A Certain Madness in May

By Professor Brij Lal

Some dates leave indelible imprints on our minds, become markers of special moments across time. For the people of Fiji, one of those dates in living memory would have to be 14 May 1987. If of a certain vintage, they will know where they were on that fateful day early mid-morning.

In Suva, soon after ten o’clock on the 14th, Lt Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka with a pistol in hand, marched down the isle of the parliamentary chamber, saying ‘Sit down everybody, sit down. This is a military takeover,’ ordering Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra to lead his members out of the chamber. A visibly puzzled Speaker, Militoni Leweniqila, muttered audibly, ‘What the effing hell is going on,’ his understandable profanity erased for posterity from the Hansard.

That very same thought had occurred to many Coalition parliamentarians. Jai Ram Reddy, the new Attorney General and Minister of Justice, thought a movie was being filmed. Trade Minister Navin Maharaj thought likewise. ‘Is this for real?’ Dr Bavadra wondered aloud, perplexed. Education Minister Dr Tupeni Baba was visibly agitated,  and Rabuka ordered an officer to keep him covered.

Then, as the seriousness of the occasion  and the menacing presence of armed balaclava-wearing men dawned on them, the parliamentarians marched out, got into waiting military trucks headed first to the prime minister’s residence in Veiuto via the military barracks at Nabua, and subsequently to Borron House in Samabula.

I was at the National Archives in Suva on that day when the phone rang. Padma was on the line to remind me, I thought, to take our ten year old daughter to the parliament at morning tea time. Yogi did not quite believe that her father had friends in high places. But there was another message. Padma had heard about something untoward taking place in parliament and wondered if I knew. I did not.

Just then, Masud Khan, our archivist assistant, came running in saying he had heard a ‘ coop’ was taking place. I turned to tell my friend Rev. Dr John Garrett who was dismissive. ‘Bullshit,’ he said emphatically, all part of rumour mongering around Suva. But unable to settle down to our files, we wandered down Carnarvon Street to Fiji Broadcasting Commission where we had taken turns chairing the election panel discussions a few weeks back. Fiji had no television then.

No one at Radio Fiji knew, but clearly something had happened. Across the street, people were hanging out of the balconies of the Government Building, others milling around in the quadrangle.  With still no firm news, John and I walked back to the Fiji Times office, where John’s son Mark was working. It was then that we heard the formal announcement over the air.

Col. Rabuka confirmed the news of the military takeover. He was going to see the Governor General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, to seek recognition of the military coup. A new caretaker government would be appointed soon. The public was urged to ‘remain calm and continue with their daily work.’

There was anything but calm on the streets of Suva. As the news sank in and fear griped people, overcrowded buses screeched out of town. Parents rushed to schools to pick up their children. Panic buying hit the supermarkets. Shop shuttered fearing attacks and looting. Crowds began to gather behind rolled barbed wire at Veiuto, hoping to get a glimpse of their deposed leaders, waiting for news, any news.

Radio Australia stepped into the breach and for weeks and months it was the most reliable source of news about the unfolding saga in Fiji. As evening descended on a cowered city, kava flowed as people quietly pondered the events of the day and wondered what more was to come. ‘Coop’ became ‘coup’ in very short order as cheering among some mingled with despair among others.

As the dark clouds slowly cleared, minds turned to the resolution of the political crisis. Fingers were pointed at the 1970 Constitution as the source of the current crisis for not guaranteeing permanent iTaukei control of the government of Fiji, which of course it was never meant to do. It had to go, and the sooner the better. The Great Council of Chiefs meeting at the Suva Civic Centre endorsed the idea. Sa noda na qaqa, the coup leader proclaimed from the balcony of the building, the victory is ours, with clenched fists punching the air.

The proposal was sent to the Governor General’s hastily convened Constitution Inquiry and Advisory Committee chaired by former Alliance Attorney General Sir John Falvey. It went nowhere. The NFP-FLP Coalition members on the Committee stuck with the 1970 Constitution, and would concede nothing under duress. The same sentiment was being expressed by the spontaneous ‘Back to Early May Movement,’ led by prominent civic and moderate religious leaders (Suliana Siwatibau, John Garrett, among others) which had gathered more than a hundred thousand signatures in support. The Falvey Committee predictably produced a divided, still-born report.

Whereupon the Governor General decided on a direct approach to convene a representative meeting of Alliance and Coalition leaders for a face-to-face meeting to break the constitutional impasse. Over several days of protracted negotiation, an agreement, somewhat convoluted,  was reached to prepare Fiji for a gradual return to constitutional rule. The participants marked the moment with a mildly lubricated celebration.

