By : Sachin Anand Balram
Fiji is relatively a very young country when compared with similar size countries around the world. The deed of cession was signed on October 10, 1874. British took over the reins from indigenous Fijians who had made no resistance mainly because British had arms and ammunitions. British made all kinds of promises to twelve prominent chiefs about betterment of Fiji. British gave them Bible to study and converted them into Christianity. For the next ninety six years, British ruled over the gorgeous Islands of the South Pacific. The inhabitants of Fiji of two major races tolerated lots of injustice, hardship and abuse at the hands of the British crown colony administrators. Nevertheless, some still argue that Fiji was better-off under the British rule because they managed to have law and order, they built basic infra-structure, they got the sugar industry on its feet, and they taught the locals about agriculture, commerce and industries. They provided basic education and training to professionals by enabling them to go overseas for training. Hospitals, roads, electrification, water supply needs were installed in major towns. Things were going well for the citizens of a small crown colony. The country was flourishing. But, there was strong undercurrent. The citizens of Fiji were getting fed up with British rule. Feelings of disdain, distrust, disenchantment were being expressed. The colonial administrators were taking care of only the bare necessities. The Governor and the local commissioners were suspects since they favored their supporters and sympathizers who were mostly Caucasians. The rich and famous were catered for according to their needs and whim.
As years passed, as the Fiji citizens became more intelligent and wise, it was felt by some sectors of the community that British were not doing enough for the country to make it a desirable place to work and live. Fiji was progressing but at a snail’s pace. It was felt that British were just interested to fill their own coffers from income derived from gold, sugar copra, manganese, tourism etc., The profits derived from the trade and sales of commodities were sent direct to London. It was widely believed that British were not genuinely interested in people’s welfare, health, education, creating jobs, raising the standard of living and so forth. Only token things were being done to improve the country. The British were just interested in having one more colony in the South Pacific, just like French. During those days, the expansion of British Empire was a demonstration of military strength, power, pride and prestige. The rest of mighty countries like Germany, Russia, China, Japan were fierce competitors.
As years elapsed and citizens of Fiji got more educated and sophisticated, they began to notice that British administrators were devising subtle policy of “divide and rule “. The idea was to keep the community fragmented so that there cannot be an organized rebellion. British administrators made sure that indigenous Fijians did not inter-mingle with Indo-Fijians. Indians were supposedly smarter, more creative and ingenious because of their history, background, culture, religion and heritage. And so, British thought that Indians should become businessmen, professionals, tradesmen and legislators. Indigenous Fijians were merely landlords and should focus on cultivation and producing food crops from their land. That is the reason when we went to town during my school days in Suva (back in early 1960s), we saw very few indigenous people but throngs of Indians on streets and inside the shops. When we went to offices (both government and private) we saw them full of Indian employees and very few Fijians. When we went to schools in major town centers, about ninety per cent were Indians. The Fijians were confined to their own villages in rural areas and provided with schools, churches, food markets, medical facilities within a close range of their villages. This type of “containment policy” of indigenous people created a rift between the two races. The landlords were not encouraged to venture too far from their land. On the other hand, Indians were encouraged to get training in trade, professions, to become merchants, administrators and were given senior civil service jobs. All this subtle favoritism of Indians led to feeling of hatred, envy and jealousy amongst the two races. Despite the fact, Fiji was known all
over the world as multi-racial society living in harmony during the decades of fifties and sixties, the truth of the matter was, there was lot of bitterness, hatred amongst the two races. The British governor and legislators just did not care and went along their merry ways.
Hence, from about 1965 – Fijian and Indian politicians were compelled to put before its people the idea of Independent Fiji. Localization, equality, racial parity, equal opportunity in employment, availability of more land to Indians became controversial topics. Federation and Alliance parties recruited both Indians as well as Fijians to be their candidates in elections. The two major political parties kicked this idea of Independence into full gear as the decade of sixties winded down. The common people of all races supported the idea of independence. The business owners supported it and professionals supported it. The super star leaders, like Ratu Mara and A.D. Patel were passionately in favor of getting independence from British. Consequently, after just couple of meetings in England with the queen and the members of the British parliament, Fiji was given its independence on October 10, 1970. This marked an end of an era of British rule. Almost one century of British rule, left Fiji in good shape both economically and politically. We cannot deny this fact no matter how much we hated British rule. The foundation of democracy was laid, the parliamentary form of government was implemented, and the law and order was effectively executed. The country was mature enough to pursue its own destiny. The reigns of governance was turned over to the people of Fiji to create and steer their own destiny. Ratu Mara was the handpicked leader by all races. Politicians were pumped up, people were energized, and the country was ripe for investment and development. The localization policy saw departure of expatriates. British administrators were replaced by Fiji people. Everything looked rosy. When Ratu Mara was asked by an Australian journalist to explain in one word what Independence will mean to Fiji and its citizens, the answer was given in one word. That word was “respect” – self-respect, respect for the country all over the world and respect for its citizens.
There was a good vibe amongst Fiji citizens immediately after the independence. Fiji people were confident that they will be able manage their own country. They had the ability and will to do it. British had trained and shown ways to organize, to administer our government, perform our civic duties and to run our businesses. We were even taught how to keep the entire country neat, clean and tidy. But, unfortunately, for the citizens of Fiji that feeling of empowerment achieved from independence did not last long. Only seventeen years of democratic rule and freedom with basic human rights under Alliance government was bestowed to people of Fiji.
