Fiji coup tensions keep v-c job empty

June 9, 2000

Even before the University of the South Pacific suspended classes because of last month's attempted coup, racist pressure had forced it to suspend the appointment of a new vice-chancellor.

In the weeks before the coup, nationalist Fijian students led demonstrations and class boycotts to protest against the possible appointment of an Indo-Fijian as the new vice-chancellor. The two candidates shortlisted for the position were USP deputy vice-chancellor Rajesh Chandra and Savenaca Siwatibau, who is retiring as head of the United Nations' Economic and Social Commission for Asia.

USP Students' Association president Veresi Bainivualiku, who was a member of the university's selection committee, organised a demonstration by about 200, mostly Fijian, students against the appointment of Professor Chandra.

Mr Bainivualiku has been accused of breaching confidentiality by leaking details of the appointment process to the media.

His supporters claimed that Professor Chandra had been appointed vice-chancellor after three Australians brought in to sit as external advisers on the appointment committee had swayed the vote in his favour.

Local media reported that supporters of coup leader George Speight were behind the push to have Mr Siwatibau appointed.

Retiring vice-chancellor Esekia Solofa denied that an appointment had been made and said that the students had been misinformed.

The appointment was referred to last month's university council meeting in Vanuatu, which has reportedly asked for a review of the appointments procedure before its next meeting in October.

The delay means that the university could be without a vice-chancellor until next year.

In the current climate, it is unlikely that the council will be able - or willing - to make a decision without heeding extremist Fijian sentiment.

The attempted coup masks a more serious power struggle within the Great Council of Chiefs and the Fijian community in general. It is clear that it was aimed not so much at overthrowing the government of Mahendra Chaudhry as at securing power for a hard-core group of Fijian nationalists intent on overthrowing the decades-long hold on Fijian politics by the president, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

When Sitiveni Rabuka overthrew the Bavadra government in 1987, race was a genuine factor. However, George Speight is only part Fijian and, according to most reports, does not even speak the language.

According to Teresia Teaiwa, lecturer in Pacific studies at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, the "real struggle is among indigenous Fijians, and it is continually masked by the rhetoric of a racial conflict between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians".

Ms Teaiwa identified a struggle for power between supporters of the older leaders, especially the president, and the new generation of rich Fijians who gained power after the 1987 coup.

Fiji historian Brij Lal has described Mr Speight as "the front man for a variety of interests".

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