Fiji Takes a Shot at Peace

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At Suva's Fiji golf club, George Speight wasn't the most popular of partners. He had only three topics, one fellow member recalled: himself, money and the evils of Mahendra Chaudhry's government. "Sometimes I have ended up going a round with him," the man said. "But it's agony." Lately, Fiji's military leaders have been forced to endure many a tedious round with Speight. When they refused to negotiate with him, he threatened violence: first against the 31 M.P.s he held hostage in Parliament for eight weeks after his May 19 coup; then against the entire country, which he said would feel "the wrath of the people"—his rampaging supporters —if he didn't have the last word on the make-up of the new government.

Last week the military decided enough was enough. On Wednesday night, Speight's four-wheel-drive vehicle was intercepted as it tried to speed through a checkpoint on the outskirts of Suva. The coup leader, his lawyer, his media adviser and his armed bodyguard were arrested. At dawn next morning, the military descended on a school at nearby Kalabu village where Speight's supporters were holed up. Within an hour, the local hospital had 39 new patients, seven seriously injured (one man was dead on arrival), and the military had 369 prisoners. They included coup strategist Col. Ilisoni Ligairi and a dozen men from an army special forces unit who served as Speight's "security team." On Friday, Speight and his colleagues sat in cells at Suva's Queen Victoria Barracks —where many marathon talks with the military had taken place—while President Ratu Josefa Iloilo swore in a government that is expected to run Fiji for the next three years. Headed by Laisenia Qarase, a former banker, it contains no close allies of Speight—not even his nominee for Prime Minister, Adi Samanunu Cakobau, whose aristocratic family are rivals of former President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, a key target of the coup. Nor will it please Speight and his backers that several of the new ministers are either related to Mara or seen, like Qarase, as loyal to him.

Shut out of the government, Speight's henchmen have also, say the military, forfeited the amnesty promised them in the hostage-release deal by refusing to surrender all their weapons. Speight could now be charged with treason for threatening President Iloilo's life during the wrangling over cabinet posts. "We have removed the center," said military spokesman Lieut.-Col. Filipo Tarakinikini, "the people who have been orchestrating this campaign of instability." All that remains is to "bring the country back to total normalcy."

That goal—so often repeated over the past 10 weeks—may at last be coming faintly into sight. At week's end, the military was in control of Suva and most of Viti Levu, Fiji's main island, and on Friday night there were hopes that rebels would soon end their occupation of the dam that supplies 80% of the country's power. On the smaller island of Vanua Levu, however, "There is no law at all," said Shalan Kumar, a shopkeeper in the town of Labasa. In the 48 hours after Speight's arrest, rebels went on a looting spree in Labasa and kidnapped several Indo-Fijians, who have since been released. Elsewhere on the island, rebels seized an airstrip, briefly detaining two New Zealand pilots, and torched ex-President Mara's sugar cane farm. Tarakinikini said the military was aware Vanua Levu was a problem, adding, "We will deal with it when we are ready."

Fiji Times publisher Yashwant Gaunder expects the backlash to continue, but doubts it will be widespread. "The military have collected most of the stolen weapons," he says, "and the rebels appear to be isolated outside Suva." In the towns, Speight has little indigenous support, says Felix Anthony, general secretary of the Fiji Trades Union Congress. "Most employees in tourism and the civil service are [ethnic] Fijians, and many are now on reduced hours and pay." The brutishness of Speight's henchmen has further alienated the populace. Since leaving Parliament a reeking shambles, they have looted homes, farms and businesses—not all of them owned by Indo-Fijians—and their occupation of the Kalabu school deprived 500 village children of lessons. "If this is all done in the name of indigenous Fijian aspirations," said Tarakinikini, "then it is a shame on us if we let it carry on."

Fijians who were tempted by the coup's indigenous-first promises may find the new government better placed, and more inclined, to help them than the Speightists. Prime Minister Qarase has announced a costly program of grants, tax breaks and low-interest loans to promote indigenous advancement. Fijians may also understand that without stable government everyone will suffer. "People just want to get back to normal life," says publisher Gaunder. "They want law and order and jobs. Now they are saying, 'Thank you very much, George, just give it up.' " They will have to wait and see if Speight, for once, will do just that.