The Fiji Coup: Clash of Ethnic Nationalism and Multiculturalism

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

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. …

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