Resting by his mother

Fiji’s sixth Prime Minister, the late Laisenia Qarase will be buried next to his mother, opting not to be entombed in the sautabu, the sacred burial ground reserved for chiefs in his sea-side village in Lau.

Qarase’s private wish had made known before his passing at a private hospital in the capital, Suva on Tuesday last week.

In opting to be buried in the village cemetery with his common subjects, Qarase continued – it appears – his humble and unassuming demeanor right down to his final resting place. As chief of the village of Mavana, Qarase held the traditional title of Tui Kobuca.

Overnight, a charter roll-on roll ferry from the capital Suva arrived on the island of Vanuabalavu, in preparation for Qarase’s burial later today (Wed) in his village, Mavana, one of 17 that dot this remote island in Fiji’s eastern sea borders.

Most of the passengers seemed unperturbed by the decision of the Fijian Government to deny their chief a state funeral. Perhaps they were just content to be back home, coming out after weeks of a strict lockdown including nightly curfews imposed nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inter-island travel both by sea and air was lifted last weekend as Fiji’s numbers of new COVID-19 cases halted, and the recovery of 12 out of the 18 that tested positive of the  virus.

Even the long wait during boarding in Suva’s Narain Wharf on Monday evening as health officials implemented body temperature screening of passengers was accepted, albeit grudgingly.

For most of the people on Vanuabalavu, all they want is  to give the 79-year old former banker a send off fitting for a leader who had worked tirelessly to unite what used to be a acrimonious island community, carved up by the colonial administrators into one island but with two separate administrative districts.

His legacy is an island investment company now operating with F$3.5 million paid up capital, and a total asset portfolio of $10 million.

Called Vanuabalavu Vision Limited, Qarase spearheaded fundraising drives over a period of nearly ten years that saw him rallying his people of Vanuabalavu who are in Fiji and the diaspora living in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, to unite behind the investment company.

After being ousted in a military coup by Bainimarama in December 2006, and later jailed – unfairly many felt – for nine months for a crime allegedly committed before he entered politics, Qarase’s mantra to his people was to be self-reliant, to be the master of their own fate, and not dependent on government handout.

With his passing on Tuesday last week after suffering a mild stroke, the challenge is now on the directors of the island company to grow the work Qarase had started.

Although the government of Bainimarama has refused him a state funeral, it is footing the cost of the plane – and a ship  – that will fly Qarase’s body for burial in Mavana.

Leba Qarase together with five close family members will accompany the casket.

Air travel usually on an 18-seater Twin Otter plane of domestic carrier, Fiji Link, has been the popular mode of transport for the former Prime Minister to his home island, departing Nausori airport on the outskirts of Suva to the island’s grassy airstrip.

It will be his final plane ride, where a delegation from Mavana will meet the plane, before they take his body for the 20 minute drive by road to Mavana for a memorial service at the village’s big concrete Methodist Church.

A choir from the Centenary Church, in Suva had also travelled to Mavana to attend the funeral, as Qarase was a staunch member of the congregation. He also was chair of the church’s business think tank, the Lako Yani Trust, recognised for turning the fortune of the church around to make it debt free.

From the village church, it will be a short walk pass his private seaside residence of Naivaka to the village’s common cemetery, shaded by an orchard of huge mango trees, a stone’s throw away from Mavana’s sea front.