Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and
Commonwealth Office on the attempted coup in Fiji (28 June 2000)
1. The origins of the current crisis in
Fiji date back to the 19th century when, as the colonial power,
the UK brought in indentured Indian labour to work the sugar cane
plantations. Since then Fiji's ethnic Indian community has established
itself as a distinct component of Fijian society. Although family
ties with India persist, Indo-Fijians regard themselves first
and foremost as belonging to Fiji.
2. Until Britain granted independence to
Fiji in 1970, the colonial government maintained the principle
that the interests of indigenous Fijians must always remain paramount.
This reflected both genuine concern for the position of indigenous
Fijians in their own country; and the interests of the colonial
government, which needed persuasive arguments in response to Indo-Fijian
pressure for elected representation on the then-Legislative Council.
The principle that indigenous Fijian interests were paramount
was widely accepted among Fiji's communities and became part of
3. In the 1960s the paramountcy of Fijian
interests became the main focus of independence negotiations.
Indigenous Fijians saw the principle that their interests (protection
of their land culture and way of life) should be paramount as
requiring Fijian political paramountcy. Indigenous Fijians
were becoming increasingly concerned that, socially and economically,
they were losing ground to other communities. Continued Fijian
control of land was a touchstone of this concern. Only if they
retained political control could they redress the perceived imbalances.
This has been the underlying cause of inter-communal tension since
then, leading first to the coups of 1987, which otherthrew an
Indian dominated but Fijian led labour government elected in April
that year, and now to the events of recent weeks.
4. Following the 1987 coups, Fiji adopted
a constitution in 1990 with the aim of ensuring Fijian political
paramountcy by, for example, reserving more than half the seats
in Fiji's House of Representatives for indigenous Fijians, preventing
cross-voting (ie voting by one ethnic group for candidates of
another) and establishing an indigenous requirement for the posts
of Prime Minister and acting Prime Minister. To satisfy international
objections to this, however, and secure re-admission to the Commonwealth
(from which Fiji had become a lapsed member in 1987 through its
change from Realm to Republic), Fijians agreed changes in the
Constitutional Amendment Act of 1997. This restored ethnic balance
in the House of Representatives and the Senate, eliminated voting
on an exclusively racial basis, withdrew the indigenous requirement
for Prime Minister and Acting Prime Minister and obliged the Prime
Minister to include in the Cabinet members of opposition parties
(to make multi-ethnic government more likely). The new constitution
came into effect on 27 July 1998 and Fiji was re-admitted to the
Commonwealth by Heads of Government at their meeting in Edinburgh
in October 1997.
5. The first General Election under the
new Constitution was held in May 1999. In a surprise result, the
Indo-Fijian dominated Fiji Labour Party (FLP) won 39 of 71 seats
and, with their indigenous Fijian allies, controlled a total of
54 seats. Mahendra Chaudhry, a former trade union leader became
Fiji's first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. His victory was not attributable
solely to the Indo-Fijian vote. Many indigenous Fijians were attracted
by the FLP's social and economic policies. Mr Chaudhry appointed
his cabinet in accordance with the 1997 Constitution. It contained
more indigenous Fijians than Indo-Fijians.
6. Mr Chaudhry's main concern once in office
was Fiji's economy, notably modernisation of the country's sugar
industry and land reform. But this inevitably led to communal
tensions. Land is at the heart of the Fijian problem. Indigenous
Fijians own about 83 per cent of the land under inalienable, communal
title. Much of it has been leased under the terms of the Agricultural
Landlords and Tenants Act (ALTA) to Indo-Fijians on 30 year terms
for sugar cane cultivation. These leases have now begun to expire.
The landlords are unwilling to renew them because they believe
they derive less benefit from the rents they receive than they
would from farming it themselves; but landlords are not willing
to invest in essential maintenance without security of tenure.
Indo-Fijians are in turn finding themselves thrown off the land
on which they rely for their livelihood; and the land itself is
lying fallow. This issue was the immediate cause of the crisis
7. Many indigenous Fijians believe Mr Chaudhry
was undermining their rights to the land and that, in seeking
to push through reform of ALTA, had failed to consider their claims
for compensation for sugar revenue accruing to Indo-Fijian tenants.
