October 2008


Coup-coup land

By Craig Sherborne
Coup-coup land

Sitiveni Rabuka at a military ceremony, 1987. © Jacques Langevin - Corbis.

Life under Fiji’s interim government

In coup-coup land people live in cages.

"How come the people live in cages, Babba?"

"They're not cages!" Babba scoffs.

But Babba is wrong. They are cages: houses wrapped in wire grills that are sturdier-looking than the shanty homes they protect. Wire covers backyards, too, like a kennel-run for the kids, to keep menace at bay. Fences crowned with barbed wire. Padlocks as big as grapefruit. And this is a nice palm-jungle rural road, where girls wait in neatly ironed grey uniforms for the school bus to Nadi. Sure, young Fijian men amble along the dusty roads, shirts tied around their heads, carrying machetes. But they don't look that threatening. The machetes are for coconut splitting. They are poor, they are bored - healthily muscled, though, and with a wide grin to offer the Fijian g'day: Bula.

Even the funeral parlours here are caged, as if there's profitable trade in pawning corpses. In shop windows, houses are advertised for lease as having a "good compound, fully fenced all over and with full security system." And security guards. Fiji has more security guards than you can poke a nightstick at. In Lautoka, in the main island's north-west, the Chilli Tree café, a quiet Formica place to get quiche and a cuppa, has a security guard sitting on a stool at the door. He opens the door for you, sits back down and stares as if roaming hoards are about to raid the pasta mix.

Babba is a 40-year-old horseman who rents out his raggedy nags to backpackers for beach rides. "No, my friend," he says. "They are not cages. They are good protection."

"From what?"

"Crime. There's crime everywhere in the world."

"Must be a crime spree to need that sort of protection."

He shakes his head, dismissing such a notion. "Steel wire, I think, is cheaper in Fiji than anywhere else."

The caged houses and businesses are, Babba says, mostly Indian occupied. "That is a very complex matter here in Fiji - between native Fijians and Indians. Our last coup was a coup to help the Indians, that's what they said."

There have been four coups in Fiji since 1987, though the first and second blended into one, as they were only four months apart. All are considered "bloodless", but that's not quite true. In the 2000 coup, four soldiers were killed. For 21 years the place has lurched from democracy to dictatorship, to quasi-democracy, to belligerent - if bumbling - dictatorship. The last coup, the one Babba speaks of, took place in 2006 and is touted by the current dictatorship (which refers to itself as an interim government) as "the coup to end all coups". The one that will prevent people couping up to do it all again.

Babba is having a good coup. "I like this last coup. It is helping rural people. It is helping Indians. I say that as an Indian myself. It's good for my business, because before it happened there was talk that tourists were going to be charged for using the beaches. That would have driven me out of work."

Ronnie, a Nadi odd-jobber, boasts of running a small, part-time pimping operation - "Nice Fijian girl $100 the night, or $20 the hour" - likes the coup, too. "The military don't bother people who don't bother them. They stick to themselves. Look around you. Do you see soldiers anywhere?"

Tourists in All-Blacks T-shirts or Collingwood caps come out of Nadi airport and lead their Pepsi-sucking sulky brood straight to the resorts - to the buffets and cocktails, the golf carts, the air-conditioning and internet access. To the servile greetings of the staff with hibiscus behind their ears: the Bula offered so often, as if there's a quota of pleasantness to get through, that it starts to grate. Bula-shit.

Sitting in resort mini-vans, visored by their Bollé sunglasses, the tourists wouldn't know there was a coup. Nor, perhaps, would they care - they're not this brother's keeper. For them, a coup is a footy team recruiting a star player. Off through sun-glaring, coconut-bunched holiday Fiji they go. They want the ocean's blue carpet with creamy tassels, not politics and poverty. They see the place is shabby, rusty. They see roadsides of stinking litter that council men rake into heaps and set alight until the charred bases of plastic bottles and tin cans are all that remain. But en route to their resorts the sun-fun seekers need only take a "bracing glimpse at the poor", to quote Auberon Waugh about one of his brief, loathed excursions outside of England. They can think: Well, things can't be that bad here - we got $1.30 for an Australian dollar at the currency exchange, and Christ knows we're paying $1000 for four nights, food and drink not included.

