Fiji, Solomon Islands

Island Coups

Gunfire shook two South Pacific nations in late May and June, toppling the governments of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, leaving the regional press to uncover the festering racial and ethnic tension behind images of these tropical paradises.

In Fiji, the storming of Parliament by Fijian businessman George Speight echoed a 1987 coup. “The civilian coup was unexpected and the racial and ethnic tension between indigenous Fijians and those of ethnic Indian origin was palpable,” an Indian diplomat in the capital, Suva, told New Delhi’s centrist Hindustan Times on May 30.

“Speight’s mesmeric rhetoric and simple solutions touched a chord.…Get rid of the Indians...and the world will be well. It is not as simple as that,” Brij V. Lal, a Fiji-born commentator, said in Sydney’s centrist The Australian (June 1). “The once true and noble spirit of the Fijians died today,” said the May 26 Fiji Times, an independent daily in Suva owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

As Speight held Mahendra Chaudhry, the ethnic Indian prime minister, and 30 other people hostage, the conservative The Press, in Christchurch, New Zealand, reported May 23 that Speight met with Sitiveni Rabuka, who led the military’s 1987 overthrow of the government. “My coup is better than yours,” Speight told Rabuka, who served as elected prime minister from 1992 to 1997.

By May 30, the military had taken control, Fijilive, an independent news Web site in Suva, reported. Commodore Frank Bainimarama voided amendments to the 1997 constitution that allowed Chaudhry’s election, The Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 31. Bainimarama guaranteed amnesty for Speight if he would release the hostages. “Asked if that meant Mr. Speight would be able to walk free from the Parliament compound, he responded: ‘Yes, I am sorry to say that.’ ”

A June 1 profile of Bainimarama in Sydney’s centrist Australian “made it clear that he was not interested in a political career, but expected to hand over power to an interim civilian administration when civil order was secure.”

By June 21, the Herald reported that Speight said he would accept an ethnic Indian in the interim government and did not seek the prime ministership. “Speight’s comments came as international trade unionists warned they would apply a range of ongoing damaging sanctions against Fiji to force the restoration of the Chaudhry government,” The Australian reported June 20.

The Web site Fijilive (June 23) broke the news of a settlement to free the hostages and set up a new government.

The June 5 militia uprising against Prime Minister Bar-tholomew Ulufa’alu in the Solomon Islands occurred in  the capital, Honiara, on Guadalcanal Island. Migrants from Malaita Island, persecuted by the Isatabu Freedom Movement, native to Guadalcanal, organized the Malaita Eagle Force militia. “The Fiji coup nearly three weeks ago gave militant forces in the Solomon Islands the lead they needed to follow suit with their own overthrow,” Hong Kong’s centrist South China Morning Post said June 6.

Amid sporadic gun battles, Ulufa’alu resigned June 14, remaining as caretaker prime minister. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported June 23 that Eagle Force spokesman Andrew Nori had “urged the formation of a government of national unity.”

As Auckland’s conservative New Zealand Herald (June 6) observed, “Two coups in quick succession are disturbing…reminders of the many sources of instability now simmering in the southwest Pacific.…[The nearby island of] Bougainville remains reluctantly tied to Papua New Guinea. Next door to PNG, the people of Irian Jaya are anxious to secede from Indonesia, as East Timor did last year. It can only be a matter of time before the next challenge to French rule in New Caledonia.”