Suhbash Appana Asks What Now
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Bringing it all together. The final in a series of Eight
Bringing it all together. The final in a series of Eight
Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji Part VIII –
By Subhash Appana
This series attempted to follow contextual changes that should have played a major role in the making of 3 constitutions in Fiji – 1970, 1990 and 1997. What was done instead is that in each of the cases, change was either disregarded or the context misread. Concerted attempts were made to either freeze a changing socio-cultural tableau (1970) or force it backwards (1990). Contextual realities were thus being denied in a futile attempt to force cohesion in a changing Fijian vote base. The constitution-making processes were thus doomed to fail.
It is important to note that government in Fiji was predicated on the back of a traditional system that was shaped, fossilized and maintained by the colonial administration. The chiefly system thus formed the back of the liberal-democratic system that presented the “face” of government in Fiji after independence in 1970. It was therefore very important that the hierarchy seen at the back (ie. the chiefly structure) reflected that seen at the front (ie. the government).
This has undergone massive change in recent times. First Dr. Bavadra, then Rabuka, then Qarase were all non-chief Prime Ministers. After the 1987 coup, commoners were brought into the GCC because it was thought that there were not enough qualified chiefs to man the council right. This centralized non-chiefs in Fiji’s politics while sidelining what was till-then seen as a special domain of chiefs and their chosen few commoners. This process of change has become much more evident among both rural and urban Fijians of today.
The rural Fijian is now markedly different from the undemanding villager of 1970. Passive acceptance is no longer seen as a virtue because of the advent of education, experience and progress. The Fijian village is now significantly manned by retirees, commercial farmers and people who have travelled and seen life outside the village – this has changed the dynamics of life, as well as expectations systems, in the village. Respect for and acceptance of an externally chosen and imposed chief, for example, is no longer guaranteed.
Might this be a harbinger of the final democratization of the Fijian as prophetically espoused by my colleague and friend Simione Durutalo? Simi used to say that for democracy to work in Fiji, the Fijian needed to be democratized first. Well, the numerous chiefly titular disputes, and a palpable weakening of the chiefly system, clearly show that we might want to think seriously about bottom-up-installed chiefs. This should have important implications for the form and role that the chiefly system takes from here onwards.
On the other hand, the number, aspirations and orientation of the urban Fijian, have also undergone drastic changes. Attending the best schools, competing for progress, entering tertiary training institutions, getting good jobs, establishing careers, saving and owning a house, etc. are now common among especially urban Fijians. Their increasing numbers, as opportunities dwindle in rural Fiji, has led to a new social grouping that is far removed from the traditional Fijian of old. This difference is so pronounced that urban Fijian offspring are mockingly referred to as susu madrai (brought up on bread as opposed to real Fijian food).
Closely linked to this burgeoning of the urban Fijian population is the appearance of multiple aspirations, multiple demands and multiple articulators of these. There are many more Fijian leaders and articulators of Fijian demands now than ever before when a small cadre of chosen people were relied on. This is why the urban Fijian has historically been the first to break ranks and forge new political alliances. This is largely why dominant Fijian political parties have popped up and disappeared so often. There is no longer one unified urban Fijian voice, just like there are ever-widening cracks appearing in the rural Fijian voice.
These changes within the Fijian social system when coupled with the fact that Indo-Fijians now comprise only 35% of Fiji’s population, clearly show that the Fijian has little to fear from outsiders whose numbers will continue to dwindle. After 1987 a subtle adjustment process was activated among the Indo-Fijians. The exodus has continued amid unprecedented attempts to forge friendships across the racial divide in Fiji. One only has to look at the taxi drivers, the roadside vendors, the mixed neighbourhoods, etc. to witness the inter-dependence.
There has been a greater acceptance of the “other” all around because of shared hardships and existences that were not understood before. Fewer now ridicule the “other” across the 2 cultures. More Indo-Fijians wear Fijian clothes, participate in mekes, etc. and vice versa. Fijian girls in Indian garb look devastating ….. and they know it. It is not uncommon to find Fijians enjoying Hindi movies at Village Cinemas. One attendant told me, they are always there.
This commonality is much more visible among the youth who will be tomorrow’s leaders. There are also many more mixed cross-gender relationships visible all around. These youth appear to be less enamoured with the racial concerns of yesteryear. I do not wish to make this statement provocative, but the Indo-Fijians who remain in Fiji today are different from those who populated the country earlier. There is a better understanding of things Fijian and the significance of living together. There is less fear of forging lasting familial ties across the divide.
It is also worth noting that traditional coup supporters have become converted flag-bearers of democracy since 2006. Whether this change is opportunistic, or the transformation will be lasting, is anyone’s guess. Coming back to the issue of Fijian expectations; political power play and parleying for precedence in resource allocation will now largely be a Fijian exercise involving largely Fijians only. It has been this for a while now, but the country couldn’t see it because the bargaining was kept out of the public eye. This will have to be brought into the public domain by design.
Finally, the military must take responsibility for all of Fiji’s coups. In 2006, they moved to centre stage with a clearly outlined agenda. In the process of fulfilling that agenda, a militarization process continues to take place. It is easy to condemn this as unacceptable. The realities of the situation however, paint a different picture. There is no easy solution to the “military issue” in Fiji. If they are convinced to move back to the barracks, they (and other realists) will want a clearly-demarcated role for them. There is no guarantee that Fiji will not have to turn to the military for deliverance once again.
The FMF thus presents another set of concerns and demands. This, and the weakening chiefly system, the emergence of modern-day voices of leadership, the multiple urban demands, the fragmented rural concerns, etc. clearly show that the unified Fijian political voice is no longer grounded in reality – Fijian communal unity is a myth, a figment of the imagination of those who cannot (or refuse to) dream of the bright future that is on offer. They had their say for too long, times have changed!
It is therefore, imperative for our constitution commissioners to note that the political equation in Fiji is no longer bipolar; it is multi-polar and requires appropriate mechanisms to ensure that Fiji finally gets a functioning democratic system that delivers for the nation.
I hope you enjoyed this series – all the best.
Subhash Appana is an academic and political commentator. The opinions contained in this article are entirely his and not necessarily shared by any organizations he may be associated with both in Fiji and abroad. Email firstname.lastname@example.org