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Fiji Military Vows Return to Democracy

June 17, 2000|From Associated Press

SUVA, Fiji — An international delegation came away from meetings with Fiji's military rulers on Friday with assurances that the military will return the South Pacific nation to democracy in two years.

But the promises again put the military at odds with rebel leader George Speight, who is holding 31 political hostages and demanding that Fiji adopt a racist constitution and install him in power.

Speight and his rebels stormed parliament and took the prime minister and others hostage May 19, demanding that ethnic Fijians be given more power here and that the ethnic Indian government be removed from office. The military, which declared martial law and seized power May 29 to end the turmoil, at first agreed to some of Speight's demands, including scrapping a constitution that the rebels said gave too much power to Fiji's ethnic Indian minority.

But on Thursday, military leaders pledged to return Fiji to multiethnic rule, possibly based on the 1997 constitution. The rebels quickly warned against such a move.

"If they are saying that, they are treading on very dangerous ground," rebel spokesman Jo Nata said. "This whole thing began because of distaste over the 1997 constitution."

Resentment is high among ethnic Fijians against the large Indian minority that dominates business on this cluster of islands about 2,250 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

One of the main disputes is over sugar, the nation's cash crop. Indian farmers built plantations on land communally owned by indigenous Fijians and leased at low rates set by British colonial law. Those leases are due for renewal, and the government's refusal to hike rents has enraged many Fijians.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Filipo Tarakinikini said Friday that the army would attempt the seemingly impossible balancing act of restoring multiracial rule while addressing Speight's demands.

Australia and the European Union--Fiji's main trading partners--as well as the United States, have warned that Fiji will be diplomatically and economically isolated unless democracy is restored.

On Friday, a four-member delegation from the Commonwealth organization of Britain and its former colonies met with military leaders. Afterward, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said the regime intends to install a civilian government to recast the constitution and then oversee elections in two years. He said the military's commitment to multiethnic government is encouraging.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, also a member of the delegation, said the military leaders gave a number of assurances about returning Fiji to democracy, but "they did not go as far as we wanted."

"But one assurance was that neither Mr. Speight nor any people connected with him would be part of any . . . interim government," Goff said.

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