Second and final part of an article detailing some lesser known aspects of Fijian history of the ’70s and ’80s. As I explained in part 1, most of the information came from a former intelligence officer (not a NZer) who lived in Fiji during those years.
After Timoci Bavadra’s Fiji Labour Party shock victory in 1987, Fiji plunged into turmoil.
Unwilling to be governed by an Indian dominated party, some ethnic Fijian nationalists established the Taukei Movement and demonstrated against the new regime.
One leading Taukei founder had previously been involved with the trade union left. After a trip to the Soviet Union, he switched to the “nationalist” cause. My contact claimed that until authorities were warned about him, there were plans afoot to blow up bridges around Suva and for Taukei members to torch the neighbouring Indian town of Nausori.
Bavadra anticipated an ethnic Fijian backlash. He especially feared a mutiny in the 95% ethnic Fijian dominated army.
Australian and NZ warships were present in Fiji waters around this time, also clearly sensing possible unrest. It was suspected that Bavadra was ready to call on Australia and NZ for help.
Everybody was watching the big players. Nobody predicted that a practically unknown lieutenant-colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka, would intervene.
Rabuka, anticipating an FLP victory had gathered around him a small group of Army and Police officers. An exceptionally devout, born again Christian, the ethnic Fijian Rabuka, feared that his people would suffer under “Indian” rule.
He also feared that the Marxists of the FLP, would turn Fiji into a Soviet client state.
Rabuka mounted his first coup d’etat on May 14, 1987. A second coup on September 28 ended Fijian ties to the British crown and was followed by the proclamation of a republic on October 7.
There was a huge negative reaction around the Pacific and further afield, to Rabuka’s actions.
Released from custody after a few weeks, Bavadra toured the world looking for money and sympathy. He also complained that the CIA was behind the coup.
In December 1987, Rabuka returned power to civilian authorities and life began to return to normal.
In March 1988, NZ became the last country to restore diplomatic relations with Fiji.
The Abortive Counter Revolution
Bavadra again toured NZ that year, where he was hosted by the radical left, particularly Ken Douglas’s Socialist Unity Party.
In an interview with the NZ Herald, Bavadra spoke of an “Operation Sunrise” which he expected would return him to power.
On the 11th of April 1988, a shipment of Soviet arms, disguised with forged documents as “farm machinery” was unloaded at the port of Lautoka.
The next shipment was intercepted in Sydney, by Australian authorities. Two Fijian Indians were arrested.
The weapons, loaded in Yemen, included AK47s, hand and machine pistols, grenades, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns.
Australian police claimed that an Australian wide network of Fijian Indians were working to de-stabilise Fiji.
Twenty two people were arrested in Fiji for participating in the plot. Twenty one were ethnic Indians, while one was an ethnic Fijian. Several members of the Fiji Labour Party were questioned over the incident.
Some of those arrested lead police to arms caches and much of the first shipment was recovered.
Bavadra and his colleague, Mahendra Chaudhry threatened to call on their Australian and NZ union friends to boycott Fiji again.
At the end of July 1988, the suspected mastermind of the arms plot, Fijian businessman, Mohammed Rafik Kahan, was arrested in London. Fiji applied for Kahan’s extradition, but Britain refused to cooperate, because Fiji was no longer a member of the Commonwealth and eventually released him.
Bavadra died of cancer in November 1989.
Eventually the Fiji Labour Party recovered and was returned to government under Mahendra Chaudhry in 1999. It was deposed within a month, by businessman, George Speight, who established a Taukei dominated government.
4 thoughts on “Fiji-Some Little Known History Part 2”
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Synopsis: From Sugar Cane to Suva
From Sugar Cane to Suva tells the story of Indo-Fijian relations from Fiji’s colonial period in the late 1800s to present day politics. The story will be told in two parts.
From Sugar Cane to Suva, Part I: The Forgotten Girmitiyas
The Forgotten Girmitiyas will tell the story of the Indian indentured laborers first brought to Fiji from India by British colonists in 1879. We will investigate the lives of these indentured laborers and attempt to show how their presence in Fiji changed the cultural landscape of Fiji forever.
From Sugar Cane to Suva, Part II: The Indo-Fijian Future
The Indo-Fijian Future will tell the story of the post-colonial power struggle in Fiji between ethnic Indians and native Fijians, starting with the country’s independence in 1970 and including events through 2006.
Director’s Mission Statement
As an Indo-Fijian myself, I was raised to believe that the indigenous Fijians could do no wrong. Not only that, as I was growing up, I didn’t fully understand why all the coup stuff was happening in our government. When I came to America and studied filmmaking, I began to delve more deeply into Fiji’s history at the same time. I realized that a whole portion of Fiji’s history had been overlooked by the history books, and I saw a connection between this forgotten history and the ongoing political, cultural, and economic upheaval in my birth country.
As I went through primary school and high school, I realized that not only did they not write or teach about girmitiya history, we didn’t have Girmit Day (May 15) or any museums or memorials dedicated to the girmitiya in Fiji at that time. It has taken 125 years for this story to be told. We in Fiji have paid a dear price for the sins of the British colonial powers, and we need to find a solution to the legacy they left us: the ongoing power struggle between Indians and Fijians. I hope that, with my own telling of the girmitiya story, I can be part of that solution.
DOC FILM WILL BE READY MAY 15 2008
Thanks for the article STF-this is an old left coup. The DSP wouldn’t be too keen on it especially if Beijing has its grubby hand in it.
A soccer game would be interesting.
Your team would have to have 2 left wings and our team-2 right wings.
Secret Trot Fan
Not all socialists are supporting this coup. Here is a nuanced history from this weeks Green Left which I think makes interesting reading.
A weekend of conferences approaches- Act on Campus in Remuera and Radial Youth in Onehunga. A dirty commie like me might organise a Saturday nightfootball match- left and right libertarians slogging it out for Liberty! Oh no- we are at conference too!
Yours as ever
Behind Fiji’s coup
12 January 2007
On December 5, after weeks of speculation, the commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama announced that he had overthrown the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in Fiji’s third military coup in the past 20 years. On January 4, the military restored the powers of President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, so that he could swear in an interim government with Bainimarama as PM.
While in some respect these events followed the pattern of previous Fijian coups, there are significant differences. The two coups in 1987 and 2000 overthrew multiracial governments headed by the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) and reinstated the power of the Melanesian aristocracy, while promoting chauvinism against the Indo-Fijian population to get support from non-aristocratic Melanesians.
The most recent coup, however, overthrew Qarase’s right-wing Melanesian chauvinist Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party, and the interim government includes members of the FLP, including party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, who has been given the posts of minister for national planning, public enterprises and sugar reform. Chaudhry held the same post in the government of FLP founder Timoci Bavadra, which was overthrown after a month in office in 1987 by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. In May 1999 he became prime minister but was overthrown a year later by failed businessman and adventurer George Speight. Chaudhry was imprisoned during both coups.
The fault lines in Fijian politics can only be understood in terms of the racially segregated parody of feudalism created by the British after colonising Fiji in 1874. This involved increasing the power and privilege of hereditary clan chiefs to form an aristocracy, while commoners were not allowed to reside outside their villages. A Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) was set up to represent the new aristocracy. Clan solidarity and relatively sufficient land accessible to commoners created social stability and muted opposition to the British takeover. However, it also created a lack of cheap labour for the Australian and British sugar companies for whose benefit Fiji was colonised.
To overcome this, the British imported “indentured labourers” from India to work on the sugar plantations in conditions akin to slavery. This plantation system lasted until 1920. After this the main sugar corporation, Australia’s CSR, broke up the plantations into smallholdings farmed by former indentured labourers. Other Indo-Fijian smallholders leased plots off the Melanesian aristocracy. CSR monopolised sugar processing and was therefore able to control the price smallholders received for their crops.