Some might have read a report on how New Zealand's prime minister, Helen Clark, compares Fiji to Zimbabwe. How the New Zealand Pacific Business Council wishes she wouldn't make such "exaggerated claims": it could affect New Zealand's $450-million-a-year export trade in the region. How the Fijian attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, rejects the Zimbabwe tag as "preposterous".

One or two might be a spirited fossicker for truth and go in search of Zimbabwe-like 11-million-per-cent inflation. In Zimbabwe, a loaf of bread costs $1.6 trillion - albeit Zimbabwe dollars, which have the commercial value of dandruff. In Fiji, a loaf is FJ$2-5, depending on quality. Not that bread is a staple of the Fijian diet: cassava root (a kind of bland parsnip) is the preferred substitute. At Terry Walk, in downtown Suva, navel oranges sell for FJ$4.30 a kilogram, and apples for $5.70. They are Australian oranges, New Zealand apples. Can't they grown their own oranges in this perfect weather, these lush-green unused valleys?

Fiji does have one thing in common with Zimbabwe: a bill of rights, one of those feel-good flourishes of legal puff that any wily dictator discards like a dud scratchy. According to reports from non-government organisations, Fiji's military is responsible for 200 human-rights abuses, as well as constitutional and legal breaches, since the 2006 coup. There are accusations of torture and humiliation, intimidation, civilians being stripped naked and forced to fondle each other. The military has said that the abusers were often not soldiers, but bandits impersonating soldiers.

To direct foul language at a member of the military is considered a crime in Fiji. If you write a letter to the editor of one of the country's three daily newspapers, you might well be taken into custody if your missive is deemed anti-military. There have been blogger reports of deaths in custody, though no substantiated figures are available. The military even has the power to interfere in citizens' private lives, to mediate in martial and property disputes. Fiji's media reports this, and routinely journalists are "detained for questioning" for their stories, though the process is more bully-boy bluff than anything.

Serafina Salaitoga, a reporter for News Limited's Fiji Times, was questioned by police recently because of a story she'd written about the imminent resignation of the finance minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. Coup leader Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, the interim prime minister, phoned-in the interrogation order from the Beijing Olympics, where he was watching his country's six competing athletes. Silaitoga refused to give a statement, her paper's lawyer protested against her treatment, and authorities dropped the matter.

Two Australian media executives - Russell Hunter, from the Fiji Sun, and Evan Hannah, from the Fiji Times - were deported for offending the regime. The official line was that they had breached their work permits. According to the Fiji Times' editor-in-chief, Netani Rika: "Evan and I were warned that certain people in the government were not happy with us reporting in a manner they were not comfortable with. I was told that if we failed to comply with instructions, then what had recently happened to Russell Hunter would happen to Evan. If they just came out and told us not to be anti-government there would be a public outcry. So they sit on the verge of it, come up with terms such as ‘be pro-Fiji' in the same way that the Singaporean media is pro-Singapore."

Even published wisecracks about government buildings needing a lick of paint can lead to interrogation. "That's how bad it has got. They say, ‘We want to come and take your reporter and get a statement' over something so minor which they think makes them look bad. The '87 coup was a bit like this. But this is the worst the media has ever been harassed."

Not that harassment works. Editorials still criticise; letters regularly accuse government ministers of corruption and cronyism. Commentators effuse moral outrage. Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of the first coup, is a popular Fiji Times columnist. In his 12 August instalment, he compared Bainimarama's political agenda to the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. "Ours [social reform] can still result in the annihilation of a race," he wrote. A photo of a razed Hiroshima was published with the article.

But Fiji is not World War II, where millions perished. Bainimarama may be a dictator, but he's dictator-lite. Rika's justification for the piece is routine journo-speak about "public interest": that Rabuka's opinions are his own, not Rika's or the paper's; and that such an article, however shocking, helps air people's concerns.

