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Race, Resentment Fuel Attacks on Indians in Fiji, Forcing Many to Flee

South Pacific: Coup attempt highlights animosity of some indigenous Fijians toward their more prosperous neighbors.

June 22, 2000|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1997 constitution also put in place a new electoral system so complicated that almost no one in Fiji understands it. The quirks of the system, coupled with a voter backlash against the two leading parties, led to an unexpected triumph last year for Chaudhry's Fiji Labor Party, previously a fringe player in Fijian politics. He chose a multicultural Cabinet dominated by indigenous Fijians.

Once in office, however, Chaudhry displayed what U.S. Ambassador Osman Siddique has described as an "in-your-face" style more appropriate to the labor movement from which he came than the Parliament he led. By the time Chaudhry was taken hostage, Siddique said, "there was not one constituency left that he didn't annoy."

Chaudhry's biggest offense, most people say, was trying to make changes in Fiji's highly sensitive land policy. Indigenous Fijians own more than 80% of the land in Fiji and regard it as their sacred birthright. Chaudhry made changes aimed at stopping indigenous landowners from evicting ethnic Indian tenants, and giving the tenants a $14,000 payment if they lost their lease. Many indigenous landowners saw it as the first step toward an Indian takeover of their land and reacted in fury.

The land issue alone might have fueled a movement to replace Chaudhry. But Speight, who calls himself a crusader for indigenous rights, has brazenly played the race card. He sneers that Indians "smell different," that they deserve no better than second-class status in Fiji.

This sort of talk, and dark murmurings about genocide and Indian plans to colonize Fiji, appeals to the poor, the uneducated and dispossessed who seem to form the core of Speight's constituency. But it seems so out of touch with the feelings of most people in Fiji that many have come to believe that it is a smoke screen designed to hide a simple power grab.

"The real issues are not indigenous rights," said Venkat Ramani, a chamber of commerce manager and political activist in the tourist center of Nadi, where Indian-Fijian relations are at their best and Speight is widely loathed. "This is a power play game."

If so, it is a game with real victims, as the Rams can testify--as can many other ethnic Indians in and around Suva, where tensions are highest and Indian homes and businesses have been vandalized and burned.

Mass Exodus Causes Shortage of Passports

So many ethnic Indians are trying to leave Fiji now that the Immigration Ministry announced recently that it had run out of passports; no more can be issued until a new shipment arrives in July.

Prominent politicians and economists warn of the disastrous impact an Indian "brain drain" could have on Fiji, but it appears inevitable now. Since 1987, so many ethnic Indians have fled that nearly every Indian family in Fiji now has relatives abroad, usually in more than one country.

In many ways, the Ram family is typical of ethnic Indians in Fiji. A century of separation from India has robbed its members of familiarity with their mother country but not their mother culture.

Their first language is Hindi. They also speak English but only a smattering of Fijian. They eat Indian food, watch Indian television programs, listen to Hindi radio, rent Indian videos, wear Indian clothes and read Indian magazines.

Whereas most indigenous Fijians are Methodists or members of other Christian denominations, the Rams pray in a Hindu temple. (A smaller number of ethnic Indians are Muslim.) Intermarriage between ethnic Indians and Fijians is almost nonexistent.

Instead of following rugby, a national obsession among indigenous Fijians, most Indians prefer soccer, tennis or golf; their national sports hero is Fijian golfer Vijay Singh. Their sole obvious concession to Fijian culture is the ritualistic consumption of kava, a bitter, mildly tranquilizing beverage that is a part of every Fijian gathering.

Family Recalls Night of Terror

The mob attacked the Rams' house at dusk. The assailants smashed and looted and burned in a fury of rocks, sticks and matches. The Rams retreated to their bedrooms, made the children hide under the beds. Then they locked the bedroom doors, huddled together and listened to the storm of rage outside.

"We were really afraid," recalled Veena Devi Ram, a small, quiet woman who works as a clerk in a stationery store. "The children, they started crying." And then they heard the mob break open the front door and crash inside.

When it was over, nearly every window in the four houses on their family homestead was shattered. The family car was a smoking, burned-out husk, as was the cab of the new Nissan truck that Shiri Ram used in his contracting business. Television sets were gone, as were radios, VCRs--just about anything of value. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

And Shiri Ram had made up his mind: He could not remain in Fiji.

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