Peaceful island village belies turmoil of national politics
Phil Taylor discovers that politics is not welcome in the villages of Fiji
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.
GENTLE PACE: Life in Kiuva is far removed from Suva’s bustle.
HIGH FLYER: Young Frank Bainimarama attended an RNZAF course in 1981.