Opinion By Professor Biman Prasad.
The Fiji Times. Saturday, May 21, 2016
THE last parliamentary sitting from April 25-29, 2016 can be remembered for three reasons.
Firstly, on April 25, the FijiFirst Government used its numbers in Parliament to defeat a petition by SODELPA parliamentarian Viliame Gavoka for the re-establishment of the Great Council of Chiefs or the Bose Levu Vakaturaga.
Under changes to Standing Orders which FijiFirst rammed through by majority vote earlier this year, 40 per cent of Parliament must vote in favour of a petition to be referred to a standing committee. This is 20 MPs. The Opposition has only 18 MPs. This means no petition will pass this hurdle unless the Government wants it to pass, giving a clear signal to the people that Parliament can only listen to petitions that the Government wants it to hear.
Secondly, on April 28, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama made a ministerial statement on why his regime abolished the GCC. He accused the GCC of allowing the execution of the 1987 and 2000 coups.
Lastly, on April 29, the PM rejected an End of Week Statement from the NFP, requesting Government to commemorate in various ways, the 100th anniversary of the last arrival of indentured labourers to Fiji and to declare a one-off public holiday on November 11, the date in 1916 that the last batch of indentured Indians (girmitiya) arrived in Fiji.
While responding, the PM rejected the request of a one-off public holiday and for Government to commemorate this historical event. He described the NFP’s call as a political stunt, a gimmick, an empty gesture and a face-saving exercise. Furthermore, he said, the priority right now is rehabilitation in the aftermath of Severe TC Winston. He even asked why NFP raised this issue on the last day of the parliamentary sitting. The answer to that is simple. It is called an End of Week Statement for a reason — it is done at the end of the week!
The PM knew it could not have been raised earlier as a substantive motion because the motions NFP has been trying to put to Parliament have not yet been processed by the Parliament Secretariat. Some are still pending from last year.
The PM knows this extremely well, but he twisted and politicised the issue.
But what has all that political jockeying got to do with the price of fish? If Government genuinely wanted to commemorate this anniversary, nothing could have prevented it from doing so.
But, because the NFP suggested it, Girmitiya should now not be honoured!
This Government, especially the PM, is fond of blaming others for its own failures. He should remember that a political party is elected into government on the basis of its manifesto and promises. Once elected, the campaign mode should stop and Parliament, led by the Government,should work constructively. That does not mean that we will not criticise the Government. That is our job. But the Government should respond constructively to the Opposition’s criticism, as well as the Opposition’s ideas.
The NFP supported the parliamentary process on the petition for the re-establishment of the GCC because we strongly believe in petitions being referred to a standing committee to allow our citizens to voice opinions on the subject matter through written and oral submissions.
The basic tenet of democracy is that the voices of the people must be heard. Can the FijiFirst Government guarantee it will support other petitions brought by members of the Opposition, which are not related to the rights of our indigenous or iTaukei?
We believe all other petitions would be derailed in a similar manner because that is exactly why the Standing Orders were changed to incorporate the 40 per cent parliamentary approval requirement. Members of the public sign petitions because they have a right. It must be remembered at the end of the process of any standing committee, it is Parliament that votes on whether or not to accept the report of that committee.
And we have seen that the report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence that deliberated the UNCAT Bill (UN Convention Against Torture) was rejected by Government in February 2015. And the recommendations were tabled by one of their own MPs!
The Government tried to push more amendments to the Standing Orders to curtail debate on petitions on April 26. These amendments are now before the Standing Orders Committee chaired by the Speaker.
PM’s statement on GCC and coups
In his statement on GCC on April 28 he accused it of allowing the coups of 1987 and 2000 to happen and even alluded to this on April 29 in reply to our motion, saying descendants suffered as a result of these coups.
Again, for argument’s sake, even if the PM is right, why didn’t he abolish the GCC for supporting the 2000 coup? He was the Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces at that time. Instead, he illegally abrogated the 1997 Constitution which was restored following a Fiji Court of Appeal ruling in March 2001. The truth is that the RFMF has carried out all four military coups in Fiji since May 14, 1987. And their actions were supported by extremist elements.
The PM himself is on record on RFMF’s role in executing the coups of 1987, 2000 and 2006. This is extremely clear in his two statements on Fiji TV and FBC News.
While addressing villagers in Nadoi, Rewa on May 22, 2008 following the opening of a church extension, he stated why the military carried out the coups.
