The recent observation by the former vice president, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, that race relations in Fiji have never been better is an important acknowledgement of unquestionably the Bainimarama Government’s greatest achievement. This is its crusade to bridge the gulf between the races in Fiji and try to draw a line under the entrenched separateness that has always bedeviled the country and retarded its development.
Whatever else it may have done since it seized the reins of power five and half years ago, the attempt to create one Fijian identity has been the most daring of the regime’s initiatives and the most noble. Daring because few people – Grubsheet included – ever expected to see any government adorn every citizen with the moniker of Fijian, which has always applied to indigenous people. Noble because it is a gesture that has already had a profound effect as a unifying force simply by giving non-indigenous Fijians a sense of belonging.
For some people who bore the brunt of the vicious racism that triggered the coups of 1987 and 2000, the change has had a huge emotional impact. Grubsheet knows people – including some Indo-Fijians driven out of the country post ’87 – who can actually see a future for themselves in the new Fiji for the first time. “I’m Fijian!” isn’t merely an advertising slogan. It’s a potent revelation to many that maybe Fiji does have a bright multiracial future after all. Can the dream at independence of everyone working together as one nation finally be realised almost half a century on? It is certainly closer to being fulfilled than at any other time when the Roko Tui Bau – a high chief universally respected as a statesman, lawyer and intellectual – says race relations are better now than they have ever been. Which is why nothing must be allowed to get in the way of that process continuing.
Frank Bainimarama has demonstrated commendable leadership by confronting – head on – the indigenous supremacists who habitually describe non-indigenous citizens as vulagi (visitors). There was no consultation, no opportunity for the forces against him in the Vanua to shout him down. He just did it. “From now on, we are all Fijians, irrespective of race”, he said. Whatever the future holds for the Prime Minister, he has earned a place in the history books for this alone. For he used his position as dictator to railroad through a breathtaking reform that arguably no democratic leader could have achieved. Why? Because we know from polling conducted by the Citizens Constitutional Forum that only 20-per cent of i’Taukei support the use of the term Fijian for everyone. They regard it as theirs, even though it would be inconceivable for any Australian or New Zealander to adopt the same position.
This is why Ratu Joni’s comments last week are so important. Because not only is he a respected figure in the country as a whole, a man all races rightly regard as someone of intelligence and integrity. He has mana in the Vanua and the ability to influence opinion. It’s one thing to simply announce – as the Prime Minister did – that everyone is now Fijian but it’s quite another to win over the 80 per cent of people who oppose the change. Every i’Taukei must be persuaded that this is good for Fiji as a whole. Why? Because creating a common national identity enhances their own position. How? Because Fiji starts to present a face to the world that is united and inclusive, not divided and exclusive to the interests of one race. Singapore is a shining example that containing the racial bogey can take the smallest island nation to the greatest heights. Why else? Because nothing that is involved in this hugely positive step forward has any negative implications for the i’Taukei. It threatens none of their preeminent position in national life, their ownership of more than 80 per cent of the land, and their cultural dominance in the global image of Fiji, which – incidentally – is the pride of everyone. Yes, intensely so.
How many Kai Idia or Kai Valagi are in the national rugby team? None. Does this make any Fiji citizen any less proud of the Flying Fijians? Not in the least. How many Kai Idia or Kai Valagi are in the military? Hardly any. Does this make any Fiji citizen any less proud of the RFMF’s role in helping to keep the peace around the world? Not in the least. The Government’s opponents keep using the racial make-up of the military as evidence of the hollowness of its multiracial agenda. But the salient point isn’t whether other races are in uniform. It’s that they could be if they wanted to be – that the impediment to anyone wanting to be a solider doesn’t exist. It’s one of the many non sequiturs that keep being raised by people desperately clutching at straws as the tide of history moves against them.
As we’ve said before, the First Fijians are first among equals in the eyes of everyone in the country. No-one wants to see them diminished. On the contrary, we all want to see the lives of ordinary i’Taukei enhanced. For them to get better paying jobs, to get better housing, better education for their children. To enhance the rich traditions of their culture and their spiritual lives with some of the material benefits of the modern age – the chance for a better education, to travel, to be citizens of the world as well as their island home.
All this will flow from the wave of investment that will surely come when Fiji finally gets its political act together. And that will only come when Fiji gets its racial act together. When people start thinking as parts of a whole – Fijian – rather than the racial tribalism that has defined national life to this point. The irony is that one of the factors that has made this revolution possible comes as a direct result of the racially based coups in this first place. They drove so many Indo-Fijians from Fiji that it completely altered the demographic make-up of the country. No longer are Indo-Fijians in the majority. No longer is there any chance of them muscling the i’Taukei out of the way and creating the “little India in the Pacific” that some of their leaders foolishly spoke of before independence. We can now have one person one vote without the threat of upheaval because the i’Taukei, not the Kai Idia, are now in the majority.
