The state Fiji’s in

Pamela Cawthorne, University of Sydney

In Fiji, a nation-state has all but disintegrated and an incipient petite bourgeoisie possibly fatally fractured, another stage in the destabilisation of a democracy clearly set in motion by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka’s coup in 1987. Many argue that Rabuka produced a militarised state (see for example Ram, 1994), disrupting what had been quite impressive social/welfare achievements through a state-led process of development, in some ways resembling the Sri Lanka of the 1970s. These achievements were (and are) reflected in good scores on social indicators for literacy and health, in sharp contrast, for example, with the Solomon Islands (UNDP, 1999). Rabuka’s coup was also accompanied by a radically different economic agenda in which a broad commitment to export-oriented strategies was clearly endorsed as the means to escape low growth rates: a process commonly described as ‘structural adjustment’. Fiji’s second coup, in May 2000, has again brought politics rather than economics to the fore in a bitter contest between a ‘civic nationalism’ (in which all members of the community are treated as political equals) and an ‘ethnic nationalism’ favouring ‘indigenous’ Fijians.

On a quiet Friday in May 2000 George Speight and a small, armed band of thugs entered the Fijian Parliament building and took 27 MPs hostage at gunpoint. The constitutionally elected Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry was among the hostages, who were held for more than six weeks. Speight’s widely broadcast ‘cover’ story emphasised the unacceptable nature of the 1997 constitution, a document that had taken two years to prepare by a three man committee and for which there was broad support. (The committee made use of more than 600 detailed representations). This constitution, for the first time in Fiji’s political history allowed fair and proper political representation for Indo-Fijians. Fiji’s population (of just over 800,000) is approximately 49% indigenous Fijians and 46% Fijian Indians who descend from indentured labourers brought from the Indian subcontinent to work on sugar plantations in the nineteenth century. Speight’s political agenda was presented as ‘racially driven’ and ‘nationalist’. He and his supporters claimed to represent the rights of indigenous Fijians. They sought to make indigenous interests paramount in government, and to abandon the 1997 constitution.

Speight's coup brings an ethnically driven nationalist agenda sharply to the fore.

Much media reporting of the coup has concentrated on the clash between indigenous Fijians and Fijians of Indian origin, particularly emphasising Indo-Fijian Mahendra Chaudhry’s premiership as politically incendiary. However, there are other important economic dimensions that this account tends to overlook.

By the end of the twentieth century, an increasingly affluent petite bourgeoisie had emerged from both the indigenous Fijian and Indian communities. Awareness of the material gains at stake for a small elite group of indigenous Fijians sheds far greater light on the motives for Speight’s coup than the simplistic rhetorical dichotomy of Indians vs. indigenous Fijians that Speight and others used to produce and bolster their political support. [1]

Critical to Speight’s own involvement in events seems to have been the Labour government’s blocking of his access to the lucrative forms of income he had enjoyed through connections with Sitiveni Rabuka’s regime and in particular his involvement in the timber industry (see Kahn, 2000). George Speight was in fact part of a ‘noveau riche’ petite bourgeoisie, dependent on (Rabuka) Government connections, and directly threatened by the policies of Mahendra Chaudhry. [2] Such individualised and ruthless ambitions directly cut across a notion of Fiji as a ‘national economy’, which might be developed as such and with which a generation of administrators and politicians following independence in 1970 had identified. [3]

Brij Lal (2000), now a well-known academic based at the Australian National University in Canberra, the son of an Indo-Fijian sugar cane farmer, and one of the three men who worked on the 1997 constitution, recently gave a talk which added further substance to this argument. Firstly, sections of the military were clearly complicit in the Speight coup, leaving them hobbled captives of vested interest, no longer able to be seen as a disinterested protector of the state. Secondly, the Great Council of Chiefs—which had entirely endorsed the 1997 constitution—was ‘hijacked’ by younger and more assertive Chiefs, many with similar ambitions to Speight. Many Chiefs retreated to protecting their own limited regional interests, rather than those of the nation as a whole. Thirdly, the economy has, for the second time in 13 years, suffered untold damage as foreign investors pull back, preferential trade agreements are threatened and large numbers of skilled professionals (and others) leave the island. [4] Hardest hit of all are those who have lost their jobs in the tourist industry, or in the garments factories—both sectors at the heart of the commitment to export-oriented strategies—many of whom are the poor, indigenous Fijians whom Speight claimed to be representing. In short, whatever may be the longer-term prospects for Fijian economic development, its immediate future looks bleak so long as political instability, and its economic fallout, continues.

Behind the politics lies the self-interest of a newly enriched group dependent on state protection.

What seems altogether less obvious are the deeper historical roots of this instability and the difficult moral and political issues they raise for future policy-making—both for Fijian governments and for other governments in the region, including Australia’s. A recent Sydney Morning Herald piece on Fiji by Teresia Teaiwa (2000) began ‘The problem with Fijian nationalism is that there is no Fijian nation’. This observation, while acute, may still not quite strike to the heart of matters. Fiji’s entire post-independence history has been marked by a battle for supremacy between two very different conceptions of the Fijian nation and (hence) of Fijian nationalism. The first conception I have called a form of civic nationalism, which holds that the Fijian people or the Fijian nation is simply composed of all adult citizens of the island resident at the time of independence (and their descendents). The second conception, first becoming prominent in a moderate form with the Rabuka coup, is a form of ethnic nationalism which holds that the Fijian people or the Fijian nation is made up exclusively of people of ‘Fijian’ ethnicity and which therefore excludes from membership in the nation the entire ethnic Indian minority. Having been exercised in a moderate form under Rabuka, this ethnically exclusive nationalism reasserted itself altogether more virulently as the ideology of (though I have argued not necessarily the real motivation for) the Speight coup.

These observations—concerning two forms of nationalism at war in Fiji—are important insofar as each can justify a very different conception of what the demand for a ‘democratic’ Fiji means. Quite obviously, those like Brij Lal with a civic nationalist conception of the Fijian nation and people will hold that the democratic will of this entity is expressed by the majority vote of all Fijian citizens, understood in an ethnically blind way. This conception is also well articulated in demands by the Australian Government and many other Governments around the world for Fiji to return to democratic rule: demands Mahendra Chaudhry has done his best to exploit when travelling overseas following his release.

Equally obviously (but more uncomfortably) holders of an ethnically exclusivist conception of the Fijian nation and people can claim that the democratic will of that people (and in particular ‘their’ will to rule themselves and ‘their own’ country) was frustrated by the 1997 constitution, and hence that the latter set of arrangements were undemocratic. In this conception, therefore, the Speight coup was a necessary (if perhaps regrettable) way to restore real democratic ‘Fijian’ rule in Fiji.

So long as Fiji was a colonial dependency, with its peoples all subjects of an imperial power rather than citizens of a nation-state, there was no space either in theory or in practice for conflicts over the meaning of ‘the Fijian nation’: Fiji was not any kind of nation-state, so issues about who its rightful citizens were could not arise. This was only one of a large number of cases in the world in which common subordination to, and (later) hostility to, colonial rule made for a degree of domestic harmony among the subordinated, a harmony which could not survive their transmutation from equally subordinated subjects to equally empowered (though this is just what the dispute is about) citizens. A future victory of civic nationalism over ethnic nationalism in Fiji (and thus of an ethnically blind conception of the Fijian people, nation and democracy over an ethnically partisan one) probably requires as a necessary (if insufficient) condition the marked raising of the material standard of living of the majority (as against the current minority) of the ethnically Fijian population.

The standard of living needs to be improved although there are radical disagreements over the best means to achieve it.

In other words, it was very clear throughout the Speight coup and its aftermath that the mass base of support for ethnic nationalism in Fiji is found amongst impoverished and poorly educated ethnic Fijians in both the rural and urban areas of the island (Lal, 2000). Conversely it is equally clear that such (weak?) support as there is among the ethnically Fijian population for civic nationalism (which would embrace and recognise the Indian-origin minority as fully and equally Fijian) is found among the small, well-educated indigenous middle class.

If this is the case then the primary political imperative in Fiji, if civic nationalism is to triumph there, must be to expand the latter group as much as possible and (as part of the same process) to shrink the former group as much as possible. How that can be done now seems almost impossible to determine. Fiji had been following one particular route to development (see for example, World Bank, 1991 and 1996). Many disagreed with that route—especially those vociferous about what they claim are the unacceptable economic effects of structural adjustment-style policies (see for example, Emberson-Bain et al, 1994). But overseas investors, and business people generally, are usually not particularly interested in the niceties of constitutional reform. They are interested in (state) guaranteed security of life and property, the maintenance of law and order and the ability to make profits (MacWilliam, 2000). There is, for example, a heavy commitment of Australian and New Zealand capital in Fiji, and that is unlikely to change at least in the short term. But Brij Lal and others’ civic nationalism lies in ruins. And in the meantime the restoration of political stability is the prerequisite of getting economic development restarted.

Sidebar: A Chronology of Significant Events Since Independence


1. “Participation levels of the various ethnic groups in the economy are known to vary markedly across sectors, though very few data are available on this important issue. Manufacturing, distribution, commercial farming and service activities are dominated by Indo-Fijians, together with smaller inputs by non-Fijian groups and foreign-owned firms. In these activities ethnic Fijians play very little part as either owners or entrepreneurs… Tourism is dominated by foreign firms, with a periphery of locally owned operators. Here again, the role of indigenous Fijians is almost entirely that of supplying labour, the number of enterprises initiated by this group being tiny.” (Forsyth, 1997:198-199). [Back]

2. One article that appeared in the spate of newspaper articles immediately following the coup was Cornford and Connolly (2000) in the Sydney Morning Herald. Here they detail Speight’s loss of his chairmanship of two government concerns — Fiji Pine Ltd. and Fiji Hardwood Corporation, both potentially lucrative positions — and the fact that he was replaced as managing Director of Heath Fiji (a subsidiary of CE Heath plc). They also note the matey alliance of George Speight and Michael Ah Koy as advisers to Rabuka. The subsequent New York Times story (Kahn, 2000) adds considerable detail to the earlier article. [Back]

3. For a popular account see Thompson (1999); for a political economy account see Sutherland (1992). [Back]

4. 67,000 Indians left Fiji after the 1987 coup. 10,000 Indo-Fijians sought a special concession to migrate to Australia following the coup. Brij Lal (2000) also described a very substantial ‘frequent flyer’ community of businessmen, whose families live in Australia or New Zealand while they attempt to maintain their businesses on the island. [Back]


Cornford and Connolly (2000) ‘Paybacktime? Coup leader shoots from hip pocket’, Sydney Morning Herald, May 20 p. 1.

Emberson-Bain, A. (ed.) (1994) Sustainable Development or Malignant Growth? Perspectives of Pacific Island Women, Marama Publications, Suva, Fiji.

Forsyth, D. (1997) ‘The economy of Fiji’ in B. Lal and T.R. Vakatora (eds) Fiji in Transition, Vol. 1, University of South Pacific, Suva, Fiji.

Khan, J. (2000) ‘The Mahogany King’s brief rein’, The New York Times, September 14.

Lal, B. (2000) ‘Fiji after the coup’, unpublished paper, UNSW Asia/Pacific Seminar Series, November.

MacWilliam, S. (2000) ‘Shallow Coups, Thin Democracy? Constitutionalism in Fiji, 1987-1999’, unpublished mimeo, University of South Pacific, Suva, Fiji.

Ram, K. (1994) ‘Militarism and market mania in Fiji’ in Sustainable Development or Malignant Growth? Perspectives of Pacific Island Women, A. Emberson-Bain (ed.), Marama Publications, Suva, Fiji.

Sutherland, W. (1992) Beyond the Politics of Race. An alternative history of Fiji to 1992, Department of Political and Social Change, Monograph 15, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, Panther Publishing and Press.

Thomson, P. (1999), ‘Kava in the blood’, Tanden Press, Auckland, New Zealand.

Teaiwa, T. (2000) ‘Nationhood subverted by more than race’, Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday May 3.

UNDP (1999) Human Development Report, 1999, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.

World Bank (1991) Pacific Island economies: towards higher growth in the 1990s, Washington, DC.

World Bank (1996) Pacific Island economies: building a resilient economic base for the twenty first century, Washington, DC.

Pamela Cawthorne is a lecturer in Political Economy in the School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney.