Fiji: Permanent Revolution & the ‘Pacific Way’

Trouble in Paradise

On 19 May 2000, a handful of armed men seized Fiji’s parliament buildings and took the prime minister and senior personnel of the Labour-dominated government hostage. For almost two months the aristocratic upper echelon of the indigenous chiefly caste (which commands the loyalty of the armed forces and the state bureaucracy) dithered. Eventually, after 56 days, the senior chiefs reached agreement on the composition of a new regime. The coup leaders, having served their purpose by disposing of an unwanted government, were themselves disposed of.

The Fijian aristocracy is tiny, internally divided and without deep roots in the capitalist economy. It cannot rely on its courts, which routinely borrow senior judicial figures from neighboring countries, to express its interests. The core of the state apparatus is an army of 4,100 regular and 10,000 reserve troops, 99 percent of whom are ethnic Fijians. The Fijian military operates in a highly professional manner when deployed as United Nations mercenaries on behalf of imperialism abroad, but in domestic crises it tends to reflect divisions within the aristocracy—as well as those between the aristocracy, more junior chiefs and other elements in the indigenous population.

The settlement of the May-July coup must therefore be regarded as highly provisional. On 2 November, another rebellion was quickly suppressed, and it seems clear that there is more turmoil on the horizon.

Fiji’s troubles are usually portrayed as an ethnic power struggle between the 51 percent of the population who are indigenous Fijians and the 44 percent who are of Indian origin. Leftist commentators tend to depict it as a struggle between big money and laborism. Others focus on squabbles within the elites over control of Fiji’s security intelligence agency, or the apportioning of windfall profits from the impending harvest of its mahogany plantations. All of these were factors.

While integrated into the imperialist world system, Fijian capitalism coexists with elements of an indigenous pre-capitalist mode of production, which can be characterized as crypto-feudal semi-communalism. Among many indigenous peoples, including Fijians, there is an ideology of indigenism—of the rightful supremacy of those who were there first—buttressed by an appeal to selected traditions. But, as the coup in Fiji illustrates, in a world divided by class it is necessarily the upper layers that benefit most from indigenism, regardless of the sops thrown to other strata.

Class struggle in Fiji is complicated by the fact that the two interlocked modes of production give rise to a kaleidoscopic range of complex and shifting political blocs. The only way these different elements can be integrated conceptually is through Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which addresses the obstacles posed by global imperialism in “underdeveloped” countries to the consolidation of a national bourgeoisie, the formation of a bourgeois democratic state or even the creation of an ordinary capitalist market in labor or land.

Combined and Uneven Development in Melanesia

Fiji lies at the easternmost end of Melanesia where it merges into Polynesia. Melanesia is a band of island countries south of the equator stretching through 45 degrees of longitude, from Fiji right around to the Indonesian province of West Papua/Irian Jaya. Melanesia is home to perhaps eight million people, a third of the world’s three thousand languages, some of the earth’s richest mineral deposits and the most extensive tropical rainforests outside the Amazon. The imperialist order, characterized by combined and uneven development, caricatures itself here, with the highest levels of capitalist technique side by side with some of the least class-developed societies remaining on the planet.

In mid-2000, concurrently with the coup in Fiji, Melanesia also witnessed a civil war and a coup in the Solomon Islands, and a major congress of the indigenous inhabitants of West Papua declared independence from Indonesia. Subsequently, the truce between the “independent” state of Papua New Guinea and its province of Bougainville has shown signs of breaking down. The imperialist bourgeoisies view these events in connection with the current disintegrative tendencies in Indonesia, and the potential destabilization of the geo-strategically crucial commercial and naval shipping lanes between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The planners in the Japanese and U.S. military academies are unlikely to have forgotten that the battle for possession of Guadalcanal in the Solomons was the key to the Pacific theater in the Second World War.

The tiny language groups of Melanesia do not sit comfortably in an international social-economic system that favors larger, more culturally homogenous nation states with stable legal systems and viable domestic markets. In an earlier, pre-imperialist phase of capitalist development, national bourgeoisies might have developed out of the pre-existing fragments; but the rapacious penetration of international capital today leaves little room for indigenous social growth, and, as a result, none of these countries has anything like a sense of nationhood. This has short-term, divide-and-rule advantages for the imperialists, making it easier to control and exploit the resources of the region. But this comes at the cost of profound structural instability, which poses potentially serious long-term dangers for global capital.

Ersatz Traditionalism

Contemporary Fiji is the creation of the intersection of pre-capitalist tribalism with the British Empire of the 19th century. Consisting of 332 islands, only a third of which are inhabited, Fiji has a total population of 830,000.

