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A lengthy stalemate between Fiji's ruling and opposition parties over the formation of a multiparty cabinet was finally resolved in late 2004. However, ethnic tensions between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians continued throughout the year. On the international front, the Pacific Transnational Crime Center opened in Suva in June to manage, coordinate, and support law enforcement intelligence among Pacific Island countries.
After colonizing Fiji in 1874, the British began bringing Indian laborers to work on sugar plantations. Fiji gained full independence in 1970, by which time Indians comprised nearly half of the total population. The Indo-Fijians became active participants in all spheres of Fijian society, and the Indo-Fijian Alliance Party ruled until 1987 when Sitiveni Rabuka, a senior army officer of Fijian extract, overthrew the government.
Intense ethnic rivalry between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians has become the main source of political tension in the country. In a May 2000 coup that overthrew an elected government, George Speight, an indigenous Fijian, held Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, an Indo-Fijian, and his cabinet hostage in the parliament house. President Ratu Mara was ousted from office. Speight and his followers surrendered after a 56-day standoff. After defusing the crisis, the military installed Laisenia Qarase, a banker and indigenous Fijian, to lead an interim government and arrested Speight and more than 300 of his supporters. Following the coup, ethnic Fijians engaged in a campaign of violence to destroy Indo-Fijian homes and businesses. In 2002, Speight pleaded guilty to treason and was given the mandatory death sentence, which was later commuted to life imprisonment.
In the August-September 2001 elections to the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Qarase's Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party captured the largest number of seats, 32, followed by former Prime Minister Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party (FLP), with 27. Qarase formed a new government without the FLP, despite a constitutional requirement that any party receiving more than 10 percent of seats be offered cabinet posts. After Qarase defied the court's orders, the Supreme Court ruled in July 2003 that the prime minister must offer cabinet seats to the FLP. Subsequent negotiations between Qarase and Chaudhry broke down over the exact number of FLP parliamentarians to be admitted into Qarase's cabinet. On November 26, 2004, Qarase and Chaudhry finally ended the lengthy stalemate by agreeing not to pursue the dispute any further.
Meanwhile, the recovery from the effects of the coup has been slow and arduous. The opposition has criticized as too lenient the sentences for others implicated in the coup. So far, 92 soldiers have gone to prison and another 42 have been remanded for their alleged involvement. Those brought to trial included Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli, who was sentenced to four years in jail in August 2004 for his involvement in the coup.
In January 2004, President Ratu Joseful Iloilo extended the appointment of Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama as army commander for another term by. Despite strong public support for Bainimarama's reappointment - people feared the possibility of another military coup without his firm leadership of the military - differences between Bainimarama and some senior politicians over prosecution of soldiers involved in the May 2000 coup was a major political issue throughout the year. Following his contract renewal, Bainimarama replaced several of his top aides and senior officers.
In July 2004, Qarase named Ratu Rakavo Lalabalavu to succeed Ratu Epeli Ganilau as a member of the Great Council of Chiefs, a traditional indigenous Fijian body. Ratu Epeli, who was the council's chair, argued that his term does not expire until 2006 and that his removal was due to his strong criticism of government policies. The Great Council appointed Ratu Ovini Bokini as chair for a one-year term to allow time for resolution of the dispute between Ratu Epeli and the government.
The Ministry of Education introduced a controversial plan in early 2004 to provide a free high school education only to indigenous Fijian students. Qarase distanced himself from the proposal, but welcomed the idea of a grand indigenous Fijian coalition proposed by former coup leader Rabuka. On the Indo-Fijian side, Chaudhry, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, chose not to attend a reconciliation ceremony, in which traditional chiefs were to offer an apology on behalf of the indigenous Fijians for damage done to Indo-Fijian homes and businesses in the aftermath of the May 2000 coup.
Australia is a major sponsor of the Pacific Transnational Crime Center, an effort to improve Fiji's police, justice, and prison systems over the next several years, which opened in June. Canberra hopes restoring the rule of law will help revive the Fijian economy and curb money laundering, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and terrorist activities in and around the country.
Fiji returned to elected civilian rule in 2001. The bicameral parliament consists of the 32-seat Senate and the 71-seat House of Representatives. In the House, 25 seats are open to all races and ethnicities, 23 are reserved for Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 3 for other ethnic groups (mainly citizens of Caucasian and East Asian extraction), and 1 for voters on Rotuma Island. A new constitution introduced in 1997 ended the guarantee of parliamentary majority by indigenous Fijians but continued to give them many political advantages. For example, indigenous Fijians hold more reserved seats than do Indo-Fijians in the House of Representatives.
