It took two months, but by the time George Speight freed the last of his 43 M.P. hostages from Suva's Parliament building, he had done more damage than one of the cyclones that periodically sweep the South Pacific. His May 19 coup not only wrecked Fiji's economy and crippled its multiracial democracy, it also destroyed the region's peaceable reputation. News of riots, looting and gun battles left Fiji's hotels almost empty and forced the rest of the world to rethink its tourist-brochure image of a tranquil, unchanging Pacific. Speight was not supposed to lead the coup: according to hostage Poseci Bune, "There was someone else coming [to take charge], but he didn't turn up." But the voluble former insurance salesman proved an eager substitute. In rambling interviews, he cast captive Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his fellow ethnic Indians as exploiters and himself as a bald Moses. "I am the repository of the will of the Fijian people," he said. Inspired, young women wrote songs for him ("George Speight, I'm behind you all the way," ran one paean), grandmothers cooked special dishes for him, and unemployed youths rushed to serve in his private army.
Speight, 43, a part-European fond of golf and get-rich schemes, had less in common with his ragged retainers than with his bosses, a cabal of ex-army officers, opposition politicians and businessmen. Like them, he had enjoyed government jobs and favors-until the zealously ethical Chaudhry barred him from the public trough. The day the new leader took office, in May 1999, "I thought, Coup these guys,'" Speight said.
The frustrations that drove Speight and his allies simmer in most Pacific island nations. The shortsightedness of indigenous leaders has angered the emergent middle classes and the burgeoning poor alike. "The élites have a lot to answer for," says Teresia Teiawa, a political scientist at New Zealand's Victoria University. "In many places the same group has held power for decades. And they only think about advancing their own tribe or family, not the whole nation."
The money grab that often passes for development has in recent years brought the governments of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and the Solomon Islands close to bankruptcy. While the "big men" fight over the national cake, the powerless cling all the more fiercely to the crumbs. In Fiji, claims that ethnic Indians were plotting to seize indigenous-owned land helped boost support for Speight. In the Solomons, more than 60 people have been killed in a struggle between natives of the largest island and outlanders who are seen as usurping their land and their share of jobs.
"We don't want Fijians fighting against Fijians," said Speight in June. Since then, conflict among indigenous Fijians has left 15 people dead. Until the 19th century, warfare was endemic in the South Pacific. Christianity and tribal law long joined hands to keep the peace. But as urbanization and poverty grow, the old ties are weakening. In recent years, guns have been smuggled into the Solomons, Fiji and Samoa. Speight is behind bars now, awaiting trial for treason. But other, more desperate men may yet demand their place at the table of power.