Fiji is one of the largest Pacific island states, consisting of over 330 islands, of which 112 are populated, though almost 90 per cent of the population live on the two main islands Vanua Levu and Viti Levu. Most of the islands are of volcanic origin. Cyclones and floods are not unusual.
Main languages: Fijian, Hindi, Rotuman, English
Main religions: Christianity (mainly Methodist Church), Hindu, Muslim
Minority groups include Indo-Fijians 316,093 (37.4%), Rotumans (no official figures exist but estimates vary between 8,000 and 10,000 (1%), Banabans and Melanesians (from Solomon Islands and New Hebrides). The population consists of two principal ethnic groups: the indigenous Melanesian population (subsequently referred to as Fijians), who now constitute a majority of the population (463,432, 54.8%), and the Indo-Fijian (commonly referred to as Indian) population (data, except Rotumans: Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics, 2005).
While Fijians tend to be regarded as Melanesians they are more homogeneous than in other Melanesian states. For example, they have one language, a more hierarchical and hereditary social structure, and a chiefly system more akin to those in Polynesia.
The remainder of the population is of diverse origins with a significant Polynesian group from the outlying island of Rotuma. Under Fiji’s citizenship and electoral laws, Rotumans are regarded as indigenous (unlike the much larger Indo-Fijian community born in Fiji).
Banabans from Ocean Island (Kiribati) were settled in Fiji in the 1940s, after phosphate mining ruined their home island. There has been some migration from many other Pacific islands.
There is a small group of Melanesian islanders, descendants of those who were brought to Fiji from the Solomon Islands and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) during the 1800s to work on plantations.
There are other minority groups in Fiji – including the Chinese (whose numbers are again increasing) and other Pacific islanders, who are often temporary residents. There are many Pacific islanders at the University of the South Pacific, and there have occasionally been tensions between some national groups there.
The indigenous Melanesian population of Fiji has been there for more than 2,000 years. Although one Fijian language covers the whole country, there are sub-regional dialects, especially on Vanua Levu and the eastern Lau islands.
Indians were brought to Fiji by the British colonial government, from the last two decades of the nineteenth century until 1919, to work in the sugar industry. They thus settled in the two main sugar areas on the two largest islands. Subsequently, although there has been significant rural–urban migration, as Indo-Fijians have taken up business opportunities in urban centres, they remain on the two main islands.
Opposition to Indian migration to Fiji was latent in the colonial period. In post-independence years there was more concerted opposition, directed at the numerical dominance of Indo-Fijians and their pre-eminence in commerce and some parts of the public service. Resentment has increased at times of high unemployment, as in the twentieth century, and in the 1970s there were occasional thoughts of repatriation of Indo-Fijians. In 1982 the Great Council of Chiefs sought to reserve two-thirds of parliamentary seats for Fijians. Indo-Fijians have remained landless, dependent on leasing land from indigenous Fijians, hence many have moved into urban commerce.
After independence in 1970 the new constitution safeguarded the interests of the Fijian minority in terms of access to land, through having a majority in the Senate and through the assurance that they would have almost half the seats in the lower house, the House of Representatives. Despite these guarantees, and despite the relative growth of the Fijian population (through differential natural increase and emigration rates), opposition to Indo-Fijians continued. Political parties and elections were essentially divided on racial grounds.
In 1985 the multi-racial Fiji Labour Party (FLP) was formed and, led by a Fijian, Dr Timoci Bavadra, won the April 1987 election in a coalition with the Indo-Fijian-based National Federation Party (NFP). Although the FLP awarded sensitive ministerial posts to Fijians, there was powerful opposition and in May 1987 a military coup led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka overthrew the government. When the governor-general established a caretaker government of a coalition including FLP members, a second coup in September 1987 again overthrew the government. In October 1987 Rabuka declared a republic, and there was violence against, and victimization of, supporters of the previous government.
Rabuka subsequently handed over power to a chosen civilian government under long-time prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamesese Mara, with a new constitution drawn up in 1990 by Rabuka, which gave preferential treatment to the Fijian population, guaranteeing Fijian political supremacy in a race-based political system in which the majority of seats in both Houses were allocated to Fijians.
Rabuka again became prime minister in 1994 and Mara became president. In 1995 a two-year process of reviewing the 1990 Constitution by a three-person commission began, which included a prominent Indo-Fijian critic of the government. A revised constitution was agreed in 1997. Despite ethnic Fijian opposition, that constitution was implemented in 1998.
In 1999, with the Fijian vote split between five parties, the Fiji Labour Party again won a majority in Parliament and Mahendra Chaudhry became the first Indo-Fijian prime minister. The policies of his social-democratic government (including the removal of value-added taxes on essential goods, the end of the Rabuka government’s programme of privatization of public utilities, the removal of Rabuka appointees from statutory boards, and the exposure of corruption from the post-coup era) earned the former trade union leader widespread opposition in the business community. Chaudhry also raised concern over perceived threats to Fijian paramountcy, when he promised 30-year land leases to Indo-Fijians, at a time when they were expiring.
This enraged many Fijians and in May 2000 a part-Fijian businessman, George Speight, associated with the nationalist Taukei Movement, along with a section of the army, took over parliament and held the prime minister and members of the government hostage for 56 days. Eventually the remainder of the army restored peace, an interim administration was appointed, led by Laisenia Qarase, and Speight and some followers were jailed. The 2001 election restored a measure of democracy, despite grave concerns over the lack of representation of Indo-Fijians in government as the new constitution demanded, whereas two members of Speight’s party were included in the cabinet. The notion of a government of national unity proved impossible to establish until members of the Labour Party joined a multi-party cabinet after the 2006 elections.
