By David Robie in Suva
Civilian gunmen leader George Speight today defied mounting international condemnation of the kidnapping of Fiji’s elected cabinet, claiming that his regime was now the legal government of the Pacific nation.
His self-styled interim government named a list of “advisers” last night but at least three of them denied any involvement and condemned the attempted coup.
Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, the country’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, whose Fiji Labour Party was swept to a landslide victory in last year’s general election, his cabinet, and MPs have been detained under armed guard in Parliament since yesterday morning.
While the police and military forces appeared loyal to constitutional authority, Speight, a shaved-head timber industry businessman and undischarged bankrupt, claimed that indigenous Fijians supported the illegal regime.
He said that only the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and negotiator Sitiveni Rabuka, who led the two 1987 military coups and was ousted as prime minister by the Chaudhry coalition government, were not in support.
President Mara declared a state of emergency last night and the armed forces called up all reservists in the greater Suva area.
Speight claimed at a press conference that the 1997 constitution had been revoked: “There is now no longer the office of the president.”
Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon joined the Australian, New Zealand and United States governments in condemning the attempted coup and calling on the kidnappers to abandon their action.
McKinnon warned on BBC Television that Fiji could face the fate of Pakistan in being excluded from the Commonwealth if the coup succeeded.
He said there was total Commonwealth support for constitutional rule, adding: “The police and army must stay on side with the elected government.”
On Radio Fiji this morning, McKinnon added that he was “sad and angry” over the attempt to overthrow the elected government.
“I am very concerned and and very saddened by this,” he said. “But I am also very angry because this was not necessary and it will set Fiji back a long way. This will not help Fiji’s international reputation at all.”
McKinnon said that he had been in touch with Mara and said the Commonwealth supported the president’s attempts to reassert constitutional government.
The Fiji Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF), a community-based group which played a key role in the establishment of the multiracial 1997 constitution, strongly condemned the kidnapping of the government and the looting and violence.
“We call especially on our international partners who have contributed to the long process of democratisation in Fiji which culminated in our 1997 Constitution – governments, churches, NGOs and committed individuals – to join us in this chorus of condemnation against this ‘civil coup’,” said executive director Rev Akuila Yabaki.
“The group of seven armed men who have carried out these acts of violence are made up of unpopular politicians and discredited businessmen. Anyone who thinks that the ethnic Fijian community can benefit from this coup is living in a fool’s paradise.
“The majority of Fiji’s citizens voted overwhelming in support for constitutional democracy in the last election in May 1997 – including a majority of ethnic Fijians. This violence is not about protecting Fijian rights. It is about the interests of a few at all of our expense.
“The leaders of this so-called coup have no legitimacy and do not represent the breadth of Fijian support for constitutional democracy.”
About 48 per cent of the country’s 800,000 population are indigenous Fijians; 46 per cent are Indo-Fijians, and the rest are mixed-race or ethnic minorities.
The Fiji Times, the only one of the country’s three daily newspapers to publish today, declared in an editorial that “the madness must end.”
“It is wrong and dishonourable to back protests with guns and violence. Threatening people’s lives and putting their safety at risk is inexcusable,” the paper said.
“We have again witnessed how one moment of madness will set this country back by decades. Everything we have worked hard to put right and goals we have set for the nation have been ruined.”
Police declared the central city zone of the capital Suva a “no go” zone and said they were treating the entire central business district as a crime scene after scores of looters smashed their way into stores and set one shopping block, adjoining a newspaper office, ablaze yesterday afternoon.
An unnamed police office told Radio Fiji that 167 shops had been looted and 5 shops burned.
Police barricades were thrown up on the main roads into the city.
The attempted coup leader, George Speight, is son of the Opposition MP Savenaca Tokainavo. Last Monday, he pleaded not guilty to exchange rate charges and extortion in the High Court in Suva.
He is a descendant of a fourth generation white colonist and is reputed not to be a fluent Fijian speaker.
Speight was installed by former Finance Minister Jim Ah Koy (in the Rabuka government) as head of the Fiji Hardwood Corporation, a multimillion dollar company which was been at the centre of controversy in recent months.
He said he had no apologies for what seizing control of the country.
“We are not going to apologise to anybody and we are not going to step back, and we are not going to be daunted by accusations of racism, or one-sidedness,” Speight said.
“At the end of the day, it is [about] the supreme rights of our indigenous people in Fiji, the desire is that it be returned — wholesome and preserved for the future.”
David Robie, a New Zealander, is senior lecturer and coordinator of the journalism programme at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. This article was published by The New Zealand Herald.