Letter from Fiji

By Phil Esmonde | 1986-10-01 12:00:00

In 1985, Fiji became the first independent country in the Pacific islands region to receive American military aid, getting $400,000 to buy guns for its army. In 1986, Fiji will become the first country in the region to receive direct bilateral economic aid from that country. There is no doubt that the U.S. is trying to develop a closer relationship with Fiji, especially as the U.S. continues to place strains on the region through its insensitive policies in such places as Belau, and through its failure to criticize the French nuclear testing in the Pacific-testing objected to by all in this region. The United States wants unquestioning friends. So far, they have one in Fiji.

In 1985, Fiji became the first Pacific island government to open an embassy in Washington D.C. with an ambassador accredited solely to the U.S. (most Pacific islands have their United Nations delegate cover Washington because of the great costs faced by these financially strapped countries).

There are several other indicators of increased U.S. interest in Fiji. I am told by a representative of a private U.S. non-governmental organization that the USAID people at the U.S. Embassy in Suva have assured them that their presence in Fiji will be maintained by US AID. Another person points Out to me that the image of the U.S. Embassy has changed over the last few years. Whereas previously this Embassy was a place to farm out old diplomats, it now thrives with younger people, several of whom worked at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. Such American-based and conservative organizations as World Vision have increased their budgets and staff in this country.

The American influence here is brought home to me during a dusty four-hour ride on a local bus from the N mountains of the interior of the main island of Viti Levu. Last night, I sat up with a village chief drinking "yangona" (the Fijian national drink, made of the pounded root of the pepper plant) and discussing World Vision, which is planning to do a project in his remote village. Now, having left this village (which, while located just five kilometres below the largest hydro-electric project in Fiji, has no electricity) I am quickly thrust into the modern world about two hours Out of Suva (Fiji's capital) and still well into the country. The bus fills up with diesel at a ramshackle gas station where the attendant wears a T-shirt that proclaims: "Rambo First Blood-Part II. No Man, No Law, No War, Can Stop Him." It captures for me the unquestioning acceptance of "Western" images in this country.

However, things are changing in Fiji. A new political party, the Fiji Labour Party, was formed in July of last year and it is already seriously challenging two major political parties (the National Federation Party) and the governing party (the Alliance Party).

The Labour Party is the first party to cut across racial lines in a country where the largest racial group is Indian. (They are descendants of indentured labor brought in by the British to work the sugar cane fields.) The government and land has been controlled by the Fijians. In a complete surprise even to themselves, the Labour Party won a majority in the municipal elections in the capital, Suva, last November, only four months after being formed. The new Mayor of Suva, Bob Kumar, had to rush out and buy a suit, as he usually wears shorts, shirt, and running shoes. Mr. Kumar, a trade union leader, is also the President of FANG (the Fiji Anti-Nuclear Group) and there is a strong possibility that Suva will be declared a nuclear free zone.

The Fiji Labour Party will likely be running a full slate of candidates in the national elections which must take place no later than 1987. There is a chance of their forming a new government in Fiji at that time. Such a government would do much to strengthen the movement for a nuclear free and independent Pacific.

Labour Party foreign policy calls for a ban on the dumping of all radioactive materials in the Pacific; a ban on all nuclear testing; and a ban on the passage of nuclear powered or nuclear armed ships through the region. Labour also believes that Fiji should take an active role internationally in promoting a nuclear free world.

Such policies differ markedly from those of the government of Ratu Mara, the current Prime Minister of Fiji. It is the current government which assisted in developing a compromise nuclear free zone treaty last year in the South Pacific-a treaty which in reality does little but try to get rid of French testing in the region.

An event last October by the Fiji Anti-Nuclear Group when two U.S. Navy vessels visited Suva harbor reflects the current government's attitude: Protesters had their placards taken away and destroyed by the police. They were told that any gathering of three people or more requires a permit.

Meanwhile, the two U.S. vessels, the USS Brooke and the USS Reid, held open houses for the Fijian people. The message was: Just don't ask questions.

Fiji is located just west of the international dateline and refers to itself as the place "where the new day begins." Given its location, Fiji thus became the place in 1986-- the International Year of Peace-to hold the world's first peace gathering: the Conference on Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies, held in Suva. In a symbolic gesture of its attitude toward International Year of Peace, the United States-with great insensitivity-for the first time sent one of its nuclear submarines to Fiji on January 4 as the peace conference was still taking place. Not surprisingly, delegates protested the visit of the USS Portsmouth. It was an ominous start to International Year of Peace.

Another large peace gathering has been taking place in Fiji August 2-10, as this is being written. The Fiji Anti-Nuclear Group is hosting a solidarity forum on Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) issues. The forum will be developing an alternative nuclear free zone treaty to be presented to the yearly meeting of the South Pacific Forum the following week. The South Pacific Forum is the regional grouping of the leaders of all independent Pacific island countries, and at its 1986 meeting in Fiji is expected to ratify the nuclear free zone treaty for the Pacific presented at its last meeting in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. That treaty has come under criticism from activists and from at least three government leaders for being too weak.

Keep an eye on Fiji. the coming year will tell whether this strategic South Pacific nation will become an active player in the peace process or be drawn more fully into the camp of one of the superpowers.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1986

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1986, page 5. Some rights reserved.

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