Pacific Scoop

Fiji paramount chief deals the ‘skeletons’ race card

Ro Teimumu Kepa at court

Flashback to when Ro Teimumu Kepa (centre), one of Fiji's three confederacy paramount chiefs, was charged with violating the regime's Public Emergency Regulation in 2009. The PER has now been lifted. Photo: Fiji Times

Pacific Scoop:
Analysis – By Graham Davis

A titanic struggle looms between the old and new orders in Fiji for the hearts and minds of the indigenous majority – the i’taukei.

It’s a struggle that will determine the future for all Fiji citizens and on present indications, the portents don’t look good.

Because the old order – the i’taukei chiefs – seem determined to make race the centerpiece of their campaign, to mine all the old prejudices that have retarded independent Fiji’s development right from the start.

The evidence for this is an astonishing letter to the self-proclaimed leader of the “New Order” – Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama – from one of the country’s paramount chiefs –Ro Teimumu Kepa – in which she raises the spectre of “racial calamity” in Fiji.

The phrase has sent a chill through the ranks of non-indigenous Fijians, who comprise 40 percent of the population. Because however much Bainimarama assures them of a bright multiracial future, the old racial skeletons are being rattled at the apex of indigenous society.

Ro Teimumu heads one of the three indigenous confederacies – Burebasaqa – and carries the title Roko Tui Dreketi, which she inherited on the death of Ro Lady Lala Mara, the wife of the founder of modern Fiji and multiracial standard bearer, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

From her base in Rewa, outside Suva, Ro Teimumu appears to have embraced the mantle of warrior chieftain – the Boadicea of the South Seas – taking it upon herself to confront Bainimarama head on.

Warrior chieftain?
Her immediate casus belli is Bainimarama’s sudden and unilateral decision to disband Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), depriving it of its previous status in national life and abrogating its power to, among other things, appoint the country’s president.

Chiefs high and low are in revolt, not only over their loss of status and Bainimarama’s lese majeste but also a loss of income as the government bypasses them and channels funding direct to the grassroots.

It has damaged both their pride and their pockets. And many Fijians wonder whether Bainimarama – who has emerged as the ultimate exponent of the “crash through or crash” brand of reform – may have finally overplayed his hand. In any event, he has now been dealt an unwelcome racial card.

In her letter -in which she provocatively addresses the Prime Minister as “Voreqe”, his indigenous Christian name – Ro Teimumu describes his decision to abolish the GCC as “ a serious error of judgment”.

“Despite the shallow criticisms against the role of traditional chiefs, they are the stabilising factor for Fiji and they have helped to control the ethno-nationalism and facilitate conciliation in ethnic relations in Fiji”, she states.

Ro Teimumu continues with a broad attack on a central pillar of  Bainimarama’s rule – his multiracial agenda. This includes a level electoral playing field when promised elections are held and the use of the term Fijian to describe all citizens and not just the indigenous majority.

“The obsession to remove racial issues from the governance of this country is short-sighted and ill-conceived, for ethnicity is a fact of life”, Ro Teimumu says.

“The revolutionary changes you are making cannot be made without the involvement of the GCC. Any calamity between the races or even between indigenous Fijians themselves can only be resolved with the involvement of the GCC”, she declares.

In the Fiji context, such a statement from one of the three most senior chiefs in the country has very serious implications. Is Ro Teimumu signaling that without the formal involvement of the chiefs in national life, racial calamity is inevitable?

Many will note her choice of the word calamity. Racial stresses, even tensions, have long been a fact of life in Fiji.

But racial disaster involving great distress and great suffering – the accepted meaning of calamity? Nothing can be more designed to provoke unease and erode community confidence.

Incitement potential
The wider concern is whether this statement has the potential to incite racial hatred and trigger racial conflict in the vanua – especially those areas of indigenous life over which the chiefs still hold great sway, however much their power has been eroded.

In the immediate aftermath of previous coups, a wave of home invasions and bashings descended on Indo-Fijians living in certain parts of the country. Some of it was described as institutionalised violence, in which the authorities allegedly turned a blind eye to flagrant human rights abuses.

Bainimarama has promised the country this will never happen again. But can the racial minorities in Fiji ever take him at his word when a paramount chief invokes the spectre of a “calamitous” reprise?

Ro Teimumu is a formidable opponent – resentful not just of Bainimarama’s truncation of chiefly privileges but from having been a minister in the pro-indigenous SDL government that he removed at gunpoint in 2006. Far from going quietly, she’s been a persistent critic of the regime ever since, forging close ties with the leaders of that other pillar of opposition to the Bainimarama regime – the Methodist Church.

In 2009, she was arrested for defying the military’s ban on the Methodist Church holding its annual conference. She offered to host it herself in Rewa village and was charged with inciting disobedience when she encouraged church members to attend.

Since then, relations between the GCC and the Church have become even closer. The Methodists have strongly criticised the abrogation of the GCC and both cast themselves as the sole remaining bulwarks against Bainimarama’s perceived threat to the indigenous way of life.

