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Fijians paramount?

from Issue #16 (November 2001 - February 2002) of Revolution

As Fiji went to the polls, James Heartfield asked why the protection of native interests has failed to satisfy Fijians

“The interests of the Fijians in Fiji shall be paramount,” was the promise made by the British colonial authorities, and the successive post-colonial regimes there. That promise has been entrenched in successive constitutions, with reserved seats in parliament and a special constitutional role for the Great Council of Chiefs. But somehow the promise has never satisfied the champions of Fijian paramountcy, who have overthrown constitutionally-appointed governments in 1987 and 1999 - leading the to current interim administration and fresh elections.

Fijian paramountcy is an important ideological cornerstone of the Fijian state, but its meaning is less obvious than at first appears. The elevation of the interests of the indigenous Fijians has generally been a formula under which competing claims have been demoted by the governing class. As the least politically developed community in Fiji, the Fijians presumed interests have mostly been interpreted on their behalf by elites, until those interests become little more than a cipher for elite concerns.

            The claims subordinated to the presumed interests of the Fijians have been different over different periods of time. In the first instance it was the European planters who were subjects of King Cakobau’s government in the 1860s and 70s who were subordinated to “Fijian paramountcy”. The power behind Cakobau’s throne was the British consul John Thurston and his assistant Robert Swanston. The early European settlers’ rapacious plundering of the Fiji islands could only be constrained by the creation of a properly constituted government, which Thurston created out of the local Chief, recently victorious over his Rewa rivals. “This department, explained Swanston, “believes it an absolute duty in dealing with savage races to give much consideration to their eccentric habits” (in Routledge Matanitu’ p148). Difficulties in raising taxes for a government led to a number of proposals to cede Fiji to the British Crown.

As long as the Liberal Gladstone was in office Britain could not be persuaded that Fiji was an economic addition to the Empire. But with Disraeli’s election, strictly financial questions were secondary to the propagandistic value of a growing Empire. Withholding a Pacific Island from France was sufficient rationale for taking Fiji, but the opportunity to have Victoria crowned Chief of the Fijians was a plus for Disraeli, for whom public ceremony had become an important appeal to the newly-enfranchised masses in Britain.

To properly constitute a colonial government in Fiji, the British needed an opposite party to agree cession. In truth there was no universally-accepted authority in the Fiji Islands, but to strike the deal Cokobau took on the honorific title of Tui Viti - King of Fiji. Swanston rounded up chiefs to sign the Deed of Cession in 1874, and the first governor assembled them as a ‘Great Council of Chiefs’, who acted as a kind of House of Lords, rubber-stamping the Colonial edicts.

Governor Gordon took special pride in his understanding of Fijian culture, and had himself instituted as a chief, undertaking to rule the Fijians according to their own customs. By and large, the European interpretation of Fijian custom was confused, eclectically borrowing elements of it and piecing them together according to a dogmatic schema drawn from the latest anthropological theory.

What was celebrated as Fijian custom, purporting to be passed down from previous generations, in fact had its origin in the relationship of the Colonial authorities to their newly-acquired subjects.

Geographer David Coulter was entertained by a high chief with a traditional Meke dance that featured a boat with two chimneys, a voyage, and the placing of garlands on the brows of a man and woman. It was the depiction of a journey made by Fijians to the Coronation of George the IV to represent the Colony (The Drama of Fiji, 1967, p50).

The principle of governing through native institutions developed by Gordon was a model to later colonists, like Gordon’s friend Lord Lugard, credited with pioneering it. Its real meaning was that the Victorian Empire was not economically developing its colonies but, on the contrary, arresting their growth. Colonial authorities merely put themselves in the place of indigenous elites, extracting an economic surplus in the form of tribute, without substantially transforming the production process.

The destructive consequences of Gordon’s policy became apparent within a few years of the Deed of Cession. Fijian chiefs were integrated into a cosmopolitan colonial administration, and some were feted in Australia as exotic men of standing. The chiefs were exposed to chicken pox, an infection rapidly transmitted down the chain of command throughout Fiji, as they reported back to village meetings. While Fijians were exposed to western diseases, they didn’t get western health care. A quarter of the population died, as the basics of treatment remained a mystery to everyone apart from those lucky enough to be in the vicinity of the few mission hospitals. Hundreds more were killed when highland tribes, taking the epidemic as a European curse, rebelled and were put down by Gordon, affecting the style of a Fiji chief of old.

In rationalising the system of administration, the colonial authorities turned a variety of Fijian titles into Civil Service grades: The District Commissioner, generally a European up until the 1930s was the Roko, or chief, next below him was the Buli, before the village headman, the turaga-ni-kora. The sociologist Rusiate Nayacakolou argues that the British influence, in formalising titles that had been only loosely based on inheritance, and subject to considerable fluidity, was actually more conservative than the indigenous customs it invoked (Leadership in Fiji).

Nayacakolou explains that the office of turaga-ni-kora, or headman, appears to reproduce all of the same functions of that of village chief, except that chief was a highly prized and respected role, while headman was more of a dogsbody, making sure everything happened. The dual function is less of an intrinsically Fijian custom as the reproduction of a Victorian distinction between the ‘Decorative’ and ‘Efficient’ parts of Government (described by Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution). At the upper end of the colonial administration, the Council of Chiefs provided the ceremonial and familiar face of the Native Administration that allowed Fijians to identify personally with a government that they had little direct control over.


Colonial interests paramount


The purported goal of protecting the Fijians as a race, and protecting their customary way of life, provided a higher purpose for the government over and above the self-interest of the European settlers. For a number of commentators, the willingness of the colonial administration to act against the European planters and merchants in defence of ‘Native Interests’ makes governors like Gordon seem enlightened. But any state needs an ideological foundation that stands above particular interests. That the British governors made the presumed interests of the Fijians ‘paramount’ only indicated that these interests were those most easily manipulated. In the absence of any coherent system of articulating their own interests, the interests of the Fijians were interpreted for them by the colonial administration, administrators that were paramount, standing behind a native mask.


Most importantly, native paramountcy was used to stabilise land rights. Gordon interpreted the Deed of Cession, in particular the promise of Hercules Robinson (on behalf of Queen Victoria) to rule in accordance with native custom, to justify a rationalisation of land ownership. Gordon initiated what was to become the Native Land Commission that recorded traditional ownership rights on the assumption that Fijians held land communally - a schema adopted from anthropologist Lewis Morgan by a local collaborator Lorimer Fison. If land was communal, then the administration could stop land sales (Europeans had purchased around 400,000 acres of prime farmland by 1880), and insist that all further cultivation was done by leasing the land from the local mataqali, or tribal group. Since the administration had final control over the native villages, it also had the last say on the development of agriculture. After the experience of lawless American and Australian frontiersmen, British administrators had learned to keep settlers on a short leash. And though the planters resented what they saw as favouritism towards the natives, they soon had cause to be grateful for the paramountcy of Fijian interests.

The problem of developing the Fiji economy was met one-sidedly, by the Australian-owned Colonial Sugar Refinery Company (CSR). Between the 1890s and 1972, when it left Fiji, the CSR transformed the country into a ‘Sugar Colony’, where the industry accounted for as much as four-fifths of exports at its height - a growth which relied on British imperial preferences to guarantee its markets. Railways, telephone lines and roads were all built and owned by the company without regard to the developmental needs of Fijian society, but solely as means to extract the most sugar from the plantations. The condition for the CSR’s growth was the mass importation of indentured Indian labour, which transformed race relations in the colony.


Indentured Indian labour


The lesson of colonial labour in the Pacific and the Caribbean was that isolating it from the subsistence economy, usually by migration, could best proletarianise a workforce. Indian labourers, impoverished by land hunger in the United Provinces, were a relatively easy target for the labour touts who indentured them for five-year terms, or girmit. Between 1879, when the first ship arrived, and 1966, the Indian population rose to a quarter of a million, by which time they had become half the total, outnumbering Fijians and Europeans combined. At first, Indians worked European plantations that sold cane to the CSR. But in 1916, under the pressure of agitation in India over the plight of Indians in Fiji, indentured labour was abolished throughout the colony. As free men, Indians demanded wages that European planters were unwilling to pay. To the horror of the planters, the CSR set up the Indians as independent farmers, initially on CSR-owned land.

Though the administration initially favoured the settlement of Indian farmers, conflict between the Indians and the CSR, with bitter strikes in 1920, 1943 and 1960, tended to develop into a wider challenge to British rule. To placate strikers, the administration nominated an Indian to sit on the Legislative Council alongside the two Fijians nominated by the Great Council of Chiefs and, in 1929, Indians elected their own representatives on a separate roll. In 1935 Indians agitated for free elections and a Common Roll of Europeans, Indians and Fijians. Throughout the 1960s, Indian representatives agitated for independence.


Indigenous and Indo-Fijian population of Fiji








Per Cent


Per Cent

Total No.


115 000




127 000


94 000


17 000


120 000


84 000


61 000


157 000


118 000


120 000


260 000


202 000


241 000


477 000


259 932


292 896


588 068


329 305


348 704


715 375


393 575


338 818


775 077

(Source: Fisk, Political Economy of Independent Fiji, 1970, p8, Fiji Dept of Statistics. Total includes General Voters)



Playing the race card

To meet the challenge of Indians’ economic and political agitation, the administration rediscovered the ethos of ‘Fijian paramountcy’. Armed Fijian constables were engaged to suppress strikes (“I cannot speak too highly of the attitude of the Fijian natives,” said Governor Rodwell, on April 8, 1921). In the Legislative Council, the primacy of native interests was invoked as a block to Indian claims for more democracy. The Fijians “consider that nomination is... the only means whereby Fijian interests will be permanently safeguarded” because “they fear... the Legislative Council will pass into Indian hands,” an imperious Governor Fletcher told the Council on November 1, 1935. Since Fijian commoners had no democratic representation until 1963, Fletcher’s interpretation of Fijian opinion was derived entirely from the chiefs whom he employed as administrators. In fact, Fijian interests were defined on their behalf by the governor and his Native Administrators.

As free Indians rented more land from Fijians, forcing up the price, Governor Rodwell suspended the free market in leases by assuming responsibility for letting land on the natives’ behalf. Once again it was presumed that the natives’ own interests could only be defended through the colonial administration. In a letter dated December 14, 1920, explaining the decision to the Secretary of the State for the Colonies, Rodwell wrote, “natives are in fact unable to exercise any right of selection such as a landlord may reasonably claim to exercise.” Claiming a mandate from the Great Council of Chiefs, Rodwell argued that a free market would “preclude, to the advantage of the East Indian and the Chinaman, the settlement on the lands of European planters and traders of modest means.” (In the event, the colony never succeeded in attracting more European planters, but still retained control of the leasing of Fijian lands to Indians.)


Fijian paramountcy used against Fijians


The paramountcy of Fijian interests was an important ideological buttress for government in Fiji. Fijian interests were a value that stood above the partial claims first of European planters and secondly of Indian peasant farmers. But the community that was most pointedly dispossessed under the rubric of defending Fijian interests was that of the indigenous Fijians themselves.

Since the first governor, Gordon, took office the interpretation of Fijian paramountcy has stressed the preservation of presumed native customs and tradition - even if that meant preserving those traditions from the actions of the Fijians themselves. By administrators who were either chiefs or from chiefly clans, the colonial government ensured a like-minded respect for authority and order that could be deployed against any expression of native unrest.

Ratu Sir J.L.V. Sukuna (1888-1958), the second Tui (King) of the Lau islands was educated at Wadham College Oxford and promoted by the Colonial Office, as well as serving in the Fiji Home Guard, eventually becoming the first native to hold the post of Secretary of Native Affairs. Sukuna popularized the concept of paramountcy in the Legislative Council and the Great Council of Chiefs. But, at the same time, he stamped upon any expression of Fijian self-determination, which he considered not just different from but a threat to the principle that Fijian interests are paramount.

Replying to a tract by a European planter, George Barrow, Fiji for the Fijians, Sukuna insisted that “the system of native administration was adopted from the Fijian social order and was devised to suit the peculiar conditions of the people to be governed” (The Three Legged Stool, p74). The backwardness of the Fijian meant that he “could not have concerned himself with or even so much as thought of, the abstract theories of government by one’s own law” (ibid, p75).