In 1874, Ratu Seru Cakobau, the tribal leader who managed to gain temporary predominance after the introduction of firearms into regional warfare, sought to perpetuate his position by ceding the islands to Queen Victoria. The structure of clan rule, which had been fluid, became fixed under the British, who exercised control over the indigenous population through the thousands of village chiefs. An advisory council of a few of the most senior chiefs, subsequently institutionalized as the “Great Council of Chiefs,” was given authority to appoint the country’s president.

Today most indigenous Fijians still live in villages of a few hundred and engage in subsistence agriculture. They remain subject to tribal-communal obligations and day-to-day interference from the ratus and adis—"ratu" and “adi” are the honorifics, respectively, for male and female members of chiefly families. As recently as the 1960s, clan members who left their villages without their chief’s permission could be returned by force of law.

This traditional tribal existence awkwardly coexists with a relatively developed capitalist economy that includes major sugar and tourist industries, significant gold and textile production, and considerable potential in timber.

Fijian society cannot be understood by simply treating it as capitalist. The crypto-feudal structures are neither capitalist nor authentically traditional; they are ossified adaptations of elements of the pre-European indigenous institutions tailored to the requirements of “law and order” in Queen Victoria’s empire. Remnants of pre-capitalist social formations are not unusual in capitalist societies, but in Fiji they pose a profound and ultimately unsustainable social contradiction. Yet this contradiction has proved extraordinarily difficult to transcend.

Land and Labor in Fiji

The builders of the British Empire found much of the land in Fiji suitable for plantation agriculture. Initially, cotton was the main crop; however the revival of American production following the Civil War depressed world cotton prices, forcing Fiji’s commercial farmers to switch to sugar. Colonial planters faced two major obstacles: land ownership and the supply of labor. The New Zealand Wars (1845-72) against a far smaller Maori population with a similar military culture to that of the Fijians, had taught the British a certain respect for the indigenous population. So the Fijians retained ownership of most of the land and leased it to the imperialists. To this day, 83 percent of Fiji remains the inalienable property of one of the 6,500 indigenous clan groups. Consequently there is no real market in land.

And who was to work the plantations? A measles epidemic, the year after Cakobau had ceded sovereignty to Britain, wiped out 40,000 Fijians. More importantly the reluctance of potential workers to leave their communal villages—and the chiefs’ reluctance to release them—blocked the development of a capitalist labor market.

Beginning in 1879, Indian laborers were brought in to work on the Fijian plantations. In a system developed after Britain abolished chattel slavery in 1834, they were indentured to their employers for five-year terms. This continued until the First World War when it was stopped due to pressure from the rising Indian nationalist movement.

The plantation system could not continue without indentured labor, so the colonial administrators broke up the plantations into plots that were let out to the formerly indentured Indo-Fijians. These nominally independent tenant farmers remained completely dependant on the Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia, which purchased their crops.

Today a substantial percentage of the Indo-Fijian population remains tenant sugar-cane farmers, and control of their land is a hot political issue. The chief-dominated Native Land Trust Board administers the communally owned land, and lets it out on thirty-year leases at very low rates—equivalent to roughly 2.5 percent of the annual value of the crop. (In other countries agricultural rent is ten percent or more.) The Land Board keeps a quarter of the rent (for “administration” and “development” costs), pays a quarter to the chiefs, and distributes the rest among clan members.

Indigenous Fijians vs. Indo-Fijians

There is considerable pressure from indigenous Fijians, particularly plebeian layers, either to impose huge rent increases or to refuse to renew the leases and let the land revert to the clans. The resulting insecurity for tenants has reduced plantings of seed cane and cut investments in improvements, as farmers demand low-rate lease renewals or, failing that, substantial compensation.

At bottom, this is a conflict of class interests, but it has a communal axis. The indigenous Fijian population has, to a considerable extent, remained isolated from the money economy. They own the land, control the government and run the military, but Indo-Fijians receive more than 70 percent of personal income. The Indo-Fijians are a class-differentiated population, and many of them are quite poor; nonetheless, most of the rich people that ethnic Fijians encounter are of Indian descent. Most businesses are owned by Indo-Fijians, who also predominate in both the professions and the working class.

English is the second language for most members of both communities, but mother tongue to few. The two populations have different languages, cultures, religions and largely attend different schools. Each feels oppressed by the other. Indo-Fijians, considered aggressive, grasping and selfish by indigenous Fijians, tend to stereotype the latter as lazy, parasitical and stupid. These tensions are aggravated by the fact that 25 percent of the workforce is unemployed, including 40 percent of 18 to 25 year-olds.