The constitution empowers the Great Council of Chiefs, a traditional indigenous Fijian body, to name the largely ceremonial president, who in turn approves the nominations of the Senate. Successive governments have used this provision to place indigenous Fijians and Rotumans in at least half of all public sector jobs at all levels, including the most senior positions. In 2003, the Great Council of Chiefs tried to expand its powers into the legislative domain.
Official corruption and abuses are widespread. A series of financial scandals rocked the Fijian economy and continue to hinder its economic recovery following the May 2000 coup. Past anti-corruption efforts have not produced significant improvement. In 2004, the government endorsed measures that could lead to the creation of an anti-corruption agency, but critics see a lack of resources and political will to bring about real changes.
The government exercises considerable authority in censoring the media and restricting freedom of speech. Politicians frequently threaten journalists for reporting "negative" stories about the country. The Television Act grants the government powers to influence programming content. The Press Correction Act authorizes officials to arrest anyone who publishes "malicious" material and to order a publication to print a "correcting statement" to an allegedly false or distorted article. A proposed Fiji Media Bill, intended to regulate the content and conduct of the media, is the latest addition to these controls. The bill has received widespread public opposition. If adopted, a government media company will replace the current self-regulating body. The government justified the need for the Fiji Media Bill on the grounds of alleged inaccurate reporting by some media outlets.
The government has a dominant place in the local media through its ownership of Fiji Television, which until 2004 held a monopoly license. The government ended the monopoly in 2004, but granted the station tax exemption. Community Television Fiji, a noncommercial and nondenominational group, produces and broadcasts educational and informational programs in English, Fijian, and Hindustani. The government also owns stake in several newspapers, and fully acquired the Daily Post in October 2003. The government-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation operates four radio stations and broadcasts in English, Fijian, and Hindustani. There are no government controls on the Internet. Access is primarily limited by cost and connectivity constraints outside the capital.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Religious affiliation runs largely along ethnic lines, with indigenous Fijians being Christians and Indo-Fijians being mostly Hindus. The number of attacks on Hindu and Muslim places of worship has increased in recent years. All religious organizations must register under the Registration of the Religions Act. In 2004, the government announced a review of this law - the first time since it came into effect in 1881 - in response to expressions of concern by traditional chiefs that more than 1,214 different religious bodies are now registered.
Academic freedom is generally respected. Fiji, as host to the University of South Pacific, is a center for higher education for the South Pacific region.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of the 1997 constitution. However, civic groups must file petitions for proposed meetings, a requirement since 2000, and approval is granted on a case-by-case basis. In particular, civil rights groups criticize the Emergency Powers Act of 1998, a security law that restricts civil liberties during a state of emergency, as being too expansive. The law allows parliament to censor the press, ban public meetings, authorize searches without warrants, and seize private property. Workers can organize and several trade unions exist but they face considerable restrictions in their activities. In September, the police removed striking workers at a teacher's college seeking back pay from their employer.
The judiciary is independent, and trials are generally free and fair. Many politicians and soldiers have been found guilty of treason or other crimes committed during and after the coup in 2000. However, the courts are severely backlogged due to a lack of funds, and suspects are frequently held for long periods before trials. Inadequate funding for law enforcement also contributes to poor prison conditions and abuse and corruption among law enforcement officers, who are poorly trained. In October, poor prison conditions were grounds for a high court release of two robbery suspects.
Political, economic, and social debates are frequently divided along ethnic lines, and race-based discrimination is pervasive. The main rivalry is between the indigenous Fijians, who dominate government and the armed forces, and the Indo-Fijians, who control much of the economy. Affirmative action programs for indigenous Fijians in education and training, housing and land, and employment are not open to other ethnic groups. More than 120,000 Indo-Fijians have left in recent years as anti - Indo-Fijian sentiments have grown and crimes targeting Indo-Fijian homes and businesses have increased. The large number of illegal Chinese immigrants and a growing Chinese business community that is estimated to control 5 percent of the economy, while making up less than 1 percent of the population, have become a source of widening anti-Chinese sentiments among indigenous Fijians.
Discrimination and violence against women are widespread. The number of rape, child abuse, and incest cases continues to rise. An amendment to the Penal Code in 2003 raised the minimum sentence for rape from 7 to 10 years, and incest is punishable by a maximum of 20 years. Women groups have expressed concern that many offenders use traditional reconciliation mechanisms to avoid felony charges.