The Fiji Coup: Clash of Ethnic Nationalism and Multiculturalism

By Srebrnik, Henry | Canadian Dimension, September 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Fiji Coup: Clash of Ethnic Nationalism and Multiculturalism


Srebrnik, Henry, Canadian Dimension


The May coup d'etat in Fiji, which succeeded in ousting the country's elected government, underscores the continuing ethnic polarization in that South Pacific state. Despite the promulgation of a new democratic constitution in 1997, following 10 years of semi-authoritarian rule, large numbers of indigenous (taukei) Melanesian Fijians, who comprise 51 per cent of the country's total population of 813,000, obviously remained opposed to sharing power with the non-Native Indo-Fijians. The latter, who make up 44 per cent of Fiji's citizens, are descended from indentured labourers (girmitiyas) brought to Fiji to work on sugar plantations, following the British takeover of the 300-island archipelago in 1874.

This seems like an unimportant event in a far-off land. But, as I will indicate, there are reasons why Canadians should pay attention. From the start, the two communities had little in common. While most native Fijians had been converted to Methodist Christianity, the Indians were Hindus and Muslims. The two groups spoke different languages. In order to preserve the Fijian way of life, the British had reserved 83 per cent of the total land area of Fiji for the native Fijians in perpetuity. It was inalienable and could not be sold, but only rented; it belonged to Fijian clan entities known as mataqali, each headed by a tribal chief.

The Native Fijians continued to live in villages and practiced subsistence agriculture, while the Indians toiled in conditions of near slavery on large, white-run plantations. When the Indians emerged from indenture and wanted to start up their own farms, they faced the uncertainty of having to rent rather than purchase land, with leases for periods ranging from 10 to 30 years. Should a mataqali decide not to renew, all the investments made by the farmer would be lost. This still remains the case, under the Agricultural Landlords and Tenants Agreement, introduced in 1966 as a mechanism by which to adjudicate and mediate (Fijian) landlord-(Indian) tenant disputes.

The colonial system imposed by the British established "an atmosphere of separate development," stated the Indo-Fijian politician Jai Ram Reddy. "The Indians and Fijians were never meant to integrate. When the British left, the two races had to deal with each other for the first time."

Fiji gained its independence in 1970 but its political system has retained this communalist character. The constitution bequeathed by Whitehall accepted the principle of Native Fijian "paramountcy" and established an electoral system based on ethnicity: separate parliamentary seats were created for Native Fijians, Indo-Fijians and a small minority of so-called "general electors" (Chinese, other South Pacific islanders and people of European stock).

Ethnic Fijians received more seats than the other groups, though at the time they were actually outnumbered by the Indo-Fijian population. There were numerous other safeguards: for instance, the office of prime minister was reserved for an ethnic Fijian. In fact, much of the real political power continued to reside in the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), a hierarchical body made up of powerful Native leaders. Their authority derived from their positions in traditional Fijian society and as such went largely unchallenged by Fijian commoners. Indians were, by definition, excluded.

From 1970 until 1987, the Alliance Party, led by one of Fiji's powerful paramount chief, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, governed the country. While Indians, despite their legal disabilities, had come to dominate commerce and the professions, and were the mainstay of a rural economy dependent upon the sugar cane industry, they took a back seat when it came to exercising power. All of that changed in April, 1987, when the newly-formed Labour Party won a general election. Most Natives considered it a vehicle for Indian political power; one month later, an army colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka, overthrew the government and installed himself as ruler of Fiji.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Fiji Coup: Clash of Ethnic Nationalism and Multiculturalism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?