How the Sinai Peacekeeping Force Staged a Military Coup in Fiji

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood black comedy. A tiny, poor, but democratic country decides to help its young men get jobs and see the world by joining international peacekeeping forces in the Middle East. The young soldiers serve in Lebanon and the Egyptian Sinai, return home, stage a coup, and set up a military dictatorship.

Except that it really happened. To Fiji.

Fiji is a Pacific archipelago that became independent in 1970 with a population of about 600,000. There were 300,000 Indo-Fijians, 255,000 Melanesian-Fijians, and 45,000 others. The Indo-Fijians had arrived as plantation labor at the end of the nineteenth century, but by the 1970s they ran most of the islands’ businesses. When Britain left, it bestowed on Fiji a constitution that protected both the rights and the traditional power structure of the Melanesian minority; courts judged Melanesians according to traditional laws, chiefs had seats in the Upper House of Parliament, elected seats in parliament were allocated by community, and the Prime Minister was a scion of a Melanesian chiefly family.

For almost twenty years, the island was held up as a “model multiethnic postcolonial democracy.” The reality was that Fiji was peaceful because of an informal understanding that Melanesian Fijians would run the government while Indo-Fijians ran the economy.

But in 1987 the Indo-Fijian majority elected an Indo-Fijian prime minister and the Melanesian Fijian minority responded with a coup d’état. The Economist, which had lauded Fiji’s multi-ethnic democracy, suddenly perceived that democracy in Fiji had “a hollow center: it did not include letting an election mean that you might have to hand over power to the opposition.”

The coup was led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, who had served with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and with the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Egyptian Sinai. The civilian politicians were no match for the Colonel and his peacekeeping veterans from the Middle East, where Fiji has had a battalion deployed since the mission began in 1982.

To put this in its remarkable perspective, one must know that other Pacific Island nations don’t even have a military. Even in Fiji, aside from the policing activities of the coast guard, the armed forces have only two functions: to serve in international peacekeeping missions, and to stage coups d’état and run corrupt military dictatorships at home. In that last capacity, they have demonstrated particular panache. But if the United Nations had not inspired the creation of a Fijian army, Fiji would never have had a military coup.

There were lots of valid reasons for sending young men to serve in international peacekeeping forces. Fiji is a small place with few jobs, and the young people were leaving. Peacekeeping was honorable work, and the peacekeepers’ families could hope that they would come home after they had seen the world. But the program also appealed to Fiji’s pride in its traditional, if obsolete, warrior culture. For the Melanesian-Fijians who volunteered (few Indo-Fijians enlisted), it reinforced a self-image as warriors in much the same way that service in the IDF reinforces the warrior identity of Israeli Bedouin.

The Republic of Fiji Military Forces are a big deal in Fiji. Their numbers grew as the United Nations sent Fijians to Iraq, Sudan, and other conflict zones. When the Sinai Battalion gets stopped at a Bedouin roadblock, or a foreign diplomat says a nice word about them, it makes headlines in Fiji.

Fiji has had two new constitutions since the 1987 coup, a 1990 version written by the group that led the military coup, and a 1997 constitution featuring a preferential voting system designed to produce a democratic and bi-national state.

The 1997 constitution went into effect in 1999 and Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, grandson of an Indian contract laborer, was elected prime minister.

Having lost the election, ethnic Melanesians took to the streets overturning the automobiles and wrecking the businesses of Indo-Fijians. They installed Commodore Frank Bainimarama, a veteran of the Sinai MFO, at the head of a military government.

The conflict in Fiji is about nationhood and identity, and, ultimately, about whether a bi-national state is viable. The constitutions of 1970 and 1997, like the constitutions that failed in Cyprus and Lebanon, attempted to divide power between two communities with different cultures. Melanesian Fijians want to build a Melanesian-speaking nation with a distinctly Melanesian Fijian culture. Indo-Fijians, and Fijians of Chinese and European origin, did not wish to adopt the Melanesian language and culture.

But things did not have to end violently. On an island where schools and public administration have long been conducted in English, a democratic patriotism like that of India was not unimaginable. India, after all, has remained democratic and settled its problems without resorting to military government despite having many faiths, cultures, ethnicities, and languages.

In Fiji, however, an ethnically exclusive military had been funded and trained by the United Nations. That military enforced Melanesian domination of Fijian politics with coups d’état in 1987, 1999-2000, 2006, and 2009.

The unfortunate conclusion seems to be that those who have the guns, make the rules. Four military putsches and decades of bad military government with anti-Indo-Fijian activism occasionally rising to violence has driven out so many Indo-Fijians that Fiji is now a majority-Melanesian state.

And so they are drawing up a new constitution in Fiji; their fourth. It is being written by a committee backed by the international community, and it is scheduled to be ratified in 2014. The constitution is expected to conform to the demands of the present government, led by Commodore Bainimarama, who led the military coup of 2000 and came back to power in the military coup of 2007. His demands are expressed as a set of “fundamental” principles set forth in the People’s Charter for Change of 2008 and oppose any reinstitution of constitutionally structured power sharing between Fiji’s two communities.

Perhaps as much as Fiji has gone to the Middle East, the Middle East has come to Fiji.


Jewish Ideas Daily, August 27, 2012