More Than Ethnicity Behind Fiji's Unrest

(March 2001) Fiji is still reeling from a coup on May 19, 2000, in which armed indigenous Fijians took the nation’s first prime minister of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry, and other parliamentarians hostage.

The nonelected interim government appointed after the release of the hostages has now been declared unconstitutional, the man who was declared the legitimate president has resigned, and the country waits while the courts determine whether to dissolve parliament and conduct new general elections. The interim government includes no officials from the deposed government, which seeks reinstatement. In fact, the interim government includes no members of the Indo-Fijian community, who make up over 40 percent of the country’s 800,000 citizens.

Press reports have chalked the situation in Fiji up to ‘ethnic resentments’ that suddenly boiled over. But a fuller understanding of the recent instability in Fiji requires analysis of its demographic, economic, and political complexities. The problem with many Pacific Islands states is not so much that they are prone to falling apart, but rather that they were never fully put together. The people of Fiji were never united prior to British rule, and the transplantation by the British of thousands of indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent to labor on the islands’ sugar plantations only complicated prospects for national cohesion.

Barriers of culture and religion separate indigenous Fijians and Fijians of Indian ancestry, and the two groups have extremely low rates of intermarriage. Although many Indo-Fijians remain humble cane farmers, others now dominate Fiji’s commercial sector. The indigenous, largely village-based Fijian ‘nation’ is also deeply divided into traditional confederacies and increasingly fractured by class and privilege. The 2000 coup was ostensibly conducted in the name of indigenous rights to counter Indo-Fijian political power represented by the one-year-old government of Prime Minister Chaudhry. Yet now-imprisoned coup leader George Speight pressed his demands in defiance of the commander of the overwhelmingly indigenous Fijian armed forces, as well as the Great Council of Chiefs (the supreme repository of traditional power). And many hostages were indigenous Fijian members of Chaudry’s government.

Changes in traditional land-tenure arrangements lie at the heart of many contemporary disputes in the islands. More than 80 percent of all land in Fiji is still held under traditional tenure by indigenous Fijian land-owning groups, and land-related legislation cannot be changed without the consent of the Great Council of Chiefs. A central element in the current unrest was Chaudhry’s insensitivity to indigenous Fijians’ suspicions as he sought to assist Indo-Fijian smallholder sugar cane farmers whose land leases were expiring. Indigenous Fijian landowners wanted either to farm the land themselves or to receive higher rents with shorter leases. Indo-Fijian farmers sought to renew leases for at least 50 years, gain greater certainty about landlord-tenant rights, and receive compensation for land improvements in cases when leases were not renewed.

A new approach to development has accentuated these tensions. International donors today are pushing restructuring, emphasizing economic growth and market forces. Pacific island governments are urged to drastically cut their bureaucracies, privatize public assets, and strip away protective tariffs to create attractive conditions for foreign investment — at almost any cost. The private sector has often been unable to compensate for the lost jobs and incomes associated with drastic cuts in government employment. Domestic tensions have risen as the gap between rich and poor has widened.

What’s needed is more engagement by the international community, which has a continuing interest in regional stability. Initiatives such as increasing peacekeeping capabilities and targeting aid to education, health, infrastructure, and jobs could help put Fiji back on its feet.

Gerard A. Finin is a research fellow at the East-West Center in the Pacific Islands Development Program. Terence A. Wesley-Smith is an associate professor in the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaii.

Fiji Facts and Figures

  • Population: 800,000
  • Land area 7,054 sq. miles on 300 islands
  • Births per 1,000 population: 22
  • Deaths per 1,000 population: 7
  • Natural increase: 1.5% per year
  • Total fertility rate: 3.3
  • GNP per capita, 1998: $US$2,210
  • Annual average emigration, 4,700 — 90% Indo-Fijian

Sources: PRB, 2000 World Population Data Sheet; and Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Fiji Islands Population Profile, 1999.

More Than Ethnicity Behind Fiji’s Unrest

For a more thorough discussion of the ideas presented in this article, see the following publication, on which it is based:

Gerard A. Finin and Terence A. Wesley-Smith, “Coups, Conflicts, and Crises: The New Pacific Way?” Working Paper 13, Pacific Island Development Series (Honolulu: East-West Center, June 2000).

The paper is available on the website of the Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center, Other reports and publications by the East-West Center can be viewed or searched for at


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