The essential prerequisite for Fiji’s success as a nation is to forge a consensus on the importance of respecting the underlying principle that we are a multi-cultural, multi-faith nation and the only possible way forward is to uphold that principle. All the upheavals of the past 50 years flow from this principle being challenged. They include all four coups that have scarred our national life since Independence – the two led by Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987, the George Speight-led rebellion in 2000 and Frank Bainimarama‘s takeover in 2006.
The attempt to assert the dominance of one ethnic group and one religion over others, or even a denomination of one religion, underpinned all of these upheavals. And in our second half century, Fiji’s greatest challenge is undoubtedly to consign all of this to the past and assert the principle of each ethnic group and the adherents of each religion working together as one nation.
However much this was asserted in law in the 2013 Constitution – with its declaration of equal rights, religious freedom and a common identity – that constitution was imposed on the people by the Bainimarama government. It doesn’t change what’s in their hearts and minds. And until they embrace these principles as an act of personal conviction and faith, all the fancy words on a page count for little. Indeed, the success of the entire “Bainimarama Revolution” hinges on whether hearts and minds can be convinced to follow. And that is the challenge of the next half century.
It’s an astonishing fact that before Independence in 1970, there may have been ethnic division in Fiji but I cannot recall the same level of religious division. The divisions between Christians and other religions emerged only in the lead-up to the first coup in 1987, when Sitiveni Rabuka and those around him – including Ratu Inoke Kubuabola and certain leaders of the Methodist Church – pursued not only an indigenous supremacist agenda but tried to establish a Christian state, essentially in the form of a Methodist theocracy.
I think a strong argument can be made that religious divisions in Fiji can be traced almost exclusively to the rise of fundamentalism in the various religious – whether it be Christian fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism or Muslim fundamentalism. And that this poses one of the greatest potential threats to the unity of the nation.
I grew up as a Methodist luveni talatala – the child of a minister – and cannot recall a single instance in my childhood of my late father, the Reverend Peter Davis, expressing the view that the Methodists, let alone Christians generally, had a monopoly on belief and deserved to be pre-eminent. The Methodists at that stage commanded the allegiance of around 80 per cent of the ITaukei. But just as my father was committed to the notion of a multiracial Fiji – including when he unsuccessfully stood as an independent for the Legislative Council in the elections of 1966 – he was equally committed to the principle of the right of every Fijian to practice their own faith. This respect for other faiths was, in my experience, accepted by all other religions and denominations at the time and expressed itself on the Independence Day weekend precisely 50 years ago.
One of the great events was the National Day of Thanksgiving the day after Independence Day, at which the Prince of Wales joined the Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, at a religious commemoration in Suva’s Albert Park. Representatives of all the major religions were present and each handed copies of their respective holy books to the Prime Minister. It was a powerful symbol of Fijians of all religious faiths dedicating themselves to the principle of one nation. And looking back, this service is certainly in stark contrast to later years after the fundamentalist surge, in which Christians refused to worship together at the same event with Hindus and Muslims.
There is a record of this Service of Thanksgiving in Part 4 of the Independence videos I posted yesterday, eight minutes into the clip when Prince Charles arrives in Albert Park for the service. Then the camera pans across the front row and at 8.34, there is my father, “PK Davis” who was by then President of the Methodist Church in Fiji (in glasses, wearing a “dog collar” and the single sash of his office).
Further on as the camera pan continues is the Reverend Setareki Tuilovoni, the first President of the Methodist Church in Fiji after it achieved its own independence from the Australian church in 1964. And two other “princes” of the Methodist Church who many older Fijians will remember – in the front row at the end, the Reverend Joeli Kalou, and behind him, someone who would lead the Methodists with great distinction in later years – the Reverend Paula Niukula. All surrounded by Hindus, Muslims and the heads of other Christian denominations in an act of collective worship and solidarity in dedication to a united Fiji.
This great ecumenical gathering is what should be routine at our national events – an example from 50 years ago of “Fiji, the way the world should be” and another instance in which we have since lost our way. May one of the blessings the God of Nations grants on our isles of Fiji – as our National Anthem puts it – be to rediscover the religious tolerance of our forebears symbolised by this great event precisely 50 years ago today.