By Kalinga Seneviratne in Suva
In an emotionally charged “Reconciliation and thanksgiving” service organised by Fiji’s Methodist Church — the country’s largest Christian denomination — the president of the church, Reverend Ili Vunisuwai, and Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka have apologised to the Indo-Fijian community for the suffering and insults they have endured in Fiji’s post-independence-era.
This event last weekend has paved the way to what political leaders call “building a new era” of peace and prosperity.
Fiji has a population of close to 925,000 and about one-third of them are of Indian descent brought to the country during an era of human trafficking by the British between 1879 and 1916 to work in the sugar cane plantations they were establishing.
According to official records, 60,553 were shipped to Fiji from India and they are today known as Girmitiyas, which is a reference to the unfair agreement they had to sign with the British plantation owners after arriving in Fiji as indentured (bonded) labour for five years.
“The indentured system, or Girmit as it came to be called, was an extremely degrading and dehumanising experience for our forefathers,” noted Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry writing in a special issue of The Fiji Times marking the inaugural Girmit Day national holiday.
“Their suffering, the unspeakable hardships, humiliation and the indignities they suffered under an evil and cruel system are now well recorded.”
After five years of work in the cane fields, the British freed the Girmits from bonded labour but did not offer them a passage back.
Made a mark
So, most of them stayed in Fiji and by the mid-1980s their descendants, through hard work and education, have made a mark, dominating the business and professional fields in the country.
By this time Indo-Fijians made up 49 percent of the population but indigenous Fijians controlled land ownership.
In April 1987, for the first time since independence in 1970, Fiji elected a multi-ethnic Fiji Labour Party to power supported mainly by Indo-Fijian voters but led by indigenous Fijian academic Dr Timoci Bavadra.
The cabinet was racially balanced.
On 14 May 1987, 39-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, then third in command of the Royal Fiji Military Forces, stormed the Parliament, ordered the MPs to vacate the building and forced the Governor-General to appoint him as the country’s leader.
In September, the same year he staged a second coup when he felt the Governor-General (as the Queen’s representative) was undermining his rule by trying to impose a coalition government, and a month later he declared Fiji a Republic.
In December last year, Rabuka was elected as Prime Minister after having been in the political wilderness for almost two decades. He formed a coalition government with the Indo-Fijian-led National Federation Party and elected its leader, former Economics Professor at the University of the South Pacific, as one of his two Deputy Prime Ministers and as Finance Minister.
The same Rabuka, who staged the coups in 1987 to protect indigenous Fijian interests that forced thousands of Indo-Fijians– especially professions — to emigrate overseas thus bringing down the Indo-Fijian component of the population to about 35 percent now, announced in February this year that May 15 would be a national holiday each year to mark “Girmit Day” to pay homage to the girmitiyas who helped build modern Fiji.
On May 14, in an eight-minute speech, Rabuka — now 74 — in an emotional speech told a stunned audience that what he did in 1987 was wrong.
Making clear that he was not speaking on behalf of the government or the i-Taukei (indigenous) people, because they were not involved in the coup, he said he was speaking on behalf of himself, and the people involved in the coup.
“We confess our wrongdoings, we confess that we have hurt so many of our people in Fiji, particularly those of Indo-Fijian community of the time and among them sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of those that were indentured as labourers from India between 1879 and 1916.
“We confess that we have wronged you,” he said, while his wife seated in the front row was wiping away tears. He also acknowledged that many in the Indo-Fijian community had left the shores since then.
Addressing those who have stayed on, he said that they had every right to feel angry about what was done to them. He thanked the Indo-Fijian community leaders for helping to bringing “some restoration in our relationships over the past few years”.
“As you forgive, you release us and you are released. You are released from hatred and from your anger, and we begin to feel the peace of God coming to our beings and our lives,” added Rabuka.
He was immediately followed by Mahendra Chaudhry who, in an equally emotional speech, recalled the hurt and bitterness they experienced during the coup. He actually became Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister in 1999, only to be ousted barely a year into office, by a coup by rogue soldiers led by businessman George Speight and held hostage inside the Parliament building for 58 days.
Chaudhry spoke about the tremendous trauma and bitterness that was created not only within him but in the Indo-Fijian community as a whole because many of their businesses, especially in Suva, were burnt down.
However, Chaudhry said he was “deeply honoured by the Prime Minister’s gesture”, and added “I also accept your apology (that) in your personal capacity you have apologised.
“Thank you very much for your magnanimity”.
The Methodist Church in Fiji strongly supported the coups of 1987 and 2000, but now under a more moderate leadership, they have taken the lead to bring the Christian indigenous community and the predominantly Hindu Indo-Fijians together.
Sunday’s service was held at a large indoor stadium and included both the church choir and a choir that sang Hindu Bhajans.
“The only way forward for us for a better and prosperous Fiji is to confess our shortcomings of wrongdoings, repent from committing sin and live together in peace and in harmony,” said Reverend Ili Vunisuwai.
“On that foundation, I hereby stand in the Holy presence of God our heavenly father and also in the honourable presence of our brothers your families and friends in Fiji and abroad to seek your humble forgiveness for all that had taken place in the past in our beloved country.”
No violent uprisings
The Indo-Fijian community has also contributed their share to Sunday’s development in not resorting to violent uprisings following the coups.
Those who went abroad have rebuilt their lives and even helped relatives back home.
Those who stayed behind have educated their children and even opened their many schools managed by Hindu and Sikh organisations for the education of indigenous Fijian children as well.
Thus, the younger Indo-Fijian generation is today graduating in large numbers from Fiji’s three universities, and the poverty rate among them has dropped to around 20 percent.
In his speech, Chaudhry referred to the fact that 75 percent of those living in poverty in Fiji are indigenous people, and addressing this issue is crucial to building community harmony and stability in the country.
Describing the event on May 14 as a “pivotal moment for our country”, Professor Prasad said he accepted Rabuka’s apology and added that through combined efforts of its people, Fiji had arrived at this moment of hope.
“This may well be the start of resetting the moral compass of our nation,” he said, adding, “repairing the social fabric, moral and political fabric, so badly needed for forging a united and harmonious future”.
‘Forward Fiji Declaration’
At the end of the service, Fiji’s leaders including the Prime Minister, Methodist Church, past and present political leaders and community representatives signed the “Forward Fiji Declaration” vowing that “there will be no more coups and divisions”, and instead promote mutual understanding and respect to build the new Fiji.
In a casual conversation after the service, Reverend Vunisuwai told In-Depth News, “the journey has just begun”, referring to the task to heal wounds and build an economically stable Fiji. An Indo-Fijian academic who heard the comment told IDN that for such peace building, “the army needs to keep out of politics”.
Interestingly, there were no armed police or army personnel present in or outside the building during the ceremony, and Rabuka left the venue without any armed escort.
Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is a visiting journalism academic at the University of the South Pacific. IDN is the flagship agency of the non-profit International Press Syndicate. Republished under a Creative Commons licence.