On May 19, seven masked gunmen led by businessman George Speight stormed the Fijian parliament, seized about 40 hostages (including the prime minister), and announced they were dissolving the multiracial government and taking control. What's behind the coup attempt? Who's running Fiji now? Speight says he organized the coup on behalf of indigenous Fijians, Melanesians who have been at political odds with the islands' ethnic Indians since the British granted independence to the 100-plus islands that make up Fiji in 1970. The two issues at the heart of the conflict are:
Control of the Government. Indigenous Fijians, who make up 51 percent of the country's 800,000 people, have dominated the country's government thanks to constitutions that blatantly favor them. The ethnic Indians are the descendents of indentured servants brought to the islands by the British 130 years ago. They account for 44 percent of the population and dominate the merchant class and most of the country's agriculture. In 1987, a military coup toppled the government when the indigenous islanders grew jealous of rising Indian political power. Speight's supporters want a new constitution that will exclude ethnic Indians from high office.
Land Reform. Indigenous Fijians own 80 percent of the country's land, but the most arable plots were leased to Indians under terms negotiated by the departing British in 1970. The leases have started expiring, and Speight's supporters defend the coup on the grounds that the coalition government was going to intervene on the side of the Indians in the writing of new leases.
The armed forces, led by an indigenous Fijian, established a military government after Speight took hostages, who include officeholders of both races. Negotiations for the hostages' release broke down when Speight reportedly demanded too much personal power in the new government. Speight has threatened to kill hostages if the military uses force to rescue them.
Scattered altercations and minor looting and vandalism directed against Indian merchants followed the coup attempt, but no deaths have been recorded. Also, the unrest has hurt Fiji's economy and international prestige, especially the $250 million tourism industry. The commonwealth officially rebuked Fiji early this week.
For the time being, the coup attempt has degenerated into a hostage crisis moderated by a military government. But the upheaval threatens to dissolve the island republic, as the indigenous chiefs of the western region of the capital island begin to make separatist noises.