The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 148-167
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Making History, Becoming History:
Reflections on Fijian Coups and Constitutions
Brij V Lal
Early in March 1995, when the telephone call came from Jai Ram Reddy, Fiji's leader of the opposition and the long-term leader of the Indo-Fijian community, asking me to be his nominee on the Constitution Review Commission, I was naturally overwhelmed. The appointment was not unexpected--I had been asked several months earlier about my willingness to serve--but the enormity of the task ahead dawned on me at that moment. Many friends in Fiji had cautioned me. The review, they said, was a charade, a cynical exercise in public relations by a coup-tainted government eager to refurbish its image in the eyes of the international community. Rabuka was still Rabuka: leopards do not change their spots. The presence of Tomasi Vakatora--a member of the cabinet subcommittee whose recommendations had formed the basis of the contested 1990 constitution--proclaimed the government's real intention. But I was undeterred. At a celebratory dinner with friends that evening, my son Niraj, then just eleven, piped up proudly. "Dad," he said innocently, "You have taught history and written history. Now you can make history and then become history." Nervous laughter greeted his remark.
Niraj was more prophetic than anyone of us realized. Four tumultuous years after the commission completed its report, Fiji is back on the road to ruin. The 1997 constitution, based on our commission's report, unanimously approved by parliament, and blessed by the Great Council of Chiefs, lies in limbo. A democratically elected government, with an absolute majority, was ousted by a coup, the country subjected to a reign of terror and violence unprecedented in Fiji's history. The fabric of race relations, just beginning to be repaired after years of strain following the coups of a decade earlier, is in tatters. The economy is down, and the best [End Page 148] and the brightest are looking for greener pastures. The May coup and the ensuing mayhem have taken Fiji back by a generation. As I write (in November 2000), the people of Fiji are intensely debating the future political direction of the country, including the formulation of a new constitution.
The Fiji saga has received more than its share of regional and international notice. Coups attract attention, for there is something deeply unsettling and immoral about using the bayonet to overturn the verdict of the ballot box, not once but thrice in thirteen years, the first two as tragedy, the third as farce. Fiji's situation highlights dilemmas faced by other multiethnic countries in the developing world. What framework of government is appropriate for multicultural, multiethnic nations like Fiji (or Guyana or Malaysia)? How and in what ways should the constitution of a country enlarge and enrich the common space of equal citizenship without infringing on the unique and rich cultural and spiritual traditions of the various components making up the larger society? Fiji's case also raises questions about the tension between the privileged claims of the first settlers--the indigenous people--and those of the later arrivals. Should the basis of political affiliation be blood rather than belief, primordiality rather than ideology? Our commission provided a set of recommendations to resolve these complex questions, but the latest coup-makers and their supporters did not approve them. A vision has vanished beyond recall.
Between the beneficiaries of the coup in the interim administration and those deposed from power, a war of words is raging to win the hearts and minds of the local people and of the international community. The deposed government insists that any constitutional solution to the present crisis should be sought within the framework of the 1997 constitution; its reinstatement is for them a prerequisite for any future dialogue and reconciliation. But the coup supporters insist that the 1997 constitution is dead and buried and that a fresh start, favoring indigenous Fijian interests and needs, is necessary to resolve the crisis. 1 What the outcome will be...