2000 Fijian coup d'état

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The Fiji coup of 2000 was a complicated affair involving a civilian putsch by hardline Fijian nationalists against the elected government of a non-native (ethnically Indian) Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, on 19 May 2000, the attempt by President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara to assert executive authority on 27 May, and his own resignation, possibly forced, on 29 May. An interim government headed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama was set up, and handed power over to an interim administration headed by Ratu Josefa Iloilo, as President, on 13 July.

The overthrow of the Chaudhry government

Parliamentary elections in May 1999, had resulted in a decisive victory for the Peoples Coalition, a multiracial grouping that was dominated by the predominantly Indo-Fijian Labour Party but which also included three parties supported mainly by indigenous Fijians. Mahendra Chaudhry had become the country's first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister.

The burnt out remains of Govinda's Restaurant in Suva: over 100 shops and businesses were ransacked in Suva's central business district on 19 May

The election result and Chaudhry's subsequent appointment as Prime Minister angered hardline Fijian nationalists. His government's hints at land reform caused further alarm. When a group led by George Speight, a businessman who had been declared bankrupt following the cancellation of several contracts by the Chaudhry government, entered Parliament buildings on 19 May 2000, disaffected elements of the Fijian population rallied to his side. For 56 days, Prime Minister Chaudhry and most of his cabinet, along with many Parliamentarians and their staff, were held as hostages while Speight attempted to negotiate with the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who denounced the coup and declared a state of emergency, and with the military administration which took office on 29 May.

On 26 May, fifteen soldiers and two officers defected to the rebels, and, the following day, gunfire was exchanged. In a move that constitutional experts have described as of questionable constitutionality, Mara dismissed the government from office (for being "unable to act") prorogued Parliament for six months, and assumed executive authority himself. In doing so, he claimed to be following the advice of the Chief Justice, Sir Timoci Tuivaga, but he refused to abrogate the constitution, which Tuivaga had also advised. Mara admitted that his actions were at the very edge of constitutionality but said he believed they were within that boundary and necessary.

Alleged motives for the coup

Speight's claims to be a Fijian nationalist and a champion of indigenous rights attracted support from certain elements of the Fijian population who were angered by the results of the 1999 election, which had swept away a government dominated by ethnic Fijians and brought to power a multiracial government led by Mahendra Chaudhry, who became Fiji's first-ever Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. Hints that the Chaudhry government might institute some form of land reform also generated considerable resentment among sections of the indigenous population, despite Constitutional guarantees of ethnic Fijian land ownership. Speight thus found sizeable number of sympathizers when he launched his putsch on 19 May.

Speight proceeded to appoint a "Cabinet". He initially named himself President, before appointing Ratu Jope Seniloli to the post two days later. Ratu Timoci Silatolu was appointed Prime Minister, downgraded to Deputy Prime Minister two days later, when Speight himself was named to the post by Seniloli. Other appointments included Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu as Minister for Fijian Affairs, Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure as Minister for Home Affairs, and Simione Kaitani, Isireli Leweniqila, Levani Tonitonivanua, Berenado Vunibobo, Ratu Tu'uakitau Cokanauto and Ratu Inoke Kubuabola as Ministers without portfolio. Some, including Seniloli, Lalabalavu, and Vakalalabure have since been convicted of coup-related offences, but whether all of the others had consented to their ministerial "appointments" as announced by Speight is not known.

Claims have been made that Fijian nationalism may have been nothing more than a political ploy to attract supporters to what was, in reality, a personal grab for money and power on the part of Speight and his co-conspirators. During the 1990s, Speight had built up a modestly successful marketing business, but many contracts were lost after the Chaudhry government came to power in 1999. Charging corruption, Chaudhry revoked the contracts of two marketing firms chaired by Speight that were involved in the country's lucrative timber trade. By the time of the coup he was allegedly bankrupt. Several of his accomplices were undischarged bankrupts as well. Conspiracy theories hold that the real motive for the coup was to loot the treasury. Ratu Isireli Vuibau, the deposed Assistant Minister for Fijian Affairs, declared on 31 August 2000, after the rebellion was over, that many of those involved with Speight had links to the Timber Resource Group, comprising Fijian politicians who were investors in Speight's Timber Resource Management Limited company, which had interests in pine, mahogany, and hardwood. He said these politicians had joined Speight against the government when their proposals were rejected. "Indigenous Fijians were used but little did they know that the coup was for a little group here and abroad," Ratu Vuibau said.