When you fill out Fiji's arrival card, you know you've come to a country with paranoid rulers. Understandably, the authorities demand a visitor not "behave in a manner prejudicial to peace or good order". But in coup-land the masters have added this Audensque couplet insisting visitors not,

engage in any religious vocation

except with the approval of the Department of Immigration

The current regime and the churches, especially the Methodist Church, don't get along. Methodism is the religion of indigenous Fijians. There are around 300,000 Methodists here: more than two-thirds of the population. At the church's August conference in the capital, Suva, military officials appeared on TV vowing to "monitor" conference speakers. "Any attempt to turn their conference into a political assembly of any matter, the police will have to take action," a spokesman said. Church leaders ignored the threat, and no action was taken. The Methodist general secretary, Reverend Waqairatu, declared the interim government illegal and demanded that Bainimarama keep his promise to hold elections in March 2009, a promise that Bainimarama has backed away from.

Critics of the church accuse it of having more concern for indigenous Fijians losing their political clout under Bainimarama than for democracy. For this is an unusual postcolonial country: here the indigenous people are the oppressors of another race. They are in the majority; they are in charge. And they have the Indians to push around.

Indigenous people own 80% of Fiji's land; 12% is state-owned; the balance is freehold. Those percentages can't change without constitutional reform. Indians are forced to lease land from the Fijians, but leasing is limited. Indians complain that the tenancy laws are racist, bad for business, agriculture and the wider economy; Fijians complain that the rent they receive from Indians is set pitifully low. The Indians want more land so they can farm, and longer lease terms of 50 years, instead of the current 30. They don't ask to be allowed to own that land.

Sashi Kiran, the founder of FRIEND, a support and training service for Lautoka's rural poor, disabled, ex-prisoners and street kids, says that ownership and tenancy are at the heart of Fiji's strife. "Land and religion, even in rich countries - these are hot issues. With Fijians it's the land. They are spiritually connected to it. In the 2000 coup, many Indians were evicted from the land." Some believe that the coup occurred because many leases were due for renewal nationwide and Fijian nationalists wanted the contracts scrapped.

From 1874 until independence, in 1970, Fiji was a British colony for sugar-cane plantations. In 1879, indentured labourers were shipped in from India and contracted for five-year stints in the sweltering fields, most of which were run by the Australian firm Colonial Sugar Refining. Indians were bashed and whipped, and unfairly paid. Future generations were allowed to lease farmland from native Fijians for their own sugar enterprises, but the relationship between Indians and Fijians was fraught. Fijians viewed the Indians as money-grubbing invaders, out to take over the country.

The Indians passively accepted their fate. But by 1970 they outnumbered indigenous Fijians and began agitating for more rights, especially the right to more leasehold land. The post-independence constitution allowed Indians equal rights - sort of. They were given, under Fiji's ethnic-based electoral system, the same number of seats as Fijians in the House of Representatives, though an indigenous aristocracy, the Great Council of Chiefs, had veto rights in the Upper House. And for a while the new Fiji progressed promisingly: racial tension eased, and the economy was buoyant. As Rajendra Prasad noted in his 2004 book Tears in Paradise, a history of Indo-Fijian culture, Fiji was "receiving applause and accolades from the international community for its success in achieving independence without bitterness or violence".

But the racism hadn't gone away; it was merely hiding - and privately embittering a new band of Fijian nationalists. They resented Indian power-sharing and commercial enterprise, and feared a common electoral roll would replace the race-based roll and weaken indigenous people's political power. They persuaded the chiefs that Indians should be banned from being prime minister or governor-general.

The racially mixed Fiji Labour Party, under the leadership of Prime Minister Dr Timoci Bavadra, himself an indigenous Fijian, began a campaign to scrap this policy. But the nationalist movement had gathered too much momentum to be stopped, and its supporters were taking to the streets to protest power-sharing. That's when the first coup happened, in May 1987.

Sitiveni Rabuka, the third-ranked officer in the indigenous-dominated Fijian military, held government members captive for a week. He established an interim administration, which, amazingly, ousted government members agreed to join. Rabuka's more radical supporters feared a counter-coup and insisted on another coup of their own, four months later. This second uprising was more radical and involved taking control of the judiciary, sacking the governor-general and declaring Fiji a republic. Indians were attacked and their businesses and temples burnt.

