The 1987 Coup – Catharsis or diseases
16 May, 2021, 5:00 pm
This year marks the 34th anniversary of Fiji’s first military coup on May 14, 1987 — an event that changed the country’s direction, destiny and destination.
The coup, instigated by the third ranked military officer, lieutenant- colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, shook Fiji, the region and even the
world. It came not too long after Pope John Paul II’s Fiji visit in 1986, when he famously described the country as ‘the way the world should be’.
The Pope, on a first and short visit to Fiji, would have been swayed by the warm welcome, and the sea of colours that greeted
him in public. This could have papered the underlying tensions in the country. Or, perhaps, the Pope was offering hope with words of encouragement, and standards to live up to.
But forget the Pope and the rest of the world — most people in the country were stunned by the coup when in reality, we should
perhaps have been more prepared. Given our background, Fiji was ripe for a coup, if not in 1987, then some other time; if not by Rabuka, then by some other colonel.
The roots of our coup culture lie not in 1987, but in another era.
The coup, as has been argued by others, was a product of colonialism — not that this absolves the coup instigators. When the Britishshipped around 60,000 Indians to Fiji as indentured labourers between 1879 and 1916, they did not bother to fully consult the indigenous Fijians, such as their sense of superiority.
While the indigenous Fijians hardly had a say, the Indians were being tricked into coming to Fiji on false hopes and promises.
Colonial avarice has had a lasting effect, with both indigenous Fijians and Fiji Indians the victims of a situation not of their making, but which they need to fix for their own good.
For many Indians, hopping onto the boats to Fiji turned out not to be an entirely poor decision. After the harrowing journey, and at the conclusion of servitude in the country’s cane fields, many chose to stay back, as their prospects in India did not look that promising.
The colonialists were capable of showing some humanity every now and sometimes, and they had proposed that the Indians
remain in Fiji should they choose to do so. The indigenous Fijians agreed to go along, reluctantly, it would seem.
In typical migrant fashion, generations of Fiji Indians worked hard to earn a living and to get educated. They fought for their
political rights in order to live in dignity, and as equal citizens in a country that has not only been accommodating, but given them much in return.
The descendants of those who stayed back have largely done well for themselves in various professions, although too many still
live on the margins of poverty, and they have been the biggest victims of Fiji’s coup culture – physically, socially, economically.
On their part, the indigenous Fijians were tied down by some traditional and cultural obligations. They too were frustrated by the yoke of colonialism, including an edict that restricted them to the confines of the village.
Some observers believe that this was a patronising move that prevented the more enterprising indigenous Fijians from the opportunity to establish themselves commercially in the country’s towns and cities, where the Fiji Indians had a head start.
Over time, indigenous fears about economic marginalisation and political displacement only increased. Some leaders and politicians used the race and religion cards for their own end, only adding to the tensions. Some were quick to dismiss such fears as unrealistic.
But they were very real in the minds of the indigenous Fijians, and easy to whip up.
The catalyst for the 1987 coup was the electoral loss of the indigenous Fijian-dominated Alliance Party to the Fiji Labour-National Federation Party coalition. The Alliance had been in power since independence in 1970.
Initially, Rabuka said that he acted independently, in the interest of indigenous self-determination, but in his later remarks, he
changed his tune. In a 2018 interview with New Zealand-based Fiji journalist Sri Kishnamurthi, Rabuka claimed that he was “coerced” by the defeated Alliance Party into carrying out the coup.
The then Prime Minister, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s name has popped up in some reports, but he always denied involvement.
Some tend to claim that the 1987 coup divided the country. In reality, the country was already divided. The coup simply aggravated existing divisions and brought them to ahead. Some saw the coup as a catharsis for Fiji to come to terms with its problems and find solutions, while others see it as a disease that has spread and continues to plague Fiji.
Rabuka claimed divine inspiration for his actions, and the fact that he chose May 14 to strike is significant. The state of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, and given that Rabuka is a known Israelophile, the dates seem more than just a coincidence. This religious connection has not been made public before, it would seem.
Also, significant is that May 14, 1879, marked the arrival of Fiji’s Indians on the vessel Leonidas, and this connection to the coup is rued by the Fiji Indians. Many will never forget, or forgive the appalling treatment of Fiji’s second Prime Minister, the distinguished
Dr Timoci Bavadra, who lasted only a month in power. The late Bavadra was viciously labelled an ‘Indian stooge’ for promoting multiracialism and equality.
Also, worthy of mention is the international media attention that the coup generated. From being a largely unknown country
outside the region, Fiji was catapulted into the international news headlines by just this one event. More journalists descended on our shores from all over the world than perhaps ever before in our history—certainly more than when Fiji gained independence from
Britain in 1970, with Prince Charles doing the honours.
In journalism, conflict is a powerful news value that transcends distance or unfamiliarity. Combined with the unknown or peculiar, the story gets only bigger and stronger. It has become a magnet for journalists.
Political analyst and activist Jone Dakuvula recalled meeting some overseas female journalists, and the first thing he noticed
was that they appeared not to have showered for a while.
This indicated the pressure on journalists to meet the global demand for updates on what was happening in Fiji. Showering becomes secondary to scoops—getting the story first.
The 1987 coup reporting saw some of the worst examples of parachute journalism, with a focus on race and religion, at the expense of highlighting the more complex socio-economic issues underpinning the conflict.
There is no disputing that the 1987 coup was a traumatic event, with prolonged consequences, including the destruction of the
economy, not to mention worsening ethic relations to this day, but given our context — colonisation, indenture, militarisation, tradition, culture, religion and race — the coups were perhaps an eventuality, our destiny even.
We have simply picked up the pieces and trudged on as a people and as a country, hopefully having learned from history so as not to keep repeating the same mistakes, and maybe in 20-50 years’ time, we will indeed become a Singapore or a Mauritius, after a process of maturation, by which we become more seasoned and wiser. That comes with time, trials and tribulations since humanity is complex — even more so given the volatile mixture that makes up humanity in Fiji.
A reformed Rabuka showed that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible when he teamed up with his nemesis, the National
Federation Party leader, Jai Ram Reddy, to implement a more equitable constitution, only to be rejected by voters in 1999 elections.
Rabuka lost the prime ministership but says it was worth the 1997 Constitution.
The lesson for the future is that while leaders play a crucial role, the population also has to change and make sacrifices to see improv ements.
- Dr Shailendra Singh is senior lecturer and coordinator of the journalism program at the University of the South Pacific. This comment is from Dr Singh’s social media posts and is republished with permission