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Asia Friday, 24 November, 2000, 12:12 GMT
Fraught in Fiji
Political violence brought long-simmering tensions to the surface
By Mark Reid

The sun still shines, the light is still inspiring and the welcome to travellers is as warm as ever, but Fiji is a country in crisis following May's coup led by the failed businessman, George Speight. Crossing Continents in Fiji examines how the indigenous Fijians and Indians - who were brought over when the country was a British colony - relate.

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In the sugar-growing areas, Indian leaseholders are now being asked to leave the land, which is owned by the Fijians. For Indian farmers the termination of their leases is a long-standing grievance. but the resulting bitterness and racial animosity has been aggravated by Fiji's recent political crisis.

Back in May a group of armed rebels, led by George Speight, over-ran the parliament building and held hostage the Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudry, and other members of his administration.

Chaudry's government was the first in Fiji ever to be led by an ethnic Indian, and in return for their release, the rebels demanded a new constitution that guaranteed for ever that native Fijians would have a paramount position over the 44% of the population who are of Indian ancestry. With the intervention of the army, a deal was done and after 56 days the hostages were released.

Speight may be jailed, but he has many sympathisers
George Speight now languishes in jail, but his influence is still very much at large. Earlier this month, the elite troops who stormed parliament with him mutinied, taking officers hostage and killing two soldiers before order was restored. So the underlying problems are very far from being resolved.

Land is the fundamental cause of the tension. When the British first arrived here they found an island where white planters were trying to grab large amounts of land. They tried to ensure that land could not be bought and sold but remained under indigenous tenure. To handle the commercial well-being of the colony they imported labourers from the Indian sub-continent. Labourers were brought in on five-year contracts at a shilling a day - and when the contracts ended they were pushed into small-holdings in rural areas.

As the sugar industry expanded the problem of getting hold of lease lands from the indigenous Fijians became ever more pressing. Fiji's leading twentieth century chief, Ratu Sukuna, tried to develop an agency, the Native Land Trust Board, that would act as a trustee for the landowners and that would supervise the process of renting land to the Indian population.

Sakuisa Tuisolia, an ethnic Fijian who's worked as a speech-writer for three successive Prime Ministers, including Mahendra Chaudry, points out that feelings about land go far deeper than politics. 'As far as Fijians are concerned, land is basically the fundamental basis of their valua, of their very being. Land implies identity, not just a source of sustenance, and also it relates to the dialect they have.'

Many of the leases which are now expiring were issued under legislation passed in the mid 1970s, which gave Indo-Fijian cane-farmers relatively long lease periods of 30 years and relatively low rents. These were rolling pieces of legislation which happened periodically during the 1960s and before, that allowed many Indo-Fijian leases to be renewed.

Ethnic Fijians now want shorter lease periods and higher rents; failing that they want to take their lands back. They are being encouraged to do so by the local chiefs.

Chief Ratu Josia Duathia told us that as his village's population grows, "we have no land to accommodate our needs for the people at this point in time and for future generations. These leases have been granted for fifty years and that's quite a long time to prepare yourself. There are a few generations of Indians who've been living on the land, some have been working and have been well-educated and sought employment in other professions while they've been on the land over fifty years. In our view, the Fijian view, I think they should move.

The lease money that's being paid by the tenant to the landowners are not adequate enough in relation to the value of the land. It is too low. When I give you one piece of land for fifty years, that land would be degraded, there would be no fertility left. I think the landowner should have the full benefit of the land that has been leased to that tenant."

Behind the idyllic landscapes there are land disputes which go back generations
The influence of the chiefs goes back a long way - well before the arrival of the British in Fiji. But when the British came, Fijian chiefs became paid officials of the colonial state. At the apex of the hierarchy is the Great Council of Chiefs, which played an important role during the political crisis, and of course the chiefs still get a cut of the rents.

There is a handful of Indian farmers here in Western Fiji whose leases are being renewed - notably the better-off who own agricultural machinery that Fijians don't have. Those Indians can stay and be useful to their new Fijian neighbours. But for the vast majority of Indians no such deals can be made.

Dip Chand, a sugar-cane farmer we met in Western Fiji, told us: "We've cleaned this place and we have brought the land to this standard, we've planted all the cane there, and now they're taking this land away.They will not pay us any money, nothing, we cannot even cannot take our house. Since the coup we cannot go and complain anywhere, there is no constitution and if there's no constitution you can't write to anyone for help and things like that. They have all the top positions in this country - head of military, head of police, head of government, ninety per cent of the civil service is Fijian, they hold everything here, we have nothing.'

The two groups have also had a very different entry into the modern economy. The Indians moved much earlier into the urban settings and came to rely much less on sugar-cane farming. Waves of free migrants - particularly from Gujarat and the Punjab - came and did very well in the urban areas, whereas until the late 1960s the Fijians were kept in the rural areas; legislation tied them to the villages performing services for the chiefs.

Frustrated youth in the towns were easy recruits for the rebels
It's only in the last 20 or 30 years that ethnic Fijians have moved into the towns in any number, and many of them have found it hard to get access to jobs and cash incomes. It was these Fijians who proved themselves ready foot-soldiers in the movement inside parliament that was led by George Speight, starting on May the 19th.

No solutions have been proposed which would satisfy both ethnic groups. On the central question - what should happen to those who have worked the land for several generations, when they don't own it and when their leases run out? - there is still no sign of agreement.

Those with the expertise on the land are leaving it, to be replaced by those who do not have the same knowledge. That must have economic implications. And when the two groups each account for nearly half of Fiji's population, that is a national tragedy. There is simply no dialogue.

Tomasi Vakatora, Fiji, October 2000
ethnic Fijian legislator, on the constitutional place for Indian citizens
See also:

16 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
12 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
07 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
02 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
02 Jun 00 | Media reports
23 Jul 00 | Talking Point
02 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
19 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
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