The ethnic Fijian working class is concentrated in the civil service, on the docks and in the gold mines. There are also an increasing number of unemployed urban commoners, including former soldiers from overseas “peacekeeping” ventures, who, along with a thin layer of petty-bourgeois intellectuals, provided a social base for political challenges to the party of the chiefs—Ratu Mara’s “Alliance.” This opposition developed along two very different lines: extremist ethnic nationalism, and labor-based anti-communalism.

Commoners, Chiefs and Aristocrats

There is no doubt that many plebeian Fijians derive a sense of security from a social order in which their chiefs are able to dominate their perceived rivals, namely the Indo-Fijians. But at the same time, subordination to the chiefs can also be frustrating, and many indigenous Fijians are exhibiting increasing ambivalence toward the whole set-up. Affirmative action policies for ethnic Fijians over the past several decades have nurtured an indigenous commoner middle class and bourgeoisie, which both benefit from chiefly patronage and chafe under its restrictions.

The chiefs themselves are a caste in crisis. Ordinary chiefs have certain privileges relative to their social subordinates, but for most the privileges are modest. The chiefs’ rule restricts enterprise and fetters economic and social progress for their people—their status is rooted in a mode of economic activity that is inefficient, custom-bound and ultimately incompatible with the rising influence of the market in Fiji today. Some chiefs live very “traditionally,” while others are eager to get into business.

While the rewards for most chiefs are negligible, they are very substantial for the families who head the three confederacies of tribes. They are accustomed to filling the top positions in politics as well as the civil service, diplomatic corps and armed forces. This tiny aristocratic layer occupies the position normally held by the top layers of the national bourgeoisie in most capitalist countries. But the members of this elite do not constitute anything like the political core of a national bourgeoisie; they have certain mutual loyalties, and are tied together by an elaborate pattern of strategic marriages, but they have not transcended the pulls of their provincial and tribal rivalries. They had the power to deal with the May-July 2000 crisis, but it took an inordinately long time for them to decide how to exercise it.

One component of this aristocracy is the Cakobau family, who made the original deal with Britain in 1874. Under British rule, the Cakobaus were treated with a presumption of preeminence and accorded all the plum political and civil service posts. Sir George Cakobau was appointed as Fiji’s first governor-general after independence in 1970. It is perhaps not surprising that other elements of the elite did not find the Cakobaus quite as deserving as the British, and after independence, the Cakobaus’ fortunes within the aristocracy declined slightly. Recently some members of the Cakobau family have become dissatisfied with what they see as second-rate political postings, and one of the submerged themes running through the recent crisis was their aspiration to regain their former stature.

Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara exemplifies the aristocracy. The product of a privileged education, he attended New Zealand’s Otago University in the 1940s before going on to Oxford. He became high chief of Lau and then served as Fiji’s prime minister from independence until 1992, with the exception of a brief interlude in 1987. He was subsequently appointed president—a post he only relinquished during this year’s coup.

Ratu Mara’s wife, Adi Lady Lala Mara, is paramount chief of one of the three great confederacies in her own right. Two of their son-in-laws (both former heads of Fiji’s military) are very high chiefs in the other two confederacies. Both their fathers were former deputy prime ministers, and one went on to become governor-general and then Ratu Mara’s predecessor as president.

Although some elements of this aristocracy have gathered considerable personal wealth, it is not a bourgeois structure. The distribution of power among the chiefs, which favors the more Polynesian-influenced east as against the west, no longer reflects economic reality. The western region, where the trade-union movement and the Labour Party are based, is undergoing the most rapid development, particularly in sugar, gold and tourism, and indigenous Fijians in this area (including the chiefs) are increasingly critical of the aristocracy. There is some talk of secession and the creation of an independent west Fijian state.

George Speight: A Second-Time Farce

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx recalled Hegel’s comment:

“all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

In Fiji, Sitiveni Rabuka and George Speight both overthrew Labour-bourgeois coalition governments. Both were commoners who played the indigenous-rights card and sought to modify, but not destroy, the system of Fijian chieftainship. Lieutenant-Colonel Rabuka, who overthrew the first Labour-led coalition government in 1987, maintained power for twelve years, and to this day, despite his commoner status, chairs the Great Council of Chiefs. Speight held hostages in parliament, postured in his designer clothes in front the world’s television cameras for two months, and now awaits trial for treason.

For fifteen years after independence, the party of the chiefs ruled with the support of wealthy Indo-Fijian, Euro-Fijian and Australasian interests. At this time there was no significant indigenous Fijian bourgeoisie. In 1985 the union movement (representing half the workforce) launched a Labour Party in response to the imposition of a wage freeze and a series of other government attacks. Led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an indigenous general practitioner (who rejected his chiefly “Ratu” title as pretentious), the Labour Party was dominated by the trade-union bureaucracy and a layer of university teachers. Its social base was composed of Indo-Fijian trade unionists and a section of urban indigenous Fijian workers.

