FIJI ISLANDS POLITICAL CRISIS: BACKGROUND, ANALYSIS, AND CHRONOLOGY
CRS Report for Congress
Fiji Islands Political Crisis: Background, Analysis,
Analyst in Asian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
On May 19, 2000, Fijian businessman George Speight and his followers took Prime
Minister Mehendra Chaudhry, an ethnic Indian Fijian, and 30 government and
parliamentary officials hostage in an attempt to return the political system to indigenous
Fijian dominance. The Fiji military appointed an interim civilian government, negotiated
the release of the hostages on July 14, 2000, and then arrested Speight on July 26, 2000.
Although the interim civilian government expressed disapproval of Speight’s actions, it
also indicated plans to create a new Constitution that bars Indo-Fijians from the position
of Prime Minister. On November 16, 2000, the Fiji High Court found the formation of
the interim government and abrogation of the 1997 Constitution illegal. The United
States has demanded a swift restoration of democratic government in Fiji.
Fiji’s Importance in the Region. The Republic of the Fiji Islands has the second
largest population (813,000 persons)among Pacific Island states, after Papua New Guinea;
and second highest per capita income, after the Cook Islands. Many observers regard the
Fijian economy as one of the most viable and potentially prosperous in the region.1 Prior
to the 1987 coups, described below, many political analysts regarded Fiji as a model of
democratic, multi-ethnic government. Even in undemocratic periods, political violence has
been relatively minimal and most human rights have remained protected.2 Fiji and Papua
New Guinea are the only two South Pacific nations to have significant armed forces.
Fijians assisted the Allied forces in both world wars and have contributed to ten United
Nations peacekeeping operations. Fiji is also the home of the University of the South
Pacific, which serves students from 12 Pacific Island countries.
1 “Fiji: Some Background Information,” Wellington: New Zealand Parliamentary Library, May
25, 2000; Robert Frank, “Out on a Limb: Fiji Mahogany Fuels Latest Resource Battle in Troubled
Region,” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2000. Prior to the political crisis, the government
had forecast economic growth of 4% for 2000.
2 U.S. Department of State, “1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Fiji,” February
Congressional Research Service The Library of Congress
Ethnic Tensions. Ethnic tensions have played a major role in Fiji in the two coups
of 1987 and the political crisis of 2000. The two dominant ethnic groups are indigenous
Fijians, who constitute 51% of the population, and Indo-Fijians, who make up 44%.th
Fijians of Indian ancestry, brought by the British in the late 19 century to work in the
sugar cane plantations, were the majority group until the late 1980s. After the 1987
coups, an estimated 70,000 Indo-Fijians emigrated to escape ethnic tensions. Indians
control much of the republic’s wealth; they dominate the sugar industry and are prominent
in business, the professions, and the government bureaucracy. Indigenous Fijians control
The 1987 Coups. In 1987, the multi-ethnic Alliance Party, which had ruled Fiji
under the leadership of Ratu Sir Kamises Mara since 1970, lost to a Labor Party coalition.
The new government was heavily supported by ethnic Indians and appointed a cabinet with
a majority of Indian ministers. Major General Sitivini Rabuka helped lead two coups to
restore the political supremacy of native Fijians.
Following the coups of 1987, Rabuka served under two interim civilian governments
(1988-1989 and 1990-1991). He became leader of the indigenous Fijian Political Party
(SVT) and was elected Prime Minister in 1992, a position that he held until 1999. In
1990, he backed constitutional revisions that established ethnicity-based seats in
Parliament, allotted more seats to Fijians than Indians, and barred Indo-Fijians from
becoming Prime Minister. However, in 1997, relenting to foreign diplomatic pressures and
confident of his hold on power, Rabuka consented to a new Constitution that raised the
number of Indian-held seats, added open or non-ethnicity-based positions, and allowed
Indo-Fijians to become Prime Minister.
The 1999 Elections. General elections described as “peaceful and democratic” were
held in May 1999. A multi-ethnic coalition of five political parties (the People’s Coalition)
garnered a two-thirds majority and defeated the ruling SVT party. Mahendra Chaudhry,
the head of the Labor Party, became Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. Ratu Mara3
remained as President. Although the SVT had received 38% of the vote, because of Fiji’s
electoral rules, it kept only 8% of the seats in the lower house. Chaudhry, an ardent trade
unionist, ran on a platform of reducing poverty through social expenditures and economic
development. The new Prime Minister downplayed ethnic divisions and appointed a multi-4
Issues and Tensions Leading up to the Coup Attempt
Fijian Land Rights. Most cultivated rural land in Fiji is owned by native Fijian clans
but leased to Indian sugar cane farmers. Because Indo-Fijians are comparatively wealthy,
many indigenous Fijians view their inviolable rights to the land as their main leverage
against Indian economic power. Most of the long-term land leases were due to expire in
3 Mara was elected President in 1993. Under Fiji’s political system, the Great Council of Chiefs
(GCC), an assembly of 71 indigenous tribal leaders, selects the President, who appoints the Prime
Minister. The GCC’s ability to form a consensus or act in concert have reportedly been waning.
4 Aya Kasasa, “Country Report: Fiji,” The ACP-EU Courier, February-March 2000.
2000-2002. Despite repeated assurances by Chaudhry that their interests would be
protected, many native Fijians feared that the government would impose lease terms that
were too long at prices that were too low. Furthermore, they resented the government’s5
financial assistance to Indians whose leases were not being renewed.
Chaudhry’s Leadership Style. Despite proposing populist economic policies,6
Mehendra Chaudhry’s leadership style raised the ire of opposition groups and even
members of his own coalition. His opponents characterized him as arrogant,
confrontational, and condescending to critics. Furthermore, the Prime Minister feuded
with the press over unflattering news coverage. Shortly before the political crisis erupted,
an indigenous Fijian activist warned that Chaudhry was “inviting a coup.” His Labor Party
was reportedly taking steps to replace him with an indigenous Prime Minister.7
Inter-Fijian Rivalries. Many analysts argue that the coup attempt, while ostensibly
carried out for indigenous rights, was also a product of conflicts between western and
eastern confederacies of indigenous Fijians, rich and poor, and urban and rural interests.
Speight and many of his supporters are from the Kubuna confederacy or are poor and
uneducated. By contrast, President Mara is a Fijian nobleman from the relatively wealthy
Tovata confederacy. Some members of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), the body of
tribal elders that elects the President, reportedly supported Speight and hoped to end the
long reign of President Mara and his European and Indo-Fijian political and business
Protest Marches. In April-May 2000, the Taukei Movement, a nationalist
organization that had staged demonstrations against the elected Labor government in
1987, organized three marches demanding the removal of the Chaudhry government. One
of them reportedly involved several thousand protestors. Their grievances included the
perceived government encroachment on the prerogatives of the GCC, feared reduction of
land ownership rights, and laying off of native Fijians from civil service posts.9 However,
according to some analysts, indigenous Fijians in the capital city of Suva had little
sympathy for the coup; many other Fijians, while agreeing with some of Speight’s10
professed nationalist sentiments, did not support his methods.
5 See Gerard A. Finin and Terence A. Wesley-Smith, “Coups, Conflicts, and Crises: The New
Pacific Way?” Pacific Islands Development Series (East-West Center), No. 13 (June 2000), p.
14. The new interim civilian government has cut financial assistance to Indian cane growers who
have lost leases.
6 Fijilive [http://www.fijilive.com/], May 24, 2000, BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific, May 24, 2000.
7 “No New Coup Says Fiji Military,” Pacific Islands Report,
[http://pidp.ewc.hawaii.edu/PIRreport], April 10, 2000; “Fiji Government Was Ready to Oust
Chaudhry,” Pacific Islands Report, August 22, 2000.
8 Seth Robson, “What Price Indigenous Supremacy in Fiji?” The Press (Christchurch), May 29,
2000; Finin and Wesley-Smith, op. cit., p. 8; Teresia Teaiwa, “Nation Deeply Divided,” The Press
(Christchurch), May 24, 2000.
9 “Fiji’s Taukei Movement Revived, Plans Protests,” Pacific Islands Report, April 5, 2000.
10 Remarks by the former U.S. ambassador to Fiji, William Bodde, Jr., June 26, 2000; “Mr.
Speight Gets His Way but Fiji’s Ethnic Balance Must Be Restored,” The Guardian, May 31, 2000.
George Speight. George Speight, an insurance salesman, did not enter the political
fray until the late 1990s. His Fijian-European ancestry, American and Australian university
degrees, and lack of fluency in Fijian would seem to make him an unlikely candidate for
indigenous Fijian leadership. However, Speight’s business interests had clashed with those
of the Chaudhry government and propelled him to the side of Fijian nationalists. In 1998,
the Rabuka government had hired Speight to manage Fiji’s fledgling timber industry.
When Chaudhry came to power, he not only dismissed many government officials,
including Speight, but also rejected a contract with an American timber company with
whom Speight was associated. The company, Total Resource Management, had been
working with Speight and Fijian landowners since 1996. The Fijian landowners charged
Chaudhry with favoring a British company in order to curry favor with the European
Union, which buys Fijian sugar produced by Indian cane growers.11
The Military. Although little detailed information is yet available about the
military’s role in the hostage-taking and attempted coup, reports indicate that “rogue
elements” of the Fiji Army, some members of the Fiji Special Forces, and former Fijian
members of the British Special Air Service (SAS) supported Speight. They were backed
by some officers of the Suva police force and groups of villagers armed with primitive
weapons. The Fiji Military Forces (FMF) chief, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, was in
Norway when Speight and others stormed the Parliament building on May 19, 2000.
Upon the Commodore’s return, he quickly assumed the task of restoring order. Some
analysts suggest that Bainimarama and many other military and political leaders opposed
Speight’s leadership and methods but supported some of his demands.12
Chronology of the Attempted Coup
!May 19, 2000: Armed insurgents take Prime Minister Chaudhry and 30
government officials hostage.13 Army defectors and civilians join the
occupation of the parliament building. The rebels demand the abrogation
of the 1997 constitution.14 Riots in Suva result in $14 million in damages
to 160 Indian-owned shops. One policeman is killed.
!May 25-June 2, 2000: President Mara steps down following Speight’s
demands that he resign. The Fijian military imposes martial law and
begins negotiations with Speight. Commodore Frank Bainimarama
becomes acting government head. The military government and the
11 Under the Lome Convention, EU countries purchase Fijian sugar at above-market rates. See also
Joseph Kahn, “Business Interests Lurked Behind Fiji’s Haphazard Coup,” New York Times,
September 13, 2000, p. 1.
12 Seth Robson, “Gun Held to PM’s Head,” Dominion (Wellington), May 23, 2000; “Military Had
Planned Coup,” Fijilive, September 18, 2000; State Department official.
13 The hostages included President Mara’s daughter, Transport and Tourism Minister Adi Koila.
14 According to reports, many tribal leaders and SVT MP’s opposed the 1997 Constitution.
rebels ask the Great Council of Chiefs to arbitrate. Former Prime
Minister Sitiveni Rabuka reportedly becomes a key military adviser.15
!May 30, 2000: Bainimarama revokes the multi-racial constitution of
!June 23-26, 2000: Speight and military leaders reach an agreement on the
new civilian President, former Vice-President Ratu Josefa Iloilo. The
agreement then collapses over procedures for electing the President and
the choice of Prime Minister; Speight releases four hostages.
!July 4-6, 2000: The military unilaterally names banking executive and
former senator Laisenia Qarase as interim Prime Minister and seals off
Parliament. Speight supporters sabotage the electrical supply in Suva.
!July 14, 2000: Speight releases the remaining hostages in return for
amnesty and a role in choosing the interim civilian government.
!July 15, 2000: The GCC formally elects Ratu Josefa Iloilo as President
and Ratu Jope Seniloli as Vice-President. President Iloilo formally names
Laisenia Qarase as Prime Minister. There are no Indians in the new
!July 20-23, 2000: Speight rejects the choice of Qarase as Prime Minister
and nominates Bau chief Adi Samanunu Talakuli Cakobau.16 He calls on
South Pacific peoples to disrupt the Sydney Olympic Games in support
of indigenous rights.