The main political manifestation of this resentment has been the
Taukei Movement, a indigenous, nationalistic group (which first
came to prominence during 1987) calling for supremacy of indigenous
Fijians over Indo-Fijians. They want this supremacy to be enshrined
in a constitution similar to that of 1990. The Taukei had been
demanding the abrogation of the 1997 constitution.
8. The Taukei are supported by many jobless
indigenous Fijian youths who have drifted to Suva to find work
and feel marginalised, not only through competition with Indo-Fijians,
but also by what they see as a remote, socially conservative and
unhelpful Fijian tribal "establishment". Sitiveni Rabuka,
Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs (as well as leader of
the 1987 coups and Fiji's Prime Minister between 1990-97), also
supports the Taukei.
9. In March 2000, Mr Chaudhry announced
that Indo-Fijians would receive compensation when land leases
expired. Indigenous Fijian landowners and tribal chiefs claimed
this was unfair. In response the Taukei, led by former politician,
Apisai Tora, organised a series of large protest marches in Suva
calling for Mr Chaudhry's resignation.
19 MAY5 JUNE
10. On 19 May 2000 the Taukei Movement mounted
a protest march in Suva against Mr Chaudhry's government. At the
same time an armed gang led by George Speight (son of an Opposition
MP, failed businessman and member of Taukei who has two outstanding
courts cases against him, one for fraudulent conversion of money
and the other for dangerous driving) entered the Parliament complex
while Parliament was in session and took Mr Chaudhry, most of
the Cabinet (including Adi Koila Mara, daughter of the Fijian
President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara), and a number of MPs and parliamentary
staff hostage. Mr Speight told the press that he had revoked the
1997 Constitution and suspended the powers of President Mara.
He said his aim was the removal of Mr Chaudhry and his government
and return to the 1990 Constitution. Mr Speight, who in 1999 had
been sacked by Poseci Bune, the Agriculture Minister in Mr Chaudhry's
government, from his job as Head of Fiji Pine Ltd, claimed to
represent indigenous Fijians who felt that Mr Chaudhry had undermined
their rights to reclaim land held under lease by Indo-Fijians.
Mobs of indigenous Fijian youths rampaged through Suva, looting
and burning Indo-Fijian properties.
11. In an address to the nation, President
Mara condemned the armed intervention, vowed not to back down
to threats, pledged his support for the democratically elected
Government and announced that he had assumed executive authority
and imposed a state of emergency and night curfew. He confirmed
that the police and military remained loyal to him. He appointed
Sitiveni Rabuka as an intermediary to negotiate with Mr Speight.
While some former members of the Fijian military were among the
hostage-takers, the serving military were confined to barracks.
The Indo-Fijian community remained behind closed doors.
12. As soon as these events were confirmed,
the Foreign Secretary issued a statement on 19 May (text of this
and all other statements attached)
condemning the use of armed force against a democratically elected
leader and Commonwealth Prime Minister and calling for the immediate
release of the hostages and the prompt return to respect for democratic
government within the terms of Fiji's constitution. The British
High Commission in Suva handed a copy of this statement to president
Mara on 20 May. New Zealand, Australia and the US issued similar
statements on 20 May. Mr Battle had a number of public interviews
between 19-25 May conveying British concern at events in Fiji.
At the UK's suggestion, the EU Presidency also issued a statement
on 19 May. This placed a question mark over the planned signing
ceremony in Suva of the successor to the Lome Convention (Fiji
withdrew as host). Since 19 May Mr Battle has kept in contact
with Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General and the Foreign
Ministers of Australia (Alexander Downer) and New Zealand (Phil
Goff). He also discussed the situation in early June with Japanese
Vice-Foreign Minister (Tesuma Esaki) and the Acting PNG Foreign
Minister (Kilroy Genia).
13. The British High Commission in Suva
advised resident and visiting British citizens (via the local
media) that they should observe the curfew, remain indoors and
listen out for further developments. FCO travel advice was amended
on 19 May to advise against all holiday and non-essential travel
14. On 21 May, President Mara revealed that
Mr Speight had threatened to kill the hostages one by one unless
he (Mara) stood down. President Mara explained to the diplomatic
community in Suva that he was reluctant to use the military to
free the hostages for fear of bloodshed and lest he should trigger
civil war among indigenous Fijians. President Mara's options were
narrowed when Mr Speight refused to deal with Mr Rabuka. The President
turned to the Great Council of Chiefs (GCCFiji's tribal
elders, who can advise the President on matters of state) and
asked them to meet to discuss Speight's demands.
