May 14 is an important date in Fiji’s history. It marks the 130th anniversary of the arrival of Indian Indentured labourers to Fiji from the Indian sub-continent. At that time both India and Fiji were British colonies.
On May 14 1879, the first batch of Girmityas or Indentured labourers arrived from India on board the ship Leonidas. They were the first of a total of 60,553 Indians brought from the sub-continent between 1879 and 1916 when the Indenture period ended. They were brought to Fiji by the British Colonial government to turn the sugar industry into the backbone of Fiji’s economy.
Most of the labourers did not take the option of returning to India upon completion of their five year indenture period and decided to make Fiji their home, to start their livelihood and primarily to continue strengthening the industry into Fiji’s largest foreign exchange earner, a reputation it enjoyed until 10-12 years ago when tourism overtook the industry as the largest foreign exchange earner.
But nothing can change history and the plight of the Girmityas, is well-documented.
In 1979, the State celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured labourers. At that time the Indian population had overtaken the indigenous Fijian population. But currently the Indian population is around 37 percent and declining due to migration and low birth rate. The Fijian population is more than 57 percent, according to the 2007 Population Census.
Coupfourpointfive pays tribute to the Indo-Fijian population and the sacrifice of their forefathers. The ship Leonidas departed India with 478 passengers bound for Fiji. 463 passengers survived the long journey while 15 died. The 463 passengers arrived in Fiji waters on the 14th of May 1879 but were offloaded the following day. They have gone into history as the first Girmityas of Fiji.
The first military coup of May 14, 1987: 22nd anniversary
“At 10 o’clock this morning, members of the Royal Fiji Military Forces took over the Government of Fiji. They have neutralised Parliament and by the same process have suspended the Constitution of Fiji”. – Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka announcing the takeover of Dr Timoci Bavadra’s democratically elected National Federation Party/Fiji Labour Party Coalition Government 22 yeas ago.
This was the news that shocked Fiji and the rest of the world on Thursday 14th May 1987. A thick mustached Lieutenant-Colonel Rabuka, the 3rd highest ranking officer in the military at that time, basically usurped the powers of his Commander Brigadier Ratu Epeli Nailatikau and Chief of Staff Colonel Jim Sanday to overthrow Dr Bavadra’s NFP/FLP Coalition government that had been in power for only five weeks. Dressed in a grey suit and wearing a military tie, Rabuka told a packed media conference that the army and he were now in charge of Fiji.
At the time Nailatikau was in Australia and his only statement in the hours after the coup was to discourage the armed forces of Australia and New Zealand from taking military action to end the coup.
At 10am Rabuka led a team of elite and well trained group of fully armed soldiers to topple the government by the barrel of the gun. At that time Rabuka would not have known that he had basically uncorked the bottle and let the coup genie out. Since May 14, 1987, Fiji has had four and a half coups - 25th September 1987 again by Rabuka; 19th May 2000, 5th December 2006, and April 10, 2009.
The coups of 25th September 1987 and 10th April 2009 are very similar. In carrying out his coup, Rabuka overthrew the Deuba Accord, a political accord between NFP/FLP Coalition and Ratu Mara’s Alliance Party. The Deuba Accord was an agreement of compromise by the ousted government for it to participate in a Council of the State headed by the then Governor-General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau. The Accord was struck in Deuba on 23rd September.
The primary function of that Council was to return Fiji to democracy as soon as possible. But as history shows Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth despite Ratu Mara’s return as Interim Prime Minister and Ratu Penaia becoming the President after the country was declared a republic.
The event of 10th April 2009 is exactly the same as the 2nd coup. A day after the Fiji Court of Appeal ruling overturned an earlier High Court decision legitimising the coup of 5th December, the Appeals Court comprising of three expatriate judges ruled that the dismissal of Laisenia Qarase as PM and other subsequent events were illegal. The Court ruled that a caretaker PM apart from Laisenia Qarase or Frank Bainimarama be appointed to take Fiji to elections.
