Paradise lost?

To most people Fiji is known as an island paradise: white sandy beaches and crystal clear turquoise water. But beyond the tourist wonderland is a country ruled by a military dictatorship that annulled the constitution in 2009 and drove most international journalists out.
Tanja Peuker
24 March 2011


5:30pm arrival at Nadi airport. It is hot, sticky, humid and dusty. Smoke thickens the air. Big ash flakes hover around the floor. Somewhere a bush fire must be eating its way forward.

The Western part of Viti Levu is experiencing a draught. Water use is restricted. It has not rained since May – six months without rain. Farmers in the island's rural parts are most affected. Bible groups meet to pray for rain.

But of course the draught is well hidden from tourists who should enjoy their well-deserved holidays without worries.

“Bula!” are the welcoming words in Fiji. A group of musicians in bula shirts and sulus, the traditional Fijian skirt for men, are playing guitars and singing to welcome the new arrivals.

In 2009 542,186 tourists visited the republic, a strong decline from the previous year. Nonetheless, the number equals over 61% of the population or more than 1,400 tourists a day. Tourism is Fiji’s gold mine.

“It’s Fiji time, now! Forget that you had to do something. Here, you don’t!” says a billboard.

Few tourists know about the real Fiji - a country behind the catalogue façade that is marked by its exclusion from the Commonwealth, persistent poverty, ethnic conflicts and a deteriorating political situation. 25% of the population live below the poverty line. The average weekly income ranges from US$50 for manual labour to US$150 for government office work. The reasons for poverty in Fiji are diverse ranging from ethnic conflict to mass emigration, from political instability and isolation to cultural factors and land ownership issues.

During its 96-years of British colonial rule Fiji was supposed to act as a supplier of natural resources and produce. The British brought Indians to the island as cheap labourers in the 19th century. Fiji became an independent nation on 10 October 1970, but royal photographs still decorate most offices and homes. Indo-Fijians continued to farm the land that now belonged to Fijians. But this odd symbiosis has provided fertile soil for quarrels over land ownership ever since.

Dividing lines

The ratio of Indians to Fijians after independence was 53 to 43 per cent. However, 83 per cent of the land was owned by Fijians who also held power in government and thus controlled the important Fiji Sugar Corporation of which the government is the main shareholder.

Fishing rights, tourist resort areas, forestry and mining lands are traditional fields of employment occupied by Fijians while sugar farming, retail and manufacturing as well as other industries are dominated by Indo-Fijians.

Neither Indo-Fijian nor Fijian communities can be regarded as homogeneous though. The Indo-Fijian community is comprised of a multitude of different ethnic groups from North and South India, as well as Punjabis, Gujaratis, Hindus and Muslims while Fijians belong to tribes dispersed over the archipelago.

The lack of an adequate political representation of both Fijians and Indo-Fijians in government and administrational bodies in the post-independence era led to frustrations among the wider public.

In the 1980s Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, leader of the Fijian-dominated Alliance Party, and Jai Ram Reddy, leader of the Indian-dominated National Federation Party – today member of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda - discussed the possibilities of a ‘government of national unity’. However, their differential views on crucial issues such as equality, land distribution and public service staffing - nearly two thirds of the public sector is in Fijian hands - as well as the discrepancy between word and deed of those in power on matters of power distribution divided the political class more than it help to unite it.

When Indo-Fijians won the parliamentary majority in 1987 ethnic clashes and two coup d’états put a quick end to this brief period of Indo-Fijian rule.

Ethnic interaction

In Newtown, a neighbourhood of Nadi, I meet Junior and Donna. Junior is Indo-Fijian and Muslim. Donna is Fijian and Christian. They have three children, the fourth on the way. The couple runs one of the few Fijian-owned tourist businesses. One year ago they opened a hostel.


We sit down on the carpet for a sevu-sevu, the customary yaqona or kava ceremony. Kava is a traditional drink with lightly tranquillising effects made from a pepper root. Drinking kava is a welcoming and bonding ritual in Fijian culture.

Junior ceremonially claps his hands three times after he has finished his bilo, or cup, and explains: “Contacts between Fijians and Indo-Fijians are mainly commercial, hardly cultural or personal which contributes to misunderstandings, misinterpretations and stereotypes.”

Slouching into a more comfortable position he remembers that there was a short Indian-Fijian collaborative effort against the Colonial Sugar Refining Company during the anti-colonial transition period in the 1960s. Apparently this collaboration was never institutionalised.

Political control has been in the hands of Fijian élites and tribal chiefs since the 1970s, except for those brief periods in 1987 and 2000 when Indo-Fijians held parliamentary power but were quickly overthrown by coups.

As a consequence, Indo-Fijians emigrated on a mass scale, mainly to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This mass emigration secured the domination of ethnic Fijians both in the political arena as well as the military forces – which are staffed to 90% with Fijians; a domination that was formally established by the 1990 constitution.

The present-day ratio of Fijians to Indo-Fijians is 54.3 to 38.1 per cent, while the remaining 7.6% are “Europeans” (US Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and actual Europeans!), Chinese and few Japanese, Rotumans as well as other Pacific Islanders.


