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Fiji’s military coup: it’s not so simple

For those who don’t keep close tabs on the situation there (and why don’t you, hmm?) I’ll give some background.

They just had a military, but bloodless, coup that deposed the elected government. This is Not Good and is meeting with widespread condemnation.

But, for once, it’s not that simple.

The military should not overthrow elected governments. This is absolutely true. And yet it’s Commodore Bainimarama who has most of the truth on his side, even if what he’s had to do about it is regrettable.

First the history: The source of the trouble goes back over a century when the British imported thousands of Indians to work the sugar plantations. Ethnic Fijians, like other Melanesians, feel that community is like family, and when any member of the community is in need, others should fill that need. This makes it hard to accumulate wealth, and also makes it hard to control workers with the threat of being fired. If you’re fired, your village tides you over till you find something else. And there’s no point working your butt off, because as soon as you get enough money, some relative will ask you for some of it. Kerekere, as the principle is called, has its very good sides and its not-so-good sides. But what it definitely does is make for less controllable workers. Hence the vast numbers of Indians brought in.

Fast forward to the present. By ten years ago, the Indian community had grown to nearly 50% of the population. The Indian culture, which is more similar to the European than the Fijian, meant that many of the wealthier entrepreneurs were Indian. Many of the professionals were Indians. Indians tended to vote in higher proportions than ethnic Fijians. Ethnic Fijians woke up to the fact that they were in danger of losing control of Fiji.

Culturally, this isn’t a really difficult question. Fiji is the only place where you find Fijian culture, but Indian culture has a whole huge subcontinent as well. The Fijian culture would become endangered if ethnic Fijians became nobodies in their own land. That would be a terrible injustice, and it would be very likely. Many Indian-Fijians don’t have a high opinion of the “lazy,” “backward,” black people.

On the other hand, Indian-Fijians have lived in Fiji for generations. Many of them don’t have ties to India any more. And their culture has absorbed a bit of the freewheeling attitudes of the Melanesians (not much, but a bit) so they wouldn’t really be at home in India either, I suspect. It’s not as simple as shipping them all “home.” Fiji is home.

Once ethnic Fijians were faced with loss of control, the coups started. The current one is the fourth in the last twenty years. The first three were antidemocratic in the sense that their purpose was to make sure effective control of the country stayed with ethnic Fijians, even if they were a numerical minority. The coups were successful enough that Indian-Fijians started to emigrate to India. Indian-Fijians now number about 44%.

The last coup by Speight had some added wrinkles. There were rumors of funding from some US logging interest (Fiji has some very valuable forests) in return for being given open access to the timber once Speight was in power. Speight also pushed lots of “Fiji for ethnic Fijians” stuff that got him support among the local equivalent of rednecks. The coup, if I remember right, took place just as or before the first elected Indian-Fijian Prime Minister was to take office.

When the coup was put down, the Indian-Fijian PM was not instated. Instead, the current PM, Qarase, was given the job. The top political layer of ethnic Fijians is the Council of Chiefs. Another local name for them is the Council of Thieves. They don’t do much except live off the fat of the land and do what’s necessary to continue living that way. Qarase was drawn from this group. This is not to say he’s a criminal. But he is pretty useless. He hasn’t done anything I’ve noticed to improve Fiji’s pressing problems, but by dint of appealing to the local rednecks, he manages to retain enough popularity to look somewhat legitimate. (You think I’m not a big fan of Qarase? What gives you that impression?)

On a personal note, I want to give some perspective on what a coup in Fiji means. Fijians are among the most openhearted, friendly people I’ve met anywhere in the course of globetrotting life. I was there shortly after the Speight coup was put down. There were still checkpoints here and there. The soldiers in them had stacked their guns, were playing cards, drinking tea, and waving with huge smiles to passing taxis like mine. They waved to locals too. You didn’t have to be a visiting biologist. Nobody actually stopped at the checkpoints, although we did have to slow down to zigzag through the barricades. Speight himself had accomplished his coup with about twenty guys with rifles who walked into the Parliament building because there weren’t any real security checks. This is not Iraq we’re talking about here. (A word to the wise: after that coup, there were some amazing deals on flights to Fiji and hotels. I’ll bet the same thing happens now. You can be sure I’ll be combing the web, looking for them.)

Back to Qarase. If your power base is the local rednecks, their hero is, of course, Speight and company, currently marooned out in a picturesque prison in a lagoon near the capital. They helped Qarase actually win an election for his second term as PM. Hence the push by Qarase to give amnesty to Speight. For the current Commodore, who was the one who put down the Speight coup, this was the last straw. And you can see why. If some local thug in the pay of foreign timber interests tries to overthrow the government, the correct procedure is definitely not to say, “Oh well, boys will be boys.”

Commodore Bainimarama is also, I gather, fed up with the general incompetence and pandering of the current government. There has been plenty of it. There is also a serious long-term problem brewing in the disenfranchisement of Indian-Fijians. Bainimarama, I gather, is against that as well.

So he may actually be right. But he’s overthrown an elected government. But the elected government only had a majority because they pestered enough Indian-Fijians out of the country. But he has overthrown an elected government. But they were a bunch of useless parasites. But they were elected. Sort of.

You see what I mean. It’s not so simple in Fiji’s case.

Technorati tags: Fiji, Bainimarama, Qarase, democracy, military coup, politics, current events