In the Republic of Fiji Islands in the South Pacific, the recent elections brought back the coup leader of 1987, Sitiveni Rabuka, in place of another coup leader of 2006, Frank Bainimarama, after a messy election which resulted in a coalition of convenience.
The ruling coalition, headed by Rabuka, consists of four parties, which were at loggerheads with each other during my tenure as High Commissioner of India to Fiji (1986 to 1989). The Alliance Party of the then First Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara represented the indigenous feudalist chiefs against the National Federation Party of Fiji Indians and supported Rabuka’s coup against an Indian-dominated Labour Party Government in 1987. The National Federation Party, supporting Rabuka now is a historic irony as Rabuka’s coup was to secure the future of indigenous Fijians as against Fiji Indians, who were disenfranchised. Rabuka had systematically cultivated Fiji Indians over the years, indicating that they were welcome to stay safely as long as they did not aspire to political power.
India’s strong opposition to the coup had resulted in my expulsion and a break in diplomatic relations for about ten years. Rabuka’s own party, representing extremist Fijians, is also a member of the present rainbow coalition of strange bedfellows of my time. Strangest of all is the twists and turns in Rabuka’s own position since the first coup. His return as Prime Minister is testimony to his political skills.
The 1987 coup and India's stand
The 1987 coup and the subsequent developments had virtually no international significance. Australia and New Zealand, the regional powers, were initially concerned about the dangers of the assertion of indigenous rights in Fiji, but supported the military Government when it became clear that their own indigenous communities had no links with Rabuka. India was left alone to lead the fight for restoration of democracy through the Commonwealth and the United Nations.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi personally campaigned with the Commonwealth leaders at a meeting in Melbourne to secure the ouster of Fiji from the Commonwealth. But even after India declared that India had not recognized the military government and imposed trade sanctions, I continued to be the Head of the Mission in Fiji for two years after which Fiji unilaterally downgraded our mission to a Consulate, which necessitated my departure in 72 hours without being declared persona non grata. Diplomatic relations were restored subsequently after a democratic constitution was enacted. The other countries took no action against the military government.
Geopolitics in the South Pacific
The South Pacific at that time was virtually considered an American lake, with Australia and New Zealand as door-keepers. China had a mission, but did not play any role during the turbulent days as there was no threat to the Chinese population. Some of the South Pacific Island states had diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but China did not agitate against them. But now we know that China was quietly working in the South Pacific to oust Taiwan and to establish its dominance in the region.
The signing of a pact by China with tiny Solomon Islands, which featured in the news only when hurricanes hit them, changed the whole scene. India established an independent mission in Papua New Guinea and became a partner with the South Pacific Forum, which was originally an educational and cultural body, located in Fiji. With the emergence of the Quad with India’s participation, China sought new linkages with the island states in the South Pacific, setting the stage for US-China rivalry.
Bainimarama’s emergence on the world scene as a champion of climate change activism and his close relations with China must have prompted the pro-western forces to take an interest in Fiji and to establish a friendly regime headed by Rabuka in alliance with the Fiji Indians. Rabuka, once an officer trainee Lt Colonel at the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington (in Tamil Nadu) and my golf partner after his return from a peacekeeping mission in West Asia had no particular ideology and Ratu Mara had merely used him as an instrument to end the Labor Party Government, which had ousted him in 1987. He was popular among the Indian officers in the Staff College and he was rated high by his Indian superiors.
No rancour about past events
Incidentally, I was invited to Fiji by some of the Indian cultural organizations in 2014 and I was received warmly not only by senior government officials, but also by Rabuka himself, who did not have any official position at that time. We met at the Fiji Golf Club and discussed the old times and the outcome was that we agreed that both of us were acting under instructions and that there should be no personal animosity between us.
Will Rabuka help US?
Rabuka can act in any role, which gives him power and glory and he may well become a pivot for the western powers to keep China at bay. As a coalition partner of the National Federation Party, he will also ensure that he is on good terms with India. The longevity of the Rabuka Government and the alliance itself will depend on the great power play in the South Pacific and how the US, China and India work out their strategies in Fiji. With Rabuka on its side, the US has the potential to gain the upper hand in the South Pacific.