Fiji’s Elections 2014: From “Fiji for Fijians” to “We are all Fijians”

By Ronaldo Cocom

Ronaldo is a postgraduate student at USP from Belize in Central America. His M.A. sociology thesis is about  people of  mixed iTaukei and Indo-Fijian parentage, asking  how they identify themselves; it raises questions about the term "Fijian" and national identity , and what he calls the "racialization and politicization of ethnicity.  Ronaldo is himself  of mixed parentage, being Creole, Maya, Mestizo —and Belizean.  His blog is www.belizeanminds.blogspot.co.nz
The article below is about the political use of the term "Fijian" in the context of the forthcoming elections.  He favours the NFP and points to the need for "inter-cultural festivals."

The use of the term “Fijian” as a label for national identification remains a significant ideological frame in the run up for elections to be held on September 17, 2014.

By ideological frame, I refer to the fact that phrase “We are all Fijians” is represented by an array of inter-related set of stories, symbols, images, as well as rhetoric in an attempt to define and provide reasons as to why the public should or should not vote for a political party. This ideology is represented as the highest maxim of social equality. It is used to justify, maintain, and increase popular support for the Fiji First Party.

This is visible in the media, where political candidates are often asked to take a position on this issue. The premise is that if we know the candidate’s position on this, we will know their core political values and vision for Fiji. Those who are hesitant to support ‘Fijian’ as a common-term or ‘national identity’ are explicitly and implicitly cued to be proponents of disunity and inequality.

Fiji or Viti

It is said that when the Europeans had asked the Tongans for the name of islands we now know as Fiji, they provided them with the term Viti. It follows that the terms ‘Fiji’ and ‘Fijian’ arose out of a mispronunciation of the word Viti. Colonialism inaugurated the emergence of a collective ‘Fijian race’ or the Taukei Kei Viti or Kai Viti, which loosely translates into ‘the owners of Fiji land’ and ‘persons from Fiji’ respectively. Prior to this, identification was primarily based on one’s birth and kinship connections in a vanua or mataqali among distinct communities/confederacies and not as a collective ‘Fijian race’.

There were diverse pronunciations and spellings of Fiji such as “Beetee, Fegee, Fejee, Fidjee, Fidje, Fidgee, Fidschi, Fiji, Feigee, Vihi, Viji, and Viti” (Williams & Calvert, 1859, p. 1). However, Fiji and Fijian became commonly labels used in the colonial state to refer to the land and the ‘natives’.

Coups and Fiji for Fijians

These labels “Fiji/Fijian” are not in themselves the problem or the solution to ethnic-relations in Fiji. The problem is the actions of elitist alliances and the practice of racial ethno-nationalism which have instilled divisive values and practices to these classifications. 

Colonial policy and the coup makers through their use of these categories have established the social boundaries between the two ‘races’. To the Fijians, the Indians were to be known as the vulagi (foreigner). To the Indians, the Fijians were to be known as the jungalis (jungle people). This is not to say that there are no cultural differences between the two but that the state plays a crucial role in how these differences are viewed, expressed, and lived.

Support for the 1987 and 2000 coup was summoned precisely on a form of oppositional categorization from the colonial period. It featured arguments to ‘protect’ the taukei (owners of the land), lotu (Christian religious beliefs), and the vanua (land and groupings), which were supposedly endangered. The mobilizing theme was the protection of Fijian interests with “Fiji for Fijians” as a rallying motto.

We Are All Fijians

Unlike the previous coups in 1987 and 2000 which were executed under the ideological banner of “Fiji for Fijians”, Bainimarama has been able to popularize the idea that his governance represents democracy with the motto “We are all Fijians” and “Fiji for all Fijians”. Bainimarama, who was the commander of the Fijian army at the time, accused the Quarse government of election fraud and took control of government in 2006.

Since then, Bainimarama has conducted a widespread media campaign that emphasizes “We are all Fijians”. In 2010, he issued a decree stating that the indigenous peoples should be officially known as the iTaukei and that all other citizens should be known as Fijians. He also issued many other decrees proclaiming that his actions are in the best interest of all citizens, such as dismantling the Great Council of Chiefs. The “We are all Fijians” has become the common-sense lens from which to positively interpret and justify past and future actions of the Bainimarama regime.

The issue of a common-name is linked to the efforts of the National Federation Party (NFP) which was the first party to advocate for a common-roll and a common name for citizens prior to Fiji’s independence. However, at the time, Fijian politicians and intellectuals argued that such actions would be disastrous for Fijian identity and culture. Therefore, such proposals were never approved.

