22 Apr 2020

Former Fiji PM Qarase remembered as a passionate, yet controversial, figure

6:38 pm on 22 April 2020

Plans are underway to return the body of Laisenia Qarase, the former prime minister who led Fiji through a tumultuous six years bookended by two coups, to his home village for burial.

Mr Qarase, who led the country from 2000 to 2006, died in a Suva Hospital early on Tuesday after a short illness.

Former Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

Former Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Photo: AFP

Funeral arrangements were yet to be finalised, a family spokesperson said, but "being an island boy," his body would be returned to his village of Mavana, on the island of Vanuabalavu.

Tributes have been flowing for the former civil servant, businessman and politician, who was launched to the top job in the aftermath of the 2000 coup, and whose tenure was cut short in another that followed six years later.

"He was a very humble person," said Professor Steven Ratuva, the director of the MacMillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at Canterbury University, who knew Mr Qarase personally. "He was very committed to his principles, although one may disagree with some of his ideas."

Mr Qarase is being remembered as an astute businessman who worked to advance the fortunes of Fiji's indigenous iTaukei, which often led to claims of divisiveness, nationalism and racism.

The latter part of his six years in power were marred by a bitter feud with the military and its then commander, Frank Bainimarama, who would eventually overthrow him.

Mr Qarase spent the last years of his life on his home island, Vanuabalavu, working with villages there and contributing to the Methodist Church.


Born into the Tota clan at Mavana on February 4, 1941, Laisenia Qarase went to local schools before moving to the capital, graduating from Suva Boys' Grammar in 1959.

Laisenia Qarase

Laisenia Qarase Photo: AFP

Mr Qarase went to the University of Auckland, earning a Bachelor of Commerce before moving back to Fiji to begin a career as a civil servant, first with the Fijian Affairs Board, then the finance ministry.

He moved into banking, becoming the first iTaukei director of the state-owned Fiji Development Bank in 1983, a position he held for 15 years. It was his business acumen that saw him called upon by Sitiveni Rabuka, who pulled off Fiji's first coup in 1987, to rebuild a shattered economy.

Mr Qarase developed a plan that saw development assistance extended through the creation of Fijian Holdings Limited, which became one of the country's biggest companies, with Mr Qarase championing a greater role for iTaukei and Rotumans in the economy.

"He was someone who was really concerned about trying to raise the standard of indigenous way of life, particularly in business," said Professor Ratuva. "He saw Indigenous Fijians were lagging behind."

But it was not smooth sailing. The 1990s saw initiatives crumble into bankruptcies, and Mr Qarase became embroiled in a scandal over the acquisition of shares by his family, which would come back to haunt him more than a decade later.

He became the chairman of Fiji Television, and then the head of the Fiji Merchant Bank in 1998.

His first political appointment came in 1999, when he was nominated by the then-Great Council of Chiefs to fill a vacant seat in the 32-member Senate.

It was in the Senate that he became a vociferous opponent of the Labour Party of Mahendra Chaudhry, which was elected to government in 1999, making Mr Chaudhry the first prime minister of Indo-Fijian descent.


That government would only last a year. On 19 May 2000, the disgruntled businessman George Speight and a group of iTaukei nationalists, including a military elite unit, stormed the parliament, holding MPs hostage for more than 50 days.

Laisenia Qarase, flanked by bodyguards, after he was appointed prime minister in 2000.

Laisenia Qarase, flanked by bodyguards, after he was appointed prime minister in 2000. Photo: AFP

In that time, the president, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, declared a state of emergency, bringing in a military administration led by the then-commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

Sir Kamisese resigned under circumstances which remain unclear to this day, and Mr Bainimarama took control under martial law. In July, Laisenia Qarase was called upon to become the interim prime minister.

"In 2000 he was seen as somebody who was going to save Fiji, and then once things settled down the differences began to emerge, and I think those differences played out much more intensely over the years and it came to a point where those differences were beyond salvaging," Professor Ratuva said.

In November 2000, the army splintered in a mutiny at a barracks in Suva. Nationalist soldiers unsuccessfully tried to depose Mr Bainimarama, which saw four deaths and an attempt made on the Commodore's life. Four rebels were beaten to death by loyal soldiers.

George Speight was jailed for life, convicted of treason.

In late 2000, the High Court ruled that Mr Qarase's government was illegal, ordering the restoration of Mr Chaudhry's government. But Mr Qarase refused to accept this, instead taking it to the Court of Appeal, which also ruled against him. Elections would be held in 2001.

Mr Qarase went on to the win a bitter election fought under a complicated system of reserved seats and multiple parties hamstrung by bitterness and defections. Both Mr Qarase and Mr Chaudhry gained a significant number of seats, and the 1997 constitution required any party with more than eight seats to form a joint cabinet, forcing the bitter opponents together.

Mr Qarase was livid. He no longer had the workable government he wanted on his terms, instead having to cede some power to Mr Chaudhry, who was saying he would be "an opposition within the government."

Laisenia Qarase (L) shakes hands with president Josefa Iloilo after a swearing in ceremony following the 2001 election.

Laisenia Qarase (L) shakes hands with president Josefa Iloilo after a swearing in ceremony following the 2001 election. Photo: AFP

Still, he tried to make it work, telling RNZ his main priority would be to restore stability after the instability and bloodshed of the year before.

"Fiji should have a fairly stable government during the next five years and beyond, and we would welcome investors from both within Fiji and of course from outside to help us develop this country," he said.