Less than 24 hours later, the President abrogated the Constitution and re-instated Frank Bainimarama’s interim regime.
The NFP/FLP Coalition
For the 1987 general elections held in April, the Fiji Labour Party, founded in July 1985, formed a coalition with the National Federation Party – a party fragmented with in-fighting but still commanding majority Indian support. The fragmentation of NFP started upon the departure of its leader Jai Ram Reddy from Parliament in December 1983. In May 1984, he lost his seat after refusing to return to Parliament under the rule of the then Speaker Tomasi Vakatora and deliberately missed two sessions. But he still commanded respect and widespread support amongst the Indian community.
However, when Labour formed a coalition with NFP, they turned to Reddy for assistance in getting NFP stalwarts and supporters to agree to a coalition. During the 1987 election campaign, Reddy was the keynote coalition speaker with Dr Bavadra. But he did not contest the 1987 elections. In a tightly contested race, the Alliance Party, whose leader Ratu Mara had described the coalition “like oil and water which cannot mix” won 24 seats while the coalition won 28 seats in the 52 Member House of Representatives. Both coalition partners won 14 seats each.
In 1977, the Alliance Party had lost to Siddiq Koya’s NFP by 24-26 seats with Sakeasi Butadroka splitting the Fijian votes but Ratu Mara was returned as PM by the then Governor-General Ratu Sir George Cakobau.
In April 1987 when the Alliance Party finally lost its grip on power after a 17-year rule since Independence in 1970, the Fijian community was angry at Jai Ram Reddy. Their anger increased when Dr Bavadra appointed Reddy as a Senator and his Attorney-General and Minister for Justice. The Deputy PM was NFP leader Harish Sharma while the Finance Minister was Mahendra Chaudhry.
Protest marches started around the country with the first march and roadblocks in Tavua. The placards read; “Bavadra the boat Reddy the Captain”. Reddy’s law firm Stuart Reddy & Co at Lautoka was firebombed by arsonists and destroyed. His home in Lautoka was also fire-bombed. But these were no reasons for the coup. In the days after the coup, Fijian nationalism raised is ugly head and Rabuka led the cries of “Noqu Kalou noqu vanua” – My God my country.
Newspapers shut down briefly
When Sitiveni Rabuka executed the coup, he locked up all the Coalition MPs (except one or two) at the Prime Minister’s residence in Veiuto (library and research facility of new Parliament after 1992). Initially they were taken to Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Nabua.
The army tried to segregate them and Indian MPs were forcibly removed to Borron House. Dr Bavadra and all his MPs were released after six days by which time Rabuka had installed a military government.
The two daily newspapers at that time were The Fiji Times and Fiji Sun (which closed down after the 2nd coup for refusing to buckle to censorship). Both published the story about the coup on its front pages on 15th May and condemned the military action. The Fiji Sun went a step further and posed a question whether Ratu Epeli Nailatikau was conveniently missing from Fiji and who were behind Rabuka. The editorial written by two directors described Fiji as being turned into a banana republic.
Both newspapers were ordered to shut down for 6 days and resumed publishing 6 days later reporting on the release of the hostages. They were allowed to print uncensored until the 2nd coup happened. The other news channel at that time belonged to Radio Fiji and it was censored because it was and is government owned. The newest entrant in the media market was Communications Fiji Ltd – then broadcaster of FM 96 radio station. It defied censorship in 1987 and built a reputation as an independent news organization. However, that reputation is being tarnished by the Radio Stations’ newsroom both before and after 5th December 2006.
On Friday 3rd November 1989, Dr Timoci Uluivuda Bavadra died at the Lautoka Hospital having returned from New Zealand just three days earlier. He had succumbed to terminal cancer. Dr Bavadra was only 54 when he died. In a funeral not seen before and close to 60,000 people passed through Viseisei village to pay their last respects as well as attend his funeral on two days(November 7 & 8)- Coupfourpointfive Opinion
See right of blog for the front page of the Fiji Times and Fiji Sun on May 15, 1987.