Peace­ful is­land vil­lage be­lies tur­moil of na­tional pol­i­tics

Phil Tay­lor dis­cov­ers that pol­i­tics is not wel­come in the vil­lages of Fiji

Herald on Sunday - - News -

DRIVE FOR an hour north­east of Suva, past where the seal ends, away from the twin cul­tures of city life in Fiji, and the road be­comes pit­ted with holes.

This is where you find the vanua — tra­di­tional Fi­jian life, where the word of the chiefs is law and there’s not an In­dian to be seen.

We’ve come to glimpse life in the vil­lage that mil­i­tary com­man­der and self-pro­claimed pres­i­dent of Fiji Frank Bain­i­marama hails from.

The vil­lage of Ki­uva is at the end of a dusty road. Bain­i­marama’s vanua is a pic­ture-per­fect vil­lage of 20 build­ings, fur­nished with flax mats, linked by foot tracks, sit­ting among co­conut palms, mango and bread­fruit trees be­side the sea.

Paid em­ploy­ment in such vil­lages is rare but this one has its lux­u­ries. One or two of the houses have Sky television, we are told.

Life need not be ex­pen­sive. Food is plen­ti­ful — in the shal­low wa­ters inside the reef, hang­ing from trees and in the dalo fields. There are a few head of cat­tle too.

This is the vil­lage of Bain­i­marama’s fa­ther, who worked as a prison war­den in Suva. The chil­dren, in­clud­ing Frank and brothers Meli and Ti­moci, who are both se­nior civil ser­vants, were raised in the cap­i­tal.

The boys, how­ever, carry the chiefly ti­tle of Ratu (the equiv­a­lent of Sir) al­though Frank ap­pears not to bother with his.

The com­modore’s fa­ther died a cou­ple of years ago but the Her­ald On Sun­day was told the Bain­i­mara­mas re­tain a house in the vil­lage and visit for hol­i­days.

We ask to see the fam­ily house and are taken to a vil­lage elder. We tell him we are me­dia and his friend­li­ness evap­o­rates. He switches from the Fi­jian he had been speak­ing and says: ‘‘Get the bloody hell out of here.’’

His re­ac­tion is no great sur­prise. Pol­i­tics is al­ways an un­easy topic in Fiji, even more so now.

To get to Ki­uva from Suva you pass through Nau­sori, and we drive back through the re­gion. It, and the area in­land from here along the Rewa River, was a strong­hold of sup­port for the group led by Ge­orge Speight, whose coup re­moved Fiji’s first In­dian-led ad­min­is­tra­tion, the gov­ern­ment of Ma­hen­dra Chaudhry.

It is likely still to be a strong­hold, which means peo­ple here will not like what Bain­i­marama is do­ing.

He be­lieves the Qarase gov­ern­ment is both cor­rupt and run­ning a proSpeight agenda. He is de­ter­mined to scrap pro­posed leg­is­la­tion — such as the Qoliqoli Bill and In­dige­nous Claims Tri­bunal Bill — that would give spe­cial fish­ing and land rights to Fi­jians.

Peo­ple in th­ese parts are re­luc­tant to dis­cuss the pol­i­tics of the day, a group of men from a vil­lage near Ki­uva ex­plain. But once we un­der­take not to iden­tify them we are told: ‘We don’t sup­port him. It’s wrong what he is do­ing.’’

‘‘Soon,’’ says an­other man, ‘‘there will be no fuel here to buy [be­cause of eco­nomic col­lapse].’’

They say it will be six months or more be­fore the true level of op­po­si­tion to what Bain­i­marama is do­ing emerges.

It is not hard to imag­ine why the vil­lagers of Ki­uva might re­gard the land and sea that has sus­tained them for so long as their pos­ses­sions.

His­tory, legally, may sup­port them. When Fiji was ceded to Queen Vic­to­ria by Ratu Seru Cakobau in 1885 it was on the un­der­stand­ing it would be re­turned to them.

The colo­nials brought in In­di­ans to work the sugar plan­ta­tions and the Indo-Fi­jian pop­u­la­tion peaked at al­most 50 per cent. Many In­dian fam­i­lies have been here for gen­er­a­tions.

Their con­tri­bu­tion is ac­knowl­edged by Bain­i­marama, who went to school with In­dian stu­dents at Marist Brothers in Suva and who takes the view that the vanua and its lead­ers, the Great Coun­cil of Chiefs, are out of touch, if not racist.

The per­son Bain­i­marama has ap­pointed Prime Min­is­ter, an in­dige­nous Fi­jian, said this week that the fore­shore was for all.

Bain­i­marama has been ac­cused of hav­ing lost his mar­bles and of act­ing in self-in­ter­est to get rid of a Gov­ern­ment that wanted him charged for such things as sedi­tion, for his counter-coup that led to the safe re­lease of Speight’s hostages in 2000 and for al­leged un­law­ful killings by sol­diers un­der his com­mand in putting down a mutiny the same year. But no one has claimed he is a racist. Or­di­nary Indo-Fi­jians say he’s for the peo­ple of Fiji, not just his own. He be­lieves all he has done since — even tak­ing out at gun­point the Gov­ern­ment elected in May — has been in his coun­try’s best in­ter­ests.

all

GREG BOWKER

GEN­TLE PACE: Life in Ki­uva is far re­moved from Suva’s bus­tle.

RNZAF

HIGH FLYER: Young Frank Bain­i­marama at­tended an RNZAF course in 1981.

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