16 Oct 2020

A legacy of coups hangs over Fiji

11:51 am on 16 October 2020

50 years on, the legacy of coups continues to dominate Fiji

Coups happen in Fiji because people accept them, a Fijian human rights lawyer says, which creates what she described as a coup cycle phenomena.

Fiji coup leader George Speight (C) leaving the High Court in Suva after being sentenced to death for high treason fin 2002.

Fiji coup leader George Speight (C) leaving the High Court in Suva after being sentenced to high treason in 2002. Photo: AFP

Addressing a recent talk on the state of democracy to mark the 50th anniversary of Fiji's independence, Imrana Jalal said coup usurpers were rewarded, and made Prime Ministers and important people.

The online discussion was organised by the NGO Coalition for Human Rights where participants shared their views on Fiji's achievements, challenges and ways to help move the country forward.

Since independence in 1970, Fiji has had four coups.

Jalal said had people opposed the military then without guns, Fiji would not be in the situation it is in today.

Despite talk from the government of the coup culture having ended with the 2006 one, Jalal said the factors that had made them possible in the past were still there - most notably the outsize influence of the military.

Jalal called for the downsizing of the military, saying it was disproportionate when compared to the country's GDP and the population.

"Being in the military has become a job where it provides a secure source of income and people also earn through peacekeeping," she said.

Jalal said she could not see a permanent solution for stability for the rule of law for democracy in Fiji, despite several iterations of the constitution, and there was a need for change.

Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team

Fiji Human Rights lawyer Imrana Jalal Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

"What I worry about is all these young men in Fiji growing up who think that to be in the military is a really cool place to be.

"Of course it is. It's based on the worst context of masculinity. It's based on the worst context of patriarchy - even for women in the army it's still a patriachial context."

Jalal said the military is all about might and fear over respect.

She said instead, a small armed unit could be set up in the police force.

Jalal is also a founder of the women's rights movement in the country, which she praised for standing their ground during political unrest.

"A lot of women's organisations mobilised across racial lines," she said.

"We put the racial differences aside and we focussed on gender and sexual issues in terms of discrimination."

Prince Charles hands over the constitutional instruments of Fiji's independence to then Prime Minister the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

Prince Charles hands over the constitutional instruments of Fiji's independence to then Prime Minister the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Photo: Fiji govt

Call to remember those who suffered

Fijians have been celebrating their country's 50th year of self-rule from Britain.

On 10 October 1970, a 21-year-old Prince Charles handed over the instruments of independence to then Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

In his address in Suva, Prince Charles urged the Fijians to continue to promote a strong, united and diverse society.

But there have been four coups since then - the latest in 2006, carried out by current Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who was the-then military commander.

That came after a build of pressure that started with the 2000 coup and the mutiny and unrest in the barracks, with which Mr Bainimarama was also involved, and a political crisis in 2005.

At the heart of the previous three coups lay the tensions between the ethnic Fijians and the growing Indian population.

New Zealand-based Fijian Dr Jitoko Cama is among thousands celebrating independence.

The Hamilton surgeon said while Fiji had many achievements and things to be proud of from the past five decades, there should also be some recognition of those who suffered.

"Over the 50-year period, the stories in Fiji have not been all a success," Dr Cama said. "We have a lot of failures as well.

"We've had four coups and we should also reflect on those who suffered and are still suffering during those coups - whether it's financially, family-wise or personally.

"And we should remember them."

Former Supervisor of Elections Jon Apted told the panel the ultimate measure of a constitution was whether it provided for a peaceful transfer of power.

The Suva-based lawyer said he doubts the current constitution will allow it.

Apted said both the 1970 and 1997 constitutions failed because they ended with coups.

"The big objective was to bring about a stable government," he said.

"The idea of every constitution has to be to provide for a peaceful transition of power.

"And if your constitution cannot provide for a peaceful transition of power within your society, then it has failed," said Apted.

Apted said the current system does not work for Fiji's future because the "current constitution is built for this government and the personalities involved".

Jon Apted.

Jon Apted. Photo: Supplied