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Fijian politics remained sharply polarized in 2002, as agricultural land rights and other divisive issues continued to drive a wedge between the South Pacific country's two main ethnic groups. Talks between the government, dominated by indigenous Fijians, and ethnic Indian leaders over renewing leases held by Indian tenant farmers on land owned by indigenous Fijians broke down in December. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's government, meanwhile, defied a court order to give cabinet posts to the main ethnic Indian party--a factor reportedly cited by ethnic Indian leader Mahendra Chaudhry in pulling out of the land talks.
Coming two years after an armed gang of indigenous Fijians ousted Chaudhry after he became Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, the tensions dimmed prospects for a revival of the critical sugar and tourism industries.
The British colonized this isolated archipelago in 1874 and began bringing Indian laborers to work on their sugar plantations five years later. At independence in 1970, the indigenous Fijian and ethnic Indian communities were roughly equal in size.
Following 17 years of rule by the indigenous Fijian Alliance Party, the 1987 elections brought to power for the first time a government made up largely of ethnic Indians. Backed by indigenous Fijian hardliners, Sitiveni Rabuka, a senior army officer, seized power in two coups that year. Rabuka and his supporters said that they were concerned with the growing clout of the ethnic Indian community, which already dominated agriculture and business.
Rabuka led an indigenous Fijian party to victory in elections in 1992 and 1994 that were held under a new constitution that ensured indigenous Fijian control of parliament. To help stem a continuing exodus of thousands of skilled ethnic Indians, parliament in 1997 struck these guarantees from the constitution.
The first elections under the amended constitution, in March 1999, brought to power a multiracial coalition government under Chaudhry, head of the Fiji Labor Party (FLP), who became the country's first prime minister of Indian descent. Chaudhry soon angered many indigenous Fijians by pressuring landowners to renew expiring 30-year leases held by ethnic Indian tenant farmers without much of an increase in rents. Many indigenous Fijian landowners, who together own roughly 83 percent of the land, want to put their property to other uses once the leases expire.
This puts them at odds with ethnic Indian tenant farmers, who are the main producers of sugar and other cash crops. The Chaudhry government also awarded a contract for logging on indigenous Fijian land to a British company rather than accepting a more lucrative American bid.
Calling for greater indigenous Fijian rights, an armed gang that included more than 50 rebel soldiers and was led by George Speight, a businessman, seized the parliament building in Suva and held Chaudhry and other officials hostage for 56 days in mid-2000. After defusing the crisis, the military installed Qarase, a banker, to lead an interim government. Speight pleaded guilty to treason charges in 2002.
Qarase led his new Fiji United Party (FUP), a moderate indigenous Fijian group, to victory in elections held in August and September 2001. The FUP won 32 seats, the FLP, 27, and smaller parties and independents, 12. Qarase formed a new government without the FLP despite a constitutional provision requiring that any party receiving more than 10 percent of the parliamentary seats be offered cabinet posts. As 2002 ended, Qarase was continuing to defy court orders earlier in the year to give the FLP cabinet seats.
Despite the collapse of talks late in the year, Qarase vowed to press ahead in 2003 with efforts to replace the current legislation governing agricultural leases with a law that would provide incentives to indigenous Fijians to continue renting out their land for agriculture. Already, some ethnic Indians have been forced off their farms after their leases expired.
The Fiji Cane Growers Association, an industry group, warned that sugar production, an economic mainstay, was falling because of uncertainties over land tenure. Others suggested, however, that the industry's inefficiency was also to blame. To this end, the government said in November that it would begin selling off Fiji's sugar mills in 2003, even though this could lead to large job losses. The government said that privatization is needed in order to sharpen the sugar industry's competitiveness before European Union subsidies are phased out in 2008. Sugar growing accounts for 7 percent of economic output, and around 200,000 people, a quarter of Fiji's population, depend on the industry.
A court martial in November, meanwhile, handed down prison terms to 15 soldiers convicted of trying to stage a mutiny 2 years earlier. The military, however, appears to be preventing police from investigating and prosecuting soldiers who reportedly beat to death four of the mutineers immediately following the uprising.