Fiji has a relatively diverse economy, increasingly centred on tourism. The long-standing core of the economy, sugar, has declined because of global movements away from protection and towards free trade, and failure to invest in modernization and to extend leases. Most sugar production has been undertaken in two large areas on the two main islands by Indo-Fijians, but since the late 1990s Fijian landowners have been withdrawing of leases and this has resulted in greater poverty amongst former cane-cutters and both rural–urban and international migration. The third key element of the economy, textiles, has also experienced a rapid decline, again because of the movement to free trade. Growing dependence on migration and remittances has resulted in the structure of the Fijian economy becoming more like that of such remittance-dependent countries as Tonga and Samoa. Especially outside the two main islands, many Fijians are largely dependent on subsistence agriculture and fishing.
In 1996, the Fiji government hosted the first regional consultation on the UN draft Declaration on Indigenous Rights and, on the international stage, has played an active role in the United Nations, supporting indigenous peoples’ rights and intellectual property rights.
Under the 1997 Constitution, Fiji has two legislatures alongside a powerful Great Council of Chiefs. The Senate has 32 seats and the House of Representatives 71 seats, 23 of which are reserved for ethnic Fijians, 19 for ethnic Indians, 3 for other ethnic groups; the remainder are open seats. The Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) has a significant advisory role and appoints the president. At various times it has taken a position in opposition to Indo-Fijian interests.
Under Fiji’s electoral laws, which include communal voting, non-indigenous and non-Indian citizens – primarily Europeans and Chinese – are known as ‘general voters’. Nowadays, the European descendants of the old colonial elite are outnumbered by Asian and islander communities.
Politics has long been dominated by differences between the two main ethnic groups and political parties which represent their interests. The two main political parties are the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL), the predominantly Fijian party led by Laisenia Qarase, who won the elections in 2001 and 2006, and the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) of Mahendra Chaudhry. Both leaders have lost their position due to coups – Chaudhry and the Labour-led coalition in 2000, Qarase and the SDL-led multi-party government in December 2006.
In the twentieth century there were complex attempts to develop a more appropriate constitution for Fiji. A reformed constitution was approved in 1997 that included complex attempts at power-sharing. According to the constitution the cabinet is supposed to reflect the composition of the House of Representatives, but, despite the demands of the Supreme Court, the SDL government did not appoint any FLP cabinet ministers until after the 2006 election. This raised questions over how parties of very different ethnic compositions and aspirations might work together, and what role an opposition might play.
Violence against Indo-Fijians during and after the 1987 and 2000 coups, the greater political power of Fijians, concern over economic growth (as tourism, sugar and other economic activities slumped) and fear for the future all led to substantial emigration of Indo-Fijians, so that Fijians again became a majority in the 1990s.
Ongoing tensions remained in the aftermath of the violent May 2000 takeover of parliament by Fijian nationalist George Speight, alongside dissident army officers, and the subsequent abrogation of the constitution, until it was reimposed at the end of 2000. Although the 2001 elections returned the country to parliamentary rule, there were unresolved tensions over the slow pace of prosecutions and reduced penalties for coup supporters. (The former Fiji Vice-President Ratu Jope Seniloli was released from prison in November 2004 after only four months of a four-year jail term for coup-related offences.)
In 2005, relations between the Fijian and Indo-Fijian communities were strained by the debate over the Reconciliation, Unity and Tolerance Bill introduced by the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Key provisions of the bill provided amnesty for ‘political’ crimes, though the commander of the Fiji Military Forces (FMF) sought full punishment for all offenders. Parliament has also supported bills giving Fijians greater control over resources, including coastal land, partly in the wake of pressures for compensation, a Melanesian trend that has increasingly become evident in Fiji.
While the Indo-Fijians are the principal minority population and are marginalized in various ways, the newer Chinese population are widely resented for their presence in certain components of commerce and their links to some forms of international crime.
Although there is extensive inter-marriage with indigenous Fijians, the small Melanesian community – descendants of Solomon Islanders and New Hebrideans – retain a distinct identity. Because many cannot claim land rights, they are organizing to claim improved livelihoods.
After the 2006 elections, Indo-Fijians of Chaudhry’s party took their place in the cabinet in a hesitant step towards more effective reconciliation. In the course of a decade of turbulence the Indio-Fijian population has fallen proportionally and absolutely, and the country has lost considerable talent.
A military coup ousted the government on 5 December 2006. The take-over – Fiji’s fourth in two decades – was the culmination of a long impasse between coup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase over attempts to offer pardons to conspirators in the 2000 coup and to grant lucrative coastal land ownership to indigenous Fijians. Commodore Bainimarama, himself an indigenous Fijian, said the bills were unfair to the island’s Indo-Fijian minority. The island subsequently enjoyed a relative calm; an interim government took shape, with eight ministers being sworn in to work under Bainimarama who was declared Prime Minister in January. The State of Emergency on the island was lifted in May 2007. Ongoing conflict between Bainimarama and the Great Council of Chiefs led him to sack the Council and suspend all future meetings in April 2007, after the chiefs refused to endorse his government and his nomination for vice-president.
With increasing urbanization, disillusionment with the behaviour of chiefs and conflict between different indigenous federations, the role of Fijian chiefs is often called into question by indigenous Fijians themselves. This is not to say that indigenous Fijians wish to abolish the chiefly system, nor abandon their traditions and culture; but it does mean that they are not satisfied with the current, postcolonial chiefly system and do wish to reform it in some way.