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Jocelyn Carlin/Panos Pictures

Fiji: really a tropical island paradise?

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‘The heart of the South Pacific, Fiji is blessed with 333 tropical islands that are home to happiness.’ So says the official Tourism Fiji website with perhaps understandable hyperbole.

The late Pope John Paul II notoriously advanced an even more hyperbolic position during his visit to the country in 1986: ‘Fiji is a symbol of hope for the world,’ he remarked, saying that the coexistence of islands’ various ethnic groups represented ‘an outstanding example of harmony and peace’.

Only a year after the Pope’s visit that image of harmony was shattered as the undercurrent of ethnic distrust boiled over

Only a year after the Pope’s visit that image of harmony was shattered as the undercurrent of ethnic distrust boiled over. The iTaukei indigenous majority is predominantly Melanesian, though with Polynesian elements, while the substantial minority of Indians are descendants of people brought over by the British colonial authorities in the 19th century as labourers on the sugar plantations. A democratically elected government dominated by people of Indian descent was removed in two military coups led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987 that aimed to entrench political control by indigenous Fijians. Rabuka’s move opened a Pandora’s box – since its independence from Britain in 1970, the country has endured four coups, four constitutions and ten prime ministers.

The most recent coup, however, may have turned a different page. Current Prime Minister Voreqe (usually known as ‘Frank’) Bainimarama, a naval commodore who first seized power in 2000 then repeated the feat in 2006, ultimately promised that ethnic division would no longer be tolerated. At the UN General Assembly in 2007 he said, ‘Policies which promote racial supremacy... must be removed once and for all’. He backed up the assertion by announcing a common identity for all, regardless of ethnicity. Any citizen of Fiji was henceforth to be a Fijian, a term that had previously been exclusively reserved for the indigenous population. The ethnic-based communal voting system was, moreover, replaced by a proportional system based on one person one vote. In 2014 this new system was employed for a general election that saw Baini­marama win comfortably.

Bainimarama’s human rights record, however, does not match his inclusive rhetoric.

Fiji Profile: ‘Frank’ Bainimarama, pictured at the time of the 2006 coup.
Fiji Profile: ‘Frank’ Bainimarama, pictured at the time of the 2006 coup. Photo: Jocelyn Carlin / Panos Pictures

Amnesty International has listed myriad repressive tactics used by the Fijian military and police since Bainimarama’s 2006 coup. These include harassment of human rights defenders, limitations on freedom of expression and association, arbitrary arrests and detention.

At least five Fijians have been beaten to death while in police or military custody, including 19-year-old Sakiusa Rabaka who was beaten and sexually assaulted. Eight police officers and one military officer were eventually convicted over Rabaka’s death and sentenced to prison terms but all were released within a month. Fiji’s 2013 Constitution granted immunity to any government and military action between 2006 and 2013.

Fiji profile: Temporary housing on the outskirts of Suva for Lau islanders who have come to the main island of Viti Levu seeking work.
Fiji profile: Temporary housing on the outskirts of Suva for Lau islanders who have come to the main island of Viti Levu seeking work. Photo: Jocelyn Carlin / Panos Pictures
Fiji profile: Ape Maleki, a farmer from the village of Vunaniu, tending his cattle.
Fiji profile: Ape Maleki, a farmer from the village of Vunaniu, tending his cattle. Photo: Jocelyn Carlin / Panos Pictures

The economy is also in trouble. The sugar sector, which employs 200,000 Fijians, or almost 25 per cent of the country’s population, is declining with cane production failing to meet demand. The devastation of sugar crops and mills by Cyclone Winston in 2016 was one factor but another was the abolition in September 2017 of the preferential prices hitherto paid by the European Union for Fijian sugar. Despite these overwhelming challenges, the Fijian government is committed to reviving the ailing industry, using bailouts if necessary, recognizing that the collapse of the sugar sector would be a national disaster.

Fiji profile: Selling mangoes by the roadside.
Fiji profile: Selling mangoes by the roadside. Photo: Jocelyn Carlin / Panos Pictures

It is fair to say that Fijians – whether chatting in the markets of the capital, Suva, or sitting around their basins of kava, the slightly narcotic (but completely legal) beverage that most favour – are experiencing a mounting sense of frustration with the government. Opposition parties have sought changes to electoral rules that they claim militate against the chances of free and fair elections due in 2018.

This article was amended on 19 January 2017 to correct what Pope John Paul II said about Fiji. A previous version stated that he said, ‘Fiji. The way the world should be’. In fact, this is a tourism slogan the country has been using. Pope John Paul II said: ‘Fiji is a symbol of hope for the world.’

Fact file

Leader Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama
Economy GNI per capita $4,840 (Tonga $4,020, UK $42,390).
Monetary unit Fijian dollar
Main exports sugar, garments, gold, timber, fish, molasses, coconut oil, mineral water. Fiji has rich forest, mineral and fish resources in addition to its sugar-cane industry but the trade imbalance continues to widen as exports fail to keep pace with imports. The return to parliamentary democracy in 2014 has led to an increase in international investment. Tourism earnings are also vital – there were almost 800,000 visitors to the islands in 2016.
People 899,000. People per square kilometre 49 (UK 271). Annual population growth rate 0.7%.
Health Infant mortality rate 19 per 1,000 live births (Tonga 14, UK 4). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 1,200 (UK 1 in 5,800). HIV prevalence rate 0.1%.
Environment In the past two decades around 30% of Fiji’s forests have been felled by commercial interests. Like many other Pacific islands Fiji is gravely concerned about rising sea levels caused by the burning of fossil fuels worldwide.
Culture iTaukei 57%, Indian 38%, Rotuman 1%, other 4%.
Religion Protestant 45%, Hindu 28%, other Christian 10%, Roman Catholic 9%, Muslim 6%, other 2%.
Language English and Fijian are both official languages but Hindi widely spoken.
Human Development Index 0.736, 91st of 188 countries (Tonga 0.721, UK 0.909).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution ★★ According to the Asian Development Bank, 28.1% of the population live below the national poverty line with many more living on or just above. Last profiled 1998, ★★
Literacy ★★★★ The most recent estimate for adult literacy is 92% but the government does not report data for this to the UN and this may therefore underestimate levels of illiteracy. Primary net enrolment is 97%. 1998 ★★★★
Life expectancy ★★★★ 70 years (Tonga 73, UK 81). 1998 ★★★★
Freedom ★★ According to Amnesty International, accountability for torture and other ill-treatment is hindered by immunities enshrined in the Constitution and the lack of political will to prosecute cases. Arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of expression remain. 1998 ★★★
Position of women ★★★ Gender inequality index 0.368 (Tonga 0.659, UK 0.131). 16% of parliamentary seats are currently held by women. The leader of the opposition, Ro Teimumu Kepa, is also female. 1998 ★★
Sexual minorities ★★★ Homosexuality was legalized in 2010 and some anti-gay discrimination is outlawed. There is, however, no formal recognition of same-sex unions.
New Internationalist assessment ★★ Bainimarama has enjoyed widespread support for more than a decade but that seems to be slowly diminishing. His vision of a progressive Fiji free of any racial stereotypes is admirable but, with another election looming in 2018, whether this will be enough to stifle dissatisfaction with the economic situation and with human rights issues remains to be seen. 1998 ★★

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