He said, “We have taken over leadership because politicians have failed us. I have spoken to Qarase and the head of the Methodist Church was there (Reverend Laisiasa Ratabacaca), politicians have failed us, that is why the military took over in 1987, 2000 and 2006.” – Reported on Fiji One National News In-depth Report, May 23, 2008
“The Commander said the military staged the coup in 1987 to develop Fiji but those who went into power used the coup for their own benefit” . — Reported by Fiji Broadcasting Corporation News January 25, 2010 reporting on PM Bainimarama’s speech to chiefs of Kadavu; www.fbc.com.fj
“The massive exodus of Indo-Fijians from the country has been one of the most dramatic developments of the last two decades. Since the coups of 1987, more than 120,000 people have left for other shores, taking with them skills and talents Fiji can ill-afford to lose: doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, and the like”. — The road from 1987 – Opinion by Brij V Lal; Fiji Times May 13, 2008
Is the forced migration of Indo-Fijians from the land of their birth the development that the PM talked about? Is the forced separation of loved ones from their families the development that PM Bainimarama talked about?
Did he mean that the NFP/FLP Coalition Government of Dr Timoci Bavadra that had won the 1987 general election and was in power for only five weeks, was not going to develop the country and that is why the military carried out the coup?
Did he mean the People’s Coalition Government led by the Fiji Labour Party was a failure for one year, resulting in the coup of May 19, 2000?
If that government was a failure, why did the PM appoint the FLP leader to his interim Cabinet in January 2007?
These issues must be explained by the PM because his previous statements sharply contradict what he said in Parliament on April 28-29. Or was this a political stunt by the PM?
Why we should commemorate the girmitiya
The indentured labourers and their descendants over the past 100 years have significantly contributed to the social, economic and political development and advancement of Fiji. This is well recognised.
They have lived peacefully and harmoniously, side by side with other races, especially with our original inhabitants of these beautiful islands, the indigenous community or the iTaukei at all times with a few exceptions, since the start of the coup culture in 1987.
But overwhelmingly this peaceful co-existence and co-operation, the willingness of our landowners to share their resources and land and the freedom for the descendants of our Indentured labourers to put into practice, their language, culture, tradition — an integral part of the Indian civilisation, together with the blood, sweat, toil, tears and lives sacrificed by our forefathers, as well as the immense contributions of other races — has made Fiji what it has been for decades — the hub of the South Pacific.
In 1997 the Honourable Justice Jai Ram Reddy, made a speech to the GCC, as a grandson of an Indentured labourer and as the Leader of the Opposition and leader of the NFP. In that speech, which is one of the defining moment in Fiji’s history, he rightly said: “The Indians of Fiji, brought to these shores as labourers, did not come to conquer or colonise. Our ancestors came to this land in search of a better life, in search of a future they dreamed of for their children and their children’s children.
“Though they travelled to these islands long after your ancestors, surely the dreams and hopes of those who landed from the Leonidas were not that different from those who came ashore after the epic earlier voyage from the West.”
After 100 years since the last arrival of girmitiya, the time is right, not only for the celebration of our rich history in this multicultural society, but for a reflection of the freedoms gained, and lost, on the journey.
The forefathers of the Indo-Fijian community operated on the basis of freedom, human rights, dignity and a virtuous living — the values that, over a period of time, guided our fight against the vices of the indentured system.
Today however, we seem to have forgotten and some would have us forget, those hard fought for virtues and principles in support of those who have taken our freedoms in the past. But we have the perfect opportunity to put this right.
This should be a celebration as well as a commemoration of that single momentous event that forever changed the destiny and the landscape of Fijian society. While the atrocities, trials and tribulations of the indenture system in Fiji have been well documented, the descendants of girmitiyas have moved on.
This is evident in the way the third and fourth generation Indo-Fijians have integrated themselves into Fiji’s landscape. As such, they have tied their own personal circumstances to the destiny of this country.
We need a new culture of dialogue, unity, and co-operation with political leaders of other ethnic groups to forge a new approach to politics in this country. This dialogue should never include coercion or support for coercive activities.
Moreover, the dialogue must incorporate diverse opinions from a broad spectrum of the ethnic groups that make up this nation. As such celebrations like these, highlighting a specific group of people in all their diversity, must be the cornerstones of processes of nation building.
We need to remember the struggles and sacrifices of our forefathers for equality, dignity and justice for all our people.
In 1979, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured labourers with a one-off public holiday. The 50 cents coin was minted with sugarcane on one side to mark this occasion.
Surely, this Government, which prides itself about common and equal citizenry and true democracy, can at least replicate, if not do better than the commemoration of 37 years ago, instead of simply saying no based on warped logic.
* Professor Biman Prasad is the Leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.