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.
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.
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.