hijacking of an elected government in Fiji has nothing to do with race. It has to do with factional and provincial warlords, who seized the opportunity to facilitate their agenda. Indigenous Fijians were unhappy with the Chaudhry government and in particular with ALTA, changes to constitution, mahogany, and the Land Use Commission. The discontent gave rise to the Taukei Movement in April and a number of similar movements thereafter. Landowners and chiefs denounced the government for acting contrary to the interest of indigenous Fijians and wanted the government...

  22. Graeme Dobell

    Fiji’s media were rare institutional winners out of the strange saga of Speight’s siege in Suva. Fiji’s journalists were one of the few groups to gain stature during the 56 days that George Speight held MPs hostage in the Parliament compound.

    The role Fiji’s journalists were able to play in 2000 is a significant contrast to the two military coups of 1987, when they were closed down or muzzled. The professionalism of Fiji’s media during the long period of intense pressure caused by Speight’s siege was a high point in the oftensorry tale of South Pacific journalism. And it washed...

  23. Mahendra Chaudhry

    We are completing our first year in Parliament, this coming Friday the 19th of May. Actually, I should have been here earlier than this evening to meet with you and share our views. But it is better late than never.

    I have been trying to persuade my Members of Parliament in your constituency to convene meetings regularly, particularly when Parliament is sitting every second month and when we have other Members of Parliament from other parts of the country in Suva, so that we can go around and meet with the people, in and around Suva, in Nasinu, Nausori, Lami,...

  24. George Speight

    I am writing on behalf of the group of indigenous Fijians who took over the Parliament of Fiji on Friday 19 May 2000. The illegal and unconstitutional action that was taken is acknowledged. It represented a year’s efforts on the part of a wide spectrum of the indigenous community to bring to the attention of the Government, our increasing concern in the way the People’s Coalition government began to address issues that are of fundamental importance to the indigenous community of Fiji.

    For example, the nature of the tenancy of indigenous-owned land to Indo-Fijian cane farmers, the progressive removal of...

  25. Hon. Pratap Chand and Hon. Jokapeci Koroi

    We submit the following statement for urgent consideration by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, scheduled to meet on 6 June 2000.

    We regard the convening of the CMAG meeting as a clear and very welcome signal of the level of concern shown by the Commonwealth about the current crisis in the Fiji Islands, in particular the unlawful and unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically elected People’s Coalition government by terrorists on Friday 19 May, and the holding of our Prime Minister and Government as hostages for the past two weeks.

    Brief overview of developments since 19 May 2000

    (i) the principal...

  26. Felix Anthony

    The Fiji Trades Union Congress, through the Commonwealth Trade Union Council, submits the following statement for urgent consideration by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting on Fiji.

    We welcome the CMAG meeting. It demonstrates the level of concern shown by the Commonwealth at the unlawful and unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically elected People’s Coalition government.

    The People’s Coalition government is a coalition of the Fiji Labour Party, the Fijian Association Party, the VLV and the Party of National Unity. In the first election held following the overwhelming acceptance of Fiji’s new constitution, the People’s Coalition won 55 seats in Fiji’s...

  27. Iliatia Sevati Tuwere

    The Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma appeals to George Speight, his group and supporters to free the hostages they hold in the Parliament complex in Suva. The Church recognises and accepts the reality of the situation and speaks on the issue from this perspective. It condemns the illegal takeover of Mr Mahendra Chaudhry’s government as well as the inhumane and degrading treatment of its members by being held in captivity. It denounces the destruction and looting of businesses in Suva and other areas, the loss of the life of a policeman in rioting in the city, and lawlessness in...

  28. Reverend Tomasi Kanailagi

    The Methodist Church (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Church’) issues the following public statement, with an objective to set the record straight in regards to the stand it has chosen to take during this time of national crisis.

    The Church’s MANDATE is scripturally based on the teaching that our Lord Jesus Christ came not only to seek but also to save the lost, including those who are in the hands of the Devil.

    In addition, the Church, as the Body of Christ and as a corporate citizen, sees an urgent need to tell its Members (approximately 250,000 in all) and...