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In 2005, Fiji continued to live in the shadow of the May 2000 coup. A proposal to grant amnesty to individuals involved in coups was strongly opposed by the military, the church, and civil society groups. Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi was appointed vice president to replace Ratu Jope Seniloli, who was found guilty of involvement in the May 2000 coup. A new, multiracial National Alliance Party of Fiji was formed; race continues to be the defining feature in Fijian politics.
Fiji was colonized by Britain in 1874, and became independent in 1970. Intense ethnic rivalry between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians has become the main source of political and social tension. Indians were first brought to Fiji by Britain in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations, and today make up nearly half of the total population. They are active in all spheres of society and control a large share of the economy. The Indo-Fijian-led Alliance Party ruled until 1987 when Sitiveni Rabuka, a senior army officer of Fijian extract, overthrew the government. Democratic institutions were slowly restored, and a new constitution was adopted in 1997. However, in May 2000, George Speight, an indigenous Fijian, overthrew the Labour Party-led elected government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, an Indo-Fijian. Speight and his armed band took the cabinet hostage, and many civilian indigenous Fijians destroyed Indo-Fijian homes and businesses. Speight surrendered after a 56-day standoff, and was sentenced to death for treason (later commuted to a life sentence) in 2002. The military installed Laisenia Qarase, a banker and indigenous Fijian, to lead an interim government.
Qarase, of the United Fiji Party, was elected prime minister in 2001. The constitution requires any party receiving more than 10 percent of seats be offered cabinet posts, but Qarase refused to appoint Labour Party members to his cabinet and neither a supreme court ruling nor negotiations changed his mind.
Recovery from the effects of the coup has been slow and arduous. Poverty and crime are worsening, according to human development indicators of the UN Development Program. Some 28 percent of Fijians were reported to live in poverty, and child mortality accounts for more than 75 percent of all deaths. In 2005, there was a 70 percent increase in rape cases reported. Many Fijians are leaving for jobs overseas. While a total of 566 suspects have been tried and sentenced-including 92 soldiers and Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli-the government does not appear sincerely committed to justice and reconciliation. For example, Seniloli was sentenced to eight months in prison in August 2004, but released after just three months for unspecified health reasons. Also, Seniloli kept his post and collected salary while in prison. In September 2005, Qarase appointed Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, his former lands minister convicted for involvement in the May 2000 coup, to head the transport and shipping portfolio. Also, the government's Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity bill would give amnesty to those found guilty of involvement in the May 2000 coup, immunity to those not yet charged, and erase the criminal records of those convicted. The opposition parties, the Fijian law society, the Roman Catholic Church in Fiji, human rights groups, the military, and the public all strongly rejected this proposal. The strong public reaction pushed Qarase to amend the amnesty provision of the bill; parliamentary debate of the bill was delayed until 2006.
Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi's appointment as vice president in January was well received by the people. Ratu Joni is known for his belief in peaceful coexistence among the country's different races and religions. The newly formed National Alliance Party of Fiji promotes itself as a multiracial party, and aims to tap into voter disappointment with the racially divisive politics of the government and the main opposition Labour Party. Meanwhile, municipal elections in the capital were marred by irregularities and thousands were unable to vote because their names were missing or misspelled in the final rolls. Also, only 15 to 20 percent of registered voters turned out for this election, which gave the ruling party 12 of the 20 municipal seats.
Citizens of Fiji can change their government democratically. The bicameral parliament consists of the 32-seat Senate and the 71-seat House of Representatives. In the House, whose members are elected for five-year terms, 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. Prime Minister Qarase and his United Fiji Party came to power in the 2001 elections. President Ratu Josefa Iloilo is the head of state and commander in chief of the military. The president is appointed to a five-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs in consultation with the prime minister. The 1997 constitution ended the guarantee of a parliamentary majority by indigenous Fijians, but various laws and polices give preferential treatment to indigenous Fijians and discriminate against non-indigenous Fijians. 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. National elections will be held in 2006.
