A coup d’état in Fiji results in military rule through a civilian government

Political unrest and military muscle were the highlights of the tumultuous events in recent months. In addition, there were other more recent political and diplomatic moves, and the prospect of an arms race taking shape in Asia.

On the international scene meanwhile, a number of countries in Asia and Africa have been in the throes of political upheaval and conflict. In the Asia-Pacific region, the country concerned is Fiji, which witnessed a sensational coup d’état on 19 May 2000.

George Speight – who is described in some quarters as a ‘frustrated businessman’ – together with an elite unit of Fiji’s military stormed the House of Parliament and detained 36 MPs including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. They were held hostage from 19 May to 13 July as Speight declared that he intended to rule by decree for a year.

In the meantime, mobs went on the rampage, attacking the TV station and some hotels, and seemingly imposed mob rule in the capital Suva.

Given this scenario, the onus was on President Sir Kamisese Mara to deal with the crisis but Speight had demanded his resignation as he tore up the country’s 1997 constitution.

Speight claimed to represent the rights of ethnic Fijians, which he alleged had been denied by the Indian minority. At this juncture, Speight referred the matter to the Council of Fijian Elders – the elder statesmen of ethnic Fijians – in the belief that they would uphold him. Their response however, was to call for the formation of an interim government under Mara. This suggestion was rejected by Speight, and the situation became extremely tense as he remained defiant and refused to release the hostages.

Events then witnessed a dramatic turn when the army took charge of the situation. Martial law was declared and an interim government headed by Laisenia Qarase was sworn in on 4 July. Thereafter, an interim administration headed by Ratu Josefa Iloilo as president was established on 13 July.

The head of the army Commodore Frank Bainimarama rejected the 1977 constitution, thereby demonstrating his secret support for the coup led by Speight. But publicly, Bainimarama condemned the storming of parliament by calling it a criminal act. Nevertheless, he refrained from taking any action against Speight in response to the amnesty offered by the president.

Since the coup, Fiji has been in the hands of a military regime, which is acting through a civilian government nominated by it.

In this rapidly changing situation with power apparently divided between the army commander and a civilian prime minister and president – not to mention a defiant ex-premier in Chaudhry – it is difficult to predict the likely course of future events in the South-Pacific archipelago.

Needless to say, these events are being viewed with concern by Fiji’s neighbour Australia and also India, both of which have vital interests in the country.

To Australia, vis-à-vis its position in Oceania, the developments in Fiji could be a threat to political stability in the region. As a result, the Australian government issued a statement expressing concern and calling for a peaceful settlement of the political imbroglio. India too has a vital stake in the country because the source of the problem is the tension between the Indian minority of 45 percent and indigenous Fijians.

Ethnic Fijians maintain that Chaudhry’s government has been more representative of the Indian community, the rights of which are entrenched in the 1977 constitution.

Indo-Fijians or Fiji Indians are of Indian descent, brought in as indentured labour by the British from the northern parts of India, to work on the sugar cane plantations. Chaudhry became the first Indo-Fijian prime minister on 19 May 1999 exactly a year before the coup d’état.

The Indian government has also expressed concern and referred the issue to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Secretary General in turn has appealed for calm, stating that Commonwealth ministers will begin discussing the Fijian crisis in the near future.

BY  The late Deshamanya Dr. Vernon L. B. Mendis