Bainimarama has been able to re-articulate this ideology at a time when no other message would have worked in his favor. He could not rely on the ideology of Fijian paramountcy (‘Fiji for Fijians’) because this was what the Qarase government was employing. Qarasewas implementing policies which were designed to establish the dominance of Fijians in areas such as the economy, education, and the public service. Bainimarama employed the ideology of ‘ending racism’ and of ‘moving Fiji forward’ to gain local and international support for his dismissal of Qarase, whom he had originally appointed after the 2000 coup.

Through this re-articulated ideology, Bainimarama has sought to downplay the fact that he came to power illegally, that he has violated the constitution, and that he has been unaccountable over the years (e.g. why will the Auditor General Reports be issued until after the elections?). He has been able to do this because he commanded the military and because he is phenotypically Fijian. The ideology of “We are all Fijians” is the emotional and symbolic glue which holds the Bainimarama regime together. It has resounded with approval among some segments of populace including key public figures as it represents the idea of civic equality and nationality unity.

In March of this year, Bainimarama announced the formation of his political party called the “Fiji First Party”, a name which was designed to promote this ideological theme. His initial 2006 promise to have returned to the barracks after establishing mechanisms for a stable democracy has now been pushed aside. He now aims to gain official support for his governance in the run up for elections. He has exercised several key social reforms and media campaigns to this end: free education policy; reform of scholarship scheme to be based on merit; rural development projects; creation of a new constitution, and appears to have de-facto control of Fiji’s mainstream media.

We Are All Fijians, But Who Are You

The counter ideological frames of the other parties contesting election are based on human rights and liberal democratic discourses. They argue that the Bainimarama regime has proven to be unaccountable, unjust, and undemocratic.

For instance, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) argues that Bainimarama’s imposition of a common-name is against the indigenous rights and culture. They hold that ‘Fijian’ must be the official name for the indigenous peoples. This argument bears the traces of the ‘Fiji for Fijians’ ideology as it merges past members and support from the pro-indigenous campaign of the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party, founded by Quarse in 2001. It supplements its ideological power by calling on the international convention of indigenous rights which asserts the right of indigenous people to protect their ‘identity’. Their ideological goal is to ‘reclaim’ Fijian cultural institutions and democracy. In this regard, this ideological frame is geared towards gaining massive Fijian support.

Another major party contesting the elections is the National Federation Party (NFP). And while it is likely that the NFP remains committed to idea that ‘Fijian’ is the best common name for civic unity, given the political situation, they have chosen to inform the public that this should be done through democratic process and not by a military regime. They argue that the regime had no legal democratic authority to employ this term for the citizenry. They prefer to take the matter up for public consultation which demonstrates its respect for law in a democracy and their empathy to dialogue with the indigenous peoples. This underscores NFP ideological frame of liberal democracy, equality and respect to all the citizens and in so doing encourage voters to support them and not Fiji First which has been a dictatorship.

The NFP in my opinion is the best of the political parties. Their track record shows that they have always argued for equal representation, respect and compromise with the indigenous community, and would properly lead Fiji towards democratic stability and sound economic growth.

However, there is a need for the NFP to insert themselves more radically in the “We are Fijians” ideology. “We are Fijians” must be dis-articulated and re-articulated in ways which demonstrate their commitment to equality, national unity, and gain popular support. They should emphasize the fact that by and large the populace continues to use the terms like Indians and Fijians in the everyday life, and that it is okay to use Fijian as a marker of national collectivity as well as a marker to refer to the indigenous people. They should also devise strategies which can build on the desire for national unity in more creative ways. 

For example, they may pledge to have a day of national inter-cultural festivities, which will exhibit shared and unique cultural practices from all of Fiji cultures not just Indian and Fijian cultures. They should organize a group of singers or actors from diverse ethnic backgrounds to create songs and dramas for their campaign. They may also consider a proposition to modify the constitution to insert a clause which declares Fiji a multi-religious state versus a secular state. In order words, they must present themselves with a more impressive strategy and symbols of national unity than the Bainimarama’s “We are Fijians” campaign.

Conclusion

It would appear that Bainimarama has been successful in the public sphere as far as this ideological device of “We are all Fijians” is concerned. Journalists and the media in general have consistently disapproved of any politician who disagrees with the use of Fijian as a common label. Those who disagree with Bainimarama’s “We are all Fijians” are casted as promoters of racial division and ‘returning Fiji to the politics of old times’.

There are no guarantees that the policies of the Bainimarama government which one may interpret as progressive will in effect create a stable multicultural Fiji. The regime’s hegemonic governance has come at the cost of media censorship, unaccounted economic practices, political corruption, and human rights violations as documented by the alternative media and civil society reports. The illegal actions of Bainimarama are overlooked by Fiji First supporters who encourage the public to realize that the nation has finally achieved a ‘national identity’ and to observe the infrastructure development taking place (never mind its unsustainability).

For some of the populace, the ideology of “We are all Fijians” is a positive step towards national unity. For others, it is as a threat to Fijian identity. And still for others, it is an illegal change with no material rewards. Going into the election, political mobilization will depend on which party can create a positive and dominant ideological representation of their party. So far Fiji First appears to have the upper hand because it has dominated the public sphere and has complemented this ideology with recent infrastructure development. For better or for worst, the “We are all Fijians” motto has a wide appeal and I wouldn’t be surprise if Bainimarama wins the election. But I also wouldn’t be happy; … maybe I’ll be content, but not happy.

By Rolando Cocom

Rolando Cocom is a graduate scholar at The University of the South Pacific. His research interest is focused on the processes and struggles of multiculturalism, nationalism, and identity.

References

Derrick, R. A. (1950). A history of Fiji (Vol. 1). Suva: Stationery Department.
Kelly, J. D. (1995). Threats to Difference in Colonial Fiji. Cultural Anthropology, 10(1), 64-84. doi: 10.2307/656231
Lal, B. V. (Ed.). (2004). Bittersweet: The Indo-Fijian experience. Australia: Pandanus Books.
Lal, B. V. (2013). The strange career of Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s 2006 Fiji coup. Paper presented at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia, Australia. Retrieved Sep 8, 2014, from http://ips.cap.anu.edu.au/publications/strange-career-commodore-frank-bainimaramas-2006-fiji-coup
Naidu, V. (2013). Fiji: the challenges and opportunities of diversity. Suva: Minority Rights Group International.
Narsey, W. (2012). Fijians, I-Taukei, Indians and Indo-Fijians: Name changes by military decree. Pacific Media Centre. Retrieved Nov 8, 2013, from http://www.pmc.aut.ac.nz/articles/fijians-i-taukei-indians-and-indo-fijians-name-changes-military-decree
Narsey, W. (2012). Choosing between the Military and the Rule of Law. Wadan Narsey on Fiji. Retrieved Sep 8, 2014, from http://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2014/08/24/choosing-between-the-military-and-the-rule-of-law-part-i-21-august-2014/
Rakuita, T. (2007). Living by bread alone: Contemporary challenges associated with Identity and belongingness in Fiji. Suva: Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy.
Ratuva, S. (2002). Participation for Peace: A study of inter-ethnic and inter-religious perception in Fiji. Suva: Ecumenical Centre for Research Education and Advocacy.
Robertson, R. T. (1998). Multiculturalism & Reconciliation in an Indulgent Republic: Fiji After the Coups, 1987-1998. Suva: Fiji Institute of Applied Studies.
Seemann, B. (1862). Viti: An account of a government mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands, in the years 1860-61. London: Macmillan.
Sauvakacolo, S. (2014). 'I want a new Fiji', Fiji Times. Retrieved from http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=264241
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Comments

Anonymous said…
If one ignores the subjectivity in the last line, this is a thoughtful, well articulated and objective academic analysis. Vinaka Rolando and good luck with the thesis. Although if your thesis is of similar quality then 'luck' won't be needed.
Anonymous said…
Vinaka Ronaldo for sharing your research results with us. The only two comments I would like to make are:

(1) the idea to pledge a separate day for 'inter-cultural festival' is not necessary. You will have noted that nowhere else in the world are there so many festivals as in in Fiji; all of which are 'inter-cultural' in nature eg Hibiscus, Bula, Sugar, Northern, Burebasaga and the now to be revived Tagimoucia Festival. These festivals have their separate Fijian, Indian, Chinese etc nights. So I not sure whether having a separate 'intercultural' festival will have the drawing power as these other festivals which are backed by the private sector.

(2) You rightly mentioned the problems of imposed media censorship, unaccounted economic practices and human rights violations with the current government. My own view, the overriding (number 1) national issue is the need for 'National Unity'. We have argued the issue of national identity ever since Independence in 1970. More than 30 years have passed and we are no nearer to even agreeing on a national identity. There have been transgressions and coups along the way but we still we are floundering on this issue. The Army stepped in and grabbed the issue by the collar and said until such time as feuding democratic forces can resolve the issue of national identity, we are now all 'Fijians'. PERIOD. The next Parliament can take up the cudgels on this issue and move the debate forward.