Fiji returned to elected rule in 2001, although the army's refusal to restore the Chaudhry government to power after the 2000 coup attempt casts doubt on whether a government led by ethnic Indians could survive.
Moreover, the 1997 constitution, while ending the guaranteed parliamentary majority enjoyed by indigenous Fijians, gives them several political advantages. Voting in the 71-seat lower house is still partially along ethnic lines, and indigenous Fijians hold more of the reserved seats than do ethnic Indians. The house has 25 seats open to all races, 23 reserved for indigenous Fijians, 19 for ethnic Indians, 3 for "general electors" (mainly whites and East Asians), and 1 for voters on Rotuma Island.
In addition, the constitution empowers the Great Council of Chiefs, a traditional indigenous Fijian body, to name the largely ceremonial president, who in turn appoints the 32-member Senate. Moreover, it calls for the civil service to reflect the country's ethnic makeup. Successive governments have used this provision to place indigenous Fijians and Rotumans in at least half of public sector jobs at all levels, including in most senior posts.
Press freedom and human rights groups have criticized provisions of a 1998 security law that would allow the government to restrict civil liberties during a state of emergency. The law, the Emergency Powers Act, allows parliament to censor the press, ban public meetings, and authorize searches without warrants and the seizure of private property.
Fiji's judiciary has bolstered its long-standing reputation for independence with several rulings against the government since the 2000 coup attempt. These include the 2002 order to Qarase's government to include the FLP, and a ruling that declared Qarase's previous, interim government to be illegal, forcing it to hold elections. The courts are heavily backlogged, though, so that suspects are often held in custody for long periods before their trials.
Police and soldiers have in past years abused detainees and defendants out on bail and illegally detained suspects, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. Prison conditions are "extremely harsh" because of overcrowding and limited food and sanitation, the report added. Human rights groups criticize the government for being slow to punish indigenous Fijians who, during the 2000 crisis, looted and burned many ethnic Indian shops and homes on Fiji's two largest islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
Fiji's private media vigorously report on alleged official wrongdoing and publish some editorials critical of the government, but journalists generally practice "considerable self-censorship," according to the U.S. State Department Human Rights report. The Qarase government has at times tried to pressure editors and otherwise interfered with the press, the report added. The government owns shares in the Fiji Post newspaper and has business links to its main English-language competitor, the Fiji Sun, which raises questions about the concentration of media ownership.
Journalists are subject to a strict press law that has never been used but remains on the books. The Press Correction Act authorizes officials to arrest anyone who publishes "malicious" material, or to order a publication to print a "correcting statement" to an allegedly false or distorted article. Past governments, however, did use another law, the Parliamentary Privileges and Powers Act, to bring actions against newspapers over their parliamentary coverage. The journalists ultimately were not punished under the act, which authorizes jail terms of up to two years for breaches of parliamentary privilege.
In another freedom of expression concern, the Qarase government has denied permits for several high-profile political marches and rallies.
Women hold relatively few jobs in government and politics, although they have made significant inroads in the civil service, businesses, and the professions. Credible accounts suggest that 10 percent of Fijian women have been abused in some way, the U.S. State Department report said. Women's groups also are concerned that most rape sentences are lenient, while the practice of bulubulu (traditional reconciliation) allows some offenders to apologize to the victim's relatives and avoid felony charges altogether. Modernization, meanwhile, has contributed to an erosion of traditional family and village structures, which is blamed in part for increased child abuse and the growing number of homeless youths in cities.
Fijians of all faiths can generally worship freely. Most indigenous Fijians are Christians, while most ethnic Indians are Hindus.
Fijian trade unions are independent and vigorous, and roughly 55 percent of the workforce is unionized. The country, however, lacks laws on anti-union discrimination in factories. This means that workers in newer industries, such as the garment sector, often are afraid to organize. Newspaper reports and nongovernmental groups allege that some garment factories use bonded or forced labor and make women work excessive hours.