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Developments in Fiji: The judgement and after

Paper 193                             01.02.2001


by Dr. S.Chandrasekharan


Assurances have been given that workers who completed their term and chose to settle down in the colonies, would have the same privilege as any other class of His Majesty’s subjects- Statement of Lord Salisbury, Secretary of State for India in1871.

On the basis of such assurances given by the colonial masters that many of the Indian indentured labour chose to remain not only in Fiji, but also in other colonies only to be harassed and hounded out after the colonial masters were gone.  It is now up to Great Britain and the Commonwealth to ensure that justice is done to the poor people of Indian origin who took the British assurances seriously and thus chose to stay in Fiji.

The Chandrika Prasad Ruling of 15 November, 2000:

On 4 July 2000, Chandrika Prasad with the assistance of the Fiji Human Rights filed a case in the High Court of Fiji praying for declaratory orders that the elected government of Fiji of Mahendra Chaudhry is still the legitimate government and that abrogation of the 1997 Constitution was unconstitutional.

The ruling by Justice Anthony Gates was delivered on 15 November and the following declaratory orders were passed.

* The attempted coup of May 19th was unsuccessful.

* The declaration of the state of emergency by the President in the circumstances facing the nation though not strictly proclaimed within the terms of the constitution is declared valid under the doctrine of necessity.

* Status Quo is restored.  The Parliament is still in being and the President, Senators and elected members of House of Representatives continue to hold office.  Parliament should be summoned by the President at his discretion but as soon as possible.

* It will remain for the President to appoint as soon as possible the Prime minister in accordance with the reinstated constitution and that government shall be the government of Fiji.

The judge also ruled that the Quarase regime is holding office illegally and that the Constitution Review Commission has no legal basis.

The interim government led by Laisenia Quarase went on appeal to the High Court.  On December 20, the High Court stood by its ruling and maintained that the interim administration is illegal and unconstitutional.

This would mean that Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara would continue to be the legal President and that he is to appoint a government from the deposed Parliament and its members.

On January 17, the High Court went a step further and declared that the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) has no legal authority to draw allowances for its members from public funds.  The Commission was appointed by the interim government to review the 1997 constitution with the intention of providing political superiority to the indigenous Fijians.

The Role of the Army:

Much would depend on the attitude of the army.  Soon after the May rebellion it was the army that handed over administration to a civilian administration and was indirectly responsible for forming the Constitutional Review Commission to review the 1997 constitution.  It is to the credit of the army that it did not succumb to blackmail of Speight to exclude all Indians from holding political office.

In May the army itself had to face a mutiny led by about 40 soldiers from the Counter Revolutionary Warfare squad which supported Speight in taking Prime minister Chaudhry as a hostage.  The rebellion was crushed ruthlessly.

Initially the army took the stand that while the army respected the High court’s decision, they would wait till the appeal of the interim government is disposed of by the High Court.  Now that the appeal has also been disposed off, it has either to accept the High Court ruling or defy the High court and allow the interim government to continue or take over the governance directly.  None of these options are easy.

To accept the ruling would mean removal of the interim Prime minister Quarase who of late has become more belligerent.  In an interview to the World Report, he declared that the indigenous Fijians would not accept a Prime minister of Indian origin in the country.  He is reported to have said that the Fijians making 52 percent of the population and owning 83 percent of land have no where else to go and that the political destiny of Fiji should be in their hands.

Commodore Bananmarama who leads the army has problems of his own in sustaining his leadership within the army. Former coup (1987) leader and Prime minister Rabuka has been denied entry into army barracks on suspicion that he instigated the May rebellion.  Another senior army officer colonel Filipo Trakinikinii is also under investigation for his role in the May rebellion.

In a new year message the deposed Prime minister Chaudhry has welcomed the High Court’s ruling and called for the return of democracy in Fiji and the dismissal of the interim administration.

There is no way that the outside forces can intervene and restore Prime minister’s Chaudhry’s government.  India’s options are therefore very limited.  As early as September last year, the Commonwealth ministerial action Group (CMAG) a watchdog body set up to monitor violations of democracy and human rights among member states had said that the interim administration in Fiji being a product of the unconstitutional overthrow of an elected government, its actions lack both "legitimacy and credibility." But the CMAG could at best continue its dialogue with the interim administration for return of democracy but cannot enforce the court’s ruling.

Though the High court has upheld the validity of 1997 constitution, its enforcement cannot be done unless it is acceptable to all sections of population in Fiji.  It may be recalled that the 1997 Constitution had been unanimously endorsed by the Great Council of Chiefs and by the two houses of the Fijian Parliament. Even Rabuka for all his faults, recently said that the 1997 Constitution does not deserve to be arbitrarily "abrogated." Significantly, he emphasised that the 1997 constitution was blessed by both "God and the highest Fijian institution, the Great Council of Chiefs."

The interim prime minister has also made an emotional plea for reconciliation between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians.  The alternatives are too ugly to comprehend he added.

There is no doubt that the political and racial relations are badly strained. The 1997 Constitution was the best dispensation that the Indo Fijians could have hoped for.  More essential for them is to see that some long term solution is found for present crisis relating to the ownership of land.  The indigenous chiefs hold most of the land that Indian farmers cultivate.

There is a provision in the 1997 constitution for the formation of a government of National Unity from elected parliamentarians.  Chaudhry’s deputy, a native Fijian Tupeni Baba has declared his readiness to take over the party leadership and lead a government of National Unity if such a move is undertaken.  The army has made it known that a government of National unity is not feasible if Chaudhry insists on becoming Prime minister once again as that would arouse opposition and violence from extremist Fijians.

If the restoration of 1997 Constitution is central to the interest of Indo Fijians, then Chaudhry should allow his deputy to take over a government of national unity. This is in the interest of peace, reconciliation between the two races, restoration of democracy and the interests of Indo Fijians in the long run.