Ethnic Balance in the Fiji Military
|The second pass out parade in 2013|
It's not the first time the issue has been raised.
Thakur Ranjit Singh wrote several years ago on why there were so few Indo-Fijians in the RFMF. It was a concern mentioned in the People's Charter consultations. There's periodic reference to it in the blogs, and this blog has mentioned it more than once.
But what prompted our interest this time was a RFMF advertisement in the Fiji Sun, brought to my attention by a Fiji friend. This is what he wrote:
I thought I’d draw to your attention a couple of facts about the RFMF advertisement for its new recruits that appeared in last Thursday’s Fiji Sun (21/11/13). First, out of 250 recruits, only 7 are Indo-Fijians and 5 have names that identify them with mixed race and Pacific islander ethnicities. Second, these recruits were to march into camp last Saturday with among other personal belongings, their ‘Bible, Hymn book’.
All the recruits are men so there is no pretense at gender balance. At least 3 of the Indo-Fijians have Christian names.
It seems to me that despite the rhetoric of non-racism, the Fiji army has remained largely an exclusive ethnic body in a multi-ethnic society. Over the last 7 years, the post-coup government has almost completely failed to address the huge ethnic and gender imbalance in our military.
Moreover the call for ‘Bible’ and ‘Hymn book’ has the assumption that the recruits belong to one religion in a state that has pretensions to be secular. The call should have been for ‘holy books’ or not made at all.
Seven out of 250! That's 2.8%. Even less than the proportion in 1996 when Indo-Fijians comprised 4.8% of the defence forces.
Ethnic imbalances, of course, are a major feature of the plural societies created under colonialism where there was typically a coincidence of residential location and quality, employment and income, and a wide separation of the quality of life for different ethnic groups.
In Fiji and Suva, for example, up until and some years after World War II, most Indo-Fijians lived in Samabula; most Europeans employed by Government in the Domain, and most ethnic Fijians in peri-urban villages — except for the housekeepers and gardeners working for Europeans. The civil service was dominated by Europeans and ethnic Fijians, and business and the private sector by Indo-Fijians. Sea transport was Fijian; land transport Indian. Fijians were Christian; Indians Hindu or Muslim. And in the Suva I studied in the 1970s few secondary school children attended the school closest to where they lived. They travelled across town to the school that best fitted their ethnicity and religion, and their parents' ability to pay the fees required. Suva Grammar School was the first school, in the late 1960s, to have a multi-ethnic sixth form.
With such divisions, it is hardly surprising that many ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians have so little knowledge of each other, and not at all surprising that their stereotypes can be so easily used for political and other purposes destructive of national unity. Thus, ethnic Fijians are lazy and Indo-Fijians greedy. They are under-represented in the military because they are unpatriotic and only interested in money.
My book Fiji: an Encyclopaedic Atlas was published in 2006, a few days before the coup, . On page 327, I wrote:
"Whatever the historic causes and however difficult it will be, it is important for national security that a better ethnic balance is achieved in the RFMF and the police force."
The figures then available from the 1996 Census showed Indo-Fijians comprised 32.7% of the police force and 43.7% of the population. I suspect the proportion is much lower today but there is no way of knowing because the Government —mistakenly— fails to collect and publish information on ethnicity and employment, or ethnicity and passenger arrivals and departures, or ethnicity and poverty, and in so doing it has removed the only way the ethnic situation can be monitored and reviewed, and imbalances corrected. The 1996 imbalance in the RFMF was noted earlier.
Given the Bainimarama Government's stated aims of equal citizenship and a common national identity, one must ask why it has done so little to address ethnic imbalances. It started well with the goal of multi-lingualism in the civil services and schools, but the former appears to have been forgotten and the latter is progressing so slowly. I have tried, on several occasions, to obtain hard data from the Education Ministry on civics education and language but I never received the information I requested.
In my 2012 interview with Land Force Commander Col. Mosese Tikoitoga, I asked whether there had been any effort to recruit Indo-Fijians. He told me they were not interested, and there was no policy to encourage their interest.
I thought for a while that there had been no attempt to change the ethnic composition of the military because Government feared that the soldiers would think Indo-Fijians were invading their preserve, and Government could not run the risk of losing military loyalty. But the actual threat to Government came from two ethnic Fijians, former senior officers Pita Driti and Ratu Tevita Mara, who plotted a mutiny against Government. Not the few Indo-Fijians in the force.
Although it is perhaps significant that Driti tried to shift blame on to the RFMF's only senior Indo-Fijian officer Brigader General Mohammed Aziz. Just as they also claimed another Indo-Fijian, Attorney-General Ayaz Sayed-Khaiyum, was exerting too much influence on the Prime Minister. Ethnic animosity and the use of ethnicity for prejudicial purposes are alive and well in Fiji, and the continuance of major ethnic imbalances, such as that in the armed forces, will ensure they remain so.
Fiji has experienced four coups, all initiated or involving ethnic Fijian officers. It could be argued that an Indo-Fijian presence in the military may serve as a deterrent against future coups because Indo-Fijians are "unconnected" with chiefly and other iTaukei pressures. .
There are other reasons why there should be a better ethnic balance in the military and, indeed, in the police force, the corrections service and other walks of life. An almost totally ethnic Fijian military cannot inspire confidence among Indo-Fijians and other ethnicities, and in situations where the military (or police) has to intervene, Indo-Fijians in particular will feel doubly threatened.
But the most compelling and immediate reason is that many of the powers given to the military since 2006, and endorsed in the 2013 Constitution, will continue until the 2014 Elections and beyond.
There is reason to think that the Fiji military sees itself as the ultimate defenders of the State charged with the responsibility of maintaining of law and order: an adjunct and the equal, in times of crisis, to an elected government.
If this is the case (or even only part of case), it is especially important that its ethnic (and religious) composition broadly reflects that of the population.
The new electoral system will ensure fairer political representation; tomorrow's military must ensure fairer ethnic and religious representation.