Political instability and economic deterioration

Commodore Josaia Voreqe – “Franky” - Bainimarama was a leading figure in the 2000 and 2006 coups.

“Franky,” Junior grins, “was popular with the people, especially at the beginning of his reign, because he broke with corruption, took people out of office and exchanged administrative personnel. But than Fiji lost its Commonwealth membership as well as the Pacific Islands Forum membership.”

“We are very isolated now. We don’t get foreign aid anymore”, his wife Donna aids. “We need to return to democratic rule, otherwise Fiji is lost. Food prices are rising, because we don’t get favourable import prices anymore.”

The 2006 coup harmed Fiji’s reputation resulting in plummeting tourist arrivals that lead to substantial job losses in the service sector. GDP decreased by nearly seven per cent.

The EU as well as the US and the Commonwealth have suspended all aid until the interim government takes steps towards new elections.

Fiji heavily depends on trade. According to Economy Watch imports (manufactured goods, machinery and transport equipment, petroleum products, food, chemicals) amounted to US$3.12 billion while the export volume (sugar, garments, gold, timber, fish, molasses, coconut oil) reached $1.202 billion in 2006. Fiji depends on the outside world.

“It is difficult to start a business for Fijians”, Junior says daydreamingly. The kava works. “Foreign investors get help from the Fiji Trades and Investment Bureau (FTIB), locals don't. And there are no microfinance institutions to support local initiatives.”

Apart from the moral dilemma that this unequal treatment entails the approach is not sustainable, especially since foreign direct investments are decreasing due to the political situation. Fiji has to learn to stand on its own feet, instead of those of foreign investors. Moreover, preferential treatment of foreign investors is rather counter-productive as it discourages locals to engage in business opportunities.

What Fijians never talk about in public is politics, or the “New Order” as the abrogation of the constitution, censorship and limitation of free movement is commonly called. “No one really cares”, Donna explains. “But now, with all the downsides and the international pressure rising, people are getting concerned. They want change.”

Like many other poor countries Fiji is a significant contributor of military personnel for UN peacekeeping missions, such as those in Lebanon (1978), Zimbabwe (1980) and Sinai Egypt (1982) as well as private US security companies in Iraq (2003). Over 2,000 Fijians serve in the UK Armed forces, some of which were employed and lost their lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere. According to Professor Wadan Narsey from the University of the South Pacific the soldiers mainly contributed to a flow of US$160 million in remittances in 2009.

This money - much needed by many families - however, is not a reliable source of income, especially not with the undemocratic regime in place. The British army's calls for recruits have ceased since the planned 2009-elections were called off.

Personal ambition

On my bus ride to Suva, the capital, I meet Shihana. She is Indo-Fijian, married, has three children, works five days a week in the family business in Lautoka and is on her way to class.

She is taking Korean and business classes at the University of South Pacific in Suva. The twelve-hour weekend courses are designed to comply with housewives’ everyday lives. She left home at 5am to arrive in Suva at 11. The course starts at 1pm.

I accompany Shihana on her way to campus. It is hot. Shihana is sweating, tired and hungry. The public bus has no windows, allowing for full ventilation.

Bus drivers, traditionally Indo-Fijians, take great pride in decorating their buses with stickers of Hindi symbols and phrases like “Every mile a sexy smile”. The sound system operates at full capacity, reggae tunes drown the engine noise.

The ride is rather exhausting but none of this seems to bother Shihana. She smiles. She looks happy.

The campus is a peaceful place, spotted with students sitting in the grass or strolling along the pathways. Buildings are scattered all over the area. Pavilions and large trees provide shade.

No one seems to be in a rush. No one seems concerned. It’s “Fiji time”. Shihana runs to her classroom.

I join a lecture on journalism held by a representative of Fiji Media Watch, a local NGO working on media education and awareness. I learn that in Fiji the media are society’s watchdog. Where I am from media are regarded as the fourth estate, politics’ watchdog.

After the coup in 2000, both private and state-owned print, radio and TV media became totally de-politicised. Since the parliament building has been left empty, journalists have seized to report on politics. Social topics and mainstream culture, mainly entertainment and sports are discussed in print, on screen and shortwave.

The elections in 2009 were called off because Fiji was not deemed ready for elections yet, which upset the rest of the world as well as some Fijians. Nonetheless, complaints are scarcely heard. The USA re-engaged in political talks with Fiji in September 2010, after a long standstill. Fiji promised to hold elections in 2014 and thus return to democratic rule.

If and how the media will function in the pre-election campaign is uncertain. It is highly unlikely that the state owned media or the heavily censored private ones will be a neutral provider of information on politicians’ goals and party programmes.

It is 4:20pm. I am waiting for my flight home. The airport departure hall is a busy market place for cultural products and souvenirs. A cheerful group of musicians is singing a 'ni sa moce' (Goodbye) song. I am standing at the window looking at the parched, yellow-brown prairie. Mountain ranges emerge on the horizon. Soft rain falls from low-hanging, grey clouds. It looks sad. However, this is what the whole country has been praying for. It reminds me of the contrast between the tourist “sunshine state" and the “real” Fiji with its economic and political challenges as well as its hopeful people.

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