In 1990, the regime drew up a new constitution that enshrined indigenous political dominance and ensured that Rabuka could never be tried for treason for his coup. He eventually became prime minister. But coup-culture ravaged the economy, and Fiji's business and professional classes had fled the country. (Following the first coup, more than 120,000 people - mostly Indians, the skilled farmers and experienced merchants - had emigrated. Economists estimate that more than half of Fiji's skilled sector has gone since then.) Nationalists believed that Fiji would return to a village-based, traditional way of life; but Rabuka realised such as attitude would create squalor, and that the Indians' business know-how was vital to Fiji's survival.

Rabuka decided he'd allow Indians to be a little more equal. "He made a U-turn, abandoning racism and taking the road of multiracialism, to the astonishment of most," Prasad wrote. The constitution was revamped: a generation of Indian politicians could now advance to senior positions, not least Mahendra Chaudhry, who became prime minister in 1999.

Yet Rabuka was reviled by many indigenous Fijians for stewarding this new Fiji. He was voted from office. Extremists took to street-protesting again, bullying Indians who stood in their way; Indian houses were burned down, businesses torched, shops looted. Indians themselves were rarely attacked, Sashi Kiran recalls: "Fijians could intimidate Indians, but not actually bring themselves to hit them. Much of the racism is whipped up from those at the top, in Suva, but out in the communities the races have to live side-by-side, and do so very peacefully. At coup-time you do see people separate on buses. Then they get back together and say sorry to each other. Even though the heart may be hurting."

In May 2000, a group of radicals united under the leadership of George Speight, a half-competent opportunist from Suva's shady business circles. He launched coup number three, invading parliament, declaring the Chaudhry government defunct and holding the cabinet hostage for 56 days. But unlike Rabuka, Speight didn't have widespread support among Fijians. The army wasn't enthusiastic, wasn't inspired to seize power as it had been under the charismatic Rabuka, who was one of their own.

Old class resentments within indigenous ranks, between the easterners and westerners of the islands, caused the chiefs to bicker. Realising his coup was collapsing, Speight released the hostages and tried to cut a deal with authorities. He was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Indigenous nationalism didn't fail with him, though. In 2001, it triumphed at the polls, when Laisenia Qarase was elected prime minister. By this time, many Indians thought their situation hopeless.

Then came the 2006 coup. A coup not like the three before it. This coup wasn't anti-Indian. Yes, Bainimarama was a Fijian military man, but he claimed his was a kind of anti-coup. A social-justice coup. A coup for democracy, one that would be good and decent, that would end the oppression of Indians, introduce economic modernisation and eliminate the country's coup-culture.

Naturally, this was attractive to Indians. Mahendra Chaudhry's political career was revived: he was appointed finance minister. Not long before his resignation, in August, he boasted in the Fiji Business Magazine that the post-coup economy was on the mend, with exports for the first five months of 2008 up one-quarter on the same period for 2006, and debt falling. But the magazine challenged the accuracy of his figures, claiming that the economy was shrinking in the usual post-coup fashion. The Australian clothing companies Rip Curl and Billabong have been frightened off, for example; their factories in Fiji had been turning out 300,000 units a year.

A 2003 study by the economist Dr Wadan Narsey calculated that the poverty line for people in rural Fiji was about FJ$125 a week. But, according to Joseph Veramu, the director of the University of the South Pacific's Lautoka campus, "People are getting paid $1 or $1.20 an hour to be security guards. And that's considered a princely sum."

Sashi Kiran agrees. She says that most Indians would struggle to earn more than FJ$50 a week. "Outsiders come to Fiji and don't consider people desperately poor. People are not skeletons here. That's because they are making a subsistence living from fishing or growing a few vegetables. One breadwinner may feed five or six people, and there is no access to medical services. Diseases such as diabetes are not managed. We are told the medicine sits in warehouses in Suva, but is doesn't get out. Actual government power largely remains in Suva, regardless of what political party we are talking about. People only come out to the rural areas to get votes."

She and FRIEND want to create commercial networks for small farmers to supply produce to resort chains and supermarkets. "Eighty per cent of food in the hotels and resorts is imported - that could be grown here." The current leasehold restrictions cruel that plan.

In Suva, I talk with Mannawe, who's just back from working in Iraq as a security guard. He's keen to go there again. It beats driving taxis for a pittance. "The danger is second to the money," he says. "We are brave, we Fijian men. If I could earn $30,000 and be there for just a handful of months, I'd be a rich man - for a Fijian."