But, actually, Fijians were trying to organise themselves under the slogan ‘Fiji for the Fijians’, which was raised by a charismatic leader Apolosi Nawai. Apolosi’s co-operative Viti Company proved so popular that the District Commissioner for Lautoka, W. Scott thought “Avolosi’s [sic] acts are dangerous to the peace and good order of the colony” (Minute Paper #1858, February 24, 1915). Particularly troubling was the widespread defection of native bulis from the Native Administration to Apolosi’s Viti Company (ten bulis and several turaga-ni-koros were dismissed in Nadroga for this, Fiji Times, March 27, 1915).

Sukuna, though, was dismissive, insisting that Apolosi’s “activities have only been possible because of the ignorance of the natives” (Three Legged Stool, p.51). Sukuna prompted, “the solution is at hand by... deporting Apolosi under ordinance 111 of 1887” - which he was, to the tiny island of Rotuma in 1917.

The greatest threat posed by the Apolosi’s Viti Company to the native administration was the authority his representatives assumed to overturn native regulations and direct Fijians not to work for the bulis or rokos. The courts tried a number of cases of refusing to answer summonses to weed the buli’s garden - “the charge is known as ‘talaidredre’ - in an attempt to restore discipline (Fiji Times, April 16, 1915). Enforced weeding was not a symbolic punishment, but an important part of the organisation of communal production by fiat, alongside house-building and entertaining village guests (i.e. collective food preparation). Absence from the village for more than thirty days was an offence. Outside of market discipline, all of these activities had to be dictated by colonial administrators in chiefly garb.

The native regulations were re-vamped by Sukuna in 1948 to control the return of large numbers of de-mobbed Fiji soldiers as “rules of conduct for a people whose life is based socially and politically on the patriarchal system”. Sukuna set out “services regarded as essential to the well-being of native communities”, or forced labour, in Section Two, and “the restriction of the liberty of movements” in Criminal Offences Code No 10 (Three Legged Stool, p 440-3). The native regulations, which were not removed until as late as 1966, prompted Jale Baba, chairman of the ruling Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party to tell me that “Sukuna believed that we should be left in the villages like specimens in a museum” (July 6, 2001).


Attacks on non-racial unions


In 1959 the chiefly civil servants were again called on to frustrate popular Fijian mobilisations, this time around a wage dispute amongst urban oil workers. The Wholesale and Retail General Workers Union, led by an Indian (James Anthony) and a Fijian (Apisai Tora) had mobilised solidarity with striking oil-workers, mostly urban Fijians, from both Indian farmers (who “offered money, rice and sugar’”, Fiji Times, December 9, 1959)) and Fijian villages (“Dalo for strikers’ supplies”, Fiji Times, December 15, 1959). (Dalo is a native Fijian crop).

When police used smoke bombs against strikers fighting broke out, provoking an hysterical reaction on the part of white opinion across the Empire. The London Times warned of “a strain of anti-European feeling”; the Sydney Morning Herald saw “serious difficulties in multi-racial representation” (December 12); and the Fiji Times detected “an undercurrent of racial antagonism” (December 14), that saw “violence which was directed primarily against Europeans” (December 21).

For the most part this reaction was unjustified. Subsequent court cases overwhelmingly recorded fighting between Fijian strikers - outraged at being gassed - and Fijian constables: 100 people at Walu Bay were shouting “kill the police!” (Fiji Times, December 17). The trigger to the hysteria over race was one report in the Fiji Times that “Gangs of youths threw stones and rocks at European motorists” but “did not molest motorists of other races” (December 11).

The underlying cause of the reaction, though, was not the racial element in the strike, but the absence of any division along racial lines. This was what Fiji Times editor Leonard Usher meant when he wrote that the rioting was probably connected with “the ‘dark races against the light’ talk that has been going on” (December 21). Usher was referring to the occasional appeal that Indian members of the Legislative Council made to their Fijian counterparts for a joint campaign against colonial rule - one that was, for the most part, ignored. In the strikes, however, labourers, the majority of whom were Fijian (Fijian names outnumber Indian amongst those charged by between two and three to one), made common cause across racial lines. This was a prospect that challenged the foundation of the colonial administration in Fiji, which purported to rule in the pursuit of Fijian interests. Whether on a plan agreed with the governor or not, the Great Council of Chiefs launched a series of meetings to plead with Suva Fijians, “Do not turn to the teachings of other people” (Ratu Tui Bua, Ratu Kavai, at the Native Land Trust Board, December 12, 1959). At another meeting in Suva, attended by around 2500, mostly Fijians, Semesa Sikivou warned Fijians that “other people might be using them for their own ends”. All were agreed that the Fijians in Suva should go through the proper channels of the Fijian Administration and the Fijian representatives on the Legislative Council.