This is the indisputable fact that torpedoes the claims of those who still try to sow racial division by fueling the fears of uneducated i’Taukei about threats to their land and their way of life. It simply cannot happen now, even if there was a chance – however remote – that it could have happened before. And this is where the country’s indigenous chiefs have a grave responsibility to lead – to reassure their people that a multiracial future poses no threat and, on the contrary, presents real opportunities. Back in April, one of Ratu Joni’s fellow chiefs, Ro Teimumu Kepa – the Roko Tui Dreketi – sparked a furor when she raised the spectre of “racial calamity” in Fiji in the context of the government abolishing the Great Council of Chiefs ( GCC) and truncating chiefly privileges. She said the chiefs were “a stabilising factor for Fiji and had helped control ethno-nationalism and facilitate conciliation”. If only it were so.
Where was the stabilising hand of the chiefs in 1987 and 2000? Indeed, there were far too many chiefs who were participants in the coups, including some at the apex of the system. They included Ratu Joni’s predecessor as vice president, Ratu Jope Seniloli, who was convicted for treason for his role in the Speight outrage. Far from taking a stand against ethno-national extremism, these chiefs actively encouraged it. And others who should have spoken out remained silent. It was a disgraceful abrogation of leadership for which the country is still paying a heavy price. And yet we still have figures of the statue of Ro Teimumu – the head of one of the three indigenous confederacies, Burebasaqa – attacking the Bainimarama government for its multiracial agenda. In her open letter to him in April, she said: “The obsession to remove racial issues from the governance of this country is short-sighted and ill-conceived, for ethnicity is a fact of life”. Well, yes, it is. But the problem in Fiji is that an obsession with ethnicity has got in the way of the country’s development in a highly damaging way. And too many chiefs – not to mention certain clergymen in the Methodist Church – fuel the fears of the indigenous community about threats to their position when they ought to be calming them. In the case of Ro Teimumu, she also fueled the fears of ethnic minorities by raising the spectre of “racial calamity” without explaining precisely how and why this might be triggered. What are the grounds for racial calamity when indigenous people are in the majority, own more than 80 per cent of the land and have such a commanding place in national life? There are none if those in leadership positions in Fiji patiently explain these irrefutable truths to ordinary people rather than manipulate their fears for their own purposes.
The Roko Tui Bau’s comments last week presented a stark and telling contrast to those of the Roko Tui Dreketi. Rather than warn of racial calamity, he chose to accentuate the positive – the improvement in race relations. Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi attributed this to government policies and an altered mindset among the iTaukei He said Fijians of Indian, European and mixed descent felt more a part of Fijian society because of the policies and actions of the present government. And some of the iTaukei fears about domination by Fijians of Indian descent had been mitigated by the increase in the iTaukei population and continued emigration of Fijians of Indian descent. “Despite some of the perceived egregious actions of the government against iTaukei interests, iTaukei still see a government dominated by them, a military that is still almost entirely iTaukei in composition and the fact that the government does not intrude on their daily lives unless they make waves”, he said.
The former vice president’s comments weren’t all rosy. He said Fiji was still a fractured society because the country had yet to achieve a set of common values. “What are these values? A common identity, a belief in our country, democracy, human rights, the rule of law and other civic beliefs’, he said. The Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, took exception to this remark, saying that the same common values were already present in Fijian society. But theirs was an argument about national values and national identity, not an argument about race. A public discussion based on competing opinions and ideas, not the colour of their skin. And that is the way it should be if Fiji is to ever become “the way the world should be” again.
Throughout his career, Ratu Joni has done more than most – and certainly more than any i’Taukei chief – to preach racial inclusiveness. He’s repeatedly said that i‘Taukei have nothing to fear from Indo-Fijians because of their inalienable ownership of the land and that indigenous rights don’t take preference over the rights of all citizens. He’s also taken a stand against religious intolerance and strongly opposed the notion of Fiji being declared a Christian state. He’s even criticised the practice of Christian prayers being uttered at public functions where people of other faiths are present. And he’s castigated church leaders for not practicing what they preach, not doing enough to uphold family values and not curbing the excessive consumption of yaqona. On race, he’s acknowledged that social integration between the i’Taukei and Indo-Fijians can’t be forced but both communities need to reach out to each other and “weave connections to the point where they are interwoven and unbreakable”. These are the words of a true chief with mana, a leader of all Fijians who commands respect across every racial grouping. Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi deserves to be heard a lot more in the Vanua, especially among his fellow chiefs, and in the country as a whole.
This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.