Ro Teimumu’s latest missive to the prime minister was the second within days and followed a letter of protest over what she termed the environmental threat posed by the proposed Namosi copper mine outside Suva. That can fairly be cast as the legitimate right of a traditional chief to safeguard the interests of her people.

But raising the prospect of racial conflict in an already volatile wider environment? Even on prominent anti-government blogs like Coup 4.5, Ro Teimumu’s comments have generated a wave of criticism.

One correspondent there termed it “the last gasp of the old order in Fiji” and said even talking about racial calamity made her “unfit to hold any responsible position in national life”.

How the regime will respond is yet to be seen. But Ro Teimumu has emerged as arguably the most potent opposition leader in Fiji – the principal standard bearer for the chiefs, the Methodist Church and the many thousands of traditional indigenous Fijians they still claim to represent. The old Fiji versus the new.

Graham Davis is an independent Fiji-born Australian journalist. He publishes the blog Grubsheet.



  1. ron, 14. April 2012, 19:19

    Absolute rubbish from junta groupie davis. If davis or his ilk think they can destroy Fijian culture by guns at our heads he and those who support this illegal military regime are sadly mistaken.

  2. Tane, 14. April 2012, 23:38

    Thank you Ro Teimumu for standing up to the illegal PM and his band of thugs!

  3. Thakur Ranjit Singh, 15. April 2012, 16:47

    For those of you who do not know, Ro Teimumu Kepa is younger sister of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s wife (Ro Lady Lala Mara), and maternal aunt of Ratu Ului Tevita Mara, the former military man and the runaway fishing chief who I understand, now has shelter in Australia.
    She was Minister for Education in Qarase’s racist and supposedly democratic government (2001-2006) which administered blatantly racist policy of free form seven education for Indigenous Fijians only, solely based on race with no means test. That means an indigenous Fijian Permanent Secretary (most were those days, still are today) with high paid wife with total combined income of over $100,000 could have their child in form seven free. However a displaced Indo Fijian cane farmer or a labourer with mere $5,000 pa income would have had to pay for their child’s education in form 7. That was democracy Fiji –style and this so-called Chief administered that policy.
    Fiji suffered because of many of such Chiefs who lined their pockets and now no longer have access to state till, racist governments or an undemocratic Chiefly aristocracy. She is using her contact with equally racist and non-Christian Methodist Church which preached racial hatred from pulpits. Hence her letter has to be read with a pinch of salt and some butter-chicken sauce.

  4. Tane, 16. April 2012, 11:09

    Ro Teimumu is also a high chief in her own right. She wrote the letter in her capacity as such. Not as a politician as you claimed. She did it because no one else is allowed or bold enough to speak against the regime due to the various draconian decress that are in place which suppresses the general public from expressing their views.

    You need to calm down Thakur, your rant is a disgrace coming from someone who is supposed to be a journalist.

    That policy was put in place by an elected govt, it does not mean that it cannot be change. Why didn’t you mention how long the policy was in place? You could also tell us how much it cost in total and perhaps compare it with the damage that the current illegal regime has inflicted on the country, it’s people and the economy.
    Why don’t you use your investigative skill as a journalist or you could just ring up your cronies in the illegal regime to give you those facts.

  5. Pacific B, 16. April 2012, 15:29

    Analysis?? Where is the analysis?? Davis is an apologist for the Bainimarama government and any “analysis” in here is overrun by posturing and opinion – does a serious journalist use phrases like ” the Boadicea of the South Seas”?? it is both demeaning and belittling.

    The only thing Davis will be winning with diatribe like this is a Logie for Best New Soap.

  6. # PARAMOUNT CHIEF DEALS THE RACE CARD (Pingback), 20. April 2012, 9:26

    […] article has subsequently appeared on the front page of the Fiji Sun, Pacific Scoop NZ and on the influential Fiji blog of NZ academic Crosbie […]

  7. truthseek, 22. April 2012, 15:00

    I do believe those who are castigating Davis are certified demagogues.

    The issue at the heart of this debate, is whether Chiefs are compatible in a truly democratic society.

    Perhaps the debate highlights the cognitive dissonance in Fiji’s political discourse.

    The fact of the matter, Ro Teimumu really does have skeletons in her
    closet as this image shows her with 2000 coup leader George Speight ( when Ro Teimumu and GCC members paid a courtesy visit) to the terrorists and ignored those being held captive in Parliament grounds.

    Sadly, the lady is a tramp.

  8. Monica B, 22. April 2012, 18:33

    Pacific B, far from what you claim the term Boadicea of the South Seas is appropriate and rather cleverly chosen. Boadicea mounted a rebellion against the Romans and failed. The same will happen with Ro Teimumu. Her claim that ordinary i’taukei are being disadvantaged in Fiji is a joke. They have had all the advantages up till now and none are being withdrawn. It is the chiefs who are being disadvantaged and about time.

  9. RZ, 16. July 2012, 23:07

    Funny how she issues a letter of this nature when it hurts her & her kind. Money talks I guess (either way – loose or gain, u end up talking). If this kind of leadership would be show for the prodections of the common citizen, respect for the chiefly system would enhanced, in this instance, yet again we see the priority of our elites, their own prestige!!!