15. On 23 May the GCC met, declared their
unanimous support for President Mara and his efforts to return
Fiji to "normalcy" and asked Mr Speight for the release
of the hostages. One of Mr Speight's advisers listed their demands:
the appointment of people nominated by Mr Speight to an Interim
Government, and a full pardon for those involved in the coup attempt.
Around 2000 Speight (Taukei) supporters had by this time joined
him at the complex and Mr Speight enjoyed full access to food,
water and supplies.
16. In an effort to stiffen the President's
resolve, the Foreign Secretary telephoned President Mara on 23
May. He described the hostage-takers' actions as "repugnant"
and congratulated the President on his insistence on a return
to constitutional government. He offered British support in whatever
way the President might think necessary. The Foreign Secretary
also welcomed the GCC's support for the President. The President
received similar telephone calls offering support from the Commonwealth
Secretary General, Don McKinnon, and the Foreign Ministers of
Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US.
17. At the suggestion of New Zealand Foreign
Minister, Phil Goff, the Commonwealth Secretary General, Don McKinnon,
(visiting Honiara at the time) and UN Special Envoy, Vieira de
Mellow (sent across from Dili), visited Suva on 24 May to offer
their support to the President in his attempts to secure the release
of the hostages and to find a constitutional settlement. They
warned that failure to do so would result in international isolation,
and contempt. Mr McKinnon subsequently announced that the Commonwealth
Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) would meet in London on 6 June
to discuss events in Fiji.
18. At a press conference on 24 May Mr Rabuka
said that, while the GCC supported the President and did not approve
of Mr Speight's actions, they sympathised with his motives. A
compromise with Mr Speight seemed possible. While the GCC was
in closed session on 24 May the British High Commission in Suva
conveyed a further message of support from the Foreign Secretary
to President Mara and Mr Rabuka, urging them not to yield to Mr
Speight and to uphold the constitution.
19. In an attempt to compromise with Mr
Speight, the GCC issued a statement on 25 May making significant
concessions. These included amendments to the constitution to
restrict the positions of President and Prime Minister to indigenous
Fijians; an Interim Administration to include members of Mr Speight's
group; and pardons for the hostage-takers after trial. Mr Rabuka
said that the GCC had decided that international protest was preferable
to domestic chaos. This appeared to confirm that the GCC was deeply
divided, with many chiefs sympathetic to Mr Speight. Mr Speight,
however, rejected the offer and, in addition to the GCC's concessions,
demanded unconditional pardons for his group, abrogation of the
1997 constitution and the immediate resignations of President
Mara and Mr Rabuka. The Foreign Secretary issued another statement
expressing his concern at the GCC's decision, saying the use of
armed force to achieve political ends was intolerable. Other key
players made similar statements. The UK encouraged the EU Presidency
to make a further statement.
20. Following Mr Speight's rejection of
the GCC offer the atmosphere in Suva became more tense. On 26
May President Mara replaced the unarmed police presence around
the Parliament complex with an army guard. Later, during a confused
confrontation at a checkpoint outside the complex between Speight
supporters and the army, a stray bullet caught a British cameraman
in the arm. The diplomatic community, in line with advice to its
own dependents, advised expatriates to move to Nadi, 200km to
the West of Suva. Australia agreed to include British citizens
in an Australian-led evacuation if the security situation deteriorated.
21. On 27 May, President Mara announced
that he had dissolved Mr Chaudhry's government, prorogued Parliament
and was appointing a temporary administration. Mr Speight rejected
this as a basis for releasing the hostages. The FCO advised against
all travel to Fiji. On 28 May the Commander of Fiji's Defence
Forces, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, announced on TV his support
for President Mara, adding that the military would not intervene.
After this the Army withdrew from the perimeter of the Parliament
complex and were replaced by the police.
22. On the evening of 28 May, an armed mob
of about 200 Speight supporters, angry at local media coverage
critical of Mr Speight, left the complex and ransacked the TV
station, putting it temporarily off air. The police fled. One
unarmed policeman who stood his ground was shot and killed (to
date the only fatality). The army remained in their barracks.
