Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Coup Coup Politics

The parliament building
Just months after the turn of this new century, in a small, democratic, and upwardly mobile country, armed gunmen strode into the parliament building and held hostage not only several members of parliament but also the nation’s prime minister and his cabinet. The gunmen held the hostages for a tense 56 days in a strange setup in which dozens of local and even international journalists camped inside the building, took pictures, and covered the story closely alongside the gunmen and their victims.
Nope, I didn’t make it up. Fiji, a country in the South Pacific, has had at least four coups in its 40 years as an independent country. The coup I refer to above took place in May 2000, when civilians deposed Mahendra Chaudhry, the country’s first prime minister of Indian descent. The distinction of his heritage lies at the root of his government’s overthrow.

The Indian diaspora in Fiji goes back to 1879, when British colonizers began actively recruiting laborers across South Asia and East Asia to work in Fiji’s sugarcane fields. Over a period of about 37 years, 61,000 migrants – most of them from India – came over as indentured workers with contracts to work in the fields for five-year terms. 
On his site, Just Pacific, Rod Ewins shares his rare and absolutely amazing
collection of postcards of Indo-Fijians. Check it out at:
The migrant men hailed from poor, rural backgrounds, were illiterate, and had few means back home. The women were either kidnapped, prostitutes, or young widows. Living and working conditions in their new country were squalid, often brutal. Women were raped in the fields to such an extent, with illegitimate births and suicide so rampant, that public outrage in the UK brought a halt to the entire scheme in 1920, when the British canceled all indentured contracts. The workers had the choice of returning to India or staying in Fiji. And because most of them made so little money or were denied wages to begin with, most couldn’t afford to leave.

Roughly five generations later, Indo-Fijians have their own unique national identity. Few have visited India or have any connections with the old country. With their forebears hailing from every region, religion, and linguistic group of India, over time, the Indian Fijians have developed their own unique culture and even their own dialect, known as Fiji Hindi, a hybrid language that’s evolved from many diverse Indian ones (northern and southern) and is now spoken widely across the Fijian islands.

Relations between the Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians were for the most part peaceful for generations until about 25 years ago when Indians began gaining stronger political clout at all levels of government, and race became highly politicized. The issue is, of course, more complicated than it might seem (for example, some observers note, different indigenous groups vie for power over one another as much as among ethnic lines), yet the two cultures are so entwined in both subtle and overt ways that the power play seems pointless. Reportedly, the best friend of George Speight the leader of the 2000 coup is Indian, while Chaudhry’s son-in-law is an indigenous Fijian.

The first military-led coup took place in 1987. Some say it happened because the government of then-leader, Ratu Mara, had too much of a pro-Indian bias. In 1990, a new constitution passed, institutionalizing the domination of the indigenous Fijians over the Indo-Fijians in the political system. The latter were heavily taxed and could hold only limited seats in the government never as prime minister.

After massive protests and at least one contested election, a third government drew up yet another constitution in 1997, reinstating political rights to minorities and leading to the Commonwealth of Nations bringing Fiji back into its fold. And in 1999, in a historic election, the nation elected its first ethnic Indian, a third-generation Fijian, Mahendra Chaudhry, as its prime minister. Historic, yes, but almost from the get-go, rumors of yet another coup started brewing. For whatever reason, Chaudhry didn’t want to believe the rumors and even ended up abolishing his intelligence service. On the one-year anniversary of his election, a charismatic, and rather interesting character, George Speight, along with his followers, stormed into the parliament building to lead the country’s next bloodless coup.

George Speight (forefront)
Speight has an interesting, cosmopolitan background. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business from the United States then worked in Australia as a computer salesman and later a bank manager before returning to Fiji a few years before he found his new calling as coup leader.

As they go, it was an odd coup, not just because the journalists moved in and got cozy with the terrorists. Once Speight released Chaudhry, his staff, and the MPs, it took a full two weeks for the interim government to arrest Speight. A year later, he was elected to parliament, though he never formally held the position. (He was in prison so was expelled for non-attendance.)

A military dictatorship took over, but yes, within six years, there was another coup. The next new military government, the same one in power today, ditched yet another constitution and clamped down on free speech and the press. Reports of human right violations abound, particularly on opponents of the current leadership and, in 2009, Fiji was booted out of the Commonwealth of Nations for the second time.

Chaudhry was never reinstated to his old PM post, but he’s continued his career in politics in various capacities, including serving as the minister of finance and later as opposition leader. Controversy seems to dog him, though, in part perhaps because he’s out of favor with the current leader. Speight, meanwhile, is serving out a life term in prison.

What makes the whole national saga so much more tragic is the bright future Fiji faced in its early years, not that long ago. It received its independence from the UK only in 1970 and was one of the most developed countries in the South Pacific, with ample and rich natural resources and a fairly healthy and growing economy. After the 2000 coup, the economy shrunk a whopping 10%, taking major hits in tourism and investment. Fijians now rely heavily on money sent home by the skilled, educated workers who started leaving the country in droves as well those who take up dangerous jobs as contract workers in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ninety percent of those leaving are Indo-Fijians.

Not exactly a happy ending, but here’s hoping for a brighter future.


  1. Wow, I had no idea about this history -- thanks for this post!

  2. Thanks, Gigi. History's that a little hard to believe in these modern times, no?