Friday, August 29, 2014

Government by Greed - PART 6: Key Support for the 1987 Coup

Government by Greed - PART 6: Key Support for the 1987 Coup

By Guest Writer, Subhash Appana

A political coup-de-tat is no small undertaking by any standards. It involves treason as by its very definition it attempts to overthrow a “legitimate” government by extra-legal means. In fact, force and violence are necessary complements of any coup-de-tat. And in order to “build” the scenario to justify a coup, an orchestrated process is activated. The aim is to create a situation that allows a treasonous, yet quietly-supported, coup-maker to say “there was no other way”.

SITIVENI RABUKA - The Father of All Coups on 14 May, 1987
This is exactly what happened in Fiji, and that is exactly what Rabuka said after he executed the Father of All Coups on 14th May 1987. The common thread that bound all who supported that coup, whether overtly or covertly, was the perceived need to protect the Fijian heritage and save the Fijian race from the hegemonic designs of a foreign race, the Indo-Fijians. There were mainly 2 reasons for this perception: one, a sustained policy of divide and rule based on ethnicity; and two, a lack of understanding and appreciation of the mechanics of democracy.

Within this framework of politics, the obvious Indian “threat” acted as a diversion that temporarily covered ominously developing undercurrents that were to plague ethnic-Fijian politics and the country in later years. The Taukei Marches of 1987 allowed many of these undercurrents to surface and join the general wave of dissatisfaction, resentment and rage that swept the main centres of the country. Even in these marches, individual grievances and aspirations remained quietly submerged as the convenient rhetoric of “Indian threat” was enough to rally key support.

Many have pointed fingers at the chiefs, and especially Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau who was Governor General at that time. Many have rubbished Ratu Mara’s explanation when he said, “How could I stand by and watch my house on fire?” This statement has generally escaped objective scrutiny as the tendency had been to expect Mara to stop the 1987 coup or take an openly opposed stance after the fact. He did neither because he was a thinking man who could probably “see” things that couldn’t be openly articulated at the time.

The point is that as a chief, Ratu Mara could not stand back and watch his country and his people get destroyed. It was the same for Ratu Penaia who was not only Ratu Mara’s close political ally, but also Ratu Mara’s brother-in-law through the marriage of his son, Ratu Epeli Ganilau to Ratu Mara’s daughter, Adi Ateca Ganilau. More interestingly, Ratu Penaia was also Ratu Mara’s superior as Tui Cakau and head of the Tovata confederacy, within which Ratu Mara’s Lau province fell.

RATU SIR KAMISESES MARA: Perfect marriage connection in Fiji meant that he had relatives in top hierarchy in all three Confederacies in Fiji 
And as mentioned earlier, the second confederacy of Burebasaga fell in line because its paramount chief, the Roko Tui Dreketi, was Ratu Mara’s wife. This left Kubuna, which was headed by Ratu Sir George Cakobau at the time. Ratu George’s first cousin, Ratu Edward Cakobau’s 2nd son, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau is married to Ratu Mara’s daughter Adi Koila Mara. This completed the family link at the apex of the 3 confederacies. Moreover, Kubuna also had among its inter-linked chiefs the Toganivalu clan from Tailevu who were heavily represented in the Mara cabinet through Ratu David, Ratu Josua and Ratu William Toganivalu.

In addition to the above chiefly links, any analysis on chiefly support for the 1987 coup cannot ignore the fact that the first rationale for that coup involved removal of the Indian threat from the political equation of Fiji. From this perspective the chiefs were duty-bound to support that coup because it was seen as a necessity. Opposition could not have been justified in any way and once the rebellion gained momentum, there was simply no room for diplomatic chiefly intervention.

The second important point of support for that coup had to come from the Fiji military. In 1987, the RFMF was a largely foreign peace keeping-focused entity. Since 1978 when troops were deployed to UNIFIL in Lebanon, the size and skills of the RFMF had expanded significantly. And the bulk of troop recruitment involved rural Fijian youths who had virtually no real exposure to the “Indian threat” that they had always heard of – they had no opportunity to see Indians in any other way.

Rural Fijian youths who were recruited in the Military had never met and encountered Indo-Fijians, and were gullible to believe that Indians were trying to take over Fiji. They were seen as Bati- traditional warriors who were there to defend Fijian  heritage.

In fact when they did come to Suva, they were faced with a barrage of things Indian – taxis, businesses, shops, houses, and Indian people all over the place. This left them with little doubt that there was indeed an “Indian threat” to Fiji. Little has been made of the fact that these young soldiers literally saw themselves as modern-day bati (traditional defenders) when they donned the colours of the RFMF. And as bati they were defenders of the Fijian heritage. Nobody epitomized this better than Sitiveni Rabuka, his decision to execute the 1987 coup had largely to do with this – in fact this was very likely the sole compelling reason at the outset. Military support therefore, was virtually guaranteed once the decision was made.

The final card had to do with foreign reaction to an unthinkable act of treason in the Pacific. There was little arguing that this variable had to be factored in because Fiji would not have accepted a reduced international status at that juncture – unlike the stance taken now by Commodore Bainimarama. When David Lange tested the ANZUS alliance by closing NZ ports to US nuclear vessels in 1985, Fiji’s strategic importance had reached a new high.

Thus US geopolitical concerns within the framework of the ever-heating Cold War provided the foreign lifeline that the coup plotters needed. And even though foreign complicity was a little more subtle and complicated to pinpoint, noted CIA operative Vernon Walters was in Fiji and did meet Rabuka 2 weeks before the coup. He was later providentially posted as US Ambassador to the UN and played a pivotal role in minimizing subsequent international condemnation of the Rabuka Coups. And US involvement did continue sporadically until the 1997 constitution brought back normality to the country – was this a case of belated conscience and regret?
The 1987 coup thus had key support from the chiefs, military, sections of the Fijian community and the US. It was supposed to provide a transitory point to a new model of governance for Fiji. Why then did Fiji have to wait 10 years before the 1997 constitution was finally enacted?

Stay tuned for Future articles: Government by Greed - Coup at Last -: A Coup Gone Wrong -: An Intense Power Struggle -: Spawn of the 1987 Coup -: The Personal Tug-of-War. To come later.

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SUBHASH APPANA- the author of these series of articles: GOVERNMENT BY GREED 

[About the Author: Subhash Appana is an Indo-Fijian academic with Fijian family links. He was brought up in the chiefly village of Vuna in Taveuni and is particularly fond of the Fijian language and culture. Subhash has written extensively on the link between the politics of the vanua, Indo-Fijian aspirations and the continued search for a functioning democracy in Fiji. This series attempts to be both informative and provocative keeping in mind the delicate, distractive and often destructive sensitivities involved in cross-cultural discourses of this type.]

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