With the connivance of the governor, representatives of the Fijian Administration (as the Native Administration was re-named in 1944) strove to force the Fijians of Suva out of their non-racial unions and back into the exclusively Fijian Alliance. It was not the riots that were racially inspired, but rather the administration’s response to them. The Fijian Alliance reproduced the ethnic division of the countryside in the towns. Unions like the Stevedores’ instituted a Fijians-only policy, and Fijians came to dominate the manual trades – a situation that only changed with the return of mixed unions in the1980s.

The subordination of the trade unions to the paramountcy of the Fijian Administration anticipated the eventual settlement of the claim for political independence. As long as the demand was associated with Indian parties, it was opposed by the Fijian Administration, who feared that a breach with Britain would undermine the connection that guaranteed their authority. But the weakness of the constitutionally-minded Indian leaders was that they expected British fair play to hand them democracy on a plate (Brij Lal records that the Indian leaders pinned their hopes variously on ‘a constitutional conference’ called by ‘Her Majesty’s Government’ and an intervention by the Colonial Office, Broken Waves, pp201, 203). Instead the British put their weight behind a Constitution that entrenched ‘Fijian Paramountcy’ by providing for separate voting rolls for Fijians, Indians – each with an equal number of seats, despite the preponderance of Indians in the population - and General Voters (Chinese and Europeans). In the Senate, the Great Council of Chiefs held the balance of power, nominating eight senators.

Britain’s confidence in the moderating influence of the Great Council of Chiefs was tested by the results of the first ‘free’ elections amongst Fijians in 1963, when the chiefs’ candidates easily repelled a challenge by a more stridently nationalist Apisai Tora (local bulis instructed villagers to attend his opponent Ratu Penaia Ganilau’s meetings instead of Tora’s (Fiji Times, March 25, 1963). Though the Indian-dominated National Federation Party had most votes cast in its favour under the new constitution, the Fijian Administration’s Alliance Party won the majority of seats. The paramountcy of Fijian interests, enshrined in the new constitution, under the aegis of the former colonial power, ensured that the Indian popular majority was never translated into political power. A pattern of extra-territorial intervention to buttress undemocratic and makeshift constitutions would carry on to the end of the century.

From 1966 to 1987 Fiji was ruled by the Alliance Party, under Ratu Sukuna’s nephew and prodigy, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who headed the Fijian side in the constitutional negotiations, having been groomed by the British Administration as future leader. The operation of the principle of Fijian paramountcy was contradictory. On the one hand, the political (and military leadership) of the country remained in hands that were Fijian. On the other, ordinary Fijians not only failed to benefit from this arrangement, but actually slipped behind the Indians in material terms.


Rural power base


The Fijian leadership’s power rested on their authority over the Fijian village structure, which meant that they adopted policies to keep it in place. The Fijian leadership maintained a strict monopoly of political power. As ever, the paramountcy of Fijian custom and tradition in practice meant arresting the social development of the Fijians, as can be seen from the structure of the workforce.

In 1996 the population of Fiji was 750,000, of whom nearly 400,000 are Fijian and 339,000 Indo-Fijian. Of those the total labour force is nearly 300,000, approaching 156,000 Fijian and 125,000 Indian. However, many of those who are counted as ‘in the workforce’ are not in the money economy, but subsistence labourers. Amongst Fijians, only 43,000 have no recourse to the subsistence economy, while twice that number of Indians are wholly in the money economy (1996 Census). Though the numbers of Fijians living in urban areas - which for the most part means the capital, Suva - has risen since 1966 to as much as 41 per cent, the majority of Fijians still depend on subsistence production. 


Income by ethnicity



Average household income

Average per capita income










Source:UNDP. Based on notional cost of subsistence goods, which tends to overstate rural Fijian incomes.


