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RIGHTS-FIJI: Coup May Hasten Exodus of Ethnic Indians

Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Dec 10 2006 (IPS) - While last week’s army takeover in Fiji was carried out in the name of improving racial relations in this multi-ethnic country, it may end up exacerbating the mass emigration of ethnic Indians – a direct result of repeated coups and political instability.

Fiji-Indian academic, Som Prakash, has personally experienced coup-related violence. While supervising exams at the University of the South Pacific (UDP) here in 1998, he was taken away by soldiers and brutally beaten for writing a critique of a book written by 1987 coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka.

In the book, titled ‘No Other Way’, Rabuka justified his actions as ‘God’s calling’.

Although placed under house arrest for three years, Prakash, a former Fiji Labour Party candidate, was allowed by the military to leave later that year to study under an Australian government scholarship.

The 63-year-old senior lecturer in literature at the USP has since made up with Rabuka – who said he was unaware of the incident – and is currently editing Rabuka’s speeches for publication.

Prakash has gotten over his experience, but the memory remains. It is one reason why he is disdainful of claims that Fiji Indians support, en masse, the latest coup because it is revenge for the 2000 coup that toppled the government of Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry.

Like other Fijians, ethnic Indians, may sympathise with military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s “clean up” campaign to root out what he claims was a corrupt government. But this does not necessarily mean Fiji Indians were wishing for a coup, Praksh told IPS in an interview. “Fiji Indians bore the brunt of the three coups in lost business, property, violence perpetuated against them and having loved ones emigrate. They would not want to wish this on themselves again by asking for another coup.”

Prakash, who holds Australian permanent residency, says the whole country was divided over the ouster of the Laisenia Qarase government. “There are divisions both in the Indian and Fijian community,” he says. “A good number of Indians are disappointed and angry at fellow Indians who have openly supported the coup. Friends and families are debating this.”

On the whole, Fiji’s fourth coup in 20 years has alarmed Indians and will accelerate their migration from the Pacific Island country, he predicts. “Those Indians who were sitting on the fence, those who were willing to stick it out will start applying for visas,” said Prakash.

About 55 percent of Fiji’s 900,000 population is made up of indigenous Fijian and 42 per cent of ethnic Indians, descended from indentured labourers brought here by the British colonial government in the 19th century to work on sugar cane plantations.

Politically, the Indo-Fijian relationship has been fraught. Fijians say Indians, who dominate the economy and professional fields, should not covet political power, while Indians want an end to race-based government policies they see as discriminatory.

Three coups in the name of indigenous rights – two in 1987 by military strongman Sitiveni Rabuka and a failed putsch by disgraced businessman George Speight in 2000 – has seen over 120,000 Fiji Indians emigrate, mostly to Australia and New Zealand, followed by Canada and the United States.

Fiji’s statistics bureau estimates that of the population of 840,201 people in December 2004, 320,659 were Indians or 38 percent of the total and down from the 41 percent recorded in 2000. Studies conducted at the USP estimates that since the Speight coup Fiji may have lost more than 35,000 teachers, professionals and other qualified workers and that the ‘brain drain’ may be worth 25 million US dollars or more a year.

Prakash says the exodus will not only continue, but also accelerate in the light of the military takeover, exacerbating a skills loss that has already had a serious impact on Fiji’s economy.

Prakash agrees with the eminent historian, Prof. Brij Lal, who told Fiji TV that ‘if you ask Fiji Indians whether they support Bainimarama, they will say yes; if you question them further and ask if they want a coup, they will likely say no’.

Explaining the Indian sentiment further, Prakash said Indians generally considered the Qarase government as pro-Fijian as he was the architect of what they regarded as discriminatory policies under the government’s affirmative action programme.

One of these proposed to grant free seventh class education to all indigenous Fijian students. This meant that even those Fijian students who could afford to pay fees would get free education, while Indians who could not would still not get any assistance.. Among those accusing Fiji Indians of supporting Bainimarama is New Zealand journalist Michael Field.

In an article in the Sunday Star-Times, Field claims that that Fiji Indians support the coup because it is revenge for what happened in 2000. “When the trouble comes Indo-Fijians (for allegedly cooperating with the military) will have, for reasons of misguided revenge, put themselves in harm’s way,” writes Field.

But all the major Indian religious organisations such as the Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha, the Fiji Arya Samaj, the ‘Then India Sanmarga Ikya Sangam’ and Fiji Muslim League have condemned the coup.

The view of Sangam president, Dorsami Naidu, was typical of the sentiments of Indian organizations and individuals. Said Naidu: “The illegal and unlawful takeover of a democratically-elected government will never be condoned. We all may not agree with the policies of the government but that does not give anyone the right to do what the military has.”

The National Federation Party, which does not have any seats in Parliament, but attracted as much as 30 per cent of the Indian vote in the last elections, has also denounced the coup.

Bainimarama’s message of a “clean up” resonated not just with Indians, but also with many indigenous Fijians and other races because of a poorly performing economy and the widespread perception that the government was corrupt.

A prominent indigenous Fijian who has openly come out in support of Bainimarama is the National Alliance Party President, Ratu Epeli Ganilau.

He said of the coup: “It is an illegal act but the less of two evils when you think about the endemic corruption (that was carried out) by the former administration.”

Prakash said Bainimarama also seemed to be motivated by his personal experience during the 2000 coup and the mutiny, which followed, during which he narrowly escaped an attempt on his life – by climbing out of a window in the army officers’ mess.

Bainimarama felt betrayed by Qarase (whom he put into power after the 2000 coup) and held personally responsible for the early prison release of coup convicts who were directly or indirectly involved in the attempt on his life.

“When Bainimarama gave the reins of power to Qarase, he did not expect the coup convicts getting early release or being appointed to his cabinet, but that is what happened,” Prakash said.

A proposed ‘Reconciliation and Tolerance Unity Bill’ that sought to grant amnesty to the coup perpetrators was also seen as an injustice by Indians and would have rubbed Bainimarama the wrong way.

“Regardless of race, the early release of the coup convicts offended many people’s sense of fair play, justice and everyone being equal before the law,” said Prakash.

Bainimarama had also expressed outrage about the “big fish” getting away scot-free while people down the ranks were punished.

Prakash concluded that Fijian provincial and clan rivalries, and the political ambitions of some powerful ethnic Fijians are other factors that led to the coup. He said it is simplistic and unfair to “scapegoat” the Indian community without considering the other dynamics and underlying forces that are at play in a very complex socio-political setting.

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