The map of Suva, with only a few Indian names, reflects the historic alliance between the British and the Fijian chiefs in ruling Fiji and the exclusion of Indo-Fijians from the upper reaches of society for much of the colonial era. None of this might matter if it did not resonate so strikingly with contemporary developments in Fiji. The Fijian nationalist demonstrators who gathered at the Parliament on the morning of May 19, 2000, the day of George Speight‘s coup, had marched along Victoria Avenue and Ratu Sukuna Road, thoroughfares named after a queen and a chief who had little time for democracy.
To live in Suva in the year 2000 was to have a brief glimpse of the abyss of disorder into which political passions threatened to plunge the country. After the riots and looting of May 19th, shattered glass littered the streets, people fled, and buses ceased to run in a city where the bus station is normally crowded with people seeking transport all over the island of Viti Levu. Desperate shopkeepers boarded windows, covered them with heavy mesh, or dumped containers on pavements. The northern end of town resembled a war zone, and for a few days a deathly quiet replaced the normal bustle of Suva’s commercial life. A burned-out building near the post office, shown repeatedly on foreign TV, symbolized the depths to which Fiji had sunk. Yet these early days were just the beginning of a crisis that would grip the capital for the next two months, during which Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was deposed as president, the 1997 constitution was abrogated, the Parliament hosted a bizarre carnival of nationalist posturing, and the army gradually asserted sufficient control to be able to install a government to its liking. The University of the South Pacific is situated close enough to the Parliament for the gun battles of a few streets away to be heard and even felt as reverberating thumps. The vice-chancellor, Esekia Solofa, suspended classes and repatriated students from other countries, including the hapless Solomon Islanders who returned in early June to a far more serious coup in their own country.
Suva became a city of curfews, rumors, premature closings, and sudden traffic jams as people fled home on the strength of the latest disturbing report about developments. Foreign journalists, sensing the potential for drama but mostly ignorant of Fiji, poured into town booking hotel rooms and renting cars. Some soon left after an armed mob, enraged by a television interview critical of Speight, invaded Fiji TV on the night of May 28, smashed equipment, and chased journalists into the nearby Suva Centra Hotel. In the hills of Viti Levu the landowners of the catchment area of Monasavu Dam, where hydroelectricity is generated, sabotaged the turbines and seized the opportunity to demand compensation for their loss of resource. As the Fiji Electricity Authority pressed wheezing and outdated diesel generators into service to meet the shortfall, Suva was subjected to rolling blackouts, and people became used to evenings spent in the dark and workdays without power. Since Suva these days is also subject to intermittent breaks in the water supply, sometimes lasting three or four days, life in the city was not only insecure—no one knowing when Speight’s crowd of supporters might burst through the roadblocks set up around the Parliamentary area—but also inconvenient in a characteristically Third-World way. Suva was not Kisangani in the Congo or Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, prosperous towns reduced by conflict to penury, but such a fate for the city was no longer beyond imagining.
The root of the political unrest was a struggle for power between different groups of Fijians, a reprise in modern form of similar struggles that have characterized Fijian history for centuries. The Indo-Fijians, condemned to be guests in the land of their birth, were the victims not just of Fijian ethnocentrism, but also of Fijian infighting. I should have known all this, having taught Pacific history and politics for years. Why should we be surprised that a liberal, multicultural democracy is so hard to construct in a country whose traditional politics were deeply hierarchical, whose colonial masters perpetuated that hierarchy until independence, whose immigrant population was kept strictly separate during the colonial era, and whose indigenous population continues to think to a greater or lesser extent of those who live in Fiji as divided between vulagi (guests, visitors) and itaukei (hosts, owners)? As Steven Hooper has argued, “an ideology of complementarity, involving at some level the categories chiefs and people, prevails among the majority of Fijians” and still “to a large extent conditions attitudes towards and relations with those people beyond the Land, be they of Indian, European, Chinese, Banaban or other descent.” In Henry Rutz’s view, most Fijians “see themselves less as citizens of a democratic nation-state than as supporters of a local chief who holds rank in a hierarchy of chiefs from village to ‘nation.”‘ Yet the hatreds, intolerance, and disorder unleashed by Speight still came as a shock, and I was brought face-to-face with the depth of my own attachment to order, civility, tolerance, and modernity—the modernity that delivers education, health care, convenience, efficiency, and opportunity to large numbers of people in the developed countries even as it generates inequality and atomization. Fijian tradition, so easy to romanticize, turned out to be a political resource readily exploitable by ambitious politicians and, if allowed to determine events, likely to consign Fiji’s people, whatever their race, to a bleak future of stunted lives and restricted opportunities.
Having plumbed the depths through the curfews and roadblocks of 2000, Suva suddenly blossomed after the 2001 elections, which returned Fiji to a constitutional and internationally acceptable path. An energetic new Indo-Fijian mayor cleaned up the streets, planted gardens, and reconstructed footpaths. Businesses responded with a burst of refurbishment and repainting, and decorations festooned the streets as Christmas approached. This time, though, no one was under illusions about how difficult it would be to restore long-term political stability and to realize the country’s potential. Too many people, especially in the Indo-Fijian community, had had enough. In a sign of the times, scores of thousands of Fiji citizens entered the United States’ green card lottery in the hope of winning entry to a country where they would be judged on ability and hard work alone, not on race or inherited status. Nurses in Fiji’s hard-pressed hospitals queued up to take jobs somewhere else in the world, from Australia to the United Arab Emirates.