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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 23, 2002

Fiji looking for peace

 •  Facts about Fiji

By Charles E. Morrison
President of the East-West Center

This month, Fiji's top political leaders gathered for an extraordinary East-West Center-sponsored retreat at that country's Outrigger Reef Hotel.

Armed soldiers and a mob faced off near the grounds of Fiji's Parliament in Suva on the 15th day of a crisis that resulted from a coup on May 19, 2000. The East-West Center is helping promote a Fijian solution to the crisis.

Advertiser library photo • June 2, 2000

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and Fiji Labor Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry each invited nine key supporters for a two-day talanoa or "talk story" meeting focusing on the hottest items on the Fiji political agenda — land, constitutional reform and a proposed multiparty Cabinet.

Sitting between the two leaders, Sitiveni Halapua, director of the East-West Center's Pacific Islands Development Program and the architect of the talanoa, moderated the meeting.

The meeting was part of a quiet East-West Center effort to help Fiji rebuild unity after its shattering May 2000 coup. The talanoa got its start nearly two years ago when Chaudhry, the country's first prime minister of Indian ancestry, and most of his multi-

ethnic Cabinet were being held hostage at gunpoint in the Parliament building during a crisis that lasted 56 days. We at the East-West Center were deeply concerned about the future of a country, critical to our mission of Asia-Pacific community building, with which we have had such long ties.

To see how we might help, Halapua, who had previously studied and worked in Fiji, made an extended trip even before the hostage crisis had ended. He spoke with virtually all of Fiji's political leaders.

He reported back that he sensed that there was a great desire to talk across the political fault lines but no neutral vehicle for doing so. Halapua proposed that the traditional talanoa process be the basis for discussions of reconciliation and national unity.

The first talanoa in October 2000 brought together political and religious leaders, including some former hostages and coup sympathizers.

Despite the still tense and dangerous political environment, all went well.

The participants themselves set the future parameters — that the talanoa is to be based on reconciliation, inclusion, sincerity and mutual respect.

Buoyed by the positive outcome, the East-West Center continued the process. Qarase and Chaudhry became personally involved following the August 2001 elections. These showed that the electorate was highly polarized and increased the importance of the talanoa as a peaceful means of discussing sensitive issues outside the highly partisan political process.

Political factions run deep

Most ethnic Fijian voters supported Qarase's Soqosoqo Duavata Lewenivanua or SDL. Fijians of Indian ancestry overwhelmingly backed Chaudhry's Fiji Labor Party or FLP. A group of so-called moderates was virtually eliminated.

Qarase formed a ruling majority in alliance with the small Conservative Alliance Party, turning aside Chaudhry's request for a share in the Cabinet based upon a provision of the 1997 Constitution requiring a multiparty government that reflected Fiji's ethnic communities. The matter is now before the Supreme Court.

Regardless of whether the court eventually requires a multiparty Cabinet, as a practical matter neither side can effectively govern without some form of cooperation with the other.

The retreat came more than six months after the previous leaders' talanoa. In the meantime, grassroots impatience with the legal wrangling and the slow pace of political reconciliation has grown. Tourism is still recovering, the sugar industry is in desperate need of new investment, agricultural land is becoming fallow as long-term leases are not being renewed, and emigration has increased, particularly of younger Indo-Fijians.

Talanoa initiates dialogue

Fijian Laisenia Qarase became prime minister after an ouster of ethnic Indian leadership.

Advertiser library photo

Responding to public sentiment, the two leaders met just before the talanoa and personally set the agenda around the three most controversial topics. On the important land and constitutional reform issues there was significant convergence.

At the talanoa, the leaders decided to establish smaller talanoa committees to work intensively and continuously in both areas.

They also asked the East-West Center to continue its secretariat role. Clearly, the two leaders regard the land issue as an urgent priority.

The long discussion of the multiparty Cabinet issue resulted in an agreement to disagree while awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling.

Although the session was disappointing to those with unrealistic hopes of a historic compromise, the political leaders deepened their understanding of each other's positions and explored various alternatives.

