Indians queue to escape the backlash

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The Independent Online

The long daily queues outside the Australian and New Zealand embassies in Suva encapsulate the fear and desperation of Indo-Fijians amid the surge of nationalist sentiment sparked by last week's coup.

The long daily queues outside the Australian and New Zealand embassies in Suva encapsulate the fear and desperation of Indo-Fijians amid the surge of nationalist sentiment sparked by last week's coup.

Fiji's ethnic Indians, just under half of the population of 790,000, are suffering a backlash. Indian-owned businesses in Suva were looted and burnt in the coup rioting. Tensions spread to remote areas, where Indians have been harassed and their property attacked.

Fiji is the most ethnically diverse nation in the South Pacific, and the most racially divided, with large populations of Chinese, Europeans and other Pacific Islanders as well as Indians and Fijians.

The roots of the problems lie with Britain, the former colonial power, which imported Indians as indentured labourers to work the sugar plantations in the 19th century and gave the country its independence in 1970.

Indians control the sugar cane industry, and business and commerce. The accession in 1987 of Fiji's first Indian-dominated government, headed by Dr Timoci Bavadra, meant political supremacy too.

Indigenous resentment led to two military coups by Major General Sitiveni Rabuka, then a constitution was drawn up that guaranteed senior political posts and a majority of seats in parliament for indigenous Fijians. It was replaced in 1997 by the non-racial constitution.

Indigenous people insist that to be Fijian is a matter of race, not citizenship. Mahendra Chaudhry is accused by both sides of aggravating racial tensions by failing to take account of indigenous sensibilities, particularly in his efforts to persuade indigenous landowners to renew expiring leases on land farmed by Indian tenants.

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