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A Very Sporting Coup

Article by Alex Bigham

December 6, 2006

“There’s time to win the game … and oust the government too!” These may have been the words of the Fijian army’s rugby team coach at half time, when they were behind in the annual grudge match with the Fijian police rugby team.

In the end, he was wrong on the first count. The police team managed to snatch victory last Friday, by 17 points to 15 as the clouds began to gather in Fiji’s capital, Suva. The victory of the police, who support the democratic government, must have made nerves jangle in the army camp.

However, the second point was proved correct today. In a widely anticipated move, the Fijian army seized power for the fourth time in less than 20 years. Fiji is the only country in history that would think it normal to put off holding a coup for half a day while they played a rugby match. The match was made even more tense by the fact that the army and the police are on opposing sides of the coup. The victory of the police (in the rugby, at least) meant that the new army commander had to entertain the police to drinks after the match. Heaven knows what the small talk must have been like.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama is no longer just in charge of a rugby team – he has assumed the powers of a president and dismissed the elected prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, while he asks the country’s Great Council of Chiefs to organise an interim government.

Prime Minister Qarase didn’t stand a chance. He was holed up, under house arrest, with troops outside his building and at checkpoints throughout the capital. The government had seen it coming of course – they had requested troops from Australia to protect their administration, but the Australian premier John Howard had turned down the request, saying “the possibility of Australian and Fijian troops firing on each other in the streets of Suva was not a prospect that I, for a moment, thought desirable.” He did however, send three warships to be stationed off the coast of Fiji, but only in case some of the many Australian residents needed evacuating.

There have been some worrying moves since the elected government was toppled. Late on Tuesday night, armed forces entered the building of the country’s most prominent newspaper – the Fiji Times, and ordered the editors not to publish any “propaganda” against the new leadership. With their editorial freedom over, the managing director suspended publication of the newspaper.

What lies behind the latest in a succession of army takeovers? In a bizarre irony, one of the main disputes between Qarase and Bainimarama is over Fiji’s previous coup d’etat in 2000. The government is seen as being lenient on the conspirators in 2000, with the army wanting to repeal a bill that would pardon those involved. Some of them were also prominent members of Qarase’s government. The army leader has threatened to send Qarase to Nukulau, a paradise island prison, which is home to the 2000 coup leader, George Speight.

Many blame the president, Ratu Josefa Iloilo for failing to solve the dispute between the army and the government. Others go further, to suggest he was colluding with the army and had much to gain from the government being ousted. He will now be appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs to find an interim government before elections are held.

At the heart of Fiji’s political problems are the same tensions that lead to the first coup in 1987 – strife between the majority indigenous Fijians (of Polynesian descent) and ethnic minority Indians (who are descended from Indian labourers brought to the island by the British in the 19th century). The indigenous Fijians have felt cut out of politics and the economy – the 1987 rebellions were against Indian dominated governments and the economy has been dominated by Indians too, while indigenous Fijians have made up almost all of the armed forces. The roles were reversed in the recent takeover, with Qarase seen as biased in favour of the indigenous majority.

Conspiracy theorists may see one final element to the jigsaw. One of Fiji’s more infamous residents is the Australian fraudster Peter Foster (the former friend of Cherie Blair), who is in a luxury hotel in Suva awaiting a hearing on a forgery charge. Foster has switched sides to support the army, after being closely involved with the prime minister’s political party before the election.

In the long run, Fiji must cut the budget and manpower of its armed forces, which are large for such a tiny country. Not only is the army so big that it is prone to taking control of power, but it has been sent on UN peacekeeping missions in East Timor, Lebanon and even Iraq. The new government would be better placed spending the money on economic development, boosting tourism and the sugar industry as well as funding educational programmes that help bring together ethnically divided communities.

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