Rory Ewins's Pacific Islands Politics

Notes on the 2000 Fiji Coup

Rory Ewins

For personal reasons, I was not in a position to write much about Fiji’s tumultuous year 2000, but did track the early days of George Speight’s attempted coup in a weblog until I went travelling at the beginning of July. The Fiji-related entries are collected below; note that many of the links to news articles have expired. For a more detailed analysis over a longer period, you may like to see my father’s writings on the subject.

Saturday, May 20, 2000

Almost 13 years to the day after the first one, there has been another coup in Fiji. This is a subject close to my heart, and prompted a long and somewhat tangential personal response, which you can find at First Reactions to News of Another Coup in Fiji.

FijiLive is down—no doubt overloaded—but you can find an initial report and two updates at Pacific Islands Report.


Excellent coverage of the 2000 Fiji coup at the Sydney Morning Herald, including a concise response by Brij Lal, the ANU historian who was a member of the Constitutional Review Committee.

Awful to read of the chaos this has caused—it sounds worse than the day of the 1987 coup. Back then, no one could quite believe it was happening. Today, they just want out. Apart from the looters and malcontents.

And all this over a mahogany contract. Would you buy a used country from this man?

Hmm: absolutely nothing on their site about the coup as of 3.15 a.m. EST, whereas the SMH has 8 full pages. I know which paper I’ll be buying tomorrow.


Monday, May 22, 2000

Fiji latest: the SMH continues to feature good coverage each morning, but breaking news through the day is best seen at FijiLive (requires free registration) and the ABC.

President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s refusal to talk to Speight until the hostages are released is admirable. If he maintains his resolve, it should go a long way to ensuring Speight’s failure. Former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, though, seems to have undone several years of cultivating a multiracialist image in one stroke.

The waste of it all; a desperate man taking a whole country down with him. Whatever the outcome, there’s no way a small economy like Fiji’s, with tourism its number one revenue earner, can shrug off the impact of such events.


Tuesday, May 23, 2000

A good weblog with more links to current Fiji news than I’ve been able to manage. Events seem to be coming to a head there... all eyes are on the Great Council of Chiefs, which is meeting right now.


Things aren’t looking too good in Suva today.


Wednesday, May 24, 2000

So it actually is a military coup after all.

Given that the Great Council of Chiefs has now come out against it, the situation could turn very ugly indeed. Defence of the chiefly system is a major element of Fijian military ideology—indeed, it largely drove the 1987 coup. Now that one part of the military is challenging that ideology, the repercussions could be grim.

The 1987 coup was about much more than race: it was about the defence of a system of traditional authority that was believed to define the Fijian people. In the years since, some Fijians have questioned whether their chiefs adequately represent their aspirations in a fast-changing world. That questioning attitude is sustaining those who are supporting Speight to the extent of defying their chiefs.

But once the rationale of defending the chiefly system is removed from the picture, what remains? Only the promotion of one race over another. This coup, if it succeeds (and there is still a chance it will not), will be far more racist in its intent and outcome than the 1987 coup was (although that was bad enough). That is a tragedy for Fiji and the region.

One can only hope that Speight and his backers fail.


Saturday, May 27, 2000

I’ve avoided the subject of Fiji in this weblog for a few days because it’s too depressing for words. It looks like my worst fears of Wednesday are being played out.

Speight has said that he and his supporters know that there will be “heavy consequences” for their actions, such as trade bans, freezes on foreign aid, and sport sanctions, and that they’re prepared for this because the end results matter to them...

... which kind of misses the point that the three quarters of a million other people living in Fiji haven’t been asked whether they wanted their country turned into an international pariah and economic basket-case, destroying their own chances for personal prosperity and well-being for many years to come. (Well of course they weren’t asked. That would involve some sort of democratic ballot. Can’t have any of those.)


Monday, May 29, 2000

Suva is now under military rule. Thanks to a 48-hour curfew, Fijilive is no longer updating. Australians and Americans have been advised to leave the country, or at least Suva. Coup figure-head George Speight has threatened to murder President Mara’s daughter if there is any attempt by the military (the non-Speight faction, one assumes) to free the hostages.

