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Fiji PM to bridge racial divide

Qarase says he wants to heal the country's racial divide, six years after a nationalist coup toppled Fiji's Indian-led Govt.

india Updated: Apr 08, 2006 13:26 IST

Six years after a nationalist coup toppled Fiji's first ever Indian-led government, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase says he wants to heal the country's racial divide.

Campaigning ahead of national elections next month, Qarase is seeking to convince voters that his once nationalist-dominated United Fiji Party is now a party of inclusion.

"I would like to see a multiethnic, multicultural Fiji moving forward together for a peaceful and prosperous Fiji," Qarase told The Associated Press during a break in public appearances late Friday in the northern town of Tavua, on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu.

Qarase was installed as caretaker Prime Minister by the military that ended the 2000 coup, during which a band of armed indigenous Fijian nationalists toppled the democratically elected government of the then-Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian leader.

Qarase, a respected former banker, tightened his grip on power at democratic elections in 2001.

Since then, critics have accused Qarase's government of imposing race-based policies to preserve ethnic Fijian political supremacy over the country's Indian minority.

But Qarase says he is committed to changing this view, and has appointed at least five Indo-Fijians to stand on his platform during the elections, which run May 6-13.

"We will have the most multiethnic line up by any political party in any general election in Fiji," Qarase said. "I'm very pleased with that."

The issue of race in Fiji is deeply entwined with the nation's strict land ownership laws.

The tiny collection of 322 South Pacific islands, which lies approximately 3,000 kms (1,864 miles) northeast of Sydney, Australia, is home to around 820,000 people who all call themselves Fijians.

Indigenous Fijians make up more than 52 percent of the population and around 43 percent are the descendants of Indian laborers brought by British colonizers 150 years ago to farm sugarcane.

Today, sugar remains the backbone of Fiji's economy, and the majority of sugarcane farmers are still Indo-Fijians. But around 90 percent of all land is owned by indigenous Fijians and leased to the Indian farmers under a complex web of "native land" laws.

"About 91 percent of the land is owned by indigenous Fijians who are not economically well off, but they happen to have power because of their ownership of land," said Alumita Durutalo, a political science lecturer at Fiji's University of the South Pacific.

Following the 2000 coup and an upsurge in nationalist sentiment, thousands of Indian farmers were forced off their land when the traditional owners refused to renew their leases. With virtually no land available to buy, many of these farmers have flooded into dense squatter settlements outside the nation's largest capital, Suva.

Reconciling the tension between Fiji's ethnic landowners and the Indo-Fijian farmers whose sugar crops comprise the country's largest export commodity remains a key issue, Durutalo said, "Everybody's trying to go multiracial, trying to promote multiethnic relations. But I believe the voters will look at the practical side of it."

If concrete land reforms are not forthcoming, Indo-Fijian voters may become disenchanted and conclude that Qarase's inclusion of Indians in his line up was nothing more than a "public relations exercise," Durutalo said.

Peruma Mupnar, a former minister in the opposition Fiji Labour Party, is among those who believe Qarase's talk of creating a multiethnic party is just a cynical ploy. "They should have done it five years back when they came in power. The question is: Why now?" he said.

"If you look at the squatter settlements, for the last five years they have been on the rise," he said. "If the government were really providing services (to Indians) this poverty and squatter settlements would have been reduced."

Qarase dismisses these claims as "absolute rubbish," saying he has always been committed to reconciling racial tension and resolving the land ownership issues.

He blames political maneuvering by the FLP for stalling a bill he proposed late last year that would have given Indo-Fijian farmers greater access to land.

Few here doubt that land and race be a major factor in how indigenous Fijians and the Indo-Fijian minority will vote.

But, according to Durutalo, the politician who succeeds in calming the nationalist sentiment awakened by the 2000 coup and reassuring Indian voters of their valuable position in Fijian society will have the best chance of healing Fiji's racial divide.

"Both groups need each other to survive in Fiji," she said. "There has to be goodwill on both sides."