George Speight

  • Share
  • Read Later
By 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 gunbattles 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." Nevertheless, the voluble former insurance salesman proved an eager sub-stitute. In decrees and 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. Young women wrote songs for him ("George Speight, I'm behind you all the way," one chanted), grandmothers cooked special dishes for him and youths rushed to serve in his private army.

Speight, 43, part-European and fond of golf and get-rich-quick schemes, had less in common with his ragged retainers than with his bosses, a cabal of former army officers, politicians, young-Turk chiefs 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 government took office in May 1999, "I thought, 'Coup these guys,' " Speight said.

The frustrations that drove Speight and his allies simmer in most South Pacific island nations. The shortsightedness of indigenous leaders has angered the middle classes and the poor alike. "The elites 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."

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. Those deprived of education, jobs and health care by "big men" cling fiercely to their land and prerogatives. In Fiji, claims that Indians were conspiring to seize land helped boost support for Speight. In the Solomons, more than 60 people have been killed in a two-year struggle between residents of the capital, Honiara, and outlanders who are seen as usurping their land and jobs.

"We don't want Fijians fighting against Fijians," said Speight in June. Since then, conflict among ethnic Fijians has left 15 dead. Until the 19th century, warfare was endemic in the South Pacific. Christianity and tribal law joined hands to keep the peace. But as urbanization and poverty grow, faith and tradition are weakening. In recent years, guns have been smuggled into the Solomons, Fiji and Samoa. Speight is behind bars, awaiting trial for treason. But other more desperate actors may soon demand their hour upon the stage.