Column | Fiji comes full circle in 36 years

Fijians joined with the Indians to form a Labour Party and came to power in the elections in 1987. Photo: Reuters/Johannes P. Christo

“Fiji, the way the world should be!” was the proud slogan of Fiji islands when Fiji worked out a social contract between native Fijians and Fiji Indians under a constitution in 1970 which balanced the two races by reserving an equal number of seats for them in the Parliament and giving a small number of seats for “others”.

Fiji Indians, who were a majority, did not insist on the “one man, one vote” principle. It was understood that the Fijians will be in power with the support of “others” and the Indians will take care of the economy based on cane cultivation and tourism.

Ratu Mara, the hereditary Chief of Fiji, became the Prime Minister and remained so for 17 years. This happy situation turned sour when some educated Fijians joined with the Indians to form a Labour Party and came to power in the elections in 1987. The Fijian chiefs revolted against the Labour government and instigated a bloodless military coup by Sitiveni Rabuka, the third-ranking military officer in the Fiji army. Colonel Rabuka overthrew the elected government and installed a regime mostly of Fijians and brought in a constitution which virtually disenfranchised the Indian Fijians. Rabuka happened to be an alumnus of India’s Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu.

Former Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka with TP Sreenivasan. Photo: Special arrangement

After three more coups and changes of government, Sitiveni Rabuka, the coup leader won the recent election and became Prime Minister with the support of the Fiji Indians.

Reconciliation efforts
Moreover, in a surprise move, Prime Minister Rabuka made a public apology in May 2023 for his role in the 1987 coup which overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra. In his apology, Rabuka expressed his regret for the actions taken in the coup, stating, "I make this confession on my own behalf and on behalf of all those who took part with me in the military coup on the 14th of May, 1987. We confess our wrongdoings, and we confess that we have hurt so many of our people in Fiji, particularly those of the Indo-Fijian community.”

"Rabuka admitted in a tweet that "you have every right to blame us for the difficulties you went through, we do not blame you for being angry with us or even hate us, you are justified in your anger and your hate. I stand here to confess and to ask for your forgiveness."

Rabuka's apology came at a time when India is seeking to deepen its engagement with the Pacific Islands. The third Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) summit is being held in May in Papua New Guinea, which will be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is expected to announce several initiatives for cooperation with the island states.

The apology by Rabuka is also seen as a significant step towards reconciliation between the indigenous Fijian and Indian communities, and it is hoped that it will help to heal the wounds caused by the coup. It also sends a positive message to India and other countries in the region that Fiji is committed to democracy and good governance.

Some of the island nations of the South Pacific, which had traditionally maintained a pro-western policy under the influence of Australia and New Zealand have entered into strategic relations with China. The West is increasingly depending on Fiji to counter China and Prime Minister Rabuka may have found links with India extremely important at this time.

Rabuka over the years
Rabuka has been quite mercurial in the last 36 years. During his days in the Staff College, he was very popular as a soldier and a socialite. An admiral’s wife, who met him in Wellington, felt that the Fiji Indians might have been responsible for turning the “Steve” she knew into a dictator. He played golf with me and he was prim and proper in every way. A day before the coup he told me that he would be busy for the next few days and would not be able to play. He was ruthless in handling the coup and claimed that he and his soldiers who entered the parliament were fully armed, but he made sure that there was no bloodshed. He claimed throughout that he was acting on his own, but when I met him in 2014 in Suva, when neither of us had any official position, he said that both he and I had acted under instructions and, therefore, we should have no animosity with each other. He is the only coup leader in history who played himself in a movie on the coup.

With the unconditional apology Rabuka has made, Fiji has come full circle and it appears that Fiji is once again the world as it should be. But Rabuka should remain firm in his commitment to racial amity and good relations to regain the lost paradise.
(The writer served as India’s High Commissioner to Fiji, 1986-1989, before being expelled by the coup leader.)

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