Meantime, if one disagrees with what Bainimarama has done then they should cast their vote for the party that best represents their views on these issues, especially the issue of using 'Fijian' as a national label ala Australia, America, New Zealand, Brazil, Malaysia etc etc.

Bill Wadely
Rockhampton, QLD

Rolando Cocom said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Baleta said…
For me identity is important as your identify, enables the people I interact with a background and set of expectations from their experiences to have a base of understandings when they deal with me. Also of the most important factors about identity is ownership you use your identity to claim ownership on certain objects, ideas, language and traditions.

An example is the Fijian language and Fijian Culture which I am sure most people don't think its English and culture of all races of Fiji which to this day is still quite different depending of people who they identify with.

The argument for me that the word Fijian should still be identified as the people who are indigenous to Fiji is that they are the ones who owned the term previously and should be part of the process in giving the word a new meaning to the outside world. This process did not occur under Banimarama.

In the end words can have a lot of different meanings based on the understanding of people experiences with the words and I am arguing we should not promote changing the meaning unless their is agreement with the people that previously owned that meaning.

Anonymous said…
Vinaka Ronaldo for your research

You said you will be content but not happy.

I think better content than being unhappy.

A common name through the democratic process may take hundreds of years and some very unpleasant experiences.

So better we just have the common name now and all feel content - we can feel happy after a few years when iTaukeis interests are adequately addressed later.

(Majority are iTaukeis hence all parties will have to address their concerns either now or in the future).

Cheers.
Anonymous said…
As a taukei, I am comfortable that my interests are adequately protected under this Constitution. The idea of a common name and the word 'Fijian' does not faze me because we i'taukei "know" who we are. "Keimami dui kila vinaka tu na neimami vei dela ni yavu" (we know our origins and our relationship with others). I agree with Frank that it is an English descriptor used to describe our Nationality. I am a Fijian by Nationality and my ethnicity is ''i'taukei". In Malaysia, all citizens are Malaysians by Nationality but the native Malays there are the 'Bhumiputra" (sons of the land or soil). There are other examples.
Rolando Cocom said…
Great insights.

1. The suggestion of an 'inter-cultural day' was really an attempt to tell the NFP and other parties that they must attempt to generate a more persuasive discourse of ‘national identity’ than FF. For example, they may consider proposing a National Institute of Culture which can have representation from Fiji’s diverse communities and execute initiatives (see our NICH model in Belize). They must show that the FFP “We are all Fijians” is not enough and that they can do much better on this issue (in addition to the other relevant areas they are lobbing for such as in education, economy, and health care).
I don’t think there argument that we are ‘Fiji Islander’ is appealing to gain those voters who are already persuaded by the ‘We are Fijians’ motto.

2. National identity in many countries has always been an ideological device for political mobilization. In fact, some say that the birth of nationalism has been linked to rise of democratic states which needed to have consensus in order to its people not by force but by persuasion.
The form of national identity that the FNP needs to articulate must be a civic national identity. By this I mean, not a national identity which seeks to define cultural aspects and say this is ‘who we are’, which will always end up being exclusionary but an identity which emphasizes democratic values of respect to law, accountability, public participation in addition to values of multiculturalism. They must do this in conjunction with the collective label already established i.e. the must now re-articulate that the true Fijian is one who will value democracy and not corruption and dictatorship.
Anonymous said…
Nicely put for an indian pretending to be a Fijian.
Rolando Cocom said…
This was nicely put and it made me chuckle. For me, it’s not that the term ‘Fijian’ resolves Fiji’s ethnic politics. Additionally, I think that the Bainimarama regime has failed to develop a position that accepts that citizens should be able to use the terms Indian and Fijian as per usual. There are many ways to increase the understanding of mutual respect and understanding such as by having political leaders and chiefs modifying the concept of taukei-vulagi in order to encourage belonging. Cheers.
Rolando Cocom said…
Hi thanks. I feel that there is a need for us involved in academia to make our political views known at this point time where people are seeking opinions to make sense of Fiji's political climate. I wish more of USP researchers would get their views out.
Anonymous said…
The regime’s hegemonic governance has come at the cost of media censorship, unaccounted economic practices, political corruption, and human rights violations as documented by the alternative media and civil society reports. The illegal actions of Bainimarama are overlooked by Fiji First supporters who encourage the public to realize that the nation has finally achieved a ‘national identity’ and to observe the infrastructure development taking place (never mind its unsustainability).
Anonymous said…
Anon @ 3:12 pm. Those costs are the sacrifices we have to make to achieve the 'National Unity' we need to create a modern, forward looking national state that was hitherto divided along every possible socil fisssure/
Jim Anthony said…
Above: you have it wrong: native Malays" in Malaysia are "orang asli."
In Hawaii, the term "Hawaiian" is reserved for 'native Hawaiians'--people whose ancestors were here before Cook arrived in 1776. The descendants of Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Haoles (whites) are known as Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Haole (sometimes hyphenated as, for example, Japanese-Americans or AJAs--Americans of Japanese ancestry etc.). But all of the people of Hawaii who were born here and who carry US passports are known as Americans. 'Americans' is the 'big umbrella. These classifications seem to work even in the face of a very active nationalist movement by native Hawaiians to regain some form of sovereignty. This classification works--pretty much. There is no movement in Hawaii that suggests that people born in Hawaii--or who live in Hawaii because Hawaii is where their home is--should be called 'Hawaiians'.
We live in a globalized, plural world. If some people in Fiji want to fight battles over a national name, I can appreciate that. My opinion is that it is a bit of a waste of effort. I was born in Fiji of non-native Fijian parents. I have no interest in calling myself a 'Fijian'. By long standing custom and practice, the term 'Fijian' has been used to describe those who were 'native' to the place called Fiji--the taukei ni tele, owners of the land. Further, my personal view is that, I would feel a bit embarrassed, ill at ease to call myself a 'Fijian' because that nomenclature belongs to the 'first people of the land'--the means by which they have identified themselves and by which they have been identified. It is central to their identity as many of them have said for a very long time and still do. A common name will do little, by itself, to 'bring the races together' in Fiji. If the common name 'Fijian' were imposed from the top, down, it is likely to be resented and might even lead to intensified, deeper resentment. If one is looking for racial integration in Fiji one must look elsewhere--but that's another story, perhaps for another day.

