This is Fiji’s fourth coup in two decades marked by unease between ethnic Fijians and the Indo-Fijian community. After almost a century of British colonial rule, Fiji became independent in 1970, and most Indo-Fijians are descendants of contract labourers brought to the islands by the British in the 19th century.
Indo-Fijians constitute about 45 per cent of a population of over 900,000, of which a majority are Hindu. Previous military coups, and the resulting disruptions in democratic rule, have their roots in the relative prosperity of the Indian community and their perceived dominance in government.
Over 80 per cent of the land remains under collective ownership of traditional Fijian clans, even as Indo-Fijians produce over 90 per cent of the sugar crop, on time-bound land leases.
The Fijian Constitution prohibits dual citizenship, though legislation had been proposed to grant lifetime nationality to indigenous Fijians living abroad, in a move seen as discriminating against the Indo-Fijian community.
A coup in 1987 and the violence that followed the 2000 coup led to heavy Indian emigration, ensuring that Melanesians became the majority, and three different constitutions have helped cement native Melanesian control of Fiji. Fiji’s “coup culture”, as referred to by Bainimarama, has deepened the racial divide. Following a civilian-led coup against Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, in 2000, rebel leader George Speight demanded a constitution that would bar Indian Fijians from holding public office.
Bainimarama and Qarase came to loggerheads on the proposed Promotion of Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill, seen as being biased in favour of indigenous Fijians, primary perpetrators of the violence against Indians that followed the 2000 coup.