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Monday, 29 May, 2000, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK
Analysis: Fiji's divided army
Even troops and police expressed support for Speight
By South-East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head

It took a full 10 days from the first attack on Fiji's parliament by the rebels for the army to decide to impose martial law.

During that time, the rebel leader, George Speight, was able to turn what at first appeared to be the desperate act of a discredited businessman into something resembling a popular uprising against the government.

Every day he held court in the parliament, appealing to the grievances of Fiji's indigenous underclass towards the large and more successful Indian minority.

George Speight has managed to divide Fiji's Council of Chiefs
The army's problem was that it was clearly divided. Many of the gunmen who occupy the parliament with Mr Speight were army deserters, some from its elite counter-revolutionary unit.

Even the troops and police outside the parliament expressed sympathies for Mr Speight's aims, if perhaps not for his methods.

All were clearly reluctant to risk an armed confrontation. The resentments expressed by the hundreds of Fijians backed by Mr Speight were various, but one fear they all mentioned was that the government of prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry would change the laws governing traditional land rights.

There is some truth in this. The government was preparing to improve the terms under which largely ethnic Indian farmers leased land from indigenous Fijians who by law have ownership of more than 80% of Fijian land.

Indigenous divisions

The coup also reflects divisions within the indigenous elite, who have in the past dominated politics.

Those divisions were exploited by Mahendra Chaudhry to allow him to form a winning coalition last year, making him the country's first ethnic Indian prime minister.

Mahendra Chaudhry was Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister
Even now, Fiji's traditional chiefs are divided between those who support George Speight and those who oppose him.

Before the coup, the government was in dispute with other members of the traditional elite over how to exploit Fiji's valuable mahogany forests, an issue which was complicated by traditional land rights.

George Speight found himself on the losing side of that dispute and was sacked from the government forestry company.

Now Fiji's leaders have proved unable to resist his armed assault on the country's democratic institutions.

As yet it is not clear what kind of alternative leadership a divided and demoralised army will be able to provide.

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See also:

29 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji army takes power
26 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji troops defect to coup leader
28 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Policeman killed by Fiji rebels
27 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji prime minister sacked
29 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Cook condemns Fiji violence
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