!July 26-27, 2000: The Fiji military arrests Speight and 369 supporters,
claiming; one rebel is killed and 32 are wounded.
Aftermath of the Coup Attempt
Timetable for New Elections. The interim civilian government has promised to
promulgate a new Constitution by September 2001 and hold national elections by March
2002. The government has expressed intent to restrict the positions of Prime Minister and
President to ethnic Fijians.
Other Legal, Political, and Military Developments. On October 11, 2000, Fiji’s
High Court formally charged George Speight with treason. On November 16, 2000, the
High Court found the formation of the interim civilian government and abrogation of the
15 Sitiveni Rabuka, Chairman of the GCC, favored a return to indigenous Fijian rule but denied
involvement in the attempted coup. Fijilive, June 15, 2000, FBIS, June 15, 2000; “Fiji’s Rabuka
Tells How He Refused Coup Invitation,” Daily Post, September 16, 2000.
16 Bau is located in the Kubuna confederacy.
1997 Constitution illegal and called for the return of the Chaudhry government.17 The
Qarase government plans to appeal the ruling in February 2001. On November 2, 2000,
39 soldiers, members of an elite unit loyal to George Speight, took over the main military
barracks outside Suva. Three regular soldiers and five rebel soldiers were killed before the
mutiny was subdued by the Fiji Army.18
Social and Economic Disturbances. In August 2000, an indigenous Fijian soldier
and an ethnic Indian policeman died in clashes with Speight supporters who had set fire
to Indian properties in Sigatoka, 120 miles east of Suva. Army troops killed one rebel and
arrested 37 others on the northern island of Vanua Levu. Most analysts agree that the
political crisis inflicted serious short-term damage to Fiji’s economy. The sugar and
garment industries suffered some disruption due to strikes and demonstrations by Fijian
sugar cane workers and trade unions and boycotts by Australian and New Zealand dock
workers and labor organizations in opposition to the coup attempt. In September 2000,
a government survey reported that at least 7,536 people had lost their jobs as a direct
result of the political crisis: Workers in the tourism industry – the number of tourists is19
projected to drop by 33% in 2000 – were the most seriously affected. The Reserve Bank
of Fiji predicted that in 2000, the economy would contract by 13%. Foreign investment20
is also expected to fall.
International Responses. The U.S. government has called for the reinstatement of
the 1997 Constitution, which upholds Indo-Fijian political rights,21 and has halted about
$1 million in annual foreign assistance.22 The Congressional Human Rights Caucus and
several individual Members of Congress have expressed dismay about violations of
political rights in Fiji.23 The European Union is considering suspending Fiji from the Lome
Convention, which subsidizes Fijian sugar exports. In October 2000, Australia allowed
its preferential treatment of garment imports from Fiji to lapse but promised to renew
special trade privileges if democracy was restored within 18 months. The United States,
Australia, and other countries have issued travel advisories to Fiji. New Zealand has
issued emergency visas to Indo-Fijians escaping the political turmoil and has reportedly
barred visits by members of the interim civilian government.24 The Commonwealth has
“partially” suspended Fiji from the organization.
17 Following his release, former Prime Minister Chaudhry embarked on a world tour in which he
campaigned for the restoration of democracy in Fiji. He returned to Fiji on October 18, 2000.
18 Military officials have reportedly placed former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka under
investigation for alleged involvement in the mutiny. Pacific Islands Report, November 6, 2000.
19 Pacific Islands Report, September 6, 2000; Pacific Islands Report, November 13, 2000.
20 “Government Announces Economic Reforms,” South China Morning Post, August 17, 2000;
Dr. Wali M. Osman, “An Update on Fiji,” Bank of Hawaii, October 2000.
21 On September 10, 2000, the American Embassy in Suva issued a statement declaring that
“changes to the 1997 Constitution should come from the people of Fiji through their elected
representatives as provided within the framework of the Constitution.”
22 Mostly Enhanced International Peacekeeping Capabilities (EIPC) and International Military
Education and Training (IMET) funds.
23 See “The Situation in Fiji,” Congressional Record, July 25, 2000, p. S7528.
24 “Visit Blocked,” Waikato Times (Hamilton, NZ), November 15, 2000.