Official corruption and abuses are widespread, hindering the country's economic recovery. In 2004, the government endorsed measures to create an anti-corruption agency. The public is strongly behind this effort, but necessary laws and resources have yet to be made available. Fiji was ranked 55 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government has considerable authority to censor the media and restrict freedom of speech. 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. The Fiji Media Bill, proposed in 2003, would allow the government to regulate the content and conduct of the media. Widespread public opposition has kept the bill from moving forward. The government owns Fiji Television. A new paid-television license was granted to Ba Province, but the government rejected Beijing's petition for a Chinese-language television license. The government-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation operates four radio stations and broadcasts in English, Fijian, and Hindustani. The government also owns stake in several newspapers. In January 2005, Qarase announced plans to sell the government's shares in the Daily Post, the largest circulating newspaper in Fiji. Government ownership of the newspaper had not affected its editorial independence, and the sale was not expected to usher any significant change for the newspaper. There government does not control access to the internet. Access is primarily limited by cost and connectivity constraints outside the capital.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Religious affiliation largely runs along ethnic lines: indigenous Fijians are Christians and Indo-Fijians are mostly Hindus. The number of attacks on Hindu and Muslim places of worship has increased in recent years. A local Hindu leader reported in 2005 that there had been 152 cases of desecration of all places of worship since 2001. The Methodist Church holds considerable political influence. Its current leader has called for a more restrained role for his church in politics.
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. However, the country's education system suffers from lack of funding, facilities, qualified personnel at all levels, and increasing political intervention. For example, the government proposed granting free high school education only to indigenous Fijians. Non-in-digenous Fijians widely criticized this plan, and so did former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who said it would promote segregation. The proposal had not moved further. A new government proposal in May 2005 would require Fijian language instruction in all schools.
Freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed in the constitution, but new laws in 2000 require organizers to obtain government permission for gatherings, which is approved on a case-by-case basis. The Emergency Powers Act of 1998 allows parliament to censor the press, ban public meetings, authorize searches without warrants, and seize private property during a declared state of emergency. Workers can organize and several trade unions exist, but they face considerable restrictions on their activities. In August 2005, nurses went on strike for a pay increase (they got much of what they asked for); in September, workers at a teacher's college went on strike for back pay (the police removed them from the college).
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 May 2000 coup. In September 2005, the Suva High court ordered the government-owned Daily Post to publish an apology for defying court orders and printing stories related to a case being heard. However, the courts are severely backlogged due to a lack of funds. Suspects are frequently held for long periods before trials and prisons are severely overcrowded with poor sanitary and living conditions. In fact, the high court ordered the release of two robbery suspects in October 2004 because of poor prison conditions. In January 2005, the government announced plans to build the country's first new prison facility in 24 years; however, funds have yet to be allocated for the new prison, projected to be complete in 2011. The population is troubled by worsening crime rates and the international community, especially Australia and New Zealand, are worried about instability in Fiji and the country becoming a center for transnational organized criminal activities. Australia and New Zealand are funding training for police and army cadets, and committed $2.3 million and $3.6 million, respectively, to help finance the 2006 general elections.
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. Indigenous Fijians receive preferential treatment in education, housing, land acquisition, and other areas. Some jobs are not open to non-indigenous Fijians. Such discrimination and political and economic troubles have caused more than 120,000 Indo-Fijians to leave Fiji in recent years. Part of the void left by Indo-Fijians is filled by legal and illegal mainland Chinese migrants. Although ethnic Chinese make up about 1 percent of the population, they now control about 5 percent of the economy, which makes them new targets of indigenous Fijian resentment. Attacks of Chinese homes and businesses have been reported. Muslims, too, feel increasingly under pressure to defend their religion and their identity. Muslim leaders publicly denied allegations that foreign students in Fiji are being trained to become terrorists by Islamic fundamentalists.
Discrimination and violence against women are widespread. Woman are not well represented in government and leadership positions, and do not enjoy equal pay.
The number of rape, child abuse, and incest cases continues to rise. Women's groups claim that many offenders use traditional reconciliation mechanisms to avoid felony charges, and bribery and corruption delay police action. There were some reports of human trafficking involving Chinese women, and Chinese make up a significant portion of the estimated 7,000 Asian illegal migrants in Fiji. In November 2005, the government suspended the director of the immigration department and began investing officials for accepting bribes and selling passports Violence against homosexuals was reported to be on the rise. The high-profile trial and conviction of an Australian man and a Fijian citizen for "unnatural offense" and "indecent practice between two males" spurred public debate on legal protections for homosexuals and other minorities. The government takes the position that protection against discrimination does not include homosexuality. Nevertheless, the government rejected in November 2005 the Methodist Church's petition to stage a second protest against homosexuality on the grounds that it would encourage discrimination and hatred against gays.