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Trouble in Paradise: Punishing Fiji

Women walk past an army checkpoint in central Suva on December 7, 2006, days after a military coup in Fiji. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

Women walk past an army checkpoint in central Suva on December 7, 2006, days after a military coup in Fiji. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

By Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Fiji, August 27, 2010 - Australia and New Zealand are locked in a stand-off with Fiji’s military leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, over his refusal to bring back democracy after four coups in two decades.

Sanctions and other tough measures by Canberra and Wellington against Bainimarama's unelected government have been matched by a round of diplomatic expulsions by the South Pacific nation, which in turn is looking more and more to China for aid and support.

It begs the question: Can this policy of isolating and punishing Fiji work?

The chairman of the US Congress Foreign Affairs Sub-committee on Asia and the Pacific, Eni Faleomavaega (from neighboring America Samoa), is not convinced. He sees "bad developments" arising.

"Of course, we don’t agree with Fiji not having a democratic government. But we have to appreciate and understand the complexities facing Fiji,” he told the Samoan Observer recently.

Fiji is indeed complex. Australian National University historian, Professor Brij Lal, describes it as “a bit like Churchill's Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

A multi-ethnic nation of more than 945,000 people, Fiji was a British Crown colony for 96 years before independence in 1970.

According to the 2007 census, indigenous Fijians make up 57.3 per cent of the population.

Ethnic Indians are descended mostly from imported laborers who worked on colonial sugar plantations. They are now 37.6 per cent of the population and their numbers are dropping, thanks to migration and low birth rates. Europeans, Chinese and other Pacific Islanders make up the rest of the population.

After independence, Fiji enjoyed a measure of stability under the firm grip of founding Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, a high chief.

But when Mara’s Alliance Party lost power to a multi-ethnic Fiji Labour-National Federation Party coalition in 1987, Fijian nationalists took to the streets, claiming Indians had seized control of the country. 

Sitiveni Rabuka, then an army lieutenant colonel, executed a coup—the first in the South Pacific. The new government was ousted before it completed a month in office.

A second coup followed soon after.

Democracy and reconciliation returned eventually and in 1999 Rabuka lost government to the Labour Party Coalition. When Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry emerged as Fiji’s first Indian prime minister, it was déjà vu for Fijian hardliners.

A hitherto unknown, George Speight, took up the indigenous rights cudgel. With a handful of renegade soldiers, he stormed Parliament and captured Chaudhry, and his government.

The ensuing hostage crisis lasted 52 days until Speight’s gang was captured and jailed by military commander Bainimarama, who appointed Laisenia Qarase as the caretaker prime minister.

Next: "Sanctions and diplomatic isolation have had little real impact."