The Labour Party’s program combined standard social-democratic reformism with demands which would have encroached on the power of the chiefs. Its leaders had initially projected a 12-year program for winning power, but quickly formed a coalition government with the bourgeois National Federation Party, the largest Indo-Fijian party. The coalition was supported by most of the Indo-Fijian population, as well as roughly ten percent of ethnic Fijians. This demonstrated how, given the right historical circumstances, even a timorous anti-racist program can cut through ethnic bitterness.

Bavadra’s government certainly posed no threat to the indigenous population. His cabinet was evenly divided between indigenous and Indo-Fijian ministers and, while the majority of its parliamentary deputies were Indo-Fijian, ethnic Fijians held a majority of the total seats, so Bavadra could have been brought down at any moment by the defection of only two members from the government benches.

Nevertheless, an overtly racist anti-Indian Taukei (“Owners of the Land”) movement, led by commoners and junior chiefs, succeeded in mobilizing disaffected and unemployed indigenous youth in urban areas. “Taukeism” introduced a new element into Fijian politics—the mass organization of indigenous Fijians outside the control of the aristocratic high chiefs. The ideology for this plebeian indigenism combined Methodist Christianity with chiefly “traditionalism.” Taukeism is a deeply contradictory phenomenon that, while rhetorically supporting the chiefs, is at bottom an expression of dissatisfaction with their leadership. The ruling caste responded to this challenge by seeking to neutralize the Taukei movement by bribing its leaders and drawing them into the project of crystalizing an ethnic Fijian bourgeoisie.

Rabuka’s 1987 Coup

A month after the 1987 election, Colonel Rabuka, a commoner who was third in command of the army, marched into Parliament House and arrested the government. He was immediately backed by Ratu Mara, and succeeded in balancing between the aristocracy and the indigenist Taukei movement.

The coup initially encountered significant working-class resistance. Some 22,000 sugar-cane farmers and 26,000 cutters and mill workers refused to harvest the sugar crop for weeks. But the leadership of the unions and Labour Party neither seriously attempted to broaden the scope of the strike, nor create strike committees or other potential centers of political authority, that could have challenged Rabuka’s initially shaky grip on power. The Labour leadership’s response was to attempt to make a deal with the chiefs; the idea that the workers’ movement might constitute itself as an alternative social power to the rule of the aristocracy was beyond their imagination.

The coup was followed by several months of maneuvering, as the governor-general, Ratu Mara, and the judiciary sought to enhance their positions through rejigging the existing constitutional, diplomatic and tribal arrangements. When the dust settled, it was clear that the beneficiaries of the coup, besides Rabuka himself, who secured control of the military and had himself appointed minister of Home Affairs, included the aristocracy and a new layer of ambitious ethnic-Fijian commoners with Taukei connections. Ratu Mara was reinstated as prime minister. Fiji was expelled from the British Commonwealth as a result of the coup, so the aristocratic chief who had been governor-general became president.

In a deliberate slap at the Indo-Fijians, the new government imposed a Methodist “Sunday Observance Decree” forbidding sport, travel, shopping or swimming on the Sabbath. Over the next decade 5,000 people left Fiji every year, including many skilled tradespeople and professionals. Ninety-five percent of these emigrants were Indo-Fijians, and, as a result, indigenous Fijians now constitute a majority of the population.

‘Made in the Shade’

The new government promoted the development of indigenous businesses, through a web of government patronage, corruption and financing from state-owned banks. The preeminent representative of this indigenous capitalist layer is Jim Ah Koy, a wealthy Fijian commoner who served as Rabuka’s minister of finance. One of Ah Koy’s long-time cronies is Sam Speight, also a commoner politician, who held several posts under Rabuka. Sam Speight’s son, George, who studied business in a Seventh Day Adventist university in the United States, subsequently moved to Australia, where his career as an entrepreneur included operating an illegal pyramid-selling scheme to fleece small investors.

In 1997, when George Speight returned to Fiji, he was promptly plugged into Jim Ay Koy’s operations and soon appointed by the government to chair both the Fiji Hardwood Corporation and Fiji Pine Ltd. This made him the most influential person in the timber industry, a position of particular importance as Fiji’s huge mahogany plantations, said to be the most valuable in the world, were coming to maturity.

The government contracted an international accountancy firm to locate a suitable partner to exploit this resource, and, at a February 1999 meeting in Suva with Jim Ah Koy and George Speight, they recommended the British government-owned Commonwealth Development Corporation for the job. This advice was declined.