23. On 29 May, President Mara resigned,
apparently to pass executive authority to the military. Commodore
Bainimarama then declared martial law and a 24 hour curfew with
the aim of restoring order. He said that there would be no more
concessions to Mr Speight and that, contrary to demands by Mr
Speight, neither he nor his associates would be offered positions
in a future government. Commodore Bainimarama began work on establishing
an Interim Military Administration. The British High Commission
delivered a message from the Foreign Secretary to Commodore Bainimarama
welcoming the restoration of order but urging Fiji not to turn
its back on democracy or its constitution. Mr Battle publicised
the same message in several interviews. Commodore Bainimarama
received similar messages from Australia, New Zealand, the Commonwealth
Secretary-General and Japan.
24. After President Mara's resignation Australia
and New Zealand imposed visa bans on Mr Speight and his associates
and Australia cancelled the Fiji leg of the Olympic torch relay.
The FCO instructed British diplomatic posts to refer to London
any visa applications from those included in the Australia/New
Zealand ban. New Zealand and Australia imposed a ban on Fijian
25. Despite his statement that he would
not make further concessions, Commodore Bainimarama issued a military
decree on 29 May revoking the 1997 Constitutional Amendment Act.
On 30 May, Mr Speight rejected Commodore Bainimarama as head of
the military government and his proposed administration. Commodore
Bainimarama said that the Interim Government would be put on hold
until the release of the hostages. By 1 June, talks between Mr
Speight and Commodore Bainimarama were heading towards a standoff
over Mr Speight's insistence that he and his associates play a
part in the future government. Commodore Bainimarama refused to
concede this point.
26. Although the issue of indigenous Fijian
political paramountcy still lay at the heart of the crisis, by
early June other issues were becoming apparent. These included
tensions among indigenous leaders over their political power (Western
Fijian Chiefs threatened a breakaway Western Confederancy to consolidate
their power over the cane-growing region); and growing concern
among some Fijian leaders at the cost to Fiji, in terms of isolation
and sanctions, of turning the clock back to ensure Fijian paramountcy.
27. By 2 June, Commodore Bainimarama was
clearly reluctant to reconvene the GCC in order to resolve the
crisis, knowing it was divided, unlikely to achieve consensus
or decide anything acceptable to the international community.
Commodore Bainimarama may also have feared that Mr Speight could
come to power through the GCC. The number of people suppporting
Mr Speight at the complex, however, had dropped from a peak of
2,500 to less than 400.
28. On 5 June, Commodore Bainimarama broke
off talks with Mr Speight and addressed the nation on TV. He explained
that there was a deadlock in talks because he (Bainimarama) would
not yield to Mr Speight's demand for him and his people to have
places in the Interim Government. However, in return for the release
of the hostages and surrender of all weapons, Mr Speight and his
men would be given an amnesty and the constitution would, in due
course, be amended. The Military Government's mandate was clear:
to bring Fiji back to democracy. Commodore Bainimarama claimed
the EU had written to him to say that they would stop buying Fiji's
sugar (Fiji benefits by $63 million pa3.6 per cent of Fiji's
GDPfrom preferential trading covered by a Sugar Protocol).
The EU subsequently denied the claim, but Commodore Bainimarama
may have used it as a tactic to appeal to the population and isolate
Mr Speight. Mr Speight responded that he wanted the GCC to broker
29. In London on 6 June CMAG, chaired by
Gen Merafhe, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Botswana in the presence
of the Commonwealth Secretary General, and attended by Mr Battle,
the Australian Foreign Minister (Alexander Downer), the Special
Envoy of the Prime Minister of Malaysia (Musa bin Hitam), the
Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs (Sule Lamido) and the High
Commissioners of Canada, Bangladesh and Barbados, met to discuss
30. In their conlcuding statement (attached*),
CMAG condemned the use of armed forces against Fiji's democratically
elected Prime Minister and his Government and called for Commonwealth
principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law to
be upheld and for the immediate release of the hostages. CMAG
suspended Fiji from the councils of the Commonwealth (see footnote
of statement for explanation)
and agreed to send a CMAG delegation to Suva immediately to press
for a timetable for the restoration of democracy.
31. In Suva the CMAG statement had a mixed
reception. The general reaction was one of regret and sadness.
