Rabuka fails to illuminate dark side of Fiji

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The Independent Online
ON ONE side of Fiji, the western side, are the beaches - white sand sloping into the sea underneath coconut palms that lean outwards and sway in the breeze. The people here are smiling and unhurried, lying back in the shade drinking the local kava brew - a numbing narcotic - and strumming guitars slowly. With frangipani blossoms tucked behind their ears, they play the character parts of South Sea Islanders to perfection. This is where the tourists come.

But there is another side of Fiji, the eastern side, where it rains most of the time and where the capital, Suva, is located. Suva is built on tropically green hills around a spectacular natural harbour. But in the heat and frequent drenching rain, it seems to be festering. This is where the government meets.

Today the government is run by Sitiveni Rabuka, the army colonel who lauched a coup in 1987, supposedly to protect native Fijians against the ethnic Indian population. At the time, Colonel - now Mr - Rabuka said he did not want power for himself, but few people were taken in by his statements of high principle.

The moustachioed, rugby- playing officer said many other things as well: the government he overthrew with his coup was backed by the Soviet Union and Libya, he claimed. And once in power, he made a controversial call to army chaplains to try to convert the Indians to Christianity. This was reasonable, he is quoted as saying in his biography No Other Way, because 'all we are trying to do is the same thing that missionaries did here in Fiji when we were cannibals'.

According to government statistics for 1991, the population of Fiji was 746,326. Of that number, 368,709 were Fijian, 340,687 Indian, and the rest of mixed European or Chinese blood.

The Indian community is the mainstay of the economy. But for a man who saw 'no other way' than to stage a coup and upset a fairly harmonious balance of power, racial harmony has not been a high priority.

The new 1990 constitution discriminates strongly against the Indians, who are being weeded out of the higher positions in the civil service in a relentless unwinding of the multi-racial experiment left behind by the British colonialists.

The irony is that the Indians were brought to Fiji by the British in the 19th century to protect the native Fijians from exploitation. Now that the Indians have worked their way up from indentured labourers on the sugar plantations to a position of economic dominance, the conservative Fijian nationalists around Mr Rabuka have a convenient scapegoat for Fijian discontent.

It is 114 years since the first Indians were shipped into Fiji. Although nearly half the population, they own only 1.5 per cent of the land. Before the coup, the Indians were beginning to outnumber the Fijians, but that has changed over the past five years as many Indians, particularly professionals whom Fiji can ill afford to lose, have emigrated to New Zealand or Australia.

One consequence of the coup was Fiji's ejection from the Commonwealth. For those around Mr Rabuka, this does not appear to be a matter for regret. 'The Commonwealth is not good enough for Fiji,' huffed Jone Dakuvula, the Prime Minister's press secretary. 'We think we are better in human rights, even despite the coup, than a lot of Commonwealth members, including Britain.'

After the long-promised elections were held last May, Mr Rabuka fought off his closest rival for the prime ministership, Josevata Kamikamica, with an amazing feat of political deal- making. This bulwark against Indian domination went to the elected Indian MPs to get their support for his candidacy. In return, he promised to review those parts of the constitution that discriminated most against Indians, and to look into the highly contentious issue of land leases.

That deal made Mr Rabuka Prime Minister, but since then nothing has been done about the constitution or land leases. Most leases on the sugar cane plantations will expire about 1997. Conservative Fijians say the land should be taken away from the Indians; others say that would lead to an economic standstill. If the problem is not settled soon, confrontation is likely.