The monopoly on power exercised by the traditional Fijian leadership has failed ordinary Fijians. Army hero Lt Col Viliame Seruvakula, who opposed the 1999 coup, recently reflected that “as far as I remember my uncles in the villages are still living the way they lived when I was ten years old... so I don’t know how [Fijian] leadership has been good” (The Review, April 2001). The gap between the implied promise of the Alliance Party to protect Fijian interests and the actual stagnation of Fijian incomes meant that their grip on power was always prone to slip. In 1977 the Indian-led National Federation Party won a slender majority in parliament, only to see the Queen’s Governor-General, Ratu Penaia Ganilau, appoint Mara as prime minister. In 1987 the Alliance lost again, this time to the newly-formed Fiji Labour Party.

Unfortunately the only successful mobilisation of Fijian commoners since independence has been done in the name of further entrenching Fijian paramountcy. Within weeks of the Labour Party victory, a ‘Taukei’ movement of indigenous Fijians – an older Apisai Tora played a key part - threatened insurrection against the ‘Indian-led’ government. The Army’s Third in Command, Sitiveni Rabuka seized parliament. Her Majesty’s Governor, Ganilau, formed a Government of Ministers under Rabuka which Ratu Mara agreed to join. As far as the Alliance politicians were concerned, the coup was a means for them to retain power. The British Queen confirmed the legitimacy of the takeover, by refusing to see the deposed PM Bavadra. But by inviting the commoner Rabuka to do what the chiefs had failed to, Ganilau had started a process that he could not control. In a second coup Rabuka reaffirmed the right of the Taukei to dictate to the politicians the course of events.

New constitutions were written in 1990 and 1997, each one giving new force to the claim of Fijian paramountcy. These constitutions were sponsored by an “international community” that had become sensitised to the demands of indigenous rights. The last was the product of the Reeves commission, under Sir Paul Reeves, Anglican Primate and Governor-General in New Zealand. As a Maori who had advanced under New Zealand’s agenda of a special “first people” - or tangata whenua (people of the land) – status for Maori, Reeves was sympathetic to the claims of Fijian paramountcy. The Indian politicians in the Labour and Federation parties lacked independence from the international arbiters, and supported the new arrangements as necessary concessions to ensure stability.

The new safeguards to Fijian paramountcy though, could never satisfy the Fijian commoners, however entrenched they were. What was really driving the Fijians was their sense of economic disadvantage, and control over the government was the only symbolic expression of that. Worse, securing political control did not empower the Fijian commoners but the elite, as indicated by the constitutional role of the Council of Chiefs. But the idea that the chiefs and the people were one was a fiction that only obscured their opposing interests. No constitutional arrangement could buy off the taukei, because the demand for paramountcy meant something different to them than it did to the elite. For them it meant economic advance. For the chiefs it meant economic stability and continued political power. Those were not just different demands: they were in direct opposition.

But the effect of the constitutional safeguards did not help the Fijian elite, either. The idea that political power would be reserved for them without the need to campaign for it could only aggravate their isolation from their supporters. No matter how copper-bottomed the constitutional safeguards, the Fijian parties again lost the elections in 1999 to the Labour Party. With no political process of fighting to win support to discipline them, the Fijian elite fragmented into a number of parties based more on personal differences than principle. Once again, Fijian commoners were readily mobilised around an anti-Indian demand for Fijian paramounty, and George Speight’s coup handed power back to the Fijian leaders in the shape of Laisenia Qarase’s ‘interim administration’.

At the Citizens Constitutional Forum, the Reverend Akuila Yabaki was blunt: “all this current talk of indigenous rights is fuelling racism.” But, in fact, Fijians are far from being prone to racial hostility. On the contrary, racial violence in Fiji is negligible by comparison to most countries. Nor are the differences between Indians and Fijians so very profound. The political demand for Fijian paramountcy, however, can only be articulated in opposition to the competing ethnicity, Indians.

Behind the promotion of paramountcy today, though, is not a desire to do down Indians, so much as a desire on the part of the elites to avoid the wrath of the Fijian commoners. Talking to Jale Baba at the offices of the ruling SDL party, it became clear that his policies were framed according to an incipient fear of the masses - “those people up in the mountains who come down in droves and set up road blocks.”

Meanwhile, the fact that neither ethnic group in Fiji is directly involved in exploiting or oppressing the other should make it easier to build a genuine liberation movement – i.e. one which transcends the racialised divisions which are a result of colonial rule.