U.S. Department of State Background Note
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Fiji is comprised of a group of volcanic islands in the South Pacific lying about 4,450 km. (2,775 mi.) southwest of Honolulu and 1,770 km. (1,100 mi.) north of New Zealand. Its 322 islands vary dramatically in size. The largest islands are Viti Levu, about the size of the "Big Island" of Hawaii, and where the capital and 70% of the population are located, and Vanua Levu. Just over 100 of the smaller islands are inhabited. The larger islands contain mountains as high as 1,200 meters (4,000 ft.) rising abruptly from the shore.
Heavy rains--up to 304 cm. (120 in.) annually--fall on the windward (southeastern) sides of the islands, covering these sections with dense tropical forest. Lowlands on the western portions of each of the main islands are sheltered by the mountains and have a well-marked dry season favorable to crops such as sugarcane.
Most of Fiji's population lives on Viti Levu's coasts, either in Suva or in smaller urban centers. The interior of Viti Levu is sparsely populated due to its rough terrain.
Indigenous Fijians are a mixture of Polynesian and Melanesian, resulting from the original migrations to the South Pacific many centuries ago. The Indo-Fijian population grew rapidly from the 60,000 indentured laborers brought from India between 1879 and 1916 to work in the sugarcane fields. Thousands more Indians migrated voluntarily in the 1920s and 1930s and formed the core of Fiji's business class. Native Fijians live throughout the country, while Indo-Fijians reside primarily near the urban centers and in the cane-producing areas of the two main islands. Nearly all of indigenous Fijians are Christian; more than three-quarters are Methodist. Approximately 80% of Indo-Fijians are Hindu, 15% are Muslim, and around 6% are Christian.
Some Indo-Fijians have been displaced by the expiration of land leases in cane-producing areas and have moved into urban centers in pursuit of jobs. Similarly, a number of indigenous Fijians have moved into urban areas, especially Suva, in search of a better life. Meanwhile, the Indo-Fijian population has declined due to emigration and a declining birth rate. Indo-Fijians currently constitute 37% of the total population, although they were the largest ethnic group from the 1940s until the late 1980s. Indo-Fijians continue to dominate the professions and commerce, while ethnic Fijians dominate government and the military.
Melanesian and Polynesian peoples settled the Fijian islands some 3,500 years ago. European traders and missionaries arrived in the first half of the 19th century, and the resulting disruption led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies. One Ratu (chief), Cakobau, gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s, but the continuing unrest led him and a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally to the British in 1874.
The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was similar to that in many other British possessions: the pacification of the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction of Indian indentured labor. Many traditional institutions, including the system of communal land ownership, were maintained.
Fiji soldiers fought alongside the Allies in the Second World War, gaining a fine reputation in the tough Solomon Islands campaign. The United States and other Allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack.
In April 1970, a constitutional conference in London agreed that Fiji should become a fully sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth. Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970. Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Indian-led opposition won a majority of House seats in 1977, but failed to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.
After a period of deadlocked negotiations, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the constitution and declared Fiji a republic on October 10. This action, coupled with protests by the Government of India, led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth of Nations and official non-recognition of the Rabuka regime from foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, 1987, Rabuka resigned as head of state and Governