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Pacific Reactions

India and Australia search for a solution to the Fijian crisis, but stop short of slapping sanctions on the island

Pacific Reactions

WATCH out, they're getting away with it! The mobile phone-toting Fijian coup leader George Speight and his band of pig-slaughtering, merry-making goons have provoked only a lot of tough talk of sanctions from the international community, nothing more.

Australia, which leads world opinion in the Indo-Pacific region, has so far only threatened to downgrade relations and recommend the suspension of Fiji from the Commonwealth until democracy is restored. New Zealand is coordinating its position closely with the Australian stand. An ocean away, the US too has threatened sanctions against the Pacific isle. In London, foreign secretary Robin Cook has said that the use of armed force to achieve political ends will not be tolerated. India has sent an envoy to the region to play its part in helping restore democracy to the besieged island.

What's missing is a sense of outrage at recent events. There has been remarkably little coordinated or unilateral action to isolate Fiji at any level. There seems to be a resigned acceptance that the Indian immigrant community in Fiji will be relegated to second- or even third-class citizenry in its adopted country.

The Australian government has indicated that first, sanctions will mainly affect the Indo-Fijian business community and second, that its priority is the safety of the hostages. Action can be taken only once they are safe. But informal discussions between foreign minister Alexander Downer, immigration minister Phillip Ruddock and a Fiji analyst reveal that the John Howard government might be softening its stand on Fiji following pressure from extreme right-wingers who value business above democracy and whose eye is mostly on the falling Aussie dollar. For Australia is Fiji's largest trading partner. The island is also the hub of the Pacific; if the Fijian market collapses, Australia's trade with other Pacific countries too will suffer.

And while there might be some amount of argument over sanctions hitting the Indo-Fijian business community, there is less argument in favour of maintaining military ties and giving aid. "These are the two things (military assistance and aid) that would not affect the ordinary Fijian that much," says Usha Sundar Harris, an Indo-Fijian based in Sydney.

"Australia is playing a wait-and-see game," avers Prof Brij Lal of the Australian National University, an Indo-Fijian who played a part in rewriting the Fiji constitution in 1997. He dismisses any allegation that Australia is secretly pleased at the turn of events in Fiji. "Australia invested a huge amount of time, money and moral support to Fiji during the constitutional review process and it is ludicrous and strange to imagine that they may be anything less than unhappy at what has just taken place there."

The Fijian economy is already facing difficulties with the heads of two of the largest business houses in Fiji - Punja and Sons and Motibhai and Co - not returning from their overseas sojourn. With their departure, a large part of the local and foreign investment is expected to dry up. The European Union, which has been giving Fiji preferential trade treatment, will find it difficult to renew such agreements in the present coup conditions. "The worst part is that nobody (indigenous Fijians) is bothered about the country's economy - they think that if they wrap themselves in leaves and go back to eating root crops, they'll be fine," says a frustrated Indian diplomat. The garment, sugar and tourism industries will be the hardest hit.

This senior diplomat is also disappointed that India has not been forthcoming in giving the South Pacific its due importance. Fiji could be a market for software, spices and automobiles, he emphasises. But Fiji does not even have a high commission in India to begin with. The ousted Indo-Fijian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhury, has been described as a man who ran the country like a corporation and put a lot of noses out of joint with his brusque manner. "But," says Dalpat Rathod, a senator of the Fijian parliament, "he was good for the economy and had a vision. Only, he wanted to do too much at once."

What can India do? "The Indian government should use its friendship with other Commonwealth countries to impose restrictions on Fiji and press for an immediate return to democratic government," says Biman Chand Prasad, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of the South Pacific. The Australia and New Zealand visit of S.T. Devare of the foreign ministry is a step in the right direction. But India could do more, he believes. "India should take Fiji's case to the UN and call for sending back Fiji's peace-keeping force; if the military in Fiji can't keep peace at home, they shouldn't be allowed to go elsewhere."

What there is a consensus on is that there is no point in inviting Indo-Fijians to come to India. India is a country about 99 per cent of Indo-Fijians have never visited. They have no link with the land, except that it was home to their forefathers. Most Indo-Fijians have a passive knowledge of Hindi, but their cultural and spiritual traditions are more folkloric. "A 100 years of separation have created a new kind of Indian in Fiji - less concerned with caste, ritual and hierarchy, more enterprising and at home in several cultures," says Brij Lal. The Indo-Fijian's soul is fed by three separate traditions - Oceanic, western and Indian. "As India is so far away, we tend to be more western in our outlook than India. We send our children to Australian, New Zealand and American schools," says Usha Harris.

Which makes Australia an option for Indo-Fijians wanting to leave the country. Australia, however, is against giving refugee status or any concessions to the thousands of Indo-Fijian farmers who might want to emigrate to other nearby shores. Says Prasad: "The immigration policies of Australia and New Zealand are very discriminatory; they take only educated people with critical skills; the rest are left to fend for themselves. There's no sympathy where visas are concerned and it's almost impossible to get a tourist visa to Australia."

There is hope, though, for others. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, managers, senior public servants, engineers and highly-qualified teachers will be the successful emigrŽs. "The community's emotionally uprooted and those professionally qualified will find homes overseas," says Brij Lal. "Australia's culture and social ways - rugby, cricket and beer - are more familiar to people in Fiji."

Of course, if they had their way, Indo-Fijians would stay in their beloved country. But do they belong in Fiji? Says Usha Harris: "I'd say that after two coups and a very unstable environment, there's no surety of continued acceptance. Rabuka has said repeatedly he would rather see the Indians migrate - yet in our hearts it is our home. In one sense we're wanted for our skills, but on the other hand we are not wanted at all." The journey for the Indians who left these shores more than 100 years ago is far from over, it seems.

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