By 1970, when Fiji became independent, the elite consisted of Melanesian aristocrats and Indo-Fijian business owners, while the masses consisted of Melanesian subsistence farmers and Indo-Fijian smallholders. After independence the number of urban poor and workers, both Melanesian and Indo-Fijian, grew. The economy as a whole remained under the control of Australian capital.
Fiji’s political system got a parliamentary veneer with independence. The GCC maintained a lot of power both directly, through the new upper house, and through their ideological influence over the Melanesian masses. Furthermore, while 83% of land was allegedly owned collectively by the clans, the Native Lands Trust Board (NLTB) ensured that rent extracted from smallholders went to the aristocracy.
Between 1970 and 1987, the aristocracy’s Alliance Party, led by Ratu Kamisese Mara, was in power. The National Federation Party, controlled by the Indo-Fijian bourgeoisie, played the role of loyal opposition. While most Fijians voted along communal lines this system remained stable. However, in the 1980s the multiracial FLP started uniting Fijians along class, rather than communal, lines. At the same time, non-elite Melanesians were becoming polarised and extremist Melanesian chauvinism (and Methodist fundamentalism) also grew.
In 1987 FLP leader Bavadra was elected prime minister, but was overthrown a month later in the coup led by Rabuka, using Melanesian chauvinist rhetoric. A new Melanesian supremacist constitution was introduced in 1990 and in 1992 Rabuka became prime minister with Mara now president. Australia tacitly supported this coup.
In 1997 a more democratic constitution was introduced and in 1999 the FLP, now led by Chaudhry, returned to power. On May 19, 2000, George Speight and a group of military-connected Melanesian chauvinist terrorists kidnapped Chaudhry and his cabinet and held them hostage for two months. The military, the elite and Australia were happy to see the FLP overthrown but had reservations about Speight.
In a confusing series of coups and counter-coups, Mara took power, only to be overthrown by the army under Bainimarama, who made Iloilo president and Qarase prime minister of an interim government. Bainimarama negotiated the release of the overthrown cabinet by promising Speight and his supporters an amnesty. He broke the promise however, and had Speight arrested for treason. In November there was an attempted coup against Bainimarama by Speight’s supporters. Qarase, meanwhile, legitimised his rule with rigged elections in 2001 and 2006.
While Australian reaction to the 1987 and 2000 coups was muted, the latest one has been loudly condemned and sanctions imposed. These sanctions are harming ordinary people, not the military, and have been condemned by trade unions and NGOs. Unlike the Bavadra and Chaudhry FLP governments, the Qarase government is itself the product of a military coup. Furthermore, the dispute betweem Bainimarama and Qarase is over three anti-democratic laws that the latter was trying to introduce.
Two of these, the Indigenous Lands Tribunal Bill and the Qoliqoli Bill, would transfer land from state ownership to the NLTB, increasing the amount of land under the control of the NLTB from 83% to 90%. On state-owned land, Indo-Fijian smallholders have security of tenure for 30 years and rent is fixed at 6% of the land’s unimproved value. NLTB land leases are only guaranteed for two years and rents can be increased. The Qoliqoli Bill would also bring marine resources under the NLTB.
The third law is the benevolent sounding Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill. This would release Speight and his supporters, possibly with the intention of bringing them into the government.
The entry of Chaudhry and other FLP leaders into Bainimarama’s interim government was motivated by the latter’s opposition to Qarase’s reactionary agenda. However, Bainimarama’s own role in 2000 raises questions as to the wisdom of this. Furthermore, the beating up of six NGO leaders on Christmas Eve by the military is a further ominous sign. While the Australian media’s defence of the “legitimately elected” Qarase government is dishonest and hypocritical, there is little reason to believe that Bainimarama has any more commitment to democracy.
From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #694 17 January 2007.