The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 529-541
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Department of Politics and History, University of the South Pacific, Suva
Melanesia in Review: Issues and Events, 2000
For the people of Fiji, the year 2000 was the most turbulent and traumatic in recent memory. The country endured an armed takeover of parliament and a hostage crisis lasting fifty-six days, the declaration of martial law and abrogation of the 1997 constitution, and a bloody mutiny in the armed forces. These events raised the specter of civil war and economic collapse, international ostracism, and a future plagued with uncertainty and hardship. Comparisons with the coups of 1987 were inevitable, but most observers would conclude that the crisis of 2000 left Fiji more adrift and divided than ever before.
The month of May has become synonymous with coups in Fiji. It was on 14 May 1987 the country witnessed its first military coup d'état, led by then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. On 19 May 2000 a group of nine gunmen attempted to repeat history, by taking hostage Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his People's Coalition government. While the precise details of who was involved and how the takeover was to be executed are still to be revealed, the gunmen who stormed parliament were no doubt banking on the support of various antigovernment forces to ensure they carried the day.
The campaign to oust Mahendra Chaudhry from office, which began covertly soon after the historic election of May 1999, became more overt in the early months of 2000. Fijian political parties, led by the former governing party, Soqosoqo niVakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT), held meetings around the country to discuss ways to oppose if not depose the government and thereby return to power. These meetings helped fuel indigenous Fijian unease and animosity toward Chaudhry's leadership. Signaling its move toward a more nationalist stance, the SVT terminated its coalition with the Indo-Fijian-based National Federation Party in February, describing the coalition as "self-defeating."
In March, the Taukei Movement was revived with the aim, according to spokesman Apisai Tora, of "removing the government through various legal means as soon as possible" (Sun,3 May 2000, 1). In 1987 the Taukei Movement had spearheaded nationalist opposition to, and destabilization of, the then Labor Coalition government. In 2000, the movement's battle cry was familiar: the People's Coalition government was not working in the interests of the indigenous people.
Tora's role in the Taukei Movement was a dramatic turnabout from his 1999 position, when he led one of the Labor Party's coalition partners, the Party of National Unity (PANU). Tora lost his bid for a seat in parliament, and subsequently blamed his defeat on Chaudhry's decision to field a Labor candidate against him. In January he announced his resignation as PANU secretary. This followed an unsuccessful attempt in September 1999 to pull the party out of the [End Page 529] coalition, a move that was rebuffed by PANU's four parliamentarians.
Splits deepened within all the Fijian-based parties in the People's Coalition, and between those parliamentarians and cabinet ministers loyal to Chaudhry and those opposed to his leadership. Labor's relations with its principal coalition partner, the Fijian Association Party (FAP), became especially fraught. With the deputy prime minister and FAP leader, Adi Kuini Speed, away on medical leave, the party leadership was taken over by backbencher Ratu Tu'akitau Cokanauto, a vocal critic of Chaudhry. In April a special general meeting of the FAP endorsed its withdrawal from the People's Coalition, but this was decided in the absence of the party's four cabinet ministers.
Anti-Labor and anti-Chaudhry sentiment was fueled by a number of contentious policy initiatives taken by the government. These included the Constitutional Amendment Bill, introduced in the House of Representatives in February. It proposed fifteen changes to the constitution, some of which the SVT had put forward when it was in power. Fijian critics claimed that the bill would dilute the power of the Senate and by implication that of the Great Council of Chiefs...