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Race issue looms over Fiji polls

The racial divisions which cut through Fiji have seen two ethnic Indian-dominated governments.

india Updated: May 09, 2006 18:31 IST

The racial divisions, which cut through Fiji and have seen two ethnic Indian-dominated governments brought down in coups, have their roots in the British colonial government, which ran the South Pacific nation until 1970.

The race issue is back into focus with Fiji's week-long election starting Saturday, which pits Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's United Fiji Party against Mahendra Chaudhry's Indo-Fijian-dominated Fiji Labour Party.

A win by Labour would fan fears that indigenous nationalists would mount another coup, plunging the country back into social and economic turmoil.

The roots of the race problem go back into Fiji's colonial past and Britain's desire to economically exploit its South Pacific possession while leaving Fijians in their villages under the control of their chiefs.

The Indo-Fijians are descended from Indian indentured labourers imported from the last quarter of the 19th century on five-year "girmit" contracts to work -- under harsh conditions with poor pay -- the newly established sugar plantations.

The British discouraged interaction between the Indians and Fijians, setting a pattern, which still shapes Fijian society. Fijians mostly live in villages and the Indians in towns or on rural farms.

They are also divided by language and by religion. Most Indians are Hindu with a minority of Muslims, while Fijians are overwhelmingly Christian.

Fijians and Indo-Fijians widely hold poor perceptions of each other. A common generalisation amongst Indo-Fijians is that Fijians do not like to work hard.