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The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 203-205

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Government by the Gun: The Unfinished Business of Fiji's 2000 Coup, by Robbie Robertson and William Sutherland. Australia: Pluto Press; London: Zed Books, 2001. ISBN1-84277-115-9; xix + 169 pages, glossary, chronology, endnotes, index. A$34.95.

In May 2000, failed businessman George Speight and his accomplices seized hostages in Suva's parliamentary complex. Labour Prime Minister Chaudhry, his cabinet, and parliamentary colleagues then remained incarcerated for almost eight weeks. The army's failure to secure and isolate parliament, deny Speight generous access to the news media, or prevent [End Page 203] his followers from roaming Suva or beyond on arson, looting, cattle stealing, and food theft expeditions, pointed to military acquiescence in the hostage taking. These events provoked easily the worst constitutional, political, and social crisis to beset Fiji since its independence in 1970. For months the country was rudderless, its economy in free fall, and its bickering chiefly establishment subject to increasing ridicule by commoner Fijians.

These ruptures—including serious divisions within the military—could take years to repair. By 2002, some economic recuperation had occurred, but politically, Laisenia Qarase's government remained trapped in a miasma of indecision and suspect legitimacy. Determined to keep Chaudhry and his Labour party colleagues at arm's length, Qarase refused to comply with court rulings indicating that, under the terms of the 1997 constitution, the Labour party had polled sufficiently well in the August 2001 elections to allow it to participate within a governing coalition.

Robertson and Sutherland are seasoned Fiji observers with excellent local sources, which they have used to advantage in a first chapter describing what happened preceding, during, and immediately following the hostage crisis of 2000. Their writing conveys a sense of urgency and tension where crisis is never remote. Several themes emerge from their account. A first was the military's vacillation, which thinly disguised divisions spanning, at one extreme, special forces instructor and hostage-taking instigator Ilisioni Ligairi; then those who tut-tutted their disapproval of Speight's treasonable tactics, but sympathized with his supremacist objectives; and finally a minority of military professionals not wanting a part of these unsavory dealings. Key figures such as Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini veered toward the supremacist end of the spectrum, while Commodore Frank Bainimarama tried to hold the line as a moderate. An ostensibly civilianized Sitiveni Rabuka, who had led the 1987 military coups but later became prime minister, is shown in these pages as now not much more than a discredited opportunist.

A second feature to emerge from this account is Mahendra Chaudhry's defective political antennae. Within a year of winning office in 1999, he had alienated supporters and buoyed adversaries with an aloofness that ignored warnings about proceeding too quickly over land reform, mishandling the news media, and repeatedly failing to confide his government's objectives to the public. These shortcomings were meat and drink to local ethnic chauvinists, although this study makes it clear that their major grievance lay with long-standing failures of indigenous economic distribution and institutional management.

A third theme is the established Fijian leadership's credibility deficit; it failed to face down Speight, his methods, or what he stood for. President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was losing touch, the Great Council of Chiefs appeared fractious and indecisive, while the regional confederacies remained deeply at odds. Adding to this vacuum at the center was an inflammation of rivalries between the Cakobau and Mara chiefly families. This left the rebels and the Fiji military playing a cat-and-mouse game, [End Page 204] effectively resolved only after a media-saturated, too-confident Speight overplayed his hand by demanding a government totally unacceptable to Commodore Bainimarama. The military then seized on this tactical extravagance to crack down, arresting Speight and his ringleaders, and edging the country away from the complete breakdown of order that was all too imminent in mid-2000.

In essence, what occurred in 2000 constituted an eruption of long-standing disaffection within the Fijian community...