The sight of the sky-blue Fiji flag among the forest of flags borne along the River Thames for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant was a startling reminder that despite being suspended from the Commonwealth, Fiji is still part of the Commonwealth family. It’s a bit like a wayward sibling at any family celebration. No-one wants to condone their behaviour – in Fiji’s case, the 2006 coup – yet equally no-one can bring themselves to keep them away because they’re, well, family. Officially, Fiji remains a Commonwealth member during its suspension but is “excluded from emblematic representation by the secretariat”. That evidently doesn’t preclude “emblematic representation” for Fiji itself on a rain-soaked London afternoon before a beaming monarch and a million cheering spectators.
As with most families, the relationship is complicated and full of contradictions. This is especially so when the Queen – as head of the Commonwealth – has had such a close relationship with Fiji over the years and the bonds of affection endure. The country has been red-carded twice – first in 1987 and then in 2006 after Frank Bainimarama’s coup. Yet no-one blames the Queen herself and the whole country gets a holiday in her honour next Monday, June 11th, to commemorate her official birthday. The official coat of arms still exhorts Fijians to “Fear God and Honour the King ( or Queen)” and the Union Jack remains part of the Fiji flag. Commodore Bainimarama himself continues to work at his desk directly under a portrait of Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh and there’s also a large portrait of her in the offices of his deputy, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum.
Yet nearly 25 years after Sitiveni Rabuka declared Fiji a republic, there are clear signs of the link being diluted. The Queen’s image still appears on the country’s currency but not for much longer. She’s to be replaced with notes and coins bearing images of native plants and fauna. Grubsheet, for one, is yet to be convinced that substituting the grand old lady for a vudi or an iguana is a great idea, even if it’s in line with the times. But we’re far more interested in a larger question: will Elizabeth II eventually be restored as Queen of Fiji when democracy returns in the promised election of 2014? It hasn’t been part of the current debate on a new constitution and, in our view, deserves to be.
Few people realise that the declaration of the republic in 1987 didn’t alter an important fact; that HM is still regarded at the apex of the Vanua – indigenous society – as the Queen of Fiji. In fact, the Great Council of Chiefs reaffirmed Elizabeth II as Tui Viti – Queen of Fiji – as recently as 2002, even though the title has no constitutional or legal status, the Queen doesn’t use it and no government recognises it. The Council’s then chairman, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, declared that Elizabeth was still the traditional Queen or paramount chief and regarded as Tui Viti. He noted that most members of the GCC were descendants and blood relatives of the chiefs who ceded Fiji to Queen Victoria, Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother. Now that the GCC has been officially de-established by the Bainimarama regime and deprived of its powers, does this in any way alter this recognition of the Queen as “chief of chiefs”? That too isn’t yet part of any debate.
Frank Bainimarama’s position on the whole issue seems to have evolved since he told Grubsheet three years ago that he and most Fijians would like to see Elizabeth restored as Queen of Fiji. The clear implication was that she would eventually return as head of state and be represented by a governor general. Yet in our most recent interview three months ago, the prime minister said while he’d still like to see the Queen restored, he envisaged the office of president being retained. This implies that instead of turning the clock back fully, Fiji would remain a republic within the Commonwealth with the president, not the Queen, as its head of state.
But what does the Queen think herself? She was specifically asked the question when Sitiveni Rabuka met her in 1997 and presented her with a tabua– a whale’s tooth – in an act of formal contrition for having unceremoniously dumped her in the first place. Her answer was simple and to the point – “ let the people decide”. Given that ordinary Fijians weren’t consulted when the link to the Crown was severed, is there any reason why they shouldn’t be given a chance to do so when democracy is finally restored? Yes, 25 years have elapsed and the monarchy may no longer be as relevant to many younger people who don’t remember the strength of the bond for their elders. But Fijians should at least be consulted if a decision is made to finally and irrevocably sever a link that’s still important to many citizens and is an important part of the country’s history.
One could argue that many of the divisions and rivalries in the Vanua might be assuaged by restoring Elizabeth’s preeminent position in national life. Because it’s certainly part of the reason Queen Victoria got the title of Tui Viti in the first place when the chiefs ceded Fiji to her back in 1874. Any election in 2014 can and should be accompanied by a referendum that asks a simple question: Should Fiji formally ask the Queen to become head of state again? A yes vote would represent the first time a monarchy has been restored in the 21st century. It would also bring history full circle, help erase the blot of the past 25 years and reestablish the Queen as a symbol of unity, not just for the i’taukei but the whole country.
VIDEO LINK: The depth of the mutual affection between Fiji and the Queen can be gauged from this film of her 1953 visit recently released by the NZ National Archives.
This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.
FURTHER READING: Support for the monarchy in Australia has reached 58 per cent, a 25 year high, according to this account in The Australian.