The Coups- Missed Opportunities

  • 20th May 2005
  • 2005
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The illegal overthrow of democratically elected governments in 1987 and 2000 have had a traumatic impact on the nation from which we have still not recovered, Opposition Leader Mahendra Chaudhry said.

He was speaking at a Labour Party organised rememberance day to mark the coups of 1987 and 2000.

The full text of Chaudhry’s speech is reprinted below:

May I thank you personally for being here today. Your presence with us, as we remember the tragic consequences of the three coups of 1987 and 2000, is a reflection of the concern you share about the impact of such events on our country and the lives of our people.

In all three cases, the Fiji Labour Party and its grassroots supporters were the direct victims but, as in any such civil conflict, the nation and its people suffer as a whole.

In this short two hour session we, unfortunately, do not have the time to recall the vast extent of damage and suffering inflicted by the terrorist events of 1987 and 2000 on our people and nation. All we can do is try and focus on some of the more far-reaching consequences of the coups.

It is now of course a hypothetical question as to where we would have been as a nation, in terms of progress and development, had the coups not taken place. But as intelligent people we can make an educated guess. There is the general feeling that the 1987 coups put the nation back at least 25 years. We were just surfacing from the devastating impact of the two coups in 1987, when the 2000 upheaval took place.

The political mayhem of 2000, including the mutiny at the army barracks, was much worse than anything encountered in the first two coups.

Quite apart from the fact that I, myself, as Prime Minister and members of my government were held hostage for 56 traumatic days, 19 innocent lives were lost, the city of Suva was trashed and large parts destroyed through arson and looting. Scores of farming families were forced to flee their homes in terror as thugs plundered their homes and crops and brutalised them.

This is why it is so important to constantly remind ourselves of the havoc wreaked by misguided groups, bent on pursuing their own vested interests under the guise of indigenous rights.

Since the first coup in May 1987, Fiji has traversed 18 years – 18 years in which we failed to move forward in pace with the rest of the world. Instead, we adopted an inward looking stance – experimenting with already discredited and outmoded concepts of racism, exclusivism, religious and cultural bigotry and fundamentalism.

Apart from the hurt, the shattered confidence, and the actual physical loss and suffering that the coups inflicted on our people, there is the magnitude of lost opportunities on a national level in terms of thwarted development, loss of investor confidence, neglect to infrastructure, the worrying decline in social services such as medical facilities and education, and the deterioration in the standard of living of a vast majority of our people.

Instead of moving forward and maximising on our gains, we have been forced to retrace our steps and re-engage our scarce resources in the rebuilding and reconstruction of a shattered economy, and in starting all over again.

These 18 years are practically lost years for us as a nation – we have missed innumerable opportunities to keep pace with the rest of the world. My task today is to look at some of these lost opportunities.

Rather than go into specifics, I intend to provide an overall picture of how, as a nation, we have lost so many opportunities to progress and to build on what we had achieved by 1987.

Indeed, if one were to look analytically at development post 1987 – there is little one can point to, except for a few tall buildings in Suva, and some construction in the tourism sector.

In terms of tourism, most of the major hotels we have today date back to pre-1987 days.

Our once flourishing sugar industry has in fact deteriorated markedly in recent years; most of our infrastructure in terms of hospitals, schools, roads and highways date back to the same era; the foundation for our pine and mahogany plantations and the mining industry were set pre-1987; fisheries and agriculture have also declined significantly since then.

Is this not a devastating record for any young, developing nation? In terms of human resources, the coups have cost us very dear. Beginning May 1987, we have been subjected to a massive exodus of skilled and professional people – with disastrous consequences to our development in the key areas of health, education and infrastructure.

The loss of hundreds of experienced and trained teachers, doctors, nurses administrators, engineers, accountants, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other trades people has left indelible imprints on our health services, educational institutes, the sugar industry, the civil service, the construction industry and the private sector as a whole.

According to official figures from the Bureau of Statistics some 124,000 people have left Fiji to settle abroad since the 1987 coups. Of this, more than 89,000 are believed to have left after the two coups of 1987 and another 35,000 since the 2000 coup.

This is the official figure. The actual number of those who emigrated after the three coups is likely to be much higher considering that after the mayhem of 1987, in particular, a lot of people left on tourist visas and never came back.

More importantly, in the years since May 1987 Fiji has lost more than 1000 experienced, trained civil service teachers. Although official figures for doctors and nurses are not available, at least 600 nurses are known to have resigned from government service.

I do not have to tell you of the debilitating impact this has had on the standard of our education and health services which today is in a shocking state of neglect – understaffed and under-resourced, lacking any sense of direction or planning.

We now rely on expatriates to provide services in State run health care facilities – some 40% of doctors, consultants, specialists and support staff are currently expatriates.

Five years after the 2000 coup, the rate of emigration has not trailed off. People are still leaving at an average of 450-500 a month – reflecting the extent of disillusionment and disenchantment that still exists.

The nation had expended a lot of money in the education and training of these people – all that is now lost! The development of human resources is one area in which we have had to start from scratch!

