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JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3

Free, But Still in Chains
After Fijian rebels release all 31 hostages, the troubled nation still teeters on the edge of anarchy
By ELIZABETH FEIZKHAH

Hope kept them going. Day after day, all over Fiji, the families and supporters of the hostages in Parliament prayed for their release. At Suva's Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, up to 80 people met each day to keep vigil, sing hymns and hear, once more, the reading of the names: those of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and the 30 other M.P.s, indigenous and Indo-Fijian, held captive since the May 19 coup. As days stretched into weeks, anxiety often turned to tears. But, says Methodist minister Akuila Yabaki, who preached at some of the services, "there was always a great sense of hope."

On June 25, hope turned to joy when the four women hostages were freed; on July 12, they were joined by nine of the men. The next afternoon, after 55 nights on mattresses in shuttered offices—where, while they fretted and prayed, they could hear the hellfire sermons of their captors' prayer meetings—the remaining 18 hostages were ushered to the gates of Parliament. After a tearful ceremony in which the thinner, white-bearded Chaudhry accepted a conciliatory whale's tooth and a hug from coup frontman George Speight, the men boarded white Red Cross trucks and accelerated to freedom. "How does it feel to no longer be Prime Minister?" a reporter asked Chaudhry when he reached his home. "He is the Prime Minister!" cried waiting friends and supporters, before the weak-voiced but beaming Chaudhry could answer: "That's for the people to decide."

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The deal that freed the hostages makes both views look like wishful thinking. Signed July 9 by Speight and military ruler Frank Bainimarama, it formally scrapped Fiji's three-year-old multiracial constitution, dismissed Chaudhry's Labour-led government, and absolved the coup makers of crimes committed between May 19 and the hostages' release. "It's an outstanding success for George Speight," said Canberra-based Pacific historian Brij Lal, "and a spectacular failure for the military." The task of choosing a new President was handed to the all-indigenous Great Council of Chiefs—a body described by Lal as "dithering, confused, partisan and manipulable." An interim government picked by the President will have a year to prepare a new constitution—one that is almost certain to reduce Indo-Fijians to political footnotes. "There will never be a government led by an Indian, ever, in Fiji," said Speight late last week. "Constitutional democracy, the common-law version—that will never return."

On Thursday, the chiefs elected as President the former Vice President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, an ailing octogenarian who is also the father-in-law of Speight's brother. His deputy will be Ratu Jope Seniloli, whom Speight quixotically named as President on the second day of the coup. Iloilo will retain as Prime Minister the military's appointee, Laisenia Qarase, a former managing director of the Fiji Development Bank who appeared on one of Speight's early lists of acceptable cabinet members. Speight, who enjoyed a brief term as Prime Minister after appointing himself two months ago, said he no longer wanted the job.

The chiefs' openness to Speight's wishes was not surprising: though the rebels had freed 31 hostages, their supporters now had Fiji itself under the gun. Last week, armed gangs of indigenous Fijians set up roadblocks around Suva, occupied a power station, airstrips, a military barracks, a police station and other government buildings, and seized private land and businesses, including four tourist resorts. In several incidents, people were briefly held captive or taken hostage. "The whole nation is in chaos," said Speight's spokesman, Jo Nata. "But if we get into power we'll call off the dogs, so to speak." By week's end, it was not clear whether the dogs were ready to lie down. "So far it's O.K.," said George Gibson, mayor of Levuka, where one of the worst uprisings took place. "But it feels as if anything can happen at any time."

While outlaws rampaged, the economy imploded. Tourism, the country's biggest money earner, brought in $270 million last year. Now it is losing $4.5 million a week in sales. Protest strikes and trade bans have put 5,000 people out of work, and "many businesses are simply not doing business," said Federation of Employers head Ken Roberts. "In the history of Fiji," said Mark Halabe, president of the Australia-Fiji Business Council, "we have not seen anything worse."

More damaging than the economic slide may be the moral one. "People have taken from Speight's action that if you want something, you simply seize it and you'll get away with it," said New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, whose government, along with Australia's, has vowed to impose sanctions if Fiji excludes Indians from government. Halabe concedes that the specter of this coup "will hang over every government now." But, he adds, "I am an eternal optimist." So, it seems, is Chaudhry. "What we all need to do," he said after his release, is "work together to put the country back together."

At the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram in Nadi, there was jubilant thanksgiving on the morning after the hostages' release. But while the public prayers there have stopped, the private ones will continue. "We will be asking God to bring stability to the country," says social worker Sushila Rameshwar. "People have been mentally tortured by all this. Fiji was such a nice place. We promoted it as 'The way the world should be.' Now it's the devil's country." It will take many prayers, and much hard work, to reclaim it.

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