Mahendra Chaudhry has supported the view that ethnic nationalism was only a mask to gain the support of nationalist Fijians, and that the true purpose was to loot the treasury. He has alleged in court papers and on his party's website that some of those who helped to finance and support certain aspects of the coup, such as the mutiny that took place at the Sukunaivalu Barracks in Labasa on 7 July 2000, were, in fact, Indo-Fijians. Another view sees the rebellion as one supported by a very disparate group of individuals, all for diverse reasons for their own. It has been alleged that the coup was supported by the Methodist church.1

The resignation of President Mara

Two days later, on 29 May 2000, Mara resigned under circumstances of debate. Following orchestrated threats to his life and his family, he was evacuated to a naval vessel where a delegation including Armed Forces Commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama, Police Commissioner Isikia Savua, Great Council of Chiefs Chairman and former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka (who had instigated two earlier coups in 1987), and his own son-in-law, Ratu Epeli Ganilau (a former Army commander) met him and pressed him to abrogate the constitution. He refused, and resigned.

Whether or not Mara's resignation was forced remains (as of 2005) the subject of a police investigation. Some, including Mahendra Chaudhry, believe that he was forcibly deposed. However, Mara's daughter Adi Ateca Ganilau, who is married to Ratu Ganilau, maintains that her father chose to resign and subsequently refused to be reinstated because he was upset at the abrogation of the constitution.

Almost a year later, Mara publicly accused the police chief, Colonel Isikia Savua and former Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, of instigating the coup. In an interview with Close-Up on Fiji Television on 29 April 2001, he claimed that Speight (who was then in custody and has since been convicted of treason) was only a front. Mara said that he had confronted Savua and Rabuka two days after the coup about their possible involvement. "I could see it in their faces," said Mara, emphatically rejecting their denials. Mara told the programme that within half an hour of Speight's forcible occupation of the Parliament, Rabuka had telephoned Government House (the official residence of the President) to offer to form a government.

Mara said that he was shocked to learn that the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit of the Army had been involved in the coup. He alleged that they took George Speight to Parliament, and that their senior officers supplied them with weapons, blankets, and food. Mara also declared that the Counter Revolutionary Warfare officers who joined Speight's coup had trained on a farm owned by Rabuka.

The Interim Military Government

Commodore Bainimarama announced on radio and television that he had taken over the government, and declared martial law at 6pm. He abrogated the constitution on 30 May, and proceeded to appoint an interim government. He initially nominated Ratu Epeli Nailatikau (a son-in-law of Mara's and the husband of Adi Koila Nailatikau, who was one of Speight's hostages) as Prime Minister, but withdrew the nomination the next day. It was not until 4 July that he actually appointed a Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase (who remained in office until he was ousted from power by another coup in December 2006). Rebels, still holding hostages, staged a number of incidents around the country, cutting off Suva's power supply on 6 July, and overrunning an army base on Vanua Levu Island and exchanging fire with the military in Suva the next day.

The Iloilo administration

The interim military government signed an accord with Speight on 9 July, granting him immunity from prosecution and a review of the constitution in return for the release of the hostages. Nine were freed on 12 July, and the others, including Chaudhry, on the 13th. Ratu Josefa Iloilo was sworn in as President the same day, with Ratu Jope Seniloli as Vice-President. The appointment of Seniloli, a supporter of the rebels who had sworn himself in as President at Speight's behest, was seen as a gesture of appeasement to the rebel forces.

On 27 July, Aparama Vulavou and Peter Hazelman was arrested along with 369 supporters. The government reneged on the accord granting Speight immunity from prosecution, with Bainimarama saying that the military had signed it "under duress."

The Queen Elizabeth Barracks mutiny

A second attempt by hardline elements to seize power took place on 2 November that year, when rebel soldiers mutinied at Suva's Queen Elizabeth Barracks. The mutiny resulted in the death of four loyal soldiers. Four rebels were subsequently beaten to death after the mutiny had been quelled. Bainimarama accused Rabuka of involvement, but as of April 2005, Rabuka has not been charged.

Aftermath

On 15 November, the High Court declared that the interim government was illegal. Mara remained the lawful President; Parliament had not been dissolved but only suspended, and should now be reconvened, and by implication, Chaudhry remained the lawful Prime Minister. As Mara had not been performing his duties, however, Iloilo had been rightly exercising the prerogatives of the office in his place. Mara subsequently resigned officially, with his resignation backdated to 29 May. The Qarase government appealed the court ruling; on 1 March 2001, the Court of Appeal confirmed the High Court decision reinstating the constitution. The government accepted the decision.

An estimated 7,500 jobs were lost because of the coup.

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