Coup collision among indigenous Fijians

Coup collision among indigenous Fijians

Village elder Manuweli Koro is slumped at his village’s deserted tourist bar in Natalevira, east Fiji. Though part of the ousted government’s project to bring tourism’s spoils to indigenous Fijians, December’s coup has forced Koro’s 600-strong village to hurriedly plant new taro and kava crops.

“There used to be five hundred tourists here, every year in the hot season,” the 55-year old bar and bure manager says. “But there is no-one here since the December coup. Now, the children and women must work.”

The military 'patrolling' the streets. Photo: FIJI TIMES

Koro’s village lies in the heart of Talievu province, and just a few kilometres past the elite Queen Victoria School. Tailevu is home to the powerful Cakobau dynasty that unified and ruled Fiji from the nineteenth century, while the country’s vulinitu ‘school for chiefs’ furnished Fiji’s most senior leaders─ including the deposed prime minister.
“But this new government wants to change this chiefly protocol and tradition,” Koro says. “They attack the chiefs and older ways that have always been with us.”
The military overthrow is part of a broader conflict over the role of chiefs and customary authority, a crippled economy, and relations between the country’s two main ethnic groups.
Customary authority was the lifeblood of Fijian society and state for more than a century, and seemed further engrained over the last two decades of politics that put ‘indigenous Fijians first.’
Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), a powerful group of mostly hereditary chiefs of high breed, grew even stronger as it supported political parties and ethnic ‘Fijian’ causes and gained new constitutional and financial roles.
But other Fijians, especially younger city-dwellers divorced from village life and GCC-sponsored projects, began to question the old institution and its grip on the status quo.
For 26-year old Sami, who left his village ten years ago to work in the tourism town of Nadi, the GCC and its formalities are of little use.

“We know about the protocol for when we go to the village,” he says. “But that didn’t help me get a job or education or support my family here.”

Military head and ‘interim’ Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama tapped this discontent, and constantly blasted the GCC as irrelevant and corrupt.
According to Sitiveni Rabuka, the GCC’s lone commoner and a leader of the 1987 coup, Bainimarama’s attacks tore at the heart of the once-revered institution:
“Bainimarama was very antagonistic, he went out of his way to insult and marginalize the GCC….I have never seen such an attack from someone with such authority. It made them look impotent, and so they have lost their prestige and standing in the eyes of many people. ”
But Bainimarama’s attacks on the GCC and chiefly elites also appeals to Fijians that feel let down by the chiefly system. Although raised in east-Fiji, Bainimarama has never used his hereditary ‘Ratu’ title, and has spoken out against the Cakobau family, the most dominant family in the country’s history.
”I don’t think Bainimarama should have overthrown the government, the law is the law,” says Carolyn, a nineteen-year-old computer student at Fiji’s university. “But the commander’s criticisms show us that we can question our elders, even though we should also give them much more respect than he does.”

Left: Ruling Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and military spokesman Neumi Leweni, about to address a press conference

Although Bainimarama’s rhetoric appeals to those Fijians that feel let down by traditional institutions, it also masks his own bitter vendettas and familial rivalries.
Bainimarama’s hostility toward chiefly elites and former prime minister Laisenia Qarase also stemmed from the commander’s fear they wanted him out of the military, and were encouraging police to lay charges of sedition which could have seen him jailed for life.
But Bainimarama also accused the aristocratic Cakobau family of supporting George Speight’s 2000 coup, which overthrew Mahendra Chaudhry’s Fiji Labour Party government.
Since Ratu Seru Cakobau’s forceful unification and secession of Fiji to the Queen in the nineteenth century, the Cakobaus dominated governance as politicians and heads of colonial-created institutions.
But their influence waned from the 1970s with the emergence of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and his family, of the Lau Islands.
The 2000 coup provided an opportunity for the Cakobaus to reassert their influence. From the GCC and the family’s numerous Council-appointed positions within the Senate, as well as one member’s key role in Qarase’s party, the Cakobaus called for softer treatment for those involved in the 2000 coup, and for renewed investigations into Bainimarama’s involvement in the deaths of four men in military custody in 2000, after an unsuccessful mutiny against the army commander.
But following the coup, Bainimarama banned the GCC from meeting, and the ‘interim’ government, with a number of ministers linked to the Mara family by marriage, now rules by military decree.
GCC chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini says the council and the Cakobaus are still smarting from the insults and isolation it has suffered from Bainimarama. But the commander’s stance has forced them to recognize the new government:
“This was the only way the Council and the Cakobaus can play a part. We would still like to see a return to democratic governance, but we now need to stop fighting with him and take Fiji forward.”
But this way forward, for Bainimarama and his Indo-Fijian finance minister Chaudhry, also involves cutting long-established government programmes for Fijians the leaders label “racist” and “divisive.”

