Impressions on Returning Home -- Sudarsan Kant

The Fiji I Know

Sudarsan Kant was born into poverty in Suva. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Missouri.  He writes here of his thoughts on listening to panelists on last Monday's RadioNZ Nights (see posting Tuesday 3 August Fiji’s ‘painful process’ could lead to better democracy) and of his impressions as he visited different parts of Fiji one month ago.

Thoughts on what others say

The Radio NZ panel on Fiji on Monday  reminded me of filmmaker Michael Moore’s witty title “Dude, Where’s My Country,” a satirical assault on political and corporate corruption in the United States, largely overlooked by the masses until they no longer recognize their own country. Listening to the panel, most notably the comments by Nik Naidu and Richard Pamatatau, I could not recognize the country I just returned from after a two month visit.

The picture painted by Richard and Nik of Fiji reminded me of a conversation I had with a Kiwi tourist on a bus from Nadi to Suva, who confessed that she was discouraged from coming to Fiji and especially venturing out to Suva. She told me that she expected to confront a highly militarized society and all the accouterments that go with it. Needless to say she was pleasantly surprised. The image of barbed wires, armed soldiers, and violence systemically peddled by the New Zealand and Australian media is hardly the country that she witnessed or I visited in my extensive travels just a few weeks ago.

Fiji has been and continues to be an extraordinarily pacific and stable society, a fact conveniently ignored by its critics and detractors. A cursory examination of any troubled region in the world will inevitably yield a horrific catalogue of wanton violence, destruction and collapsed institutions that have left societies irretrievably damaged.

Where in the world, may I ask, has another small nation-state managed to function reasonably after four coup d’├ętats, compromised elections and incessant exogenous pressures? The picture drawn by Fiji’s many critics does a terrible disservice to the resiliency of ordinary people who work hard to raise families, improve their communities and create better opportunities for the future. It would be wonderful if all the roads were paved and water never shut off, but in my travels throughout the country, people still went to work, and children showed up for school and meals were prepared in tiny hamlets across the land. I do not want to minimize the hardship experienced by many people in Fiji because of poor infrastructure, lack of basic services and minimal resources, but it is a hyperbolic leap to invent a society that is in the throes of an existential crisis. As the inestimable Alan Lockington frequently reminds us, life goes on, even in the midst of profound political and social changes, much to the chagrin of the chattering classes.       

Richard's shocking revelation that life is hard in Fiji these days after his excursion to a “shantytown” reminds one of seeing snow for the first time, and loudly exclaiming that it’s cold. Life in the squatters has always been hard, even in the halcyon days when the press was free, elections were democratic and water never shut off.

I know because I grew up in Jittu Estate, perhaps the most notorious squatter settlement in the country. I suppose one ought to be grateful for the episodic international coverage the “shantytowns” receive; knowing that someone out there has finally discovered their plight and help is on the way. It would be too much to ask from journalists to inquire about the fundamental causes of poverty, pragmatic public policies with limited resources, institutional structures that manipulate preferences or the transaction costs asymmetrically distributed. Fiji is a small developing country, warts and all, and neither Mr. Bainimarama nor the coups have altered that unremarkable fact.

Moving on from Richard's  discovery of poverty in Fiji  we heard  Nik's refrain  about the army going back to the barracks and all will be well with the universe, which sadly reveals a mind that only has the slimmest grasp of politics, power and socio-economic reality. Nation building, as the Americans have recently been reminded, is a slow and arduous process, requiring skill, patience, resources and assistance. Institutional change- as any novice policy analyst will tell you - is incremental and rarely pareto efficient, but the most dangerous conclusion to Mr. Naidu’s assertion is that nature abhors a vacuum: Who does he think will move into the power void in the event that Mr. Bainimarama departs for the barracks?

Nik's  perilous propositions make for catchy sound bites amongst fellow travelers but cannot be taken seriously by anyone who has spent time reflecting on the complex and fluid situation in Fiji. What Fiji needs is assistance and viable policies in order to make a smooth transition from the status quo with the minimum of collateral damage and hardship for  people who have endured much, yet remain graceful, hopeful and generous.

Moving around Fiji

Between a wedding in Kulukulu, Sigatoka, to a memorial service in Benares, Lautoka, I travelled and visited with people across the social strata. I spent time with yaqona sellers in Savusavu market and townspeople in Labasa, and stayed at a retired civil servant’s house in Laucala beach estate in Suva while doing research at the Fiji Bureau of Statistics and USP. I spent days with locals at the Nadi club and with regulars and old-timers at the South Sea club in Lautoka,  at a relative’s farm in Yalalevu, Ba and Mulomulo, Nadi, with tourists at the Outrigger Resort in Korotogo and backpackers lodging in Wailoaloa. I had long conversations at the highest level of government and with academics and individuals with insight on the current situation in Fiji, as well as with taxi drivers, journalists, farmers, contractors, police-officers, students, shopkeepers, housewives and professionals.

From settlements in Nadi to squatters in Suva, I was surprised by some of the responses to my queries about the events of the past four years. While everyone I met shared a universal contempt for politicians who have made a hash of things in Fiji, important variations did emerge in the most unlikely of places. An indigenous taxi driver in Martintar, Nadi, was emphatically opposed to elections in 2014 and deeply supportive of the current government, while an Indo-Fijian that I met was critical of the coup and the direction the country was being taken. Interestingly, most people saw Mr. Bainimarama as an outsider who meant well even though many of the promised reforms had yet to be realized. 

People in Fiji are understandably apprehensive about the future, but the image of a cowering public menaced by armed men in uniform is, to put it delicately, crap. Nobody refused to talk to me about anything or answer my questions, nor were people overcome with dread or trepidation about the supposedly repressive regime that the overseas media tell them they live under.

Sooner rather then later, Fiji will have to tackle some very difficult issues, and when it does that, the government will have at a minimum a decent and generous citizenry to call upon to help build, renew and move forward. I wish I could say the same about Fiji’s historic allies and her so called friends.

University of Missouri,St. Louis, USA

Ed. note. Sudarsan's statement that nobody refused to speak to him or answer his questions contrasts with Richard's who said people were afraid to speak to him. On the programme, Peni Moore said she thought Richard's experience was due to him being an outside journalist. This was probably the reason in his case  but several readers have commented on the perceived absence of free speech. It would appear the situation  varies.


True Blue said…
'Graceful, hopeful and generous.....'

Surdarsan Kant has written perhaps one of the most carefully observed and insightful commentaries on "Fiji as it is now". Having spent an entire day at the Nadi Chamber of Commerce AGM and Programme at the Novotel Sunday 8 August, one can absolutely vouch for the fact that Mr Kant understands us and he had direct experience of our intention to go through this transition towards a future which is more secure, more just and more productive for all Fiji's diverse ethnic groups. Those present from both government and the private sector were positive and thankful for government's efforts to improve service delivery. Any reservations about delays or gaps were courteously and carefully paid attention to. Yes, as a people and as Mr Kant so generously remarked, we are "gracious, hopeful and generous" in adversity and the natural calamities we have recently suffered: two hurricanes and a once in a lifetime flood show also that our resiliance is beyond the ordinary. All we would ask for is some understanding and expert assistance when it is required from neighbours who have profited from the skills of our qualified professionals and our sports men and women. Many have been obliged to leave Fiji after instability of twenty years' standing. We are determined that this shall end. The opportunity to end it is now with us. Would you not want to assist? Why would you choose not to? History will determine whether such decision were right. History will be a hard taskmaster.
natadola fantasy said…
This article is more fantasy than the natadola communique. What utter rubbish!
Joe said…
Fiji has always been like this. What a waste of space publishing this article.

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