Colour, Class and Custom

One: The Coup and its Explanations


At ten o'clock on the morning of Thursday 14 May 1987, after only one month in power, the democratically-elected government of Fiji was overthrown in a coup d'état conducted by the third-in-command of the Royal Fiji Military Forces, Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka.

The morning session of Fiji's House of Representatives had, until then, been quiet enough. Alliance Party Fijian MP Taniela Veitata had been venting his frustration at the defeat in the April elections of his party's government by the Labour/National Federation Party Coalition:

Our chiefs are really the guardians of peace in Fiji. ... [Mao] said that political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. In Fiji, there is no gun. But our chiefs are there; we respect them (quoted in Robie 1989:218).

Other races, though, Veitata said, had given the Alliance—the party of the chiefs and by implication of all indigenous Fijians—'a kick in our faces' (quoted in Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:69). 'Fiji belongs to the Fijians', he said, and then, referring to Fiji's other main racial group, 'in the same way ... India belongs to the Indians' (ibid.).

Veitata was interrupted by the entrance of ten masked soldiers, one of whom yelled:

Sit down everybody. ... Ladies and gentlemen, this is a military takeover. We apologise for any inconvenience caused. ... Stay cool, stay down and listen to what we are going to tell you (Captain Isireli Dugu, quoted in Robie 1989:218).

Rabuka, dressed in a suit, had been watching from the public gallery. He stood up, walked over to the Coalition's Fijian leader, Timoci Bavadra, and said, 'Mr. Prime Minister, please lead your team down the right' (ibid.).

Bavadra looked around at his stunned colleagues, and at the 'immobile faces of the Alliance Opposition seated across the chamber' (Bain 1989:3). 'Very well', he replied, 'Under protest. Come along, gentlemen. Let us comply in a dignified and correct manner' (quoted in ibid.). He and his fellow government MPs were led outside at gunpoint and ordered into two waiting military trucks. As they moved off, Bavadra turned to Education Minister Tupeni Baba, another Fijian member of the Labour Party, and asked: 'Is this really happening? A coup d'état in Fiji?' (quoted in Robie 1989:219).

The news shocked a world grown blasé about military takeovers. Rabuka's bloodless coup was more than the first in the Pacific: it had occurred in a country whose smooth transition to democratic self-rule had been held up as a model for the Third World. Australia and New Zealand expressed particular alarm. Fiji was the crossroads of a region in which they considered themselves to play a leading role. Hurriedly-written analyses headlined 'Paradise Lost' and 'Trouble in Paradise' appeared in major newspapers and magazines of the two countries. Television stations matched stock film with spoken reports from a handful of correspondents. Over the next few weeks the media patched together an explanation for Rabuka's actions.

The coup, most decided, was the result of longstanding racial tensions between indigenous Fijians and 'immigrant' Indians; Rabuka had acted on behalf of his race. The print media ran potted histories of the Indian presence in Fiji and described the Labour/NFP Coalition government as 'Indian-dominated'. Subsequent events were interpreted with race in mind: demonstrations staged by the militant 'Taukei Movement' were taken as signs of 'Fijian unrest'; Rabuka's second military intervention in September 1987 was seen to be staged in response to a comeback by the 'Indian' Coalition; an illegal arms shipment was seen as a sign of imminent Indian revolt; and the most notable feature of the new constitution promulgated in July 1990 was considered to be its creation of a parliament biased against Indians.

A campaign of harrassment aimed mostly at Indians and conducted mainly by the military[2] and the Taukei Movement has reinforced this picture. Arson, looting, and riots were all initially involved in this campaign, and formed part of a crime rate which more than doubled in the months after May 1987 (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:122-23). On 15 October 1989, in a coordinated effort by a Methodist youth group, four Indian temples in Lautoka were firebombed, prompting a 24-hour strike by Fiji's Indian community (Australian 16 October 1989; Fiji Times 18 October 1989; Age 20 October 1989).

The forces of 'law and order' have been equally at fault. In one bizarre incident at a supermarket on 17 July 1987, a senior police official's wife complained of discrimination when given a smaller plastic carrying bag than other shoppers. Police quickly arrived and attempted to arrest the entire staff, eventually making do with the overnight detention of three cashiers (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:124). Reports continue, long after the coup, of arbitrary arrests, beatings, and intimidation. As recently as 24 October 1990, an Indian university lecturer was kidnapped and tortured for taking part in a public demonstration at which copies of the 1990 Constitution were burned. Five soldiers were charged with the assault and pleaded guilty (Paul Murphy, 'Dateline', SBS Television 10 November 1990).

Most in the media continue to see in these events the signs of longstanding racial antagonism. Others see more complicated causes. Certain aspects of the coup and subsequent events have prompted some observers, both in academia and elsewhere, to search beyond race for more effective explanations. Suspicions were first aroused when, the day after the coup, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara[3] (prime minister of Fiji from independence in 1970 until his defeat by the Coalition in 1987) joined Rabuka's Council of Ministers, a body dominated by Taukei Movement members. This prompted speculation that the coup was the result of an Alliance plot. That Rabuka quickly yielded power to civilians, rather than maintaining personal control, reinforced the belief that he was acting on behalf of more powerful political players.

Certainly, events went remarkably smoothly for Rabuka. Initial problems, which arose when the governor-general, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, condemned the coup and refused to swear in Rabuka's Council, were more or less resolved within a week. By then Ganilau had dismissed the released Bavadra government, dissolved parliament, granted amnesty from prosecution to Rabuka and his men, and sworn in a Council of Advisors almost all of whom met with Rabuka's approval. Since then, most of the domestic obstacles faced by Fiji's various military-backed governments have been overcome. The destruction of democracy in what is now the 'Sovereign Democratic Republic of Fiji' seems complete.

Categorizing the explanations for the coup

Since 14 May 1987 many explanations for the coup have been advanced. These often conflict with one another. Some are concerned mainly with one factor, such as conflict between Fijians and Indians, while others offer a mixture of factors. In this paper the various factors are grouped into four main categories: race, class, custom, and specific interest.[4] The rationale for this typology is outlined below.

There are several reasons for adopting such an approach. First, apart from a few articles which review half a dozen major texts in less than a thousand words, little attempt has been made to compare and contrast the major works on the coup. Secondly, the exercise of examining each factor is valuable in itself, since it provides a test of each explanation individually. Finally, such a categorization, by highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the main explanations for the coup, helps to isolate the explanation with the greatest validity. The study also gives a measure of the vulnerability of liberal democratic institutions in Fiji, and an indication of where Fiji is heading in the 1990s.


Before describing each factor, it is necessary to clarify the definitions of some of the terms used hereinafter. The labels used to describe Fiji's inhabitants have long been a source of contention. The label 'Fijians' was applied, from the earliest period of European contact, to the race of indigenous people of Fiji, and since then indigenous Fijians have opposed its extension to include other races. Therefore, inhabitants of Indian descent, even if born in Fiji, are generally known within Fiji as 'Indians' (and were defined as such in its 1970 constitution). Other races are also labelled according to their ancestry (Europeans, Chinese, and so on). The problem of finding a broadly acceptable name for all inhabitants of Fiji remains unsolved.

Some Fiji Indians, in an effort to more closely identify themselves with their country, describe themselves as 'Indo-Fijians'. The term has been adopted by many observers, although it is disliked by many Fijians and has connotations of racial admixture which are inappropriate. Some observers even avoid 'Fijians' as a description of the indigenous people, preferring the term 'Taukei', but in any discussion of the coup, which inevitably will include references to the 'Taukei Movement', the use of 'Taukei' as a broad label causes confusion and obscures the divisions within the indigenous community.[5]

The more common terms 'Fijians', 'Indians', and (when referring to all inhabitants of Fiji) 'Fiji citizens' are used hereinafter. Hence, it is the 'Fiji government', not the 'Fijian government', and 'Fijian voters' refers only to indigenous voters.

A less common label is used for Rabuka's reassertion of control on 25 September 1987, referred to by most observers as his 'second coup'. In this paper, Rabuka's first military intervention of 14 May 1987 is called his 'coup', while his second is called his 'second intervention'. This terminology was suggested by the statements of two coup observers. One is William Tagupa, who says:

A military coup ... often takes a long period of time to sweep aside the institutional remnants of the previous government. In Fiji, I consider there to have been a single coup, initiated on May 14 and not completed until September 28 when the Republic of Fiji was unilaterally declared (1988:144n).

The other is Sandra Tarte, who says:

This action by the military was not a second coup. The military clamp-down that took place in September ... did not displace a legal government. There has only been one coup, that of 14 May (1987:75).

The use of the terms 'second coup' and 'the Fiji coups' suggests that one considers the interim governments established after the 'first' coup to have been legitimate (which I do not). It also obscures the differences between the two events, and (in the context of 'explanations of the Fiji coups') implies that the same explanation applies to both, which is not necessarily a valid implication. Events after 14 May which had been caused by the coup in turn affected the events of September and October. Furthermore, the motivations of key players evolved, and pro-coup groups became more fragmented, throughout the months after the coup. But of course, the explanations of the coup examined in this paper do go a long way towards explaining events since the coup.

A note must also be made about the use of the terms 'causes of the coup' and 'coup-makers'. Strictly speaking, the only people who can be called 'coup-makers' with certainty are Rabuka and the few soldiers who took part in his takeover. But to follow this rigid definition is too limiting. Thus, the term 'coup-makers' is here expanded to include those who had a hand in causing the coup and have demonstrated their support for it. These people may not have helped plan the coup, but did give active or tacit support before the event. A second group comprises those who helped to ensure the coup's success after the event (loosely termed 'coup supporters'). A third comprises the members of Fiji's public who approved of the coup. Together, these three groups make up the pro-coup forces in Fiji. Obviously, disagreement exists about who belongs in which category, and the terms are therefore somewhat flexible.

Similarly, the only definite 'causes of the coup' are those which one can be certain motivated Rabuka to act. Therefore they may, according to some accounts, include only a distrust of Indians and a concern for the future of the military. Again, this term is expanded to include many of the forces at work in the events of 1987 (race, class, corruption, and so on). All have played a part in ensuring the success of the coup, and all have been promoted by at least some observers as likely causes of the coup.

Finally, while the pre-coup system of government defined by Fiji's 1970 constitution is often referred to as 'democratic', it must be noted that this was a qualified form of democracy. Representation was defined along racial lines, and minority groups other than Fijians and Indians were over-represented: while only about 3 per cent of Fiji's voters were 'General Electors' (mostly Europeans, part-Europeans, and Chinese), they elected 8 out of 52 (15 per cent) of the seats of the House of Representatives. Worse electoral malapportionment has occurred in Western 'democracies', however, and other symbols of democracy, such as freedom of the press, were present in pre-coup Fiji (and are noticably absent in post-coup Fiji). Certainly, the imperfect nature of Fiji's past system of government should not be taken as justification for its present system. It is in part to avoid this implication that I have retained the term 'democracy' as a description of Fiji's pre-coup form of government.[6]

The racial explanation

As has been noted, race was the most commonly offered explanation for the coup in the days immediately following 14 May 1987. Most media observers concluded that racial antagonism between Fijians and Fiji Indians was sufficient explanation for Rabuka's success in taking power.[7] Rabuka himself gave racial tensions as his primary justification for staging the coup. In his early announcements, Rabuka declared he had staged the coup for the paradoxical reason that racist elements within the indigenous Fijian community (represented by the 'Taukei Movement') were causing unrest.[8] Later, however, his personal concern about increased Indian power was put forward as his real motive. Rabuka's interpretation of Fiji's race relations was further developed in his own story of the coup, Rabuka: No Other Way (Dean and Ritova 1988),[9] one of the earliest books on the subject to appear. Foremost among Rabuka's fears—and those of Fijians in general—was the perceived threat posed by Indians to Fijian-owned land.

Deryck Scarr, an academic at the Australian National University and the author of several books on Fiji's history, has given a primarily racial explanation for the coup in his book Fiji: The Politics of Illusion (1988a). His main arguments, well encapsulated by Barrie Macdonald (1990:201), are that 'beneath a facade of racial harmony there were deep-seated tensions between Fijians and Indians, and that the coup was made inevitable by a Fijian fear of dispossession once a government with an Indian majority had been elected'. Some other observers, such as Theo Roy, professor of Politics at University of Waikato, New Zealand, (1987, 1988) and Dalton West (1988) concur with this view.

Many observers, however, have viewed the race question from a different perspective. Rather than giving race as the main factor involved in the coup, they have given reasons why it was not the main factor. Brij Lal, a Fiji Indian academic, examines the race question in detail. Although he says the importance of race 'cannot be ... lightly dismissed' (1988a:7), Lal systematically argues that Fijian fears about loss of land, for example, were unfounded, given the restrictions within the 1970 constitution upon altering land-use legislation. Others, such as Stephanie Lawson[10] and Robert Robertson and Akosita Tamanisau (1988),[11] have made similar points.