Fiji’s economy took a severe battering in May 1987 from which it has never fully recovered. Economists say that economic growth in 1990 was at the same level as that of 1980. Indeed, the whole of the 1990s showed low growth, averaging at about 2 percent.

This figure was, no doubt, boosted by the phenomenal growth of 9.9 % experienced in 1999 under the People’s Coalition Government.

The vibrant economy of 1999 was in sharp contrast to the two years of negative growth that preceded it. The year 1999/2000 stands tall as an indicator of how we have missed opportunities because of the coups.

If such a dramatic turnaround in Fiji’s economy can be achieved in one year through competent management, financial discipline and boosted invested confidence, it only goes to show what we as a nation are capable of achieving.

The People’s Coalition Government had targeted a growth rate of at least 6% for the successive years and I am confident we were on the right track to achieving this.

Imagine the hundreds of jobs that would have been created, the marked improvement in wages and living standards that would have accrued as a result!

The progress seen in infrastructure development would have been remarkable – and I am talking about roads, improvements to hospitals and schools, expansion in agriculture and the opening up of the interior of Viti Levu to mention a few.

When we took office in 1999, we had discussions with an American company to advice us on constructing a highway through the interior of Viti Levu linking Suva and Nadi.

Had this materialised, just imagine the potential this would have provided for developments in eco-tourism and agriculture. Think of how this would have boosted income levels and the quality of life for villagers living in the interior of Viti Levu, now inaccessible and cut off from the rest of us.

Likewise, our proposal for a Landuse Commission would have brought great benefits to Fijian landowners. It would have provided the ideal opportunity to develop unutilised Fijian land with government assistance, boosted agricultural development and enhanced income levels for the owners of the land.

But, unfortunately, the proposal was hijacked by the detractors of the government to arouse emotional fears through disinformation and misrepresentation, and then, of course, buried by the coup.

Are these not all missed opportunities? At the time of the 2000 coup, $300 million worth of hotel projects were rearing to take off. They were expected to create 3000 new jobs.

A survey showed that 10,000 new jobs had been created in just one year of boosted economic growth!

Fiji was truly perched on the springboard of a major economic takeoff had the 2000 coup not intervened. Instead, it plunged us back into the doldrums. The strong economic growth of 10% in 1999 immediately dropped to minus 3.2% in 2000.

The economy has not recovered since. Although there has been some improvement in the past couple of years, this is not based on strong production factors but on high consumer spending.

Fiji’s growth pattern has traditionally been linked to sugar, garments, gold, tourism and exports such as copra etc. But today the RBF measures growth in terms of hotel turnover, transport, the retail and wholesale sector and other service sectors.

The SDL government has been forecasting optimistic growth rates of about 4-5% for last year and this year. But, of course, these were not realistic figures and the government has been forced to revise actual growth rates sharply downwards to 1.5 % this year and 0.7% for 2006.

Actual performance may in fact be even worse, considering the decline in the sugar and garment industries.

The crisis in both these industries can be traced back to the coups – sugar to 1987 and the garment industry to 2000. The garment trade is in effect, a product of the 1987 coup – when to revive a shattered economy, policy makers had to turn their back on traditional primary industry sectors such as agriculture, to lure in tax free manufacturing industries with huge tax concessions.

These industries have reaped the benefit of Fiji’s lucrative preferential deals with markets such as Australia, the EU and the USA but have ploughed very little back into Fiji. They provided jobs for a huge pool of unskilled labour but these, mainly women from the most vulnerable sectors of society, were by and large paid pitiful wages for long hours of arduous work.

The upheaval of 2000 hit the garment industry hard when it could not meet buyers’ demands. When shipments became irregular, buyers simply began to look elsewhere; manufacturers also began to relocate from Fiji to more stable economies in Asia.

The garment industry was at its peak in 1999 generating revenue to the tune of $332 million. Today, the industry brings in just over $200 million.

The withdrawal of the US quotas from January this year has dealt the rag trade a further blow, from which it may never recover. Employment in the industry has fallen sharply from a high of 18,000 in 1999/2000 to around 10,000.

Likewise, the present critical plight of the sugar industry, in particular, the financial collapse of the Fiji Sugar Corporation, is a direct bequest to the people of Fiji by the 1987 coups.

Following the coups and the racially exclusive policies espoused by the post-coup regime, FSC became highly politicised with the result that the administration began serving political rather than commercial objectives.

With the out-migration of many of the trades people and skilled staff, the mills became run down and were inadequately maintained.

Then, of course, there is the crisis created by the indiscriminate non-renewal of native land leases. This has brought cane production down from an average of 4 million tonnes to the current levels of less than 3 million tonnes.

In 2003, for instance sugar production fell to 294,000 tonnes because of lower cane supply.

Compare this with average production as high as 420,000-450,000 tonnes in previous years, and you realise the millions we have lost in revenue.

As an example, in 1999 sugar brought in $282 million. Compare this with the $223 million it earned in 2004.

I must be forthright, and put the blame for this squarely where it belongs… the late Maika Qarikau, general manager of the Native Lands Trust Board.

This man is single handedly responsible for the near-death of the sugar industry and the current tragic plight of some 5000 displaced cane farming families whose leases have not been renewed as a direct result of his politically-motivated actions.