It is painful to watch all this. In 1993 I interviewed about thirty political figures in Fiji, many of whose names you will have seen in the various news reports of this whole affair. Some of them are currently inside the parliamentary compound with Speight, as either his sidekicks or his hostages.

I vividly remember one of Speight’s current cronies telling me that Rabuka had got it all wrong with his 1987 coup. He should have made a clean break, this person said, and chucked all the Indians out of Fiji. Not because of any threat to the chiefs or the land, mind you, but because they held too many places in business and the civil service—places that ambitious urban Fijians were keen to occupy.

It’s a grim day when a once-democratic country looks set to follow the example of one of the worst dictators of the twentieth century.


A private email response to a journalist’s request for background on the Taukei movement, not posted to the weblog:

You can find a bit about the Taukei Movement in my old paper on the ’87 coup. “Taukei” is a Fijian word meaning something like “land-owner”, but the motivations behind the movement itself are more complex.

In the years since the ’87 coup its true nature became a bit clearer. It was basically an orchestrated attempt by several ambitious commoner Fijians on the fringes of power to whip up popular dissent with the new Labour government as a pretext for staging the 1987 coup. With that coup’s success, key Taukei Movement members rose to positions of power in government. The broader “movement” became more of a popular movement than it had been, as more Fijians proclaimed themselves Taukei members. The movement remained active through the period of the post-coup Interim Government, but became less prominent as the 1990s wore on.

The movement was not just about maintaining Fijian land-ownership, although that was important among its goals. It was about keeping Fijians in key positions of power and influence in all spheres: government, civil service, business. (Whether this actually made much difference to the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of Fijians is debatable.) The Taukei Movement was more or less made redundant by the creation of the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT), the Fijian political party sponsored by the Great Council of Chiefs (and in government under Rabuka from 1992-99). But although they found common ground in the SVT, it’s important to note that the Taukei Movement and the chiefs weren’t necessarily the same people, and continued to maintain their separate interests. The Council represented the highest chiefs; the Taukei represented ambitious commoners and lesser chiefs.

The Taukei Movement was revived in recent months by out-of-favour political figures for almost identical reasons to 1987—to whip up Fijian opposition to the Labour government. Its direct connection to the coup attempt isn’t clear at this stage, but the same sorts of people are probably involved in both. It has already been revealed that Speight is a front-man for a behind-the-scenes conspiracy involving members of the military and other Fijians opposed to the Chaudhry government.

The fact that the military is clearly divided in its loyalties is evidence of the many splits among different groups of Fijians today. The key thing to note this time around is that, although the 1987 coup drew much of its legitimacy from supposedly being a defence of the Fijian chiefly system, this coup is rejecting that system as having failed Fijians—as seen in Speight’s rejection of Mara, the highest chief in the land. When you take the chiefly system away, the only rationale left for the current coup is self-interest: an ambitious group of Fijians want to remove Fiji Indians from all positions of power and influence in government and, no doubt, business, so that they (and other ambitious Fijians) can reap the spoils.


Thursday, June 1, 2000

A fine new essay on the Fiji crisis by Brij Lal.


Tuesday, June 13, 2000

I’ve been meaning to write a longer analysis of what’s been happening in Fiji, but finding the time to do so is increasingly difficult. Fortunately, my father (who also happens to be a Fiji expert!) has been writing on the subject, and some of his background notes are now online (mirrored here).


Thursday, June 22, 2000

It’s now over a month since Speight took the Fiji government hostage. It looks as if the hostages may be freed today or tomorrow, and of course that is good news (if it happens), but the sad truth is that the country has been set back years by these events. The very fact that Speight and his sidekicks are playing any sort of role in determining the shape of the next government is proof enough of that. Acts of terrorism should be condemned, not rewarded, whatever their rationale. has been offline for a while, and is now pointing to the front page of PacificJokes, which somehow isn’t quite the same. All of the links to coup stories at Fijilive in the archives of this weblog have broken. Pity.


Friday, June 23, 2000

Deadlock in releasing the Fiji hostages. Why am I not surprised?


Page created 5 March 2001

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