Following Rabuka’s coup in 1987, ‘indigenous Fijians first’ became a mantra for economic policy, accelerated from 2001 under Qarase’s government.
But Indo-Fijians increasingly resented ‘indigenous’ economic assistance, which ranged from small business grants to villages, to million-dollar company loans.
“There was a lot of anger at government,” says Khan, a 35 year old Indo-Fijian taxi driver suspended from work as part of a government bid to grow Fijians’ jobs in the industry.
“But we were also annoyed that Fijians got special treatment, because our situation was just as bad.”
And many Fijians are still angry that chiefly distributive networks meant benefits did not always improve the lot of those least well-off, especially Fijian women and the poor. Today, up to 40 000 still live in squatter settlements, while in rural villages another 10% of the country’s Fijians live in poverty.
But although Bainimarama and Chaudhry say their reforms are necessary to ensure an economically sustainable and genuinely multicultural Fiji, Qarase cautions them to tread carefully.
“It will be very inflammatory and if Bainimarama touches some of the special assistance grants to Fijians then they will rise up…It will explode into violence. Feelings are very high, this is true right around the country,” Qarase said.
Even more sensitive is the issue of land, at the heart of the nation’s competing ethnic philosophies.
Fijians, who hold almost 90% of the country’s land, often feel spiritually and culturally bound to their vanua. But the 150 000 Indo-Fijians in the sugar industry who rely on this leased land ─and also form the core of Chaudhry’s support base─ want the opportunity to buy the land outright, or at least extend their ten to thirty year leases.
“We have to provide and plan for our family and have that security,” says Harish Chand, who works a twenty acre lot in Fiji’s western Lautoka sugar district. “When the leases expired in 2000 and we couldn’t afford to renew, there was nowhere for us to live and we couldn’t work.”
Chaudhry is adamant the administration must press on with controversial land reforms, even though that same issue sparked Fiji’s coup in 2000.
Chaudhry says “comprehensive reform,” drawing on his own party’s policy, is vital to ensure “the productive use of land in the country,” and resurrect Fiji’s crippled sugar industry.
Indo-Fijians such as Khan find this new direction comforting: “This coup is for us, it is a coup for Indians. The other coups were against us, they were racist. But with this military government we will benefit, we will wait and see.”
But there are also fears Fiji’s military government is growing more authoritarian, and that this coup could again end in violence and bloodshed.
Chiefs, traditional leaders, and ordinary Fijians complain their concerns are too quickly dismissed in the government’s haste to remake the nation.
And there are also reports of military intimidation and beatings. Asinate Verebasaga says her husband was taken from his home at dawn by soldiers and beaten to death while in military custody, and she now says she is too terrified to approach the military and ask why he died.

Bainimarama has reminded Fiji that basic rights are curtailed during the military’s “clean-up campaign,” which he boasts could last “up to fifty years.”
The campaign, and the coup itself, is part of a broader conflict over the role of chiefs and customary authority, and the country’s economic and multiracial make-up.
And while many of Fiji’s citizens are waiting for Chaudhry’s March budget to gauge the extent of government reforms, others still hope for democratic elections. Qarase has vowed to stand again, and is convinced his party’s promotion of traditional chiefly institutions and policies of “indigenous Fijians first” will again triumph.
But Bainimarama refuses to say whether he would accept that outcome.

Duncan Wilson

• Duncan Wilson’s visit to Fiji was sponsored by the Pacific Cooperation Foundation, ph 0064 4931 9380, email:, website


Left: Duncan Wilson