World

Trouble in paradise

A Canadian flees Toronto for Fiji only to see the country engulfed in racial tensions

September 11 2000
World

Trouble in paradise

A Canadian flees Toronto for Fiji only to see the country engulfed in racial tensions

September 11 2000

Trouble in paradise

A Canadian flees Toronto for Fiji only to see the country engulfed in racial tensions

In the popular mind, Fiji is the stuff of fantasy: beaches, blue seas and gentle breezes. One winter’s day in 1988, Toronto native Peter May could no longer resist the South Pacific archipelago’s call. He soon found himself living, much as a native would, in a village by the sea. But the idyll did not last: on May 19, May was caught up in the racial violence that erupted when Fijian rebel leader George Speight took over Parliament and held the country’s Indo-Fijian prime minister hostage. In the following report, May, 54, who has temporarily returned to Toronto, describes his odyssey and how his island paradise was shattered.

The first thing strangers ask me is how I ended up living in Fiji. My answer is almost a cliché—the one about the guy who cashed in his life in the city for a tropical paradise of palm-fringed beaches. I was that guy. My decision to leave in February, 1988, came while driving down Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway on a cold, slushy morning, one of those winter days when a smear of brown slime defeats the windshield wipers and obscures the traffic ahead. I was 42, overweight and recently divorced. But nobody believed I would really quit my job as news director at CFGM radio, where I had worked for

15 years. “You’re the paint on the wall here,” said a female co-worker. “You’ll die here.”

My employer diagnosed my condition as burnout; my family said it was a reaction to my divorce; friends claimed I was going through a midlife crisis. But I was simply fed up, and set out with a pocketful of traveller’s cheques for the fabled islands of Fiji.

In 1874, Cakobau, Fiji’s paramount chief, ceded the territory to Queen Victoria in return for naval protection against American freebooters who were trading firearms for whatever the natives had to offer. When he signed

the deed of cession, Cakobau believed the islands would be returned to chiefly rule when Fiji received its independence, a contention that would be a source of future trouble as the ethnic makeup of the country changed. Because the British came to the islands by treaty, they had no way of forcing Fijians to work. Personal property was unknown and Fijians had no interest in money. As a result, the British imported labourers from India to develop sugarcane plantations. Their children became the first Indo-Fijians; by 1970, when Fiji became independent, native Fijians made up only half of the population. The country adopted a constitution guaranteeing multi-racial government—to the chagrin of Fijian nationalists.

I knew little of this history when I stepped off the inter-island ferry in the small seaside settlement of Savusavu on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island. The town had a few hundred residents and a single street of shops facing a spectacular curving shore. Within hours, the Radini Savusavu, the wife of the paramount chief of Savusavu, declared that I was her blood relative because, she claimed, I was related to an American whaler named Simon May who arrived on the island in the 1850s. As a result, I was treated as family. Two years later, I met Filo, a beautiful 33year-old with dark hair tumbling down to her waist. We settled down in an old planters house overlooking a lagoon. It was just a 10minute stroll down the sand to a native village where fresh fish, crabs and lobster were always available.

The next few years were like an endless summer, exceeding all of my childhood dreams. I watched whales frolic beyond the reef and often drank the local narcotic, kava, by lantern light with the village men while listening to stories of fishing and hunting wild boars with spears. I learned what it was to live where measured time does not exist and life follows the rhythm of the moon and tides.

I lacked for just one thing: someone I could converse with easily in English about the outside world. So I was glad to meet a man named “Bill,” who had served for more than 20 years in the British army (I never paid much attention to his last name or anyone elses, for in that tiny community one name was enough). We often talked about his world travels, but Bill also gave me a sense of the ethnic tensions that simmered under the surface in Fiji. Bill feared that the Fijians would, like the Hawaiians, lose their language and culture. He tolerated the Indo-Fijians but he was adamant in his stand that Fiji must be ruled by Fijians.

My life as a semi-recluse ended in

After the coup attempt, ethnic tensions continue to divide the country

1993 when I finally went to work teaching broadcasting to local journalists. In 1997,1 moved to the capital city of Suva, on the main island of Viti Levu. On the surface, relations between nativeand Indo-Lijians seemed peaceful. But the election on May 19,

1999, of the People’s Coalition government, led by Mahendra Chaudhry,

Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, changed that.

Many Fijian nationalists could not accept Chaudhry’s victory. The issue boiled over last spring, when George Speight and a group of armed rebels from the Fijian Army’s Counterrevolutionary Warfare Unit entered the parliament buildings on the first anniversary of Chaudhry’s election. They took the Prime Minister hostage, along with his cabinet and all but a few of the elected members of the People’s Coalition government. I soon learned Speight was a bankrupt businessman who had headed the governmentowned Fiji Hardwood Corp. until he was let go during a reorganization of the company led by Chaudhry.

When he addressed the nation that afternoon, Speight bragged that he represented the will of indigenous Fijians and would banish forever the threat of Indo-Fijian dominance. As word of the coup spread, a gang of

thugs began smashing windows in the heart of the Indian retail district. On the second day of the coup, some government MPs resigned in return for their freedom. Speight also tried to force the Prime Minister to step down. A gun was put to Chaudhry’s head, but he refused to resign.

As the crisis continued, a rebel leader told reporters that Speight had only been invited to join the coup 48 hours before it took place. The mastermind was actually a retired officer named Ilisoni Ligairi, who remained inside Parliament with the hostages. I then received a phone call from a friend with standing news. She wanted to know why I had not tried to contact Ligairi. When I protested that I did not know the man, she shocked me. “Yes you do,” she said. “He’s your old friend Bill.”

When the hostages, including Chaudhry, were finally set free on July 13, the army, which had declared martial law, granted Speight and Ligairi amnesty. A few days later, however, the men were arrested on new charges. During negotiations with their supporters, the army promised that any new constitution would guarantee that the offices of president and prime minister could be held only by native Fijians. And the last time I saw Ligairi was on television on July 17. He was sitting in a car with a bandage covering a large gash on his forehead, smiling. Did he believe he had succeeded in keeping Fiji for Fijians—something he had preached to me years earlier?

Today, Fiji remains divided and its tourist-dependent economy is in ruins. Even so, Ligairi and Speight may soon be released. The Great Council of Chiefs, the last body holding any true authority in the nation, is reported to be considering universal amnesty for all the rebels. Now, I intend to return to my shattered paradise. Perhaps I’ll even get a chance to talk to my old friend Bill, and ask him: was it worth it? Em