Magazine article USA TODAY

Land Rights: The New International Powder Keg

Magazine article USA TODAY

Land Rights: The New International Powder Keg

Article excerpt

IN AN AREA of the world generally thought to be remote in the West, Fiji is fighting a surrogate battle that may have effects on much of the planet and many of the social and political processes that are a part of globalization. We should be paying attention.

Here's the problem: In May, a small group of armed native Fijians seized the parliament building in the capital, Suva, along with Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and a number of cabinet ministers. The intent of the coup leader, George Speight, was to remove the Prime Minister, who was not of the same native racial group, and to replace him with someone who was. The island nation's population is ethnically and culturally mixed. Fijians comprise about 51% of the population and belong to the Melanesian ethnic group; Indians, about 44%. Almost all of the Indians were born in Fiji after their ancestors were brought to work on British plantations in the late 1800s.

Since its independence in 1970, the nation's politics have been dominated by the native Fijians, while the Indians have dominated the economy. Even much of the agricultural economy, primarily sugar cane, stems from Indian efforts on land leased from ethnic Fijians. Two coups occurred in 1987, both aimed at increasing the political control of native Fijians, resulting in Fiji being expelled from the British Commonwealth. A constitution promulgated in 1990 gave ethnic Fijians greater representation in the government and required that the prime minister and president be ethnic Fijians.

More significantly, it incorporated Fiji's hereditary clan chiefs into the government structure while effectively diminishing the power of the Indian population. The sense of human rights violation, in addition to the turmoil, resulted in considerable damage to Fiji's tourism industry and its economy in general. Under pressure from the United Nations and the world community, constitutional reforms were reluctantly agreed to in 1997 that largely removed preferential treatment for ethnic Fijians in the government. In 1999, Chaudhry became the nation's first prime minister of Indian descent.

Since then, a sense of violation has festered among ethnic Fijians, who see a usurpation of the political rights and the politically based income that has been their base. The latest coup was an attempt to turn back the clock and it has succeeded. In July, Fiji's interim military government agreed to rebel demands to eliminate the multiracial democracy and return to a system of racial hierarchy. The first turning back is to the 1990 constitutional premises, where one ethnic group is granted special privileges in politics and economy (in the form of land ownership). The second is a turn back to land control and political processes that predate the colonial era. In the face of globalization, which involves movement of not only economic enterprises, but of significant populations, Fiji has reverted to a concept of land and race identification common before the beginning of the colonial era.

While Fiji is a small state and merely one among many, the precedent is ominous. Most of its Indians know no other home and have been a part of Fiji's history for four or five generations. If they have lost political rights in Fiji, where are they to go to find them? …

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