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Fiji: 'Indigenous rights' smokescreen for elite rule

BY NORM DIXON (from Greenleft website)

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 land.

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” government.

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.

The 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 and poor.

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 authorities).

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.

Chiefs coopted

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 debts.

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 undermined.

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 services (lala).

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.

Indentured labour

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 both races.

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 Melanesian commoners.

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 fields.

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 cane-cutters strike.

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 possible.

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' interests.

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.