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A Very Brief History of Fiji and Its Coups


Native Fijians are of Melanesian extraction. The first inhabitants probably arrived around 1000 BC, long before contact with European explorers in the seventeenth century. The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman visited Fiji in 1643 while looking for the Great Southern Continent. The islands came under British control as a colony in 1874. The native Fijians made poor field hands (wondering why anyone would want to work so hard when it takes relatively less labor to obtain foods such as fish, papayas, bananas, mangoes, dalo/taro and cassava, and simple easy-to-make shelters are all that is needed in such a benign climate). Therefore the British brought in Indian indentured laborers. By the mid-1980s, the number of Indo-Fijians had reached parity with the native Fijians, who were feeling their culture to be increasingly threatened by the imported Indian culture. Interactions between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians were limited to a significant extent by the geographic separation of their living areas (i.e., villages versus farms). Racial prejudice has been heavily emphasized and exploited by political leaders and it is hard to know how much prejudice would exist without the efforts of such politicians.

Granted independence in 1970, Fiji has struggled to develop a stable government and has endured four military coups. Democratic rule was first interrupted by two coups in 1987. Ostensibly the first coup occurred because the government of the day was perceived as dominated by the Indo-Fijian (Indian) community. However, the coup also permitted a non-chiefly officer (Sitiveni Rabuka) a chance to take control of both the army and the entire country. The hereditary chiefly social structure is a key aspect of Fijian society and many positions (such as head of the army) had previously been reserved for those of chiefly status.

The second 1987 coup saw the British monarchy and the British Governor General replaced by a non-executive President, and the country changed the long form of its name from Dominion of Fiji to Republic of Fiji (and to Republic of the Fiji Islands in 1997). The coups contributed to heavy Indian emigration; the population loss resulted in economic difficulties but ensured that Melanesians became the majority.

In 1990, the new Constitution institutionalized the ethnic Fijian domination of the political system. Sitiveni Rabuka, the Lieutenant Colonel who carried out the 1987 coup became Prime Minister in 1992, following elections held under the new constitution. Three years later, Rabuka established the Constitutional Review Commission, which in 1997 led to a new Constitution, which was supported by most leaders of the indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian communities. Fiji was re-admitted to the Commonwealth of Nations.

The new millennium brought along another coup, instigated by commoner George Speight (who claimed to represent the indigenous Fijians), which effectively toppled the government of Mahendra Chaudhry, who became Prime Minister following adoption of the 1997 constitution. Commodore Frank Bainimarama assumed executive power after the forced resignation of President Ratu Sir Mara. Rather than re-instate Chaudhry, Bainimrama put a Fijian in power, Laisenia Qarase. Following a legal challenge, the High Court ordered the reinstatement of the constitution, and in September 2001, a General election was held to restore democracy, which was won by interim Prime Minister Qarase's party.

In 2005, the Qarase government proposed some very controversial pieces of legislation. The military strongly opposed this. In late 2006, Bainimarama handed down a list of demands to Qarase. He gave Qarase an ultimatum date of 4 December to accede to these demands or to resign from his post. Qarase refused to do either and on 6 December Bainimarama seized power. (The coup was postponed from the 4th to the 6th so that the big annual Police-Army rugby game could be played - seriously!) Bainimarama has put an interim government in place with himself as Prime Minister and his key military officers in various positions of power (e.g., head of police, head of immigration etc.). Due to three factors the coup has had relatively little violence: (a) Fiji has a long cultural tradition of hierarchical power (making independent protest unusual), (b) there are very few guns in the hands of private citizens, and (c) this coup is not obviously biased along racial or ethnic lines (although the Fijian nationalists have been excluded from participation and the Indian-dominated Fiji Labour Party had a great degree of participation in the early years).

As of 2014, the interim government is still in power with Elections scheduled for later this year under a new constitution. A court decision in October 2008 ruled that regardless of what happened previously, the President can use his "prerogative" powers to dismiss the previously elected government, name anyone he wants as prime minister (and any other position), grant amnesty to anyone he wants (in this case the military who pulled off the coup and their supporters), and create any laws he wants by promulgation. An appeals court set aside the October 2008 ruling and declared the interim government illegal. Shortly thereafter, the constitution was abrogated and the military "officially" became the rulers of Fiji. The head of the armed forces says that elections will be held in 2014, after he has created a new constitution and made the changes he sees as necessary to "move Fiji forward." At this time even the municipal governments have been abolished and there are no elected officials at any level. However, life in Fiji has changed very little and all is calm. Especially in Savusavu, there are no obvious tensions, racial or otherwise, and life is good!