South Sea survival game

Fiji: Thuggish coup succeeds in depriving people of political rights and wrecking economy.

July 23, 2000

THE UNITED States should follow the lead of Australia in devising sanctions to compel Fiji to restore political rights to its people.

Fiji is a Pacific island paradise with fewer than a million; it's north of New Zealand and southwest of Hawaii. Half or more of the Fijian population is descended from Melanesian and Polynesian seafarers who discovered the place centuries ago. Indo-Fijians, nearly half the population, are descended from Indians who immigrated to tend sugarcane a century ago. Ethnic Fijians dominate the poorer rural classes and ethnic Indians rule the commerce and better jobs.

Fiji's great exports are sugar, which finds a protected market in Europe, and athletes, who excel at rugby in New Zealand and golf in the United States (where the Indo-Fijian Vijay Singh won the PGA Championship in 1998). Its principal import is tourists, a necessity.

After independence from Britain in 1970, Fiji had a parliamentary democracy, overthrown by a Fiji-nationalist coup in 1987, leading to a new constitution in 1990 and a revision in 1997, which reopened politics ethnically. This allowed labor leader Mahendra Chaudhry to become Fiji's first ethnic-Indian prime minister last year.

Enter George Speight, classic demagogue. Only part Fijian by ancestry, he went to college in Michigan, job-hopped in Australia and dabbled in insurance fraud at home. On May 19 he led a gang that seized 27 officials, including Mr. Chaudhry, holding some two months, demanding a purge of Indians from public life.

The crisis ended with the gun-toting Mr. Speight having the Grand Council of Chiefs appoint an 80-year-old Parkinson's sufferer as president. He, in turn, named an all-Fijian government, which was not Fijian enough for Mr. Speight, and did not swear it in. Anarchy.

Some Indians are fleeing; some are fighting for their rights. The tourists are going elsewhere, aid from Australia has dried up and the economy has nose-dived.

Fiji was famous through the mid-1980s for ethnic harmony. It can be again, but not until Mr. Speight is locked up and the rights of all Fijians restored.

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