Fijian men like this sort of work, Joseph Veramu says. "We have 5000 Fijians in the British army, and that's a great way to make money to send home. Our soldiers are seen as a bit like the Ghurkhas. The Fijian mentality looks up to military officers, and somehow that makes a coup seem normal to people. For Fijian people, being a warrior is their life. It's part of being a machismo male."

The symbolic centrepiece of Bainimarama's agenda is a People's Charter, part of a program for "productive and social purposes". A new electoral system will abolish the last vestiges of racial voting and introduce proportional representation in five new electorates covering all Fiji's islands.  "We want to vote for a seat as you do in Australia," Veramu says. "The interim government views racial voting as divisive. It thinks it is causing coups." But he dislikes the charter. "This needs to be delivered through a democratic process, not simply imposed upon the people." And he doubts racial integration will occur, charter or no. "People will still stick to their own races. School is where we must deal with that. Hindi and Muslim schools should have more Fijian children in them."

Reverend Akuila Yabaki, the CEO of the Citizens' Constitutional Forum, a pro-multicultural, pro-democracy advocacy group, is anti-coup but supports Bainimarama's charter, especially the relaxing of land-lease laws. "Land is a rich resource but ethno-politics rules everything in this country," he says. "Thousands of Indians have been evicted from the land over the years."

This is the dilemma for social-justice activists: they might hate the coup, but they love the principles behind it. "We actually felt that, yes, the coup was for social justice. It was bizarre," says Peni Moore, a feminist and anti-violence campaigner of European descent. "In the lead-up, there was a host of bills to be passed in parliament that we opposed. One was a so-called reconciliation bill, part of which would give the chiefs immunity for their involvement in the 2000 coup. That to me was very wrong." Moore also takes the Bainimarama regime's side in its treatment of the Fijian media: "From the start of the 1987 coup, our media has supported racism. Bainimarama is a liberal. They hate him for that."

For his part, the Fiji Times' Netani Rika doubts that the reforms will work. "The concept of one Fiji, unity, setting aside people's differences, is very noble. But no document or legislation is going to make all Fijians, regardless of ethnicity, come together. People must want to. If you demand it of us, then those who sit on the fence are just going to say no," he says. "We still send our students to school which are segregated. No charter will change that. There are racial-vilification laws in Fiji, but no one takes any notice of them."

In the lead-up to the recent Pacific Islands Forum, in Niue, Fiji was threatened with suspension from proceedings if the 2009 elections were to be delayed. Bainimarama argued that they would have to wait until the electoral system was reformed. It might take an extra year, he said. That was just an excuse for breaking his promise, Helen Clark replied. New Zealand imposed travel restrictions on Fijians and refused Bainimarama access to forum-related meetings on its soil. He responded by refusing to go to Niue.

Peni Moore is angry at the New Zealand and Australian governments for "trying to disrupt the charter and electoral-reform process when they should be supporting it as a human-rights initiative". And Reverend Yabaki is similarly frustrated by the two neighbours' hardline stance: "They're much harder on this coup than they were on the other coups. You don't see people fighting in the streets here."

Fijians don't speak of Bainimarama as a madman, a megalomaniacal Mugabe-type. Moore describes him as a socially awkward military man, used to giving orders and having them obeyed. "I say to him: Frank, you've got to be patient. You've got to listen to other people's views. That's how you get good ideas. That's how you get goodwill." Even Netani Rika refers to Bainimarama, almost affectionately, as Frank. But Rika believes the only way to end coup-culture is to get rid of the army, and that's unlikely to happen. "As long as we have an army we will always have trouble." Coup five, coup six, seven ...

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

In This Issue

The return of the Wichita Lineman

Glen Campbell’s ‘Meet Glen Campbell’
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Daniel Mannix & BA Santamaria

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.


‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill

More in The Monthly Essays

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Close-up of smiling Kathleen Folbigg after being acquitted at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, December 14, 2023

By her own words

How systemic misconceptions around women’s guilt led to a 20-year miscarriage of justice for Kathleen Folbigg

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality