An attempted coup in Fiji dominated newspapers in Australia and New Zealand this weekend. On Friday, mixed-race businessman George Speight led an armed attack on the Fijian Parliament and took 45 legislators and the country’s first ethnic-Indian prime minister hostage. Speight declared himself the nation’s new leader on behalf of indigenous Fijians but has won no support from the military or police. Racial tensions dominate Fijian society: Its population is split almost evenly between indigenous people and ethnic Indians, mostly descendants of migrant sugar workers. Fijians own more than 80 percent of the land, but Indians produce 90 percent of the sugar crop, Fiji’s leading export, and dominate commerce.
Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry won the 1999 election on what the Australian described as “a platform of radical social and economic reforms.” Although there had been doubts that his administration, which was composed of both Fijians and ethnic Indians, would last even a week, the economy has been on an upswing and his policies have been popular, but the crucial issue of land reform brought suspicion and outright opposition from the ethnic-Fijian community. According to an analysis in the Sydney Morning Herald, the 30-year leases given to Indian sugar growers by the British as part of Fiji’s independence deal in 1970 were about to expire, ending rent control and “set[ting] the scene for a conflict between Fijian landowners and tens of thousands of tenant farmers whose families have worked the land for generations.” The SMH described the situation as “a colonial time bomb … waiting to go off.” The Fijian publication the Review claimed that “[m]oves by Chaudhry to amend the new constitution raised an outcry among Fijian leaders. They portrayed it as an attempt to dilute the powers of the president, who under the constitution has to be a Fijian, and of the august Fijian institution, the Great Council of Chiefs. He was seen as favouring Indian cane farmers, who formed his power base, with a $28,000 cash grant for farmers whose leases were not renewed. … Even his supporters thought he was moving dangerously and foolishly too fast on touchy issues which could have been addressed later in his term.”
Australian papers were particularly keen to establish Speight’s lack of legitimacy. An editorial in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald described his actions as a “wild non-coup.” It began, “When a military officer takes power … it is a coup. When a disgruntled and allegedly shady businessman kidnaps the elected prime minister and others hostage at gunpoint, it is a criminal act.” Monday, the SMH compared Speight to a “warlord” of the kind that has “devastated so much of Africa.” Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail of Toronto reported “suspicions” that Speight “is more concerned with his failing mahogany interests” than with returning Fiji to indigenous rule. It said that Fijian nationalists accused Chaudhry of “favouring Indians in the granting of contracts, especially in the lucrative timber trade.” Speight “was behind a failed bid, in tandem with the U.S. company Trans Resource Management, to harvest Fiji’s mahogany forests, which are the world’s biggest.” The Globe and Mail also suggested that Speight was acting on behalf of his father, an opposition politician, who opposes the Chaudhry government’s “approach to racial power-sharing.”
Indian-owned shops in the capital of Suva were looted and burned Friday, leading to fears that there will soon be an exodus of Indo-Fijians as there was after a Fijian-nationalist coup in 1987, when approximately 35,000 ethnic Indians fled. An editorial in the Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, fretted about the possible need for military intervention from Australia and New Zealand “at a time when both nations are fully stretched by the East Timor deployment,” and also that the two regional powers will be hit by “big refugee flows … and neither nation could cope without a noticeable impact on their economies.”
(The fijilive.com Web site was cited in several articles as the best source of information on the coup. According to the Australian, it “kept delivering news updates after most phone lines to the island were apparently cut.”)
In another Pacific Island story, the Age of Melbourne said in an editorial that the government of the Solomon Islands recently requested that Cuba provide a “military solution” to conflict there. Natives of the main island of Guadalcanal are fighting ethnic settlers from nearby Malaita because, they claim, the Malaitans “dominate jobs and business in the Solomons’ capital Honiara.” The Australian government has declined to get involved in settling the dispute, maintaining that Solomon Islands order is a Commonwealth responsibility. The Australian concluded, “[W]hether we like it or not, Australia is big brother in the South Pacific. … Australia … should be prepared to contribute to a multinational peacekeeping force. It could be the only way to convince the Solomons’ leadership that involving Cuba is in the interests of no one in this region.”
Last Thursday, Alejandro Toledo, the opposition candidate in Peru’s disputed presidential election, said he would not take part in the second round of voting, scheduled for May 28, unless it is delayed until June 18 to correct irregularities in the first round of balloting. Incumbent President Alberto Fujimori rejected the request. The pro-Fujimori paper El Expreso led Saturday’s paper with the headline, “Toledo Unleashes Violence and Calls for the Sabotage of Elections.” An editorial in the paper presented the contest between Fujimori’s Perú 2000 Party and Toledo’s Perú Posible as a choice between “on the one hand, happiness, hope, and trust in the future and in victory; and on the other, violence, bitterness, and disaster.” The anti-Fujimori La República, which deems Fujimori’s attempt for a third term unconstitutional, supported Toledo’s decision. It said that nongovernmental sources all showed that if he participated in the May 28 vote, he would be the victim of an “ambush” on behalf of the incumbent. It added, “The attitude taken by Perú Posible has the virtue of revealing Fujimori’s fraud to the world.” In an interview with Spain’s El País, Toledo expressed confidence that he would become president immediately after Fujimori but declared that this will not be in five years’ time: “If Fujimori is chosen, he won’t last a year.”
The arrival of Leo Blair (named for the British prime minister’s father, not the star of Titanic), the first baby born to a serving prime minister and his wife in 150 years, coincided with the announcement that another of “Blair’s babes,” the record 101 Labor women elected to Parliament in 1997, would not contest her seat at the next election. Although she said it was not the main reason for her decision, Tess Kingham told the Guardian, “the lack of child care facilities does make life difficult for any MP with children.” The conservative Daily Telegraph said women MPs are “mounting a growing rebellion over long working hours, the absence of a nursery at the Commons and the refusal of the parliamentary authorities to allow breastfeeding during official proceedings.”