Eye witness

May 21, 1999

Last weekend's elections in Fiji brought defeat for the leader of a military coup that toppled the first Indian-dominated government in 1987 and led to the former colony's exclusion from the Commonwealth.

Fears of a coup have been revived by new election victory of an Indian-led political party, which could provoke ethnic Fijians who see the Indian population as a political and economic threat.

But Peter Lyon, reader in international relations at London University's Institute of Commonwealth Studies, says the forces favouring civilian rather than military rule are stronger than in 1987, "though ethnic tensions and mutual suspicions are still strong".

Sitiveni Rabuka, who led the 1987 coup, was later elected prime minister in a government that took advantage of a constitution guaranteeing ethnic Fijians control of parliament and the offices of president and prime minister. Resentment cut deeply among the minority Indian population, and many of its leaders were jailed. But a decade later he made a pact with his erstwhile rivals to remove the inbuilt disadvantages for Indian Fijians and open up the prime minister's office (but not the president's) to an Indian.

It was not until this week that the Indian population seized its chance, giving enough parilamentary seats - 48 of 71 - to the Labour Party of Mahendra Chaudry, enabling him to form a government. The role of the president, Sir Kamisese Mara, could be central. Pressure mounted this week for him to nominate a Fijian as prime minister rather than Chaudry.

Dr Lyon says: "In an important sense, Fiji's political wheel has come full circle. In 1987, the roles of the army, the governor-general, and the Fijian Chiefs-in-Council were crucial. Now the same elements - but with a president replacing the governor-general - are still important."

The 1987 coup cost Fiji, independent from Britain since 1970, its Commonwealth membership, which was only restored in 1997. The proportion of Indians - descendants of indentured labourers brought in by 19th-century British colonialists - fell dramatically as tens of thousands left after the coup.

David Jobbins

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