Remember, now: "kittens born in a banana box, are not bananas". By that irrefutable "logic" Indians, whites, persons of mixed ancestry with no Fijian (Taukei) DNA, anyone else born in Fiji ought not to be entitled to call themselves 'Fijians. Guests--vulagi--must know how to behave. There are rules that apply to the behavior of vulagi and rules that apply to the behavior of Taukei, as hosts. Perhaps one day, a consensus will emerge amongst 'native Fijians' and they will say, most probably through a majority of their traditional leaders: "OK, we would like to invite people who live amongst us, who were born here, but who do not share our DNA, to be called 'Fijians'. Old African saying as a Fijian friend of mine once told me: "Slowly, slowly, catch the monkey."
Jim Anthony said…
This very short post script: In my book, taking the name of another without properly given consent, is "identity theft'.
To me it is not honorable, not what Fijians call 'savasava' ( 'clean'), improper. National integration, the lowering of racial barriers to bring people together may require some attention to learning the language of the host culture, learning the cultural rules of the host culture and its nuances.
A visiting graduate student attending a University in Fiji ought to have his right to share the results of his research. But then, with this right there is a corresponding obligation or a set of obligations: one of them is the obligation to have some command of the host culture's principal dialect (in this case Bauan, sometimes, perhaps often called 'Fijian'). Does Mt. Cocom speak Bauan or any other 'Fijian' dialect? A graduate student, or scholar, doing research in China, say, and who did not speak or read at least one of China's principal dialects/languages, is likely not to be taken seriously. I find Mr. Cocom's views on the subject at hand, derived in part from his research efforts to be of low level interest but not much more. To invoke the late Professor Greg Dening's brilliant observation about the difference between models and metaphors in the study of history, it would be well for Mr. Cocom to read Dening. Doing so may well improve the quality of his thesis.
Anonymous said…
A research article such as this has really no value. To understand the complexities of what Mr Cocom has written requires a bit more than reading articles and talking to people. Live that life for a while especially from the view point of of the 'common' folks. This paper attempts to simplify different perspectives- what 3 years in Fiji makes you understand us?
Tuisese said…
Jim when it comes to DNA i think you got it wrong there old fallow. The same DNA found in some iTaukei is found in people of South Indian extraction ( southern tip of India ) living in Fiji. Even the legends tell of the stop over over there but the legends here stop short of the whole story line. The writings in Sanskrit in the caves in Yasawa! The famous iTaukei saying " do ka kau ni vaka Idia taki kei tou" has a deeper meaning that what it is made out to be. The ancient known tales of the land division in Nakauvadra- & which race of people that were yet to RETURN, new comers etc! The land was then divided , those that had just arrived , those that had just arrived,those that were to return and those who were yet to come. If you go to the other side of the Indian ocean yo hear a slightly different story line about the -'walking on stones" Those that came form the "old' Ocean followed the journey of their Vu's! Vinaka
Tuisese said…
Bang, Bang, Bang Jim

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