Suva was a capital defined by strong men and fragile egos, bitter resentment and deep ethnic cleavages left over from indentured labour and British rule. On one side of town a fractured parliament, on the other, a loaded barracks where the line between military and politics was blurred.

The military had accepted the election result, and Mr Qarase set about his path of restoration. Through this, he embarked on a series of major economic reforms.

In 2005, he described his government's aim as "not to return to where we once were but to journey forward together to a place we have not yet been, a Fiji of lasting peace and harmony, where nobody is left behind or goes without."

He has been credited with returning a sense of stability to the Fiji economy, and broadening its base. But he was a controversial figure throughout. He enjoyed huge support among the indigenous population but was looked upon with scepticism by the Indo-Fijian population and the military.

"There were a number of reforms which he tried to initiate, where the multi-ethnic character of the society means that any particular policy which you put into place which seems to favour a particular group will be seen in a very negative light," said Professor Ratuva.

It happened repeatedly. All through his six years in power, policies intended to codify and protect indigenous rights regularly drew praise and scorn, with Mr Qarase often accused of racism. His feuding with Mr Chaudhry dragged through the courts for four years, and his feud with Mr Bainimarama only grew stronger.

Mr Qarase's attempts to heal after the 2000 coup often fell flat. A bill which he argued was intended to promote "tolerance and genuine unity" would have paid reparations to those who suffered, but would also have granted amnesty to many who took part. Mr Bainimarama, embittered by the loss of control and the attempt on his life, would not accept this. Eventually, the bill was withdrawn by Mr Qarase.

An embattled Laisenia Qarase leaves his office as fears of a coup reached fever pitch in 2006. He would be toppled days later.

An embattled Laisenia Qarase leaves his office as fears of a coup reached fever pitch in 2006. He would be toppled days later. Photo: AFP

Other bills that came to haunt the prime minister was the Qoliqoli bill, which would have transferred coastal property rights to indigenous Fijians, as well as a proposed Indigenous Claims Tribunal bill, both of which angered the tourism industry.

These were all eventually dropped under immense pressure from both the military and the Indo-Fijian population. But the feud with Mr Bainimarama blew out into a full-blown crisis in 2005, loaded with threats against each other, calls for one another to resign, and crisis mediation.

In the midst of all this, Mr Qarase went on to win a narrow majority in the 2006 election, forming a multi-party cabinet. But this would not last.


The tensions reached a crisis point when Mr Qarase refused to cede to a list of demands from Mr Bainimarama about his plans to grant amnesty to perpetrators of the 2000 coup, and which would have seen some of those convicted released from prison.

A truce brokered by Vice-President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi fractured towards the end of 2006, and Mr Qarase told RNZ he planned to take up the matter in the Supreme Court to determine the role of the military.

Mr Qarase refused to meet the demands, and flew to New Zealand for a crisis meeting brokered by foreign minister Winston Peters in November 2006. The talks appeared to succeed but only days later Mr Bainimarama rejected the concessions, making a coup all but a foregone conclusion.

The military made a last public show of force before tightening the noose around the government. Checkpoints were set up around Suva and on pretext to inspect police armouries, the military seized all police weapons.

On 5 December, Mr Qarase's house had been surrounded by soldiers. Appeals for military help from Australia were left unanswered. A day later, Mr Bainimarama stood before the cameras and said he had taken over, justified on the grounds that "Fiji's overall governance situation had regressed to a catastrophic level."

A soldier orders media to back off as the army moves on the residence of Laisenia Qarase, blocking the view of the house where the premier was meeting with key ministers, 5 December 2006.

A soldier orders media to back off as the army moves on the residence of Laisenia Qarase, blocking the view of the house where the premier was meeting with key ministers, 5 December 2006. Photo: AFP

Mr Qarase would not go quietly, days later telling RNZ from Vanuabalavu, where he had been exiled, that "we could be looking at a military dictatorship similar to military dictatorships we have seen around the world," drawing comparison to Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein.

The deposed prime minister said he would contest the next elections, whenever they may be, and said he was ousted because serious criminal charges against the military commander were imminent.

"The main reason for the coup was for the commander to protect himself because our police force was closing in on investigations into some serious allegations against him, even as recently as November when he was obviously guilty of sedition at least before he committed treason," he told RNZ in January 2007.


In his later life, Laisenia Qarase remained a critic of the government, but he increasingly faded from public view. He did not contest the elections in 2014.

In 2012, he was jailed for a year on abuse of office charges that stemmed from the 1990s, when he was the director of companies and government entities. He denied the charges, maintaining they were politically motivated.

After his release, he spent a lot of time on Vanuabalavu, where he was a chief, he helped businesses there and took part in other initiatives, before falling ill earlier this month and dying on Tuesday morning.

Funeral plans are yet to be announced, but his family said he will be buried in his home village. In the past day, once bitter opponents have honoured him, Mahendra Chaudhry telling the Fiji Times that he was "a man who had strong moral principles."

"Although we had serious political differences, I found him to be polite and courteous in person," Mr Chaudhry said.

Steven Ratuva said Mr Qarase was a controversial and divisive figure, but also one who was committed to advancing Fiji's indigenous people. A man whose sharp business acumen was called upon regularly, who became wound up in bitter feuds and power plays.

"He was criticised for being too nationalistic, but beyond that he had this heart, he had these feelings for Fijians, particularly in the bigger picture of the Fijian economy," said Professor Ratuva.

"He was somebody who lived up to his principles, someone who spent a lot of her personal and professional life trying to address issues of disparity."

Laisenia Qarase is survived by his wife Leba, their seven children, 26 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Archive audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.