The agreement, which would come to be known as the ‘Deuba Accord,’ was to be signed at the tourist resort. Crucially, Sitiveni Rabuka had not been privy to any of the discussions. Fearing marginalisation and his ‘goals’ of the coup in the danger of derailment, he struck on  25 September with Fiji’s second coup.  And when other constitutional obstacles loomed, he simply severed Fiji’s ties to the British Monarchy in early October and declared Fiji a republic.

Mayhem was let loose upon the country. A military cabinet  Col. Rabuka appointed to run Fiji was buffeted by competing pressures and divergent agendas. Mr Butadroka, the firebrand nationalist in charge of the land portfolio, wanted to convert all freehold and Crown land to native ownership, causing much consternation even among prominent property-owning coup supporters. The violence-threatening Taukei Movement with Apisai Tora, Inoke Kubuabola and others, wanted the entrenchment of the principle of Fijian paramountcy, no ifs and no buts. The Methodist Church with Reverends Tomasi Raikivi, Manasa Lasaro and Viliame Gonelevu at the helm demanded Fiji be declared a Christian State forthwith, with ‘Sunday Ban’ strictly enforced.

Meanwhile, international condemnation continued apace, with Bob Hawke and David Lange holding the democratic line. A CHOGM meeting in Vancouver let Fiji’s membership of the Commonwealth ‘lapse,’ polite for expelled.  Long queues formed in front of embassies in Suva seeking visas to emigrate. A trickle would turn into a torrent in the weeks and months ahead. The economy teetered on the brink of collapse as capital slipped quietly out of the country through greased palms and foreign and local investment dried up. Bankruptcy loomed as a real prospect.

On 5 December, Col. Sitiveni Rabuka handed the country back to now President Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau. Old hands, including Ratu Mara, were back on deck again, paving the way for a new (rocky) road towards reconciliation in the 1990s. A semblance of normalcy returned.

1987 would be ancient history to the new post-coup generation. Many old players are gone or on their way out, though not Mr Rabuka who is now Fiji’s Leader of the Opposition after a period in the political wilderness. The demographic character of the country has been radically changed largely through the emigration of Indo-Fijians who are now about a third of the national population. Travel and technology have transformed the country in unimaginable ways. To those of us now in various stages of dotage, the country is becoming increasingly unrecognisable.

But many troubling questions persist. The full story of what happened in 1987 (or in 2000 and 2006) and why, remains unclear. At the time, carried away by hubris, Mr Rabuka claimed the sole authorship of the coup, and he has been mercilessly excoriated for it, despite repeated expressions of repentance and contrition.  But the ‘sole’ claim now seems unconvincing, does not ring true.

And Mr Rabuka has not been given credit for his enormous effort in bringing about reconciliation in the 1990s, often in the teeth of fierce opposition from within his own party by his own closest colleagues, some of whom effortlessly changed colours and began singing  a different tune. Some miraculously found a place in Frank Bainimarama’s cabinet as senior ministers. The reconciliation was unquestionably a monumental achievement in the most difficult of times. Its architects dared to dream an alternative future for the country. Yet both Mr Rabuka and Mr Jai Ram Reddy, the NFP leader, paid the ultimate political price for their vision in 1999. It was a missed opportunity like so many which dot Fiji’s political landscape of the 20th century.

 Who else was in the shadows behind Rabuka who slipped beneath the radar, disavowed any responsibility for the deed and escaped public opprobrium? If Sitiveni Rabuka was the hammer, who was the hand, if he was the bullet, who was the gun? The country suffered, but so too did the cause of truth and justice. The most troubling episode in Fiji’s modern history lies quietly buried, unexamined. The same sadly is true of May 19 attempted putsch and the 2006 military coup. Who were Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes’ ‘shadowy characters’ supporting the deed? Where are they now?

Rhetoric has hidden the reality. Calls for an inquiry into the causes of Fiji’s coup culture have gone unheeded. 1987 continues to crop up in conversation, but not 2006. Regrettably, history has a curious habit of repeating itself, first time as tragedy, subsequently as farce. Fiji has yet to exorcise the ghosts of its recent ill-fated past. You may sweep the dust under the carpet, but the dust doesn’t disappear into thin air.

Fiji forever lost its innocence on 14 May 1987. The moment has passed, but its legacy still haunts us today.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the path we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose garden.

 * Brij V Lal, AM, is an Emeritus Professor of The Australian National University in Canberra. Among his many books is Power and Prejudice: Making of the Fiji Crisis  (1988). He and his wife, Padma, have been banned for life from returning to Fiji. They now live exiled in Brisbane.