It seems that Speight had developed a relationship with Marshall Pettit, a Seattle financier, who had not only made a formal bid, but also, it later emerged, deposited substantial sums into Speight’s Brisbane bank account. The government chose Pettit’s Timber Resource Management bid, which was to be financed by a bond issue on which tidy commissions would be paid. One lawyer close to the process observed that with this deal, “George would have been made in the shade” (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 2000).

But it was not to be.

In May 1999 an election was held before the deal could be finalized. Rabuka’s years in power had taught him that an accommodation with the Indo-Fijian population provided an important prop for the rule of the aristocracy. Indo-Fijian business interests and cane farmers are central to the economy, and the structure of land tenure is an important source of income for the chiefs. Yet the aristocracy also has an interest in promoting anti-Indian racism to divide the subordinate classes against themselves, keep wage levels down and thus help attract imperialist investment. The aristocracy does not want ethnic antagonisms to get out of hand; too much social upheaval could threaten the stability of their rule. Fiji’s ruling elite certainly has no interest in driving out the Indo-Fijian minority.

So a new constitution was devised with the intent of moderating any possible electoral excesses. In addition to maintaining the appointment of the president by the Great Council of Chiefs and separate electoral rolls and parliamentary seats for the different communities, it introduced a complex system of preferential voting. Profoundly deliberated and unanimously endorsed by both houses of parliament, Fiji’s new constitution serves as a salutary warning to any political scientists foolish enough to imagine that deeply rooted social conflicts can be finessed with sufficiently clever electoral formulae.

While Bolsheviks place no faith in any system of bourgeois electoralism, we favor a system of proportional representation for all contenders, including the most reactionary, as far more democratic than either a system of preferences or “first past the post.”

The arithmetic of class struggle in Fiji is not complex. Class-collaborationist reformism cannot unite the plebeian masses. The Indo-Fijian workers cannot expect indigenous Fijians to fight with them against the party of the chiefs, unless they are also prepared to struggle against the capitalist class—including its Indo-Fijian component. Only a socialist program can work. Instead of drawing this lesson from their 1987 experience, the Labour Party leadership moved rightward, becoming more deferential to both the indigenous chiefs and the Indo-Fijian bourgeoisie, while ignoring the interests of poor and working-class indigenous Fijians.

In the 1999 elections, the Labour Party, under Mahendra Chaudry (Bavadara had died in 1990) won 24 of 71 parliamentary seats on first preferences. Chaudry was able to form a government by picking up another 13 seats, largely from second preference votes cast by those whose first preference was for Rabuka’s more extreme ethnic-Fijian rivals.

Chaudry’s success in maneuvering through the complexities of the new preferential electoral system meant that, for the first time, Fiji had an Indo-Fijian prime minister. This outraged more backward elements among the indigenous Fijians who felt that they had been tricked, and that consequently the new government was illegitimate. The Taukei movement was revived.

Rabuka accepted the result with good grace and stood aside. President Ratu Mara supported Chaudry against attempts by indigenous politicians to deny him the prime ministership, and actively supported the involvement of minority parties in the new government. (The new constitution required that parties winning more than ten percent of the seats had to be offered cabinet posts.) Eleven of the 18 ministers in Chaudry’s government were indigenous Fijians, including Mara’s daughter who became Minister of Tourism, and thus responsible for the country’s largest industry.

But the results did not sit well with some in the Fijian military. Metuisela Mua, director of the army’s Fiji Intelligence Service (FIS) said: “Let’s give the new government a go. If they falter then it’s a different matter” (Fiji Times, 21 May 1999). Chaudry transferred intelligence collection to Indo-Fijian officers of the police Special Branch who were directly accountable to himself, in order to have a way of monitoring the military. He also attempted to dismantle the FIS, although this was blocked by the senate and the judiciary.

The new government introduced a few moderate reforms: taxes were reduced on basic foodstuffs, water and electricity, and plans were announced to close a few tax loopholes and investigate dubious financial dealings under the previous government. Chaudry also proposed to establish a minimum wage and compensate cane farmers whose lands had reverted to indigenous owners. None of this was particularly radical, but it was enough to worry a lot of influential people. Among the government’s accumulating enemies was the ubiquitous Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fiji Times. The Taukei movement was mobilizing; anti-Indian rhetoric was growing.

Chaudry had replaced most of the previous government’s nominees on agencies and boards. George Speight not only lost his positions in the timber industry, but was also charged with corruption. The new government, perhaps hoping that good relations with Britain might help Fiji sugar secure its European Union markets, indicated that it intended to sign the mahogany deal with the Commonwealth Development Corporation, rather than Speight’s American connection. This irritated the American ambassador and the State Department (New York Times, 14 September 2000).

