Fiji: 'Indigenous rights' smokescreen for elite rule
BY NORM DIXON (from
Terrorist leader George Speight has claimed that
his gang's kidnapping of the government of Prime Minister Mahendra
Chaudhry was to defend “indigenous” Melanesian Fijians'
political “paramountcy” over Indian Fijians and to prevent
changes that would threaten Melanesian Fijians' ownership of the
Top commanders of the Fijian armed forces, while
unhappy with the way Speight dislodged Fiji's elected multiracial
government, have endorsed Speight's motives and completed the coup
by taking power and then appointing their own “interim”
On July 21, Speight attempted to draw comparisons
between the situation of Fiji's Melanesian population and the
struggles of Australia's Aboriginal people, New Zealand's Maoris,
Polynesian Hawaiians and the Melanesians of Kanaky (New Caledonia)
by urging them to join with him to “stand up and exert their
rights” at the Sydney Olympic Games in September.
Some prominent Maori activists have accepted
Speight's rhetoric at face value and voiced support for his actions.
A few leftists in the United States have gone so far as to paint
Speight as a flag bearer for “anti-imperialism” in the Pacific,
because the Australian and New Zealand governments imposed, or
threatened, (tepid) sanctions following the coup.
Fiji military's belated detention of Speight and his collaborators
has heightened sympathy for the smooth-talking coup leader among
those predisposed to support him.
However, the overthrow of the trade union-backed
Fiji Labour Party government had nothing to do with protecting the
interests of poor and working-class Melanesian Fijians, and
everything to do with preserving the entrenched rule of Fiji's
narrow aristocratic elite.
Rather than being a blow to imperialism, the
Speight-military tag team has bolstered imperialism's main bulwark
in Fiji and has set back the development of the social force that
Fiji's ruling chiefs and Western interests fear most -- a united
multiracial working class, allied with working farmers, unemployed
The colonial experience of Melanesian Fijians was
different to that of the Aboriginal people, the Maori and Hawaiians,
most notably because Fiji was not inundated with British settlers
(although those that did arrive to establish plantations were very
powerful and worked hand in glove with the British colonial
Unlike its policies toward the Aboriginal people,
the British did not attempt to exterminate the Fijian people, drive
them from their land or herd them into reserves. Britain had just
fought a bitter war with the 58,000 Maori and was unable to
decisively defeat them. London was not ready to go to war with more
than 150,000 Fijians. The British chose cooption of the Fijian
traditional leaders over confrontation.
Fiji was ruled by ratus, hereditary chiefs, in a system influenced
by that which prevailed in Polynesia to the east. Fiji's most
powerful chief, Ratu Seru Cakobau, formed a government with some
European settlers in 1871. The government went deeply into debt and,
in 1874, the recently converted Christian high chief reluctantly
ceded his country to Queen Victoria in return for the payment of
The British then deliberately constructed a
political system which incorporated and strengthened the dominant
eastern chiefs' control over the Melanesian-Fijian people and
created opportunities for wealth and privileges to accrue to them.
The first British governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur
Gordon, forbade the employment of Melanesians on the plantations,
banned them from waged labour and commerce and kept them from living
in the towns. His measures were designed to ensure that the
traditional Fijian social structure was not unduly disturbed and
that the chiefs' authority over Melanesian Fijians was not
Gordon ended European settlers' ability to
purchase land for a pittance, making the buying and selling of
communal land illegal. As a result, around 83% of Fiji's land is
still in the hands of the Melanesian-Fijian people (via the chiefs).
Before the arrival of Europeans, the land was
owned in common by the mataqali (clan) and the chief supervised and
regulated its use. In return, Melanesian “commoners” worked the
land and delivered to the chiefs a certain amount of produce and
The British manipulated the chiefs' relationship
with the commoners and the land. The chiefs were treated like, and
many began to act like, aristocratic landowners.
The Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), the body which
has come to symbolise “indigenous” rule in Fiji, was a creation
of the colonial administration.
After 1904, the GCC was given the right to forward
a list of names of six Fijians from which the British
governor-general would selected two to sit in the colony's
Legislative Council. The small European population elected six
representatives. The Indians were denied representation.
The conversion of the chiefs from traditional
custodians of commonly owned land into nascent
aristocratic-capitalist landlords gathered pace with the development
of large-scale sugar cane growing.
Gordon's deal to reinforce chiefly rule resulted in a serious labour
shortage in the sugar plantations. As a former governor of Trinidad
and Mauritius -- both British sugar-growing colonies -- Gordon had
an answer: the mass importation of indentured labourers from India.
The first ship of labourers arrived on May 14, 1879 with 463
immigrants on board.
By 1920, the last year of the system of indentured
labour in Fiji, some 60,000 Indians had arrived in Fiji to work off
their girmit -- the “agreement” to work as virtual slaves for
five years. This period was known as narak (hell). Once the period
of servitude lapsed, Indians were not eligible for their promised
ticket home for another five years.
Around 1920, the Australian-owned Colonial Sugar
Refining Company (CSR) abolished the plantations and leased small
plots to poor farmers, mostly Indians. The small Indian farmers were
completely dependent on the sugar prices set by CSR, which
monopolised the sugar mills.
Many Indians also leased Melanesian communal land
from the chiefs to grow sugar cane and vegetables. The rent was paid
to the chiefs, who grew wealthy from the labour of the working
farmers, while the Melanesian commoners saw few tangible benefits.
The British administration and CSR were keen that
the sugar industry (and its profits) prosper. This required that the
predominantly Indian-Fijian peasants be granted some degree of land
security in the form of long-term leases. In return for agreeing to
this, and for charging relatively cheap rents, 25% of rent revenue
went into the coffers of the GCC-controlled National Land Trust,
while 30% was creamed off by the chiefs of the mataqalis that owned
the leased land.
Fear of the masses
British imperialism recognised that the greatest threat to its
colonial interests and its chiefly allies were the Indian-Fijian
peasants and commoner Melanesians. While separate outbursts of
unrest from each group unnerved the colonial regime, always at the
back of its mind was the danger of united action between the poor of
Prior to the first world war, a movement of
Melanesian Fijians -- the Viti Kabani -- led by a commoner, Apolosi
Ranawai, rebelled against the British and the chiefs. Ranawai
defiantly referred to the chiefly collaborators with Britain as the
“scum of the earth” and called for a “new era” for
The chiefs demanded that Britain crush the Viti
Kabani. “There are no interests other than the interests of the
rulers”, declared prominent chief Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna. Apolosi
was exiled and died in a New Zealand prison in 1940.
Indian Fijians launched regular strikes. A
two-week strike in the early 1920s over low wages and high prices
won some gains. In 1943, cane farmers went on strike over the low
prices paid for their cane by CSR. The farmers burned their cane
Another strike, in 1959, developed into a general
strike which saw Melanesian- and Indian-Fijian workers and farmers
unite in action. Troops were sent from New Zealand to help the local
troops break the strike. The colonial administration, backed by the
chiefs, afterwards decreed that there must be separate trade unions
for each race.
The British authorities had long fanned racial
divisions between the Melanesian and Indian Fijians. After 1910, the
colonial authorities enforced regulations that restricted Indian
Fijians to the western provinces of Viti Levu (the main Fijian
island). Education was segregated -- as late as 1960 only 6% of
schools were officially described as “mixed”.
The British colonial authorities and the chiefs
resisted the extension of political rights to Indian Fijians. Indian
Fijians only gained some voting rights -- and then on a communal
basis -- in 1929.
In the 1940s, fearing that the independence
struggle in India might radicalise Fijians, the British
administration whipped up fears of “Indian domination”. The
Indian Fijians were vilified as “unpatriotic” because of a 1943
It was only in 1966 that the undemocratic 1904
electoral system was scrapped. But its replacement was based on
communalism and lesser rights for Indian Fijians. The British used
this transitional period to independence to prepare the favoured
rulers, the aristocratic eastern elite, for power, even though many
of them did not want to be free of their British patrons. In 1966,
Ratu Kamisese Mara became the chief minister.
By independence in 1970, Britain had engineered a
system that guaranteed the continued dominance of the chiefly elite
by institutionalising political discrimination against Indian
Fijians, who were almost 50% of the country's population.
The 1970 independence constitution entrenched the
GCC's crucial power over land ownership by requiring two-thirds
majority support in the GCC-dominated Senate for any alterations to
land-related matters in the constitution.
Britain bequeathed Fiji a military and police
which were almost exclusively composed of, and commanded by,
Melanesian Fijians. Since independence, the armed forces have
maintained close links with the British army. Its officers and
special forces have been trained in Britain, Australia, New Zealand
and the United States.
The Alliance Party, dominated by the powerful
eastern chiefs and supported by Indian-Fijian and European
capitalists, ruled from independence until it was defeated by Timoci
Bavadra's Fiji Labour Party in the 1987 election.
The election of the moderate, social democratic
FLP in 1987 (as again in 1999) threatened to upset the eastern
aristocratic elite's carefully constructed political and ideological
monopoly. It signalled that a political movement based on united
class action by Fiji's working people of all races is increasingly
The FLP's election also revealed the sharp decline
in the chiefly elite's hold over increasing numbers of urban and
working-class Melanesian Fijians. Even the elite's volatile
supporters in the Melanesian-chauvinist Taukei movement, which is
overwhelmingly based among Melanesian commoners, have displayed a
tendency to question the GCC's commitment to Melanesian Fijians'
Fiji's military, in 1987 and (with Speight's
assistance) again in 2000, moved quickly to nip this challenge to
Fiji's ruling elite in the bud and whip up racial chauvinism to
retard the developing unity of the oppressed.
The Australian and New Zealand governments --
despite a lot of bluster and empty threats -- have tacitly accepted
the FLP's overthrow because they believe the elite, backed by the
Fiji military, will best defend their considerable economic and
political interests in Fiji.