Social contract essential

Indo-Fijian Mahendra Chaudhry was the prime minister prior to the May 2000 coup.

Advertiser library photo

For this observer of the talanoa process, two features stand out:

• First, although Fiji has fewer than 1 million people, its politics and society are as complex as many larger countries. Fiji also faces a critical period in its political history as it struggles to establish a social contract acceptable to all its ethnic communities while giving "prior rights" to indigenous Fijians. Its society, values, and traditions (including the role of chiefs) are also being affected by globalization and generational change.

• A second feature is the sincerity of its political leadership as they seek to cope with these difficult issues. The talanoa is characterized by frank exchanges in an atmosphere of perfect civility. At no point has a voice been raised, much less has anyone threatened to leave. The leadership is clearly searching for common ground, even while constrained by their differing perceptions of the demands of their constituencies. All recognize that political compromise cannot be simply a matter of convenience among elites, but must be acceptable and convincing to the grassroots constituencies.

Progress is possible

Fiji is in a favorable position compared with many Pacific island nations.

A communications and transportation hub for the South Pacific and the home of many international organizations, Fiji has abundant natural and human resources.

Realizing Fiji's potential, however, requires national reconciliation and effective governance.

The East-West Center hopes that the talanoa process ultimately will help Fiji's political leaders develop consensus around the basic social contract and establish the stable political working relationships needed to move the country forward.

• • •

Facts about Fiji

Information from The World FactBook, Central Intelligence Agency.

• Background: Fiji became independent in 1970, after nearly a century as a British colony. Democratic rule was interrupted by two military coups in 1987, caused by concern over a government perceived as dominated by the Indian community (descendants of contract laborers brought to the islands by the British during the 19th century).

A 1990 constitution favored native Melanesian control of Fiji, but led to heavy Indian emigration; the population loss resulted in economic difficulties, but ensured that Melanesians became the majority. Amendments enacted in 1997 made the constitution more equitable. Free and peaceful elections in 1999 resulted in a government led by an Indo-Fijian, but a coup in May of 2000 ushered in a prolonged period of turmoil.

• Fiji's Ethnic groups: Fijian 51% (predominantly Melanesian with a Polynesian mixture); Indian 44%; European, other Pacific Islanders, Chinese and other 5% (1998 est.)

• Constitution: Written on Oct. 10, 1970 (suspended Oct. 1, 1987); a new constitution was proposed on Sept. 23, 1988, and promulgated on July 25, 1990; amended July 25, 1997, to allow non-ethnic Fijians greater say in government and to make multiparty government mandatory; entered into force July 28, 1998.

NOTE : The May 1999 election was the first test of the amended constitution and introduced open voting — not racially prescribed — for the first time at the national level.

Armed ethnic Fijian terrorists, led by George Speight, stormed the Parliament building on May 19, 2000. Mahendra Chaudhry, the nation's first Indo-Fijian prime minister, and his government were held hostage for 56 days; after the attempted coup, the commander of Fiji military forces, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, declared martial law and dissolved the government on May 29, 2000.

An interim government, headed by interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, was appointed to serve until a new constitution was initiated and subsequent elections held.

In November 2000, Fiji's High Court upheld the 1997 constitution and ruled that Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was still president. Justice Anthony Gates concluded that Mara should recall the pre-May 19 coup Parliament and that Mara should appoint a prime minister to form a new government; the Fiji Court of Appeals upheld Gates' decision on March 1, 2001.

It ruled that the 1997 constitution had not been abrogated, that Parliament had not been officially dissolved, only postponed for six months, and that the presidency had remained vacant since Mara's resignation took effect Dec.15, 2000.

President Ratu Josefa Iloilo reinstated Qarase's interim government as the caretaker government.

• Chief of State: President Ratu Josefa Iloilo (since 2000); Vice President Jope Seniloli (since 2000)

• Head of government: Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase; Deputy Prime Minister Epeli Nailatikau (since 2000)