Some, who understood the implications of suspension from Councils,
were relieved Fiji had not been expelled from the Commonwealth
and that neither trade nor economic sanctions had been imposed.
32. On 12 June Mr Speight was in a car returning
to the Parliament complex from a meeting with Fiji's Vice President,
Josefa Iloilo (who appears still to be in office). His car failed
to stop at a military checkpoint and was shot at. Mr Speight was
unharmed but later claimed that he had survived an assassination
attempt by the military. The latter denied this and apologised,
not wanting to provoke a violent reaction from Mr Speight's supporters.
33. On 15 June, talks between Commodore
Bainimarama and Mr Speight resumed. The military also announced
that they would start to form an apolitical civilian interim government.
Also on 15 June, the CMAG delegation including the Foreign Ministers
of Australia and New Zealand arrived in Suva. They met Commodore
Bainimarama, political parties, the judiciary, religious and ethnic
groups and Mr Rabuka. With each they pressed for a clear timetable
for the restoration of constitutional rule and democratic government
in Fiji. The CMAG objective of stiffening Commodore Bainimarama's
resolve not to reward or yield to Mr Speight appeared to have
been achieved when Commodore Bainimarama confirmed that the military
were committed to returning Fiji to democracy (although he said
this may take between 18 and 24 months); and that there would
be no place for Mr Speight or his associates in the interim administration
which would govern during this period. At the airport before their
departure the delegation said they were worried about the nature
of Fiji's future constitution. The Foreign Ministers of New Zealand
and Australia said that the best solution for Fiji was to retain
the 1997 Constitution and for the Chaudhry government to be restored.
34. On 25 June Mr Speight released the four
remaining women among the hostages, including Adi Koila Mara.
Negotiations for the release of the remaining 27 hostages faltered,
however, over Mr Speight's insistence that he choose the new President
who would in turn appoint the interim administration. Commodore
Bainimarama refused to concede this point, while urging Mr Speight
to sign an agreement to bring the crisis to an end (the Muanikau
Accord). This would have allowed for the release of the hostages
in return for Mr Speight's agreement to a civilian interim administration
appointed by a President chosen by Commodore Bainimarama. On 29
June Commodore Bainimarama declared that the area around Parliament
(Muanikau) would become a military zone from 30 June, to be enforced
by a 900 strong force if Mr Speight did not agree to the Muanikau
Accord. Only the Red Cross would be allowed access after 30 June
and supplies would be rationed.
35. After Commodore Bainimarama's announcement
a number of Mr Speight's supporters within the complex seized
nine foreign journalists (six Australians, two New Zealanders
and one American) who were around the perimeter. It is not certain
whether the journalists were out after curfew.
36. The estimated cost to Fiji of the coup
(this year) is around $200 million in lost revenue: tourism is
down by about 80 per cent (June revenues down by $20 million);
a strike by sugar cane plantation workers (now over) has delayed
the harvest; production in the clothing sector is in steep decline;
inward investment is frozen and sanctions by various unions in
Australia and New Zealand (in protest at the coup) are beginning
to squeeze Fiji's exports and imports. The high preferential rates
paid by the EU for Fiji sugar is now vital.
37. The deficit is expected to rise to 8
per cent of GDP ($250 million) against a projected budget figure
of 2.5 per cent ($70 million). Civil servants are to be required
to take a pay cut from 1 August. Civil service and teachers unions
are threatening to strike. A brain drain may also impede economic
recovery. Social tension may deepen while the economy struggles.
38. The UK, Australia, New Zealand and others
have decided that, to avoid risking the safety of the hostages,
they will take no further action against Fiji for the moment.
Nonetheless, the UK and its partners will have to consider what
steps might be appropriate once the hostages are released. These
will depend on the nature of any agreement with Mr Speight to
achieve this and the arrangements for a new Government. The involvement
of Mr Speight and his associates in any administration would be
unacceptable, as would any failure to bring them to justice for
criminal acts. The UK would also expect to see a commitment to
the early restoration of Fiji's democratic processes and institutions
and constitutional arrangements which protect the democratic rights
of the people of Fiji. Without these the UK would have difficulty
in agreeing to lift Fiji's suspension from the councils of the
Commonwealth and in pursuing a full bilateral relationship with
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