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JUNE 19, 2000 VOL. 158 NO. 24

A Nation Plays Patience


Ed Wray/AP
A Fijian policeman in plainclothes spits blood as he is beaten and taken away by supporters of Fijian coup leader George Speight.

The military helps restore normality in Fiji while 31 hostages languish and the economy shudders
By ELIZABETH FEIZKHAH

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In Fiji, a country without a constitution, two men last week claimed the ruler's title. In one corner: Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the unassuming career naval officer who took power "with much reluctance" after the government was overthrown on May 19. "I have the support of the vanua, the people of Fiji, in bringing back normalcy," he said. In the opposite corner: George Speight, the leader of the coup, who was holding hostage in Suva's Parliament the 31 MPs he called his "trump cards." Though Speight has never held political office, his intuition told him what no pollster could. "It is the overwhelming mandate of the Fijian people," he said, "that they would like to see me lead."

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By week's end, the odds of his doing so were dwindling. Threatened with crippling trade bans by the E.U., Australia and New Zealand if he included Speight and his backers in any military-appointed government, Bainimarama told the rebels the army was halting negotiations with them until they laid down their arms and freed the hostages. "We will not take any more demands," he said. "I'm not budging from that." Countered Speight: "I can wait here as long as I have to."

He may get lonely. A week after the coup, Speight could take comfort from the sight of some 1,500 supporters milling around Parliament. Ten days after that, a military blockade reduced that good-natured crowd to a scruffy gang of 100 youths, hungry, armed and increasingly dangerous, who exchanged fire with soldiers, shot four people and savagely beat a police officer. "This is a situation of stress," snapped a tired-looking Speight, who had stopped donning a fresh outfit--shirt, tie and sulu skirt--each morning. "Remember," he told journalists, "I still have hostages." By Day 22 of the crisis, that was "his only significance," says Mark Halabe, president of the Fiji-Australia Business Council. Outside the compound, people were more interested in resuming normal life than in Speight's personal poker game. "He still has the backing of some chiefs," says Sanjay Ramesh, political editor of the Sydney Fiji Times. "But a majority of his support has gone over to the military. What's left is very small and fragmented."

Bainimarama, who took control on May 30, ruled out military action to free the hostages. Instead, even as bans by Australian unions and a strike by local cane farmers caused an avalanche of layoffs in the crucial clothing and sugar industries, he launched a meticulous public relations campaign to increase Speight's isolation, holding meetings with villagers, chiefs, farmers and public servants. "We hope that the support of the people at large [for us] will break [the Speight gang's] resolve," he said.

Bainimarama "is a desperate man," said Speight. "I am not in a corner, he is in a corner." The armed forces chief did face enormous problems. The hostages remained captive, chiefs from Fiji's west were moving to set up a separate government, and the economy was crumbling: a government report warned that further trade sanctions and falling tourism could push unemployment to 20% and cost the country $500 million or more. But "most people are thankful the military is in control and bringing some law and order," says Halabe. Despite his troubles, Bainimarama's corner increasingly looked like the winner's.

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