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A year in Fiji

My family and I moved to Fiji a year ago from a small, rural community in the far north-east of Scotland. When we first arrived, my employer put us up in a nice, mid-range hotel close to the sleazy part of Suva. Guests were advised to travel everywhere by taxi because of the number of muggings. It also rained almost continuously for the first two weeks. Welcome to Fiji!

It took us nearly two months to find a place to live, but we eventually moved into a house in the “up-market” area of Domain. We already knew that crime levels in Fiji were high, but it seemed like a safer area, being close to Parliament, Government House (the President’s official residence) and with government ministers and other officials as our neighbours. Like almost everyone else’s, our house has burglar bars on all windows and doors, and other forms of security.

The kids settled into their school, I settled into my job and my wife discovered that the government did not like granting work permits to foreigners. Our main impressions for the first six months we were here:

  • Politicians and business leaders of Fijian businesses are very corrupt.
  • The educational standards at primary, secondary and tertiary levels are low compared to Europe and North America. Also, the degree to which education is valued varies widely.
  • It rains a lot, but when it is sunny, be careful or you will burn in minutes (if you have white skin).
  • Litter and pollution levels are high, environmental awareness is low.
  • Expats were roughly equally divided on whether they thought there would be a coup against the People’s Coalition government or not. It was a fairly common topic of conversation and I was with those who thought it was likely.
  • Fijians say “yes” when they mean “no”, if that is what they think you want to hear.
  • Before we got here, people also gave us the “tourist version” of what Fiji is like because they were desperate to get us here.
  • Procrastination and incompetence are normal parts of life.
  • Just about everyone is racist. Many Indo-Fijians think that Melanesian Fijians are dirty, stupid and violent; Melanesian Fijians think that the Indo-Fijians are greedy, self-serving materialists who should get out of their country, but leave their money behind; both groups think that white expats are arrogant, power-hungry snobs and the white expats look down on everyone else. No-one knows what the Chinese think.
  • The lowest temperature it gets at sea level is about 21° Celsius. At that temperature, Fijians feel cold and wear several layers of clothes, while the expats are still in shorts and T-shirts.
  • From a scuba diver’s perspective, the undersea world is fabulous and teeming with life compared to just about everywhere else in the world.
  • Everything grows fantastically well, from fabulous tropical plants to mould on your clothes, cassette tapes, floppy disks etc.

I think it is worth saying that I use the words “Melanesian Fijians” to refer to the ethnic group that is also called “Indigenous Fijians”. Whatever phrase I use will be considered highly contentious by one or other of the groups here. Many of these people have a nationalist perspective and think that only they should be called Fijians and everyone else should be called Indians, Chinese, Europeans etc, no matter how many generations they have been here. Such people will also object to me calling the other main ethnic group “Indo-Fijians” rather than just “Indians”.

You probably saw the news about the armed take-over of parliament and the hostage taking, as part of the coup against the People’s Coalition government. My wife got caught up in the rioting and looting in Suva on the first day of the coup, 19 May, and it was a scary experience for her and for the Indo-Fijians who were the targets of the personal violence. There were lots of small events that you probably did not see. This includes things like: the complicity of some police in the coup and in the robbing and burning of Indo-Fijian homes, farms and businesses, which went on for a lot longer than the time foreign journalists were here; the immediate emptying of tourist resorts, most of which are still empty; the queues of people outside the foreign embassies, as Fijians of all ethnic groups, although mainly the skilled Indo-Fijians, tried to leave the country. They are still trying, and many expats have left or are looking for work elsewhere.

One of the things that struck me as I walked around Suva and watched the Indo-Fijians clearing up the remains of their businesses after the looting, was the indifference of many Melanesian Fijians and their apparent belief that it is okay for them to simply take what they want from Indo-Fijians because they are foreigners, no matter how many generations they have lived in Fiji.

Now that we are nearly a year past the events of May 2000, the country appears more stable and life looks like it is getting back to some kind of normality. However, the attempted mutiny in the barracks a few weeks ago, the on-going economic decline and loss of skilled workers, the increasing levels of violent crimes and property crimes, and the attempt by the interim government to fulfil the intentions of the coup-makers by introducing a wide range of racially biased policies, all point to an underlying instability and tensions that could flare up into large-scale unrest and further attempted coups.

I have been trying to understand what lies behind the coups in Fiji (there have been four or five since 1987, depending on how you define a coup), to see if these conditions can be prevented from leading to the same results elsewhere. Here is my best guess, as an outsider living in Suva, of what I think the reasons are, in no particular order:

  • An attempt by George Speight to avoid prosecution for alleged crimes of business corruption. Speight was due to be tried for fraud and other offences, which would have meant about one to two years in prison if he was found guilty. His co-offenders in the scams he took part in, in Australia, received prison sentences of up to nine years.
  • The people who invaded parliament are the front men for corrupt Fijians who benefited from former governments and who lost a lot of money, and important jobs that paid well for doing very little, when the Chaudhry government took over in the election of May 1999. The last straw was when Chaudhry announced that he was setting up an investigation into corruption associated with the sale of mahogany (in which Speight was one of several implicated).
  • Racism/Indigenous People’s Rights. The rhetoric of these may be different, but the practical effect is indistinguishable. Melanesian Fijians don’t like the Indo-Fijians doing better than them in business and education, even though there are “affirmative action” laws that favour the Melanesian Fijians in many areas of Fiji life. When Indo-Fijians get political power as well, there is a coup. The view of most Fijians, including those in the police, army, judiciary etc, can be summed up in the often-quoted, “We don’t agree with George Speight’s methods, but we agree with his aims and with what he says.”
  • I am in two minds about saying this, because I don’t think it justifies what Speight and his supporters did and the man has been treated appallingly and unjustly, but I think Prime Minister Chaudhry himself has an aggressive style and does things that come across as biased in favour of Indians, and thus triggered off resentments in Fijians that a less combative person (Indian or otherwise) would not have.
  • Power struggles between various groupings of Fijians, including east against west and chiefs against commoners – the latter being a bit like traditional power against new power.
  • A voting system, adopted with the 1997 constitution and used in 1999, that was supposed to be simple, easy to understand and to minimise extremist positions. It succeeded in none of these – quite the opposite, in fact.
  • The legacy of British colonial power, which: brought the Indians here and left them too poor to return when their period of indenture was finished; left most of the land in the hands of Melanesian Fijians and gave the Indo-Fijians leases to work the land, many of which are coming up for renewal about now (and which are not being renewed – many Indo-Fijians are being forced out of their homes and off the land where they have lived and worked for the past few generations); left the Melanesian Fijians as subsistence farmers owning the land and its resources, but with education for only a few chiefly families and not many opportunities for advancement into the positions that the British (and later others such as the Australians and New Zealanders) kept for themselves; and for leaving this cauldron behind at independence in 1970, with only a few democratic structures in place to try and cope with it, when powerful Fijians regard democracy as an alien system that gets in the way of them getting what they want.
  • A poor education system, including a lack of education in their own constitution, democracy, human rights and civil society. Many rural Melanesian Fijians still follow what their chiefs tell them, rather than having the education to participate in a democratic system. Many of the chiefs are also uneducated and/or corrupt.
  • Many Fijians of all backgrounds spend a lot of their time “out of their heads'” on yaqona (also known as kava or grog), an inexpensive, culturally accepted and widely available drug. This impairs judgement and really doesn’t help the situation.
  • A wide gap between rich and poor. When people here are poor, they are very poor – malnourished, unable to afford bus fares to send their kids to school and so on. They also see people who are very rich, driving around in big cars, with things that they will never be able to afford. If you combine this with the perception that there are no legitimate routes out of their situation, this is bound to lead some to crime and will be a destabilising influence.
  • Corrupt politicians and high chiefs, who pay lip service to alleviating poverty, indigenous rights etc, but who in practice are serving the interests of a few rich people and help keep their poorest constituents in poverty, supporting their traditional chiefs and thus maintaining the status quo.
  • The role of the church is mixed, but is very powerful and so must be mentioned. On the one hand, prominent church leaders spoke out against the coup and were undoubtedly influential in turning some people against it. On the other hand, some churches demand money from parishioners who can ill afford it, but who feel obligated, in order to fund fancy buildings and projects. This money would be better spent on their children’s education, their health and on a decent diet. Some churches make poverty worse, not better.
  • Last and by no means least, a traditional attitude towards land ownership which gives Melanesian Fijians the view that Fiji is theirs alone, that the way forward is to demand ever higher rents from those who live and work on their land and they don’t need to do anything for those rents, and that violence is an appropriate method of settling land disputes or dealing with anyone who threatens their right to own land and demand rents.

Inevitably, because this is looking at the causes of the coups, it all sounds pretty negative and for those people, mainly Indo-Fijians, who lost everything and who suffered racist intimidation and violence, it really is very negative. For us, it has often been stressful, particularly when gunfire broke out close by, or when rumours of violence caused the whole of Suva to empty out, and it was often hard to concentrate on work. However, when I looked around at possible jobs elsewhere and thought about moving back to cold, grey Europe, to large urban landscapes, to universities which are more like commercial entities than places of education, then I found myself reluctant to leave.

We took a short holiday in the Cook Islands a couple of months ago and that was a delightful contrast to some of the worst aspects of Fiji – crime levels are very low there, so there is no need for all the security measures we need in Fiji; the people are much more environmentally aware so the whole place is cleaner – we were able to simply relax and let down our guard without worrying that we might be attacked and robbed (as we were a couple of times in the streets of Suva). We could happily move somewhere like that, but Europe? Fiji just doesn’t seem that bad yet. On sunny days by a pool, or diving in a blue ocean; walking among tropical plants or just sitting looking at our garden, it can be very beautiful here. As long as we don’t get ill so that we need proper medical care, or lose our possessions to a burglar, or some such, I think we’ll stay in the South Pacific for a little while longer…

Peter Forster

Thanks to Dr Peter Forster for sending this to us. If you’re keen to find out more about Peter’s life in the Pacific, especially loads of fascinating information on diving and beautiful pictures of Fiji and Hawai’i, why not visit his excellent site?

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