And I am sorry to say that except for Militoni Leweniqila, a Minister in the SVT government, that government and the NLTB fully supported Maika Qarikau in his campaign not to renew leases to Indian cane farmers.

He went around telling everyone that indigenous landowners were not willing to renew leases. They wanted their land back. Yet, today at meetings of the Parliamentary Ad Hoc Select Committee on Land we hear a different story. Landowners have repeatedly told us that they want to lease their land to Indian farmers.

But it’s too late. The industry is in a dire predictment. And Indian cane farmers have lost that trust and confidence that is essential for them to want to continue to invest in cane farming.

Most of these displaced farmers, made landless and homeless overnight, have now joined the burgeoning ranks of squatters that are sprouting up all along our urban centres. Fiji’s squatter population has risen dramatically since 2000/2001 when the majority of the leases expired … officially we are told that close to 90,000 people are now squatting – more than 10% of our population.

The current depressed state of Vanua Levu can also be attributed to Qarikau’s politiking and the terrorist events of 2000.

Hundreds of farmers in the Labasa area lost their farms and scores of families had to leave when their land was forcibly taken away. This has had a direct impact on the economy in the North.

I must say Maika Qarikau also played a crucial role in setting up indigenous landowners against the People’s Coalition Government on the mahogany issue. He toured the country with George Speight spreading disinformation regarding the government’s negotiations on the mahogany deal.

That is another lost opportunity. Had we been allowed to conclude a deal with CDC, the landowners, and the nation, would have been the real beneficiaries.

As it is, landowners have missed out on a golden opportunity to reap mega dollars from the joint venture. Job opportunities have been lost. And the only beneficiaries today are a few favoured supporters of the SDL who are logging mahogany and selling it to furniture factories around the country or to sawmills.

Another real legacy of the coups is the escalating level of poverty in Fiji today. I will not say much on this topic as our poverty expert, Father Kevin Barr, has covered this subject very ably in his address.

Suffice it to say that rising poverty levels are directly linked to high costs of living, unemployment and low growth rates. Economists claim that real wages in Fiji have gone down by 25% compared to the 1980s.

I’ll give you another vivid indicator of how the coups have kept us backward, and affected standards of living. In 1970, at the time of independence, the per capita income in Fiji was $2000. We were on a par with Singapore.

Today, the per capita income in Fiji is just $4000 compared to $20,000 in Singapore, a country that enjoys almost full employment.

There is yet another indicator of how the standard of living in Fiji has slid backwards instead of improving. Fiji has always been regarded as the most advanced of the South Pacific island states.

Yet, the listing for the latest available UN Human Development Index for 2003 belies this complacency. Fiji’s position on the Index had fallen from 44 to 81 in the 2003 Index. This is a very steep slide within a span of 8 years and is indicative of the fast declining standards of living of our people.

I can go on in this vein … but I believe the message has come through. We proved in 1999 that Fiji has the potential to do as well as Singapore and Mauritius; to meet the aspirations of all its people for a better quality of life.

But this potential cannot be realised if we continue to have political upheavals of the type that shattered our dreams and aspirations in 1987 and 2000.

How long are we going to allow misguided and bigoted politicians, opportunists and their self-serving business associates to play havoc with our future, and that of our children?

The 1997 Constitution provided us with a golden opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, and to carve out a new future as a multiracial community living in peace and harmony, as one nation, one people.

I am referring specifically to the provision in Section 99 for a multi-party Cabinet. This was a great opportunity to bring all the ethnic groups together to participate in nation building and to make amends for the acrimonious events of 2000.

Regrettably, the SDL government turned its back on this unique chance to unite the nation and to pool our talents together in an effort to reconstruct our shattered economy, and restore our shattered trust and confidence. It rejected the power-sharing provisions of the Constitution. What a missed opportunity!

We have seen the adverse results of this decision in the state of our nation – official mismanagement and corruption, a rapidly declining economy, rising unemployment and escalating levels of poverty with all its associated social ills.

The message is clear. Fiji cannot progress on a platform of racial bigotry and exclusivism. We have no choice but to embrace genuine multiracialism, we must respect the rule of law and adhere to the principles of equity and social justice.

These are the only true foundations on which we can build a strong and unified nation.

One more point. A necessary pre-requisite to achieving this, is the need for electoral reforms that will remove the evils of communalism.

The existing electoral system which entrenches communal voting is the root cause of racial politics in Fiji.

I must say the blame for this lies on the short sightedness of our leadership in 1997. Driven by their own communal base, these leaders completely reversed the recommendations of the Reeves Commission for Fiji to adopt a majority of Open seats as opposed to communal seats, as a necessary step to moving away from race-based politics.

A lot of rhetoric and pious statements are being uttered about reconciliation and unity. But unless we get certain fundamentals right, there can be no genuine reconciliation or unity.

Nation building is not an easy task. It has to be all-embracing and as I have said before, structured on the pillars of truth, democracy, equity and social justice.

Once again I thank you for being here today and for listening to me so patiently. Let us hope that with 2006 we can venture into new horizons and a more amicable relationship as a nation.