The future had something else in store for Fiji. And, that something else was- wave after wave of political coups and military rules. Four coups in two decades is unheard of even in third world African countries. It does not matter what the coup perpetrators had in mind or how much they genuinely had intended to make the country a better nation. The facts, figures and datas show us that these coup leaders failed miserably in developing their loved country. Military leader’s development plans failed, economy teetered at the brink of bankruptcy, its military leaders became corrupt, major industries suffered to the point that they had to be subsidized heavily by the government. Above all, people of all races became frustrated, despondent, tired and restless. The result being massive migration, especially, by Indians who did not foresee much future for their children in Fiji no matter how educated they became. The economy slowed down, unemployment became rampant, corruption went out of control, businesses started to close, crime and violence increased sharply and people of Fiji started to live in fear. Fear of their lives, fear for their children’s future, and fear of being unemployed, fear of getting third class medical treatment if they became sick and fear of not having three square meals a day. During the last five years or so, things improved a tad but the basic necessities of life i.e. food, shelter, employment, good health providers and facilities are still looming large in the minds of Fiji citizens. Opportunities to better their lives by the younger generation were few and far between. Opportunities of getting good paying jobs came only once a blue moon, if ever in Fiji. But, Caucasians were being paid very well in private and public sector jobs. This is the main reason why there was massive “brain drain” from Fiji during last thirty five years or so. The number one reason people left in droves was more opportunities in other countries, be it Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada or England. In all of these countries, the indigenous Fijians and Indo- Fijians are doing extremely well. They have grabbed the opportunity proffered to them. They have worked with ambition, desire, drive and determination to better their lives. They could have done the same in Fiji only if given the opportunity.
So, the question arises- what has the Military rule era done for Fiji? The answer ought to be “not much “. If I was asked to review the overall condition of Fiji in 2014, my headline will read” regressive country with very unhappy people ruled by incompetent oligarchy”. The British rule had done much, much better job in running the country. One has to just look around to see that the country is still in the grasp of corrupt leaders, the economy is still teetering, unemployment is still very high and law and order leaves much to be desired. It is interesting to note here that all oppressive governments has one of their major policy goal to keep their citizens dependent on them by providing their citizens with relatively cheap food, shelter, housing and so forth. This is deliberately done because all oppressive governments want their citizens to be “dependent upon them “. They do this dependency thing because they want to stay in power. The argument goes like this “The people will keep us in power because they need us. How can they rebel when they are dependent upon us? ”. But these successive military governments of Fiji have failed miserably to even accomplish this basic policy goal of adequately feeding and clothing its people. And that is the reason why Bainimarama government is getting all sorts of flak and criticism from people of all walks of life.
Be as it may, fortuitously, the military rule era for Fiji is drawing to an end. The curtain is about to come down. Fiji is on the cusp of once again becoming a democracy. Only if the cheaters, fraudsters and power mongers do not rig the election process, there is little doubt in my mind that Fiji will once again get back on track of becoming a true democratic country. That is my dream. I am certain it’s the dream of thousands like me. One thing that needs to be remembered by all potential voters in Fiji is that no country that has military rule or used to have military rule ever flourished or developed to become a first class country. No country that has military-minded and trained president or prime minister has ever succeeded in running his country successfully. For example, look at Egypt, North Korea, Libya, Sudan, Mali, Pakistan and other Sub- Saharan countries like Uganda, Sierra Leone etc., They all experienced under a military ruler, major degradation of their living standards, curtailment of their basic human rights, high handed manner of justice (if any) and major restrictions in freedoms of speech, free press, travel and religious practices. All of these countries have abject poverty, uncontrolled corruption and unscrupulous politicians. All of these countries did have written constitution but it was rendered worthless when it got into the hands of oligarchy. Hence, voters of Fiji be forewarned and forearmed.
I do not have a crystal ball and cannot even remotely predict the election results in September. It is too early to even guess which party will do well. Until the manifestos of each party is reviewed and analyzed, in my eyes, all of the registered parties have a chance to win but campaigning has to be aggressive, issue-based and eloquently delivered to the masses.
What I do know- is that the young vocal, informed, intelligent and energized voters of Fiji will vote for a party that seriously promises an honest and responsive/responsible government, promises reasonable food prices, shelter, education, jobs and health care. The protection of its citizens against crime and violence should be on top of its target list. The mantra of the electable party should be “cheap food prices, good health, education, employment opportunities and a responsive/responsible government”. This is the message the citizens of Fiji have been dying to hear for decades from their politicians.
Thus, if a party really wants to win the election then the party candidates must hammer on these issues before the country heads to polls on September 17, 2014. Just talking about Mr. Bainimarama’s record of past eight years will not suffice. Personal attacks and bickering about petty matters and political mess-ups, crooked politicians will not get votes. Think about legitimate ways and means of winning the election. Make speeches about issues. Talk about how the country can be improved. Specify how an honest and responsive government will be created and put into action. Discuss how things are going to be done differently. Talk about transparency, talk about making Fiji more attractive place to invest, show people how the Land issues will get resolved, talk about being tough on those who commit crime etc., It is high time to hit on these key issues rather than dwelling on the past. One cannot win an election by mudslinging, calling names, threatening other candidates’with lawsuits and exposing Frank Bainimarama’s past records. He has done few very good things and he has also done things which were not at all beneficial to the country. So, dear politicians think about the future. Fiji has the framework, it has some very intelligent people, it has the resources, it has the charm and beauty embedded in its people and it is blessed with lots of natural beauty that very few island nations can brag about. Forget the past- let bygones be bygones; it’s time for change and fresh start. “Yesterday is gone but don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” should be the theme.