Speight’s Coup

George Speight actively sought to fan the flames of opposition to the government and, dangling prospects of sharing in mahogany megaprofits, agitated among petty chiefs and their supporters for an end to government influence over Fijian land, and a return to direct control by the indigenous owners.

On Wednesday 17 May 2000, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story about rumors of a coup in Fiji. Two days later, on Friday 19 May, George Speight and seven members of the aptly named Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit drove up to the parliamentary complex in the luxuriant foothills above Suva with a large cache of arms, and took Chaudry and most of his government hostage. Shortly afterwards, plebeian Taukei mobs began looting and burning Indo-Fijian commercial premises in downtown Suva.

When Rabuka launched his coup thirteen years earlier, he had bussed the ousted government to jail and immediately set up his own administration, including several established figures, in the parliament buildings. But Speight had few forces at his command, and his coup turned into a prolonged 56-day hostage drama. His actions did, however, provide the aristocracy with an opportunity to work out among themselves the terms of their own countercoup.

The real power behind the coup was Major Ilison Ligairi, a 20-year veteran of the British Special Air Service, who, after his retirement and return to Fiji in the mid-1980s, was asked by Rabuka to set up the elite Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit.

Ligairi and Speight had apparently been in contact only an hour before Speight appeared at parliament. Ligairi kept a very low profile while Speight, the “communicator,” took center stage, claiming to be in control of everything. Self-confident, untiring, moody, manic, Speight negotiated with the military and the chiefs. He handled the media well, even if he sometimes seemed a tad ridiculous, referring to himself in the third person: “George Speight is the repository of the will of the Fijian people” (Time International, 5 June 2000). His stance was offensively Taukei: indigenous Fijians should rule. If Indo-Fijians don’t like it, they should go home: “They don’t look like us, they don’t eat like us and they don’t smell like us” (Sunday Star Times, Auckland, 28 May 2000).

Initially, as many as two thousand supporters of the coup straggled into the parliamentary complex, but by the end, their numbers had slowly dwindled to a few hundred—predominantly followers of the most disaffected branch of the Cakobau family and a few lumpenized urbanites. They passed their time drinking kava, cooking pork and singing Methodist hymns—all thoroughly documented by a pack of international journalists.

Speight claimed to be fighting for the authority of the chiefs. Two days after his coup, the most senior available chief, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau—son-in-law of the president, former head of the military, former chief diplomat of Fiji, direct descendant of Ratu Seru Cakobau, grandson of King George II of Tonga, senior contender for the position of paramount chief of the Bau confederacy—sat on the lawn and drank kava with this bourgeois upstart. They talked, and then Ratu Nailatikau departed, leaving his wife (the president’s daughter) a hostage inside along with the rest of the government.

The outcome of the coup had not yet been determined, but it was clear that there would be no accommodation between the Mara-Nailatikau wing of the aristocracy and George Speight. The aristocracy was backed by the Indo-Fijian bourgeoisie, and more importantly the various imperialist interests and most of the military. This put it in a strong position, but the aspiring Taukei bourgeoisie also had some cards to play. Speight not only had the hostages and the plebeian masses and junior chiefs of the Taukei movement, but also support in sections of the military. Most importantly, the coup was supported by Ratu Nailatikau’s rivals for the position of paramount chief of the Bau confederacy, the two daughters of his Uncle George—Sir George Cakobau, the first Governor-General of Fiji. Adi Samanunu Cakobau is Fijian High Commissioner in Malaysia, and her sister Adi Litia Cakobau is Deputy Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs. In mobilizing their supporters and a layer of more junior chiefs, they were primarily concerned with asserting their own position within the chiefly caste, but found themselves aligned with Speight against Ratu Mara.

At Government House, the president’s official residence, a couple of kilometers from where his daughter was being held hostage, Ratu Mara formally dismissed the Chaudry government, claimed executive authority, and came out in favor of rewriting the constitution to ensure that the indigenous community gained control of the government. But Speight wanted more. His demands and the candidates he put forward for office changed during the course of the negotiations, but he was consistent in wanting Mara out, and a share of power for himself.

A Complicated Negotiation

Unwilling, or unable, to attempt a military solution, Mara and Nailatikau engaged Speight in lengthy negotiations, attempting to drive a hard bargain while letting him think he was winning important concessions. The antagonism between Speight and the president complicated the situation, and it became clear that a settlement could be more easily reached with Ratu Mara out of the picture. So ten days into the coup, the head of the Fiji Military Force, Commodore Ratu Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, set the constitution aside and declared martial law. Ratu Mara resigned and returned home to the island of Lau.

The crisis dragged on for six more weeks. The attempt to mobilize the trade unions for the restoration of Chaudry ran into stiff opposition from the interim military government, Speight and the Taukei gangs. Without a program to address the concerns of the unemployed and other layers of plebeian indigenous Fijians, the labor movement was marginalized.

