Fiji: pro-imperialist coup

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The reasons behind the overthrow of the Fijian Labour Party Government are complex and sinister. The multiracial government of Mohendra Chaudry was popularly elected, and under the 1997 Constitution could not have won government without the backing of a large proportion of the Indigenous vote. The same Constitution guarantees Fijian ownership of traditional lands. The Fijian union movement and the Labour Party are ethnically diverse. Nevertheless, the tension between the Fijian “aristocracy” and the leadership of the Indian Fijian community is real, and a convenient cover for George Speight’s backers.

But scratch the surface and there is the dead hand of British/Australian colonialism. Fiji, which was originally earmarked as a potential Australian state, is comprised of three clan confederacies and a series of smaller tribal groups, all characterised by mutual suspicion and a long history of inter-island warfare. After the head of the Bau confederacy ceded the country to Britain, the colonial régime introduced policies which banned the sale of land and locked Indigenous Fijians out of the economy and political control, which was concentrated in the hands of the tiny European élite.

Indian Fijians arrived in the islands as indentured labourers (slaves) of the aptly named Colonial Sugar Refining Company. At the end of their slavery, the Indians were “encouraged” to stay, even though they could not buy land and were also disbarred from commerce and politics. After CSR ended its slave labour system in the 1920s, the Indian population won rights through strikes and other unrest, and came to dominate small business, and the union movement and the farming sector. Under the revolting paternalism of the European masters, Fijians were unable to trade their goods for money, and were even taxed in garden produce. This situation lasted until “independence” in 1970.

After the Speight coup,and particularly after the military abrogated the 1997 Constitution, the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) has been sidelined, with both the military President, Frank Bainimarama, and Speight treating this aristocratic body with deep contempt, making it clear that the GCC would meet only when they said so and could do nothing more than rubber stamp a deal which robs the aristocracy of real power.

The Fiji Labour Party has also been sidelined, and with it, the union movement. George Speight’s backers have, it seems, managed to install the local bourgeoisie in power at the expense of both the aristocracy and the working class. But this is no bourgeois-democratic toppling of the ancien régime. It is a takeover designed to ensure that the Fijian government is controlled by the Australian élite which has run the economy for decades.

The Chaudry government was poised to enact laws to clean up corruption and the chiefs were planning to throw the sugar farmers off tribal lands. Very bad for business. Speight, who seems likely to be the fall guy, represents the Fijian capitalists likely to be caught with their hands in the till. It’s a safe bet that, as in 1987, the strings are being pulled from Australia, and that is also where Speight is getting his money. The coup is not about Indigenous Fijians versus Indian Fijians. It’s about imperalism, and its local backers doing what they’ve always done —syphoning off profits for export. The next Constitution will almost certainly contain provisions that discriminate against Indo-Fijians and water down traditional rights to land. All in the guise of “strengthening” Indigenous rights. Traditional Fijian society, already under stress, may be shattered. Meanwhile, the profits will keep flowing Australia’s way.

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