Advertisement

Race, Resentment Fuel Attacks on Indians in Fiji, Forcing Many to Flee

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first night wasn’t so bad. The young men came, shouted a few insults, threw some rocks, broke a couple of windows. And then, just as quickly as they had emerged from the darkness, they slipped away.

It was the second night that Shiri and Veena Devi Ram will never forget. The troublemakers began congregating in front of their house in the late afternoon. There were about 30 of them, young indigenous Fijians from a nearby village, drinking beer and bent on trouble.

“Get out!” the Rams heard them shout before the rampage of looting and destruction began. “Go back where you came from!”

It seemed hardly worth the effort for the Rams to point out that they came from Fiji, that they knew no other homeland than these tufted green islands in the South Pacific. True, their ancestors had come from India, shipped like cargo to work as indentured servants in the sugar cane fields once owned and run by British colonists. But that was a century ago, and Ram descendants hadn’t been to India since, could scarcely find it on a map.

Advertisement

No matter. In the language of race in Fiji, they are Indians, not Fijians, and this is not--and never can be--their homeland.

Country Debates Power Structure

This is the crux of a debate taking place in Fiji now, more than a month into a hostage crisis that has led to the overthrow of the country’s first prime minister of Indian descent. Ethnic Indians make up 44% of Fiji’s population. Should they be allowed to run its government? Or should political power be limited to the 51% of the population whose ancestors have occupied these islands for more than 3,000 years?

To American ears, it may sound like an archaic debate, one that scorns modern concepts of citizenship and democracy.

Advertisement

But, then, many aspects of what is happening in Fiji seem paradoxical.

To begin with, the victims of discrimination--the ethnic Indians--are far wealthier and better educated, on average, than the indigenous Fijians and own nearly all the businesses in the country. Occasionally, a shop or restaurant will boast a sign, “Fijian Owned,” but it is far more common to see “Singh Grocery” or “Maharajah Bus Service.”

Most indigenous Fijians, dark-skinned people who are ethnically Melanesian, either scrape out a living as subsistence farmers or work for ethnic Indian bosses. Far from expressing resentment, many are quick to say they admire the Indian culture, which ethnic Indians have clung to through the generations.

“Resent? In what sense?” Mitieli Vakalelebula asked. The rural schoolteacher lives just down the road from the Ram family in Sawani, a lush valley just northwest of Suva, the capital. He seemed taken aback by the idea that he might feel any bitterness toward his Indian neighbors.

“They set an aim and they work toward it,” he said. “If they come across any problem, they can solve those problems.” Indigenous Fijians could learn a lot from them, he added.

Such expressions are common--in fact, many Fijians say they think relations between the two ethnic groups are good--but they are seldom heard within the camp of nationalist leader George Speight.

Speight, a brash businessman with a shaved head and muscular chest, assembled a group of Special Forces soldiers to storm Parliament on May 19. Since then, his group has held more than 30 people, including the deposed prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, in the fenced-in Parliament compound, where the hostages are separated by race.

Hostage Situation Prompts Military Rule

Advertisement

The crisis prompted the military to take power from a civilian president. After weeks of negotiations, Speight and the military rulers agreed Monday on a new president, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, offering some hope that the hostages might be released soon. Although Iloilo is an indigenous Fijian, Speight agreed that there could be ethnic Indians in the new civilian government, a major concession. Still, it is highly unlikely that one would be named prime minister.

Many people in Fiji say they sympathize with Speight’s goals--if not his methods--of returning power to indigenous Fijians. Chaudhry is almost universally regarded here as an arrogant, tactless man who squandered his opportunity to build a multicultural government.

Since independence from Britain in 1970, Fiji has swung back and forth between multiculturalism and nationalism. A multicultural government was overthrown in 1987 by a military commander, Sitiveni Rabuka, whose battle cry was “Fiji for the Fijians.” At the time, ethnic Indians actually outnumbered indigenous Fijians.

That coup led to an Indian exodus, largely to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Meanwhile, Rabuka became an unlikely but powerful advocate for multiculturalism, helping to push through a new constitution in 1997 that allowed, for the first time, a non-Fijian to lead the government.

The 1997 constitution also put in place a new electoral system so complicated that almost no one in Fiji understands it. The quirks of the system, coupled with a voter backlash against the two leading parties, led to an unexpected triumph last year for Chaudhry’s Fiji Labor Party, previously a fringe player in Fijian politics. He chose a multicultural Cabinet dominated by indigenous Fijians.

Once in office, however, Chaudhry displayed what U.S. Ambassador Osman Siddique has described as an “in-your-face” style more appropriate to the labor movement from which he came than the Parliament he led. By the time Chaudhry was taken hostage, Siddique said, “there was not one constituency left that he didn’t annoy.”