The prolonged negotiating process was punctuated by Taukei mob attacks on various Indo-Fijian businesses and homes. During these outbursts, there were many instances in which ethnic Fijians sheltered their Indo-Fijian neighbors. As it became apparent that the central issues involved political control of the indigenous community, the focus of Taukei lawlessness shifted from Indo-Fijians to police stations, some of which were occupied.

The prime ministers and foreign ministers of Australia and New Zealand imposed economic sanctions on Fiji and delivered sanctimonious lectures on democracy. The Fijian aristocracy accords considerable weight to pronouncements from Canberra and Wellington—they understand that accommodating the interests of the regional imperialist powers is ultimately crucial to their survival. They also shared with the imperialists a desire to be rid of Speight, his grubby clique of parvenus and their thugs. But the aristocracy’s immediate priority was to settle some questions regarding the relative status of various chiefs.

To the world, it appeared that George Speight was negotiating with the army, but a number of senior chiefs were also present throughout the talks. All sides agreed from the outset that in the next government representatives of the Taukei leadership would considerably outnumber Indo-Fijians. All agreed that the new government would be openly hostile to the trade unions. And all agreed that key portfolios had to go to the aristocracy. What had to be sorted out were questions of exactly how much weight the commoners from the Taukei movement would get, and which faction of the chiefly aristocracy was to be put in charge—the Mara-Nailatikau wing, or the Cakobau sisters.

At this point, Nailatikau had a lucky break—his half-brother, Ratu Viliame Dreunimisimisi, died. The funeral was a major event, attended by members of the Tongan royalty, as well as all wings of the Bau confederacy. Even the Cakobau sisters had to support the release of Ratu Nailatikau’s wife, Adi Koila Mara Nailatikau, for the occasion. Speight therefore lost his most valuable hostage, and his opponents could be even more relaxed about the time frame of the negotiations, thus considerably expanding their range of military options.

Nailatikau himself was briefly appointed acting prime minister, but he could no more play the mediator than Mara, and the military replaced him with a colorless commoner banker, Laisenia Qarase. Qarase sought to undercut Speight’s support by announcing a list of cabinet ministers from business, the chiefly caste and Taukei leaders, and by proposing a program of preferential economic treatment for indigenous Fijians.

The negotiations continued, brokered by Mara’s former vice-president, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, a senior chief from the west, who, like Mara, is 80 years old, but frail, manifestly ill and apparently pliable. Eventually a formal agreement was reached: Speight would release the remaining hostages and relinquish his weapons; he and his collaborators would be amnestied; and the Great Council of Chiefs would meet to appoint a new president who would in turn appoint a new government. It was widely assumed that Ratu Iloilo would be president, and that the Great Council of Chiefs would play an important role in determining the personnel of the new government.

Speight, supported by the Cakobau sisters, had wanted the meeting to take place in his presence at the parliamentary complex without Ratu Mara, while hanging onto the arms and hostages. But the meeting was held at the military headquarters, the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, with Ratu Mara in attendance (courtesy of a patrol boat supplied by the Australian government). After the formalities, the Great Council of Chiefs adjourned and sent a delegation to Speight instructing him to hurry up and release the hostages before they proceeded to business. Exquisitely, they appointed Adi Samanunu Cakobau to lead that delegation.

Just to rub in a little more salt, Ratu Nailatikau then announced that he would shortly convene a gathering to select the paramount chief of Bau, and added, incidentally, that women were ineligible to be paramount chief in his confederacy.

The hostages were released, most of the arms returned, Ratu Ilolio appointed president, and Laisenia Qarase was confirmed as interim prime minister.

Endgame for Speight

Negotiations continued about the composition of the new government, with Speight trying to make his mark on it. Speight still hoped that Adi Samanunu Cakobau could be prime minister, but the narrowness of her base had been demonstrated. Without significant support in the aristocracy she would be too dependent on the rabble. Speight wouldn’t have minded, but it’s not what Adi Samanunu had in mind, and at the end of the game, she declared her willingness to serve in any capacity. Furious, Speight stormed out and with his bodyguards walked to the village school on the edge of Suva where his supporters were holed up.

For several days he continued to threaten new coups, but he was bluffing, since his support had been reduced to a handful of lumpens and a gang of unemployed former military personnel. On the night of 26 July, he and 368 supporters were arrested at their base, on the grounds that they had not honored their pledge to return all the weapons. George Speight is currently living under guard on a usually uninhabited island off Suva—an island that was used for the processing of Indian indentured laborers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. With him in that island jail are Major Ilison Ligairi and Metuisela Mua, former FIS director.

Qarase has been confirmed as Prime Minister. His “deputy” is Ratu Nailatikau. For good measure, Ratu Tu’akitau Cokanauto, Ratu Nailatikau’s younger brother (but doubtless also playing his own game), is in the cabinet too.

After his release, Mahendra Chaudry fruitlessly demanded his restoration, went off on an overseas trip, and tried with little success to gather international support. His first stop was Malaysia. On the same airplane was Adi Samanunu Cakobau, returning to her post as High Commissioner.

For three months there was an appearance of stability. Civil servants’ wages were cut 12.5 percent and preparations were underway for harsher measures, including more paycuts, tighter media censorship and a crackdown on union activity. Emigration by Indo-Fijian professionals and skilled workers accelerated.

On 2 November, a rebellion erupted in the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, spearheaded by 40 members of the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit and involving the FIS. Their apparent objective was to replace the commander of the military, Commodore Bainimaramara, with Steve Rabuka, to lay the basis for a Speight/Cakobau government. While Speight’s coup in May had dragged on for two months, the November rebellion was suppressed immediately in a firefight in which three loyalists and five rebels were killed.

Rabuka’s role and those of certain senior military figures, remain obscure to outside observers. Bainimaramara, who emerged from this latest round in a strengthened position, was reported by the Fiji Times (9 November 2000) as saying, “the only thing that united indigenous Fijians [is] their dislike for Indians,” that the instability “would not have happened if the chiefs had been united,” and that the chiefs should be “more honest and open to each other.” His comments reflect the growing frustration of plebeian and middle-class Fijians with their chiefs.

Fiji today is a deeply divided society without a national bourgeoisie or any potential configuration of rulers with sufficient social roots and political authority to maintain a stable capitalist regime. Immense nervousness remains in ruling circles that the judiciary may declare the Ilolio-Qarase government illegitimate. The Court of Appeal (consisting of judges from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Australia) is to consider this question shortly. Commodore Bainimarama has pledged in advance to accept the decision of the court (Fiji Government Online, 15 November 2000).

The regime not only lacks the social base necessary to ensure stability, but is also without a coherent ideological or constitutional foundation. It can neither dismiss the court, nor trust it. There are no historically progressive solutions to Fiji’s seemingly intractable social divisions to be found among the chiefs, colonels, bankers or judges at the top of society. The solution can only be found at the bottom, among the oppressed and exploited, through the mechanism of a party of the working class, rooted among both indigenous and Indo-Fijians standing against both capitalists and chiefs. The struggle for democracy in Fiji—necessarily a struggle against the power of the chiefs—must be combined with the fight for social equality, which must necessarily be a struggle against the power of capital.

Class Struggle Perspective vs. Communalism

The experience of the Fiji Labour Party demonstrates that it is possible to create political organizations with support among the working class of both communities. The Labour Party was only able to do this episodically, largely because it was too cowardly to seriously encroach on the prerogatives of either chiefs or capitalists. A revolutionary labor party willing to draw clear class lines, and oppose crypto-feudal as well as capitalist privilege, would be able to achieve a great deal more.

Such a party would advocate the nationalization of land, as well as all other means of production. It would seek to implant its cadres in every union and fight to break down ethnic hostilities by actively championing the struggles of working people and the oppressed from each community. It would build on the decent instincts of ordinary people who have always protected their neighbors from rampaging mobs, by creating integrated workers’ defense guards to enforce picket lines and put an end to racial attacks. It would seek to address the needs of all the oppressed, not only employees, but also working farmers, the village poor and the urban unemployed.

The obstacles to working-class struggle in Fiji—communal conflict and indigenism—are posed with extreme sharpness, but they are hardly unique. And precisely because they are posed so sharply and the existing social order is so brittle, the connection between ethnic conflict and social oppression may prove to be more transparent and thus more directly addressed in Fiji than elsewhere. A revolutionary workers’ party with an anti-communalist perspective could profoundly impact the class struggle internationally by providing a model for other societies in which similar questions are posed.

Fiji cannot return to pre-European village communal- ism, and the imperialist world order offers neither a secure future, nor a viable way of living for either indigenous or Indo-Fijian working people. Fiji is a small place, and a socialist overturn could not long survive in isolation. But proletarian revolutionaries in Fiji must see their activities in an international context. Revolutionary struggle anywhere serves as a beacon for the working class internationally. A workers’ victory in Fiji would resonate throughout the region and could have a major impact on the potentially powerful workers’ movement in Indonesia as well as in Australia, New Zealand and beyond.

For a Workers’ Republic of Fiji, in a Socialist Federation of East Asia and the Pacific!

1917 no.23: February 2001