Who Was Who in the 1987 Coups?
Excerpts from Fiji: Coups in Paradise – Race, Politics and Military Intervention by Victor Lal
According to Victor Lal, ‘A vice-president of the Fiji Labour Party, Simione Durutalo, said Ratu Mara ‘has kidnapped democracy and destroyed his own creation, the 1970 Constitution’. He told Radio New Zealand in an interview from Hawaii (where he had fled with his wife and children on the day of the coup), that ‘Rabuka is just a pawn. The real man behind the coup is Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and others in the Alliance Party’. Durutalo, a Fijian, and former University lecturer, said Ratu Mara during his 17 years in power had ‘pretended to the world that he was a multi-racial man and that he was for democracy.’
The leader of the breakaway Taukei faction, Ratu Vesikula, said, ‘It’s more and more the Alliance team back in place. This is the old system being rammed down our throats again in a roundabout way-the backdoor. I would like the indigenous Fijian people to stand united and say, ‘No, enough is enough.’
He asserted. ‘I see no chance at all of my two ratus (chiefs) here changing their outlook and their life and the running of the country in general…They were responsible for the 1970 Constitution and putting them back there is tempting fate. What has the old system achieved for the Fijian people? It has achieved the erosion of traditional leadership…a lack of patriotism…disparity between the races in Fiji. It has culminated in two military coups and the possibility of another or some other form of violence…The Great Council of Chiefs had clearly stated that it will nominate the President, and the Prime Minister would be elected by secret ballot after the general elections. I’m sorry to say this but I feel Rabuka handed power back to a dictator on five December.’
According to Victor Lal, ‘It could be argued that Rabuka simply handed over to the two high chiefs, Ratu Mara and Ratu Penaia, the power which had temporarily slipped out of their hands following the surprise victory of the NFP/FLP Coalition, led by two prominent Fijians, Dr Bavadra and Dr Baba. By the end of 1987 the two high chiefs, representing largely the eastern chiefs class, thus, as they had in 1970, found themselves back in the seats of power.’
‘When the first coup occurred, in May, Ratu Mara was co-chairing the meeting of the PDU at The Fijian Hotel. Although maintaining that he had no prior knowledge of the coup, he told a veteran Fiji journalist Robert Keith-Reid, while on his way to meet Rabuka on 15 May, that he first heard of the military takeover at 9 a.m. on Thursday (the coup occurred at 10 a.m.), and was shocked and saddened. But after Rabuka called on him at The Fijian for help he had agreed to serve on the Council of Ministers as Minister for Foreign Affairs, an action he later justified in the following terms: ‘I had to do it, because if my house was on fire with my family inside…why should I wait? I must try and rescue them…When Col Rabuka’s constitutional council decide[s] on something, it will be good for you, and the nation as a whole.’
Ratu Mara’s acceptance of a post in Rabuka’s interim government, instead of condemning the racial motivation that lay behind it, cast doubts upon the sincerity of his professed belief in the concept of muliracialism. While the Australian Prime Minister Hawke condemned the coup, his acting Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, questioned Ratu Mara’s role as a member of the new government.
The New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange (above) accused Ratu Mara of treachery under Fiji’s Constitution suggesting that Ratu Mara allegedly fomented the rebellion against the Queen. He said Ratu Mara’s earlier statements about how shocked he was by the coup appeared to be at variance with his new position. Lange added: ‘I believe a word three or four weeks ago from Ratu Mara in support of the constitutional process would have averted all this.’
Victor Lal examines Ratu Mara’s role at length and states: ‘It becomes quite apparent that the only way to keep power in chiefly hands is to embark on undemocratic methods to curb the challenge from the Fijian commoners rather than to compete politically against the Fiji Indians…In Bavadra’s opionion [the 1987 coups] was to silence such true apostles of multi-racialism as himself, who believed that the Indians and the Fijians are ‘one people, one nation’. After being freed from custody he accused Ratu Mara of being behind the coup; he said that in his four weeks in office, he had only just begun to uncover the corruption in the previous administration, making charges that Ratu Mara has consistently denied.’
Lal continues: ‘A fortnight after the first coup Ratu Mara had declared publicly that he would resign from politics and not run for election again; Fiji had rejected his leadership and the future of the Alliance Party was for the party members to decide. He was, he said, responsible for the first Constitution, but would have nothing further to do with the new one; even if the Great Council of Chiefs approached him to seek re-election, he would tell them ‘please don’t try and flog a dead horse, I will not run’.
‘Eight months later, after making those historical statements, Ratu Mara and his defeated Alliance members joined Rabuka’s military bandwagon, without contesting elections, to lead the country. In his address to the nation as the new, unelected, Prime Minister of the Republic of Fiji, Ratu Mara said: ‘Fellow citizens, let me assure you that I am not an opportunist.’
What did Ratu Mara know about the first coup? When did he know? What about his son-in-law, the then commander of the armed forces and now President of Fiji in Bainimarama’s coup coup land – Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, whose appointment as commander of the army in June 1982 had heightened speculation about a possible military intervention in Fijian politics.
To be continued