Chaudhry’s biggest offense, most people say, was trying to make changes in Fiji’s highly sensitive land policy. Indigenous Fijians own more than 80% of the land in Fiji and regard it as their sacred birthright. Chaudhry made changes aimed at stopping indigenous landowners from evicting ethnic Indian tenants, and giving the tenants a $14,000 payment if they lost their lease. Many indigenous landowners saw it as the first step toward an Indian takeover of their land and reacted in fury.

The land issue alone might have fueled a movement to replace Chaudhry. But Speight, who calls himself a crusader for indigenous rights, has brazenly played the race card. He sneers that Indians “smell different,” that they deserve no better than second-class status in Fiji.

Advertisement

This sort of talk, and dark murmurings about genocide and Indian plans to colonize Fiji, appeals to the poor, the uneducated and dispossessed who seem to form the core of Speight’s constituency. But it seems so out of touch with the feelings of most people in Fiji that many have come to believe that it is a smoke screen designed to hide a simple power grab.

“The real issues are not indigenous rights,” said Venkat Ramani, a chamber of commerce manager and political activist in the tourist center of Nadi, where Indian-Fijian relations are at their best and Speight is widely loathed. “This is a power play game.”

If so, it is a game with real victims, as the Rams can testify--as can many other ethnic Indians in and around Suva, where tensions are highest and Indian homes and businesses have been vandalized and burned.

Mass Exodus Causes Shortage of Passports

So many ethnic Indians are trying to leave Fiji now that the Immigration Ministry announced recently that it had run out of passports; no more can be issued until a new shipment arrives in July.

Prominent politicians and economists warn of the disastrous impact an Indian “brain drain” could have on Fiji, but it appears inevitable now. Since 1987, so many ethnic Indians have fled that nearly every Indian family in Fiji now has relatives abroad, usually in more than one country.

In many ways, the Ram family is typical of ethnic Indians in Fiji. A century of separation from India has robbed its members of familiarity with their mother country but not their mother culture.

Their first language is Hindi. They also speak English but only a smattering of Fijian. They eat Indian food, watch Indian television programs, listen to Hindi radio, rent Indian videos, wear Indian clothes and read Indian magazines.

Whereas most indigenous Fijians are Methodists or members of other Christian denominations, the Rams pray in a Hindu temple. (A smaller number of ethnic Indians are Muslim.) Intermarriage between ethnic Indians and Fijians is almost nonexistent.

Instead of following rugby, a national obsession among indigenous Fijians, most Indians prefer soccer, tennis or golf; their national sports hero is Fijian golfer Vijay Singh. Their sole obvious concession to Fijian culture is the ritualistic consumption of kava, a bitter, mildly tranquilizing beverage that is a part of every Fijian gathering.

Family Recalls Night of Terror

The mob attacked the Rams’ house at dusk. The assailants smashed and looted and burned in a fury of rocks, sticks and matches. The Rams retreated to their bedrooms, made the children hide under the beds. Then they locked the bedroom doors, huddled together and listened to the storm of rage outside.

“We were really afraid,” recalled Veena Devi Ram, a small, quiet woman who works as a clerk in a stationery store. “The children, they started crying.” And then they heard the mob break open the front door and crash inside.

When it was over, nearly every window in the four houses on their family homestead was shattered. The family car was a smoking, burned-out husk, as was the cab of the new Nissan truck that Shiri Ram used in his contracting business. Television sets were gone, as were radios, VCRs--just about anything of value. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

And Shiri Ram had made up his mind: He could not remain in Fiji.

“No, no, no--nobody wants to stay here,” he said a few days later. “They all say the first place they can get, they will go. Because I think this thing will keep happening here. It will always happen here.”

*

Landsberg was recently on assignment in Sawani.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile of Fiji

* Geography: More than 300 islands located about 3,000 miles southwest of Hawaii in the South Pacific.

*

* Population: About 813,000.

*

* Languages: English (official), Fijian and Hindi.

*

* Literacy: 91% of population age 15 and over.

*

* Economy: Dependent on tourism, sugar, the garment industry and minerals.

* Leading occupation: Subsistence agriculture (67% of labor force).

*

* History: British colony from 1874 until independence in 1970. Ethnic Indian minority brought to the islands by British as farm laborers. Republic declared in 1987 after two coups in one year. Constitution altered in 1990 to favor indigenous Fijians, and in 1997 to give greater equality to ethnic Indians. First ethnic Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, took office in 1999. Chaudhry held hostage, along with much of his government, since May 19 by rebel leader George Speight, who favors greater influence for indigenous Fijians.

*

ETHNICITY (1998 estimate)

Indigenous Fijians: 51%

Ethnic Indians: 44%

Other* 5%

*

* Includes other Pacific Islanders, overseas Chinese and other ethnic groups

Sources: CIA World Factbook 1999; World Almanac 2000


Advertisement