Island of Intolerance?

By Robertson, Andrew | Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Island of Intolerance?


Robertson, Andrew, Harvard International Review


The Fijian Debacle

During Fiji's May 2000 coup, George Speight and his fellow conspirators moved the nation away from the democratic ideals that had been so carefully cultivated in the late 1990s.

The events that led to Speight's capture, however, did little to counter the undemocratic movement that brought him to power in the first place.

Fiji's coup began on May 19, 2000, when disgruntled businessmen and rogue members of Fiji's military elite counter-revolutionary force stormed Fiji's government center and took Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and 26 ministers of the cabinet hostage. The terrorists had overtly anti-democratic aims. Their leader, businessman George Speight, announced, "We are not going to be daunted by accusations of racism or one-sidedness. At the end of the day, it is [about] the supreme rights of our indigenous people in Fiji." Indeed, the terrorists were fighting to remove power and rights from the island's ethnic Indian population.

Fiji's racial tensions are rooted in the English colonists' importation of Indian laborers to work in the sugar fields in the late 19th century. By the time Fiji gained independence in 1970, those laborers' descendants had become important members of Fijian society. In particular, they dominated the nation's economy. Ethnic Melanesians (native Fijians), on the other hand, controlled the property and the government. However, in the late 1980s ethnic Indians achieved a majority in Fiji's government for the first time. This led to two coups in 1987, both aimed at increasing ethnic Fijian political control. The ultimate outcome was a racist constitution in 1987 that prohibited an Indian majority in parliament and required that the president and prime minister be ethnically Fijian. Although this constitution was replaced by a new and supposedly more equitable constitution in 1990, the only real change was that it made an Indian majority in parliament possible.

In the aftermath of those tumultuous years, Fiji's Indian population dropped from 50 percent of the 800,000 citizens to about 44 percent. Although the country remained peaceful, its persisting racist constitution caused the international community to impose tough economic sanctions on Fiji. In 1997, probably due to the pressures placed on it, the Fijian government adopted a new, truly colorblind constitution. The new constitution allowed Chaudhry in 1999 to become the first Fijian prime minister of Indian descent. His Indian-dominated Labor Party also took control of parliament.

Although many ethnic Melanesians were unhappy about the new political structure, even more became deeply concerned when the government began to discuss the laws relating to land ownership. In Fiji, over 80 percent of the land is owned by Melanesians, but Indians lease much of it for long periods of time. There has frequently been heated discussion over the lengths and conditions of the leases. It was supposedly fear of this reform that prompted Speight and his followers to plot and carry out their coup.

Although many Fijians, especially outside the major cities, claim to be unsympathetic to the terrorists, Speight did have support. In the days after the coup, ethnic Melanesians burned the homes of Indians, looted Indian shops, and seized government buildings and foreign-owned companies, including power plants and hotels. Meanwhile, many Indians fled the country. After ten days of mayhem, the military declared martial law.

But military authority did not end the Indians' plight. While negotiating with Speight, the armed forces did little to stop the continued looting and destruction of Indian property.

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