On July 13, after 56 days as a prisoner of coup leader George Speight, Mahendra Chaudhry was freed into a new Fiji, without a Constitution or an elected government, and policed by martial law. Last week in Wellington he shared his thoughts on the coup, and on Fiji's future, with Time's New Zealand correspondent, Pattrick Smellie
TIME: How do you define your status and the status of your government?
Chaudhry: We still regard ourselves as the democratically elected government of Fiji, although we were removed by force.
TIME: Is it realistic to hope that your government will be reinstated?
Chaudhry: We are certainly fighting for reinstatement. More specifically we will ask that, as a compromise, the President should consider dismissing the interim administration that he has appointed and replacing it with a government of national unity under the provisions of the 1997 Constitution-which should be reinstated.
TIME: The coup has been represented as a rerun of the two coups in 1987, where the primary target was the balance of power between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians. Is that an accurate portrayal?
Chaudhry: No, and it wasn't an accurate portrayal of the 1987 coups. Rather than being a power play between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, the coup was really the work of demagogues and failed politicians and members of the Fijian Establishment. Both in '87 and again in '99, having lost power in democratically held elections, they regained that power by the use of elements in the military.
TIME: Do you see the potential for a violent reaction from Indo-Fijians?
Chaudhry: The first preference of the Indians, I think, would be to leave Fiji and resettle elsewhere. Since the '87 coup, some 50,000 to 60,000 have left. The Indians would not engage in armed struggle because they have always been peace-loving. They don't have a martial tradition. They are basically farmers. They don't see a future for themselves, their children or future generations in Fiji. It's not only the Indians. Native Fijians are also wanting to leave. I know many progressive Fijians who don't see a future for themselves there.
TIME: But you have said you are optimistic.
Chaudhry: While I remain an optimist, I have great difficulty in reassuring people of Indian origin that they have a secure future in Fiji. There have been three coups in the last 13 years, accompanied by violence. And when it comes to those who live off the land, their leases are now beginning to expire, difficult conditions are being placed on their renewal, and what protections they enjoyed have been removed from legislation. So the future is very uncertain for them. It is very difficult for any leader to tell an Indian who lives off the land that he or she has a secure future. Also, the interim administration has opted for a course which would marginalize the Indians. It must be appreciated that 80% of Indians are on ordinary incomes, small-time farmers and factory workers; only 15 to 20% are in business or the professions. So this old perception that all the Indians are wealthy and doing well is not right at all.
TIME: Were Indians involved in the plotting or financing of the coup?
Chaudhry: Yes. It is now clear there were a number of wealthy Indians who supported events leading up to the coup and who also funded it. Some of them enjoyed tremendous advantages under the old regime, and when we came into power, they set about condemning our economic policies. Then, of course, there were also our political opponents. They chose to engage in this illegal method of removing our government.
TIME: Motivated also by interest in access to state resources? Forestry, gold, land?
Chaudhry: Yes. It is now widely believed that our decision on the harvesting of mahogany also angered some people who had a vested interest.
TIME: Is there a future for the 1997 Constitution that has been discarded?
Chaudhry: If Fiji wants to move forward, that's the best Constitution because it provides for multiracial democracy and also a system of power-sharing.
TIME: Do you fear for the future of Fiji as a unitary state, given calls for secession in some parts of the country?
Chaudhry: This is a real test. There could be moves to secede, unless Fijians are ready to unite under someone of strong influence who will be able to put a stop to this.
TIME: Are the secessionists talking about a federation, or separate nations?
Chaudhry: Right now, the west [of Viti Levu] is talking about becoming a sovereign state.
TIME: There has been criticism of the Australian and New Zealand governnments for not seeing the coup coming. Did you see it coming?
Chaudhry: Not in the form it came. Sure, the Opposition and nationalist elements had been engaging in a campaign of destabilization, through disinformation and protest marches. While we passed information that things were turning more serious to the police, we were always assured that our fears were unjustified.
TIME: Do you now think you were misled?
Chaudhry: Indeed, I have said so publicly. There were senior elements in the police force and the military who failed to protect the elected government.
TIME: Do you think any of your political judgments contributed to the coup?
Chaudhry: I don't think so, because we were only following our election manifesto and we didn't do anything that we hadn't told people we would do. As in '87, there was so much disinformation portraying us as an anti-ethnic Fijian government. But the parties represented in the government had an overwhelming mandate from the people of Fiji. We had three indigenous parties in the coalition which between them had won most of the ethnic Fijian seats.
TIME: Should there be wider application of the kinds of smart sanctions applied by Australia and New Zealand, or are much stronger economic sanctions required?
Chaudhry: Smart sanctions were put in place soon after the coup, and they have proved effective. Our position is that unless an acceptable framework is adopted for a return to democracy and constitutional rule, then harsher sanctions will have to be considered. This is the third time Fiji has been through this. Virtually anyone can carry out a coup in Fiji.
TIME: Former coup leader and Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has described democracy as a foreign flower in Fiji.
Chaudhry: I don't agree. Democracy was all right when he was in power. When he loses power, then suddenly democracy is no good and the Constitution is no good.
TIME: Were you disappointed by how much less vocal the Pacific island members of the South Pacific Forum were than Australia and New Zealand in condemning the coup?
Chaudhry: In a way. It's time these countries realized that unless they speak out strongly against these insurgencies elsewhere, their own governments are not safe.
TIME: How do you respond when you see, as you must have in the last few days, pictures of George Speight behind bars, having been beaten?
Chaudhry: I am not a vindictive person and I abhor violence in any form, although I was subjected to it by people who worked for him when I was in captivity. Human rights must be respected by the authorities. I certainly don't get any glee from seeing him assaulted. But I think one thing Mr. Speight and his followers must accept is that they have committed a very serious crime. They should all be prepared to answer for that crime.
TIME: Does it give you a sense of relief to see him in captivity?
Chaudhry: I don't think anyone in Fiji feels relief just because George Speight is in custody, because there is so much instability throughout the country. The mere fact that we have to have the Army patrolling the trouble spots, and having checkpoints in so many places, is itself a sign of instability. The latest shootouts this morning [Aug. 8] between the rebels and the military underline that. Two soldiers have died and one is critically wounded.
TIME: What impression did you gain of Speight?
Chaudhry: I thought he was a very confused person. He hadn't thought anything out clearly. He was talking about the issue of the indigenous community. He felt that the Indians had done them in. He was saying that as far as he was concerned, Indians had absolutely no role in the governance of Fiji anymore, that we were going to go on to a completely different Fiji. He was talking about setting up a totally new system of government. He had scant details of how this system would work. Most of the time I thought he seemed obsessed with this idea.
TIME: Do you think you will ever leave Fiji?
Chaudhry: No. I don't think so. I'm 58 now. Whatever life I have remaining I will devote to serving my people. What has happened is perhaps the work of a very small minority of our people. The entire country can't be blamed for that. We can't blame it on every ethnic Fijian, because I, in my Cabinet, had a majority of ethnic Fijian ministers and we were working together to restore democracy and good governance, and to educate the people that there is no other way forward.