Fijian society being 'dismantled' by decree: high chief

Ro Teimumu

roteimumu-arm-in-armWithin months of the December 2006 coup staged by the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), the peak body for Fijian self-government - the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) - had its activities suspended. In 2008, the GCC lost its powers to appoint key personnel to bodies which administered Fijian affairs, including customary land. In March this year, it was formally abolished by executive decree.

"They started off with the GCC. They have also dismantled our [Rewa] provincial council. In Rewa right now, we only have the village councils," Ro Teimumu told Telinga Media. The institutionalising of indigenous custom in Fiji has its roots in the late nineteenth century when the British colonial government enacted laws that recognised and entrenched customary systems. These laws which established the Fijian Administration formalised chiefly governance from the great council (created in 1876) right down to the village level.

The targeting of chiefly institutions that has characterised military rule has been resisted but, Ro Teimumu says, government restrictions on information made it "very difficult to have our side of the story told". This led her and her supporters to seek a global audience through the Fiji Native Tribal Congress, a non-government body that made representations to a United Nations committee last August.

She believes the rights protected by the entrenched chiefly system are now under threat. Attempts to garner sympathy overseas have been prompted partly by the fact that since 2007, these same rights have enjoyed formal UN recognition.

"The regime has gone out of its way unilaterally since taking power in 2006 to contravene, abuse and eradicate the very rights recognised for native Fijians under the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," Ro Teimumu Kepa told delegates to the FDFM annual conference last Saturday.

Those rights, the congress earlier argued at a UN hearing in Geneva of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, were being violated by a series of decrees and amendments to them. For example, the Native Land Trust Board - a government agency charged with the management of customary land on behalf of its Fijian owners - is now under the control of the Minister for Fijian Affairs, a position held by coup leader and interim Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

She believes current policies breach Articles 3, 4 and 5 of the declaration passed at a 2007 meeting from which Fiji was absent: that is, the right to self-determination, the right to autonomy or self-government and the right to maintain distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions. She also cites a land use decree in 2010 and an inter-departmental initiative from 2008 that she believes puts Fiji in breach of Article 26: the right to own, use and control lands possessed by reason of traditional ownership. She says the latter - know as the Committee on Better Utilisation of Land - is an attempt to "to coerce indigenous Fijians into granting leases over native land".

Some of these transgressions (relating to the control of customary land), she admits, pre-date the December 2006 coup but the high chief says since the coup, the military government has intervened in landowner affairs to extend agricultural leases unilaterally, minimise the sale price of and control income from resources extracted or harvested on customary land and financially punished provinces like her own, which regard the government as illegal.

For its part, the military-led government fronted the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination with a delegation headed by Fiji's Ambassador to the European Union, Peceli Vocea. He told the committee in August of government efforts to rid Fiji of racial discrimination by abolishing references to race in official discourses, renaming schools to remove racial connotations and even mandating that the term 'Fijian' be used as an identifier for all citizens of Fiji, not just indigenous ones.

Although reference to chiefs and the chiefly system is avoided, committee records this year report the Fiji delegation rallying against 'archaic laws and legislations that allow for discrimination against any ethnic group' and 'race-based legislation that would further the racial rift amongst the ethnic communities represented in Fiji'. It notes that 'institutional structures that had engaged in racial discrimination by offering special protection to one race had been dismantled.'

However, its statements to the UN committee with regard to indigenous rights are less coherent. On the one hand, it says it considers the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples applies only to minorities and not the majority indigenous Fijians. Despite this interpretation and although the government stands accused of violating key articles of the declaration, its delegation still asserted that the declaration on indigenous rights would be relied on to protect the 'disproportionate number of iTaukei [indigenous Fijians]' who were 'underprivileged'.

For her part, the Roko Tui Dreketi told Adelaide delegates: "We are not claiming or asking for any type of rights over and above another race or group of people in Fiji or anywhere else. What we are asking for are the rights as described in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples within the larger framework of the UN Charter on Human Rights."

As Fiji moves toward a constitutional resolution (not altogether smoothly), Ro Teimumu's human rights strategy will be pitted against the government's wide-ranging agenda to re-make Fiji from the top down into a multiracial republic. Whether the attempted transformation will result in a stable democracy is yet unknown. Though strong clues are likely to emerge in the next 12 months or so of constitution-building and subsequent, promised national elections.

The village-dwelling high chief embodies the longstanding chiefly hierarchy as well as defiance of the technocrats in Suva. Like the government which supports equality of opportunity and does not rule out targeted assistance to certain groups, Ro Teimumu also wants to see some affirmative action that raises the position of those who have fallen behind but with the qualification "without victimising the Fijians and what they own".

The multiracial composition of Fiji is "one of the beautiful things about the country", she says. But she adds there are some misunderstandings about how Fijians operate, their history and aspirations.

"Fiji was first settled by Fijians and there's room for everyone and that is what we have shown in the past. But there are some things that belong to us that you don't just come and take away from us. And when that happens, we have very, very strong feelings about that."


Biographical Note: In 2004, Ro Teimumu Kepa succeeded her late sister, former First Lady Ro Lady Lala Mara as Roko Tui Dreketi. She served as a cabinet minister since 2000 in the various governments headed by Laisenia Qarase's Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party (SDL)  in the portfolios of women, culture, social welfare and education.

In July 2009, three months after the abrogation of Fiji's constitution, she was arrested for breaching the military-led government's Public Emergency Regulations on 'incitement' after she invited the Methodist Church to hold its banned annual conference in her province of Rewa. She was later released.

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