DownFall of Fiji: Coup Culture or PostColonial Failure?

In response to the fourth coup in the Fiji Islands in as many as seventeen years, the international community demanded the restoration of democracy and order in the country. While Sitiveni Rabuka, Fiji’s first coup leader, expressed regret over introducing the concept of military takeover in the country, Dr Brij Lal—an architect of Fiji’s 1997 Constitution—said that Fiji has a ‘coup culture’ in that there is little respect for law and order, and coups will continue because the people responsible for them are never really brought to justice. Coupster and leader of the current illegal regime, Commodore Bainimarama has exploited the problems in Fiji to grab and retain power, while doing little to alleviate the suffering of the poor and working classes. He is yet another opportunist with little understanding or answers to the deep-seated problems plaguing the island nation.

Fiji, the way the world should be’ is an advertising slogan from the late Pope John Paul which has met its demise after four and half coups. The idea that this place is a Paradise has penetrated the Euro-American imagination. This is supplemented in a large part by the tourist industry in Fiji, making slogans and myths that paint a romantic picture of Fiji, hiding the grim difficulties that the multi-ethnic nation is trying to resolve. The National Geographic website states that “the Fiji Islands comprise 333 islands in the South Pacific, with beaches, coral gardens, and rain forests.” It forgot to mention that Fiji also includes people that have survived European colonization and are now struggling with European concepts like multi-ethnic democracy, sovereignty, parliament, and law amidst fresh colonization from tourists.

Economically, Fiji survives on a two-pronged dependent development from tourism and sugar cane and both of these sectors have been adversely affected time and again by the breakout of hostilities. To make matters worse, the colonial mindset of the academic and international community presents a disturbing case of people with power and privilege that fail to comprehend the actual causes of such conditions in Fiji. Historical memories of a British colonialism that brought Indians to Fiji as indentured laborers and proceeded to construct a ‘museum’ for the Euro-American imagination that resulted in such tumultuous conditions in Fiji are conveniently cast aside in a colonial globality masquerading as “liberal international order.”

Colonial History

Abel Tasman, James Cook and William Bligh all traveled Fiji’s waters in the late eighteenth century but it was not until 1800 when the crew of an American schooner shipwrecked on Vanua Levu, and discovered sandalwood which was then fetching gold-like prices in China. Thus, began European colonization and exploitation of Fiji where destructive commodities like guns and alcohol were traded for sandalwood, so reminiscent of the history of Native America, and the European traders settled with local people, inter-marrying and buying land from the Fijians (nevermind that the concept of buying and selling was outside the Fijian lexicon). The arrival of the Europeans created pressure for a centralized political system around a ‘king,’ and the powerful chief from Bau, Cakobau, was very-much inclined to assuming this authority. Then ensued ‘civilizing missions’ and a growing Tongan dominance in Lau by Ma’afu, cousin to Taufa’ahau, that challenged the Fijian administration of Cakobau. By becoming Christian and appealing to the European settlers, Cakobau tried to quell the growing threat of Ma’afu and in 1870, eventually ceded Fiji to Britain in order to retain his power.

For the British Empire, Fiji was not of much strategic or imperial importance besides being suitable for a major cash crop, sugar cane. The British knew that getting the Fijians to change their lifestyles to work on the sugar cane plantations would be a next to impossible task, so starting in 1879, Indians were exported to Fiji as indentured laborers, from one British colony to another.

Indenture (Girmit)

The Indentured system was brutal, bringing about 60,000 Indians to Fiji between 1879 and 1920, setting them on plantations to work for meager wages. The British treated Fiji like a museum, keeping Fijians and Indians apart; Indians on the plantations, and Fijians in their villages. Once the Indians settled, their population grew rapidly and in 1954, Indians made up a clear majority population of 48 percent in Fiji. The growing Indian numbers, along with Indians taking up jobs in the tertiary sector and becoming the backbone of the economy in agriculture and commerce raised suspicion and resentment in some Fijian minds.

Post-Indenture Fiji

With the European settlers moving out of Fiji, the tussle became that of Indians versus Fijians; Indians claimed a right to equal citizenship since they produced most of the wealth whereas Fijians purported their indigenous right over the land. The British played on these suspicions and devised a complicated electoral system designed to ensure more Fijian seats than Indians in the parliament. Instead of helping to alleviate the growing ethnic tensions, this British-devised parliamentary system of giving out seats based on ethnicity cemented ethnic divisions in Fiji and instead of political ideology, Fijian politics became ethnic politics.

