Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Special Report


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 political culture.

  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 in Fiji.

  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.


  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[33]) 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 to Fiji.

  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 (GCC—Fiji'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 sporting teams.

  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 pa—3.6 per cent of Fiji's GDP—from 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 an agreement.


  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 Fiji.

  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[34]) 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 Fiji.

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Prepared 9 January 2001