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Friday, 19 May, 2000, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Ethnic split haunts Fijian politics

Ethnic divisions between indigenous Fijians and Indians have dominated the country's politics.

In 1987, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka led a coup d'etat saying Indians were taking over.

Three years later, a new constitution guaranteed indigenous Fijians more than half of all seats in parliament and banned Indians from the post of prime minister.

Colonel Rabuka was named prime minister after the first elections under the new constitution in 1992.

In 1997, a commission established by Mr Rabuka reviewed the law banning Indians from taking high office.

It recommended the abolition of the constitution's racially-biased provisions.

There are still seats reserved for indigenous and ethnic Indian candidates, but 25 of the 71 deputies are elected from so-called open-race seats.

Following elections in March 1999, Mahendra Chaudry became the first Indian prime minister.

His Fijian Labour Party won 70% of the seats, in coalition with two smaller parties.


Indians started coming to Fiji as labourers on sugar plantations at the end of the 19th century, when Fiji was a British colony.

In 1970, when Fiji became independent, ethnic Indians were in a majority.

But after the 1987 coup, many Indians - especially professionals - left the country, and now 51% of the 800,000 population are indigenous Fijians.

Echoes of 1987

The latest coup attempt has come on the first anniversary of Mr Chaudry's taking power.

The coup leader, George Speight, says he wants to give indigenous Fijians control of their own destiny once and for all.

Many ethnic Fijians believe they have been put at a disadvantage.

There are disturbing similarities here to what happened in Fiji 13 years ago, when Colonel Rabuka led armed soldiers into parliament and arrested the prime minister.

Mr Speight's father, Sam Speight, is a member of parliament with close links to Colonel Rabuka.

Multi-racial coalition

Fijian politics had been controlled since independence by the Fijian-dominated Alliance Party of the man who is currently president, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

But elections in April 1987 saw the Alliance Party supplanted by a multi-racial coalition which divided ministerial jobs evenly between Fijians and Indians, to the horror of hard-line indigenous nationalists.

After Colonel Rabuka took power, he declared Fiji a republic and the country was expelled from the Commonwealth.

It rejoined the Commonwealth in 1997, but if the coup succeeds it would be certain to put Fiji's membership in serious doubt.

Pakistan had its Commonwealth membership suspended after last October's coup there.

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19 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Attempted coup in Fiji
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