When the British left in 1970, they had not made any good contributions to Fiji, leaving behind a much-segregated education system, export-oriented dependent development on the backs of Indians and an ethnically divisive parliamentary governance that would directly result in ethnic politics, setting the ball rolling for the nation to be ripped apart in four coups in the name of indigenous Fijian rights or multi-racial democracy within the space of twenty years.

‘Coup Culture’

With a racially-biased electoral system, disproportionate ownership of land in the hands of indigenous Fijians and little political clout, a class-based discourse emerging from the Fiji Labor Party was temporarily able to blur the racial lines enough to clinch the most seats in the 1987 elections. Comprising mostly working-class Indians and Fijians, the Fiji Labor Coalition maintained power for only a month before Fiji was shocked with its first coup on May 14, the date on which Indians had first set foot in Fiji. May 14 has become a permanent scar, the marking of a new beginning and the shattering of the dreams that come with that beginning.

We can safely conclude that in post-coup Fiji, racial and religious identities along with economic aspirations, trump over any unified nationalist identity. This British museum poses a failure of imagination, a death blow to the ‘imagined community.’ Both the Indians and Fijians, along with other marginal ethnic groups in Fiji have claim to subaltern status, especially in regard to the global political economy. There is no answer to who has more right over what territory and which ethnic group should govern; resolving these squabbles is not the aim of this article

Postcolonial Failure

What Fiji represents is a failure of the colonial imagination. In Imagined Communities, which has become an emblematic work for the study of nations and rise of nationalism, Benedict Anderson calls the nation an imagined community. For Anderson, a nation is imagined out of mass access to script language, abolishing ideas of divine rule and monarchy and the emergence of print capitalism. It is limited, sovereign and most importantly, imagined because most of its citizens would never know each other. Yet, Anderson’s articulation is limited to the rise of Western-nationalisms, and even so, tells us nothing about the actual constitution of nationalist identity, nations formed opposed to colonialism, nations within nations, difference and the construction of the ‘Other’ inside/outside the border. As Partha Chatterjee tells us in a critique of Anderson, if nationalisms in the ‘rest of the world’ have to choose their imagined communities from readily available models in Europe, what do they have left to imagine; are they not discarded as mere consumers of modernity and their imaginations forever colonized?

Fiji is the consumer of one such model from Britain that has simply created a host of problems in the Republic of Fiji Islands. With Eurocentric ideas of parliament democracy, sovereignty, nationalism, land use, and property now infested in Fijian culture and politics, the imagination of the people of Fiji has been colonized to accept this sort of structuring and try to work with these colonial concepts. And when the British model does not function for most of the people in Fiji living below the poverty line, when the ‘Other’ (Indo-Fijian) is elected to office despite the political privileging of Fijians, military takeover of the democratically-elected government seems to be the answer. It is not about a coup culture or coups as a military hobby; but about how a ‘postcolonial’ dependent country can function with colonial structures and legacies in a still colonial globality that turns a blind eye to the history of colonialism.

Henceforth, the origins of the modern nation-state in Fiji hinges on a war waged against an unwanted group, a war to protect society from the ‘Other,’ be it the coolie, girmitiya, Hindu, free Indian, the contemporary Indo-Fijian and now the terrorists as Bainimarama has labeled the government he overthrew. This war is masked by divisive politics—be it affirmative action for Fijians and not Indians, less electoral seats allocated for Indians, the commodification of Fiji as a paradise with indigenous Fijians and no working class population of Indians, and the omission of their history from educational texts and social discourses. In the imagined museum of the British that is Fiji, the constitution of ethnic politics and subsequent Fijian nativism poses a major problem to living in a multi-ethnic democracy with equal rights and representation.

It will be interesting to see where Commodore Bainimarama takes the struggling island nation with his new brand of nationalism that is probably nothing more than the old opportunism of Sitiveni Rabuka. Bainimarama’s national imagination currently paints a grim portrait of Fiji with his military regime overthrowing the judiciary, censoring the media and isolating itself from the liberal international order.

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