Clearly, in the light of such literature, the validity of race as an explanation has both divided, and been a dominant issue amongst, coup observers. Race is undoubtedly, therefore, a major factor of explanation. Hence its inclusion as a separate category in this typology.

The class explanation

A second explanation for the coup deals with conflict between the working class and the upper class in Fiji. Economic and social problems experienced by Fiji in the mid 1980s, it is said, led to (primarily urban) working class dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction prompted the formation in 1985 by Fiji's trade unions of the Fiji Labour Party. Labour changed the face of local politics; unlike the Alliance and the National Federation Party, it placed economic and labour problems squarely on the political agenda, and thereby gained support among Indians and Fijians. When allied, through the Coalition, with the NFP's Indian racial vote, this broadly-based support for Labour defeated the 'upper class' Alliance, and threatened the Alliance's chances of ever regaining power.

The result, according to this explanation, was an Alliance campaign of disruption leading to the coup. The coup itself is seen as the upper class's method of regaining the political and economic power which it had lost in the April 1987 elections. This explanation forms the basis of the analysis by Robertson and Tamanisau, whose book, Fiji: Shattered Coups (1988), is one of the major works in the literature of the coup. Robertson and Tamanisau more or less equate Fiji's 'chiefly bureaucracy' (to use their label) with a Marxian conception of an upper class, and see Rabuka as essentially the pawn of the 'ruling class'.

The class factor has been considered by other writers, both positively and negatively. Some view the language used in a class analysis as inappropriate within the context of the coup. Scarr (1988a:35) denies Labour was or is a working class party; he sees it as urban middle class, and calls it 'a front party for the National Federation Party'. Lal, although giving class conflicts as part of a structural explanation, does not examine this aspect of the coup in detail. Tagupa presents a class picture of Fiji similar to that of Robertson and Tamanisau.

As will be shown, the class factor incompletely explains the motives of the coup-makers. It remains important, however, as it provides the most commonly used framework within which to discuss the rise of Labour, without which there would have been no coup.

The custom explanation

Many indigenous Fijians hold the conviction that their community's past must be reflected in the nation's present political system. At the simplest level, this is expressed as a desire for Fijian political paramountcy, recalling days when Fijian interests were paramount in all matters. This is the essence of the racial factor, and a simplistic explanation gives this desire (purportedly held by the majority of Fijians) as sufficient cause for the coup.

The Fijian community's past is, however, reflected in Fiji's politics in more concrete and complicated ways. Social and political divisions and structures from that past have played a role in both the day-to-day politics and the political structures of modern Fiji. These divisions and structures, having evolved from equivalents existing in pre-colonial Fiji, are usually labelled 'traditional', although I have used the label 'customary'.[12]

The view that Fijian custom was highly important in ensuring the coup's success has gained increasing support. Customary divisions within the Fijian community are essentially of two forms, each to an extent overlapping the other. The first is the 'East/West Divide': the 'Polynesian' east has had the upper hand over the 'Melanesian' west in Fijian politics since Cession in 1874. The Coalition's championing of the west, it has been said, gave eastern forces reason to wish it overthrown. A more prominent source of division is the customary chiefly system. With the increasing urbanization of Fijians, the chiefs have faced a threat to their political dominance within both the Fijian community and Fiji. For the chiefs, the FLP (and hence the Coalition) epitomized this threat. It has been suggested, in particular by David Robie (1987) that this prompted a chiefly conspiracy leading to the coups, with input by Mara and Ganilau in their chiefly roles. At the least, it ensured the chiefly support for the coup which was essential for its success.

The role of custom in the coup is discussed by many observers, although some give it more weight than others. Lawson, Lal, Robertson and Tamanisau, and Robert Norton (1990)[13] all discuss aspects of the custom explanation. Scarr, too, gives much information which belongs in the custom category. Curiously, though, he places little importance upon the divisions noted above. Scarr seems to view Fijians as a homogeneous group, with a few minor exceptions of negligible importance.

The custom factor's importance stems from the widespread discussion of the role in the coup of the chiefs and customary divisions. It also stems from the reverence shown by the coup-makers for bodies such as the Great Council of Chiefs, and the increasing role custom has played in shaping post-coup Fiji. The second military intervention and the 1990 constitution, despite the superficial racial character of both, lend weight to a custom explanation; indeed, they are difficult to properly explain without one.

Explanations involving specific interests

The three factors of race, class, and custom provide systemic explanations for the Fiji coup. They give evidence that the potential for a coup was part of Fiji's society and its political system. But explanations have also been given which centre on the motivations of specific organizations and individuals, such as the Alliance Party, Rabuka, and Mara. The factor of 'specific interest' is concerned with people and events unique to the time and place of the coup. There are two sub-categories of specific interest: the specific interests of individuals, such as Rabuka, Mara, and Ganilau; and the specific interests of organizations, both internal and external to Fiji, such as the Alliance, the military, and the CIA.

Lal's main explanation for the coup is that it was largely the result of the 'actions and motivations of specific individuals' (1988a:7). Lawson, and Robertson and Tamanisau, have suggested that individuals within the Alliance and the bureaucracy may have been motivated to support the coup by a fear of being exposed as corrupt by the Bavadra government. Scarr, too, discusses corruption, although he treats it more as the 'clumsy arrogance' of 'a party grown used to power' (1988a:47).

Often the actions of individuals and groups can be explained in terms of the categories previously given. An explanation based on personal interests overlaps, to some degree, race, class, and custom explanations. Mara and Ganilau, to take two prominent examples, have personal interests derived from class and custom interests. Purely personal motivations, however, deserve separate attention, even if to demonstrate that they can be explained in terms of other categories. The interests of groups such as the Alliance and the military follow a similar pattern of partially overlapping other categories.

Seemingly somewhat distinct is the possibility of Central Intelligence Agency involvement in the coup. This possibility has been raised in various places, but none of the major works give it much weight. The anti-nuclear policies of the Bavadra government would obviously have been unpopular with the United States, but most question the evidence of US involvement as being too circumstantial.

But even intervention by the CIA, with its hidden agenda for the region, sits comfortably under the 'specific interest' heading. The common thread of all such explanations is that the groups and individuals concerned acted in response to personal circumstances, or to circumstances unique to Fiji in 1987. By implication, they may have acted differently, or not acted at all, under different circumstances. The category of specific interest, then, is distinct from those of race, class and custom; and, given the prominence of the people and groups concerned, it is a category of major importance.

Assessing the utility of each factor

In order to establish which factor of explanation for the coup is the most useful, I have looked at events other than those of May 1987. Where appropriate, I have considered events leading up to the coup, their significance (including how they were regarded before the coup took place), and their relevance to a particular factor of explanation. Post-coup developments, such as Rabuka's second intervention, are examined in a similar manner.

A factor's utility can also, in part, be assessed by examining how widely accepted it is within coup literature, and comparing and contrasting the various arguments given for and against that factor. A further consideration is how well a factor can explain evidence given in support of other factors. The final test of its importance is then straightforward. Two questions are asked: 'Was this factor necessary to cause the coup?' and 'Was it sufficient cause for the coup?'

I conclude, after examining the four broad factors of explanation, that a custom explanation provides the best framework within which to discuss the Fiji coup and subsequent events. This is not to say that the other factors of race, class, and specific interest are insignificant. I hope to show, however, that those factors are best interpreted in terms of the motivations and impact of the Fijian community's chiefs.

For any exercise such as this, the study of a wide range of pre- and post-coup literature is essential. It is only through such a broad study that the key issues of importance in the coup, and their level of support among all observers, can be discerned. I have limited my actual analysis to the explanations of a limited set of key observers.[14] It must be stressed, however, that represented among these observers are most of the explanations given for the coup; indeed, this is one reason for focusing on the particular observers chosen. All are prominent within Fiji coup literature. While I have examined a wide range of smaller articles from journals, newspapers, and magazines, they have usually been noted only when their arguments are not covered by the key observers. The citation of articles and books by key observers in preference to smaller articles helps to define the explanations of the key observers. For similar reasons, secondary references (via the key observers) to works written before the coup are sometimes more helpful in this context than primary references.

The coup and subsequent events have raised many questions about Fiji and its future. Many of these, however, have limited relevance for a study of explanations for the coup. Interesting points could be made about the international response to the coup, the implications that the governor-general-led post-coup 'interim government' had for Westminster conventions world-wide, and the damage the coup inflicted on the Fiji economy.[15] Where appropriate, comment on these areas will be incorporated into this paper, but such comment will be limited. The far-reaching implications of Rabuka's actions inevitably mean that the coup's causes are only a small part of the Fiji coup story.



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