May 14 has special significance for Fiji – it marks the arrival of Fiji’s first Indians in 1879 on the coolie vessel Leonidas and it is also the ill-fated date of Fiji’s first coup d’etat against that community in 1987.
Both these events were clearly defining moments in Fiji’s history because of the profound impact they exercised on the nation’s political, social and economic development, and on the lives of its people.
The first, although a traumatic and personally demeaning experience for the 60,553 Indian indentured labourers brought to Fiji under the inhumane system, nevertheless, contributed immensely to the colony’s economic and social development. It also played a profound role in shaping the nature of its political evolution.
The Sitiveni Rabuka-led military takeover of the 1987 elected government of Prime Minister Dr. Timoci Bavadra on 14 May 1987 was, for instance, an ostensibly racist strike against what he considered an Indian-led government.
Third ranking Colonel in the then Royal Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), Rabuka claimed the coup was to restore ethnic Fijian political paramountcy and to protect indigenous interests and land rights. Four months later, in another coup that consolidated his power, he abrogated Fiji’s Independence Constitution (1970) and set up a republic following Fiji’s expulsion from the Commonwealth.
Today Rabuka is viewed as the man who unleashed Fiji’s coup culture and, thereby, set in train the series of devastating forces that have seriously undermined our economy and national development.
Rabuka’s legacy as the coup-man has been far reaching. Even though his stated reason for the takeover – the defence of indigenous rights – was discredited as having any legitimacy, it was the excuse later used by George Speight to execute the 2000 coup. The special forces unit set up by Rabuka, the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) soldiers, facilitated Speight’s takeover of government hostages in Parliament, and later incited the army mutiny of November that year.
He had set a precedent of military interference in national politics, that provided the impetus for Frank Bainimarama’s takeover of power in December 2006.
The legacy of social and ethical degeneration and national decline left by the May 14 coup 23 years ago, is at the root of much of our problems today – the deteriorating law and order situation, interference with the judiciary, corruption, bad governance, politicisation/militarization of the civil service, economic stagnation, deteriorating infrastructure, declining foreign investment, rising unemployment and related social ills – to name a few.
Since the imposition of Public Emergency Regulations a year ago paving way for the abrogation of Fiji’s constitution and authoritarian rule, Fiji has undergone serious violation and repression of human rights including the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Despite all the rhetoric on ‘reforms’, State finances remain precarious, the economy is deeply troubled with exports continuing to decline markedly, foreign investment at its lowest and social ills have multiplied with poverty levels soaring to an unprecedented 45%.
On this 23rd anniversary of Fiji’s first coup, it is obvious that political stability is a necessary pre-requisite for Fiji to return to economic viability and national progress.
As the first step towards this, FLP calls on the interim government to resume the political dialogue process abandoned on 10 April 2009. It is only through dialogue and consensus that we can chart out a future for the nation based on sustainable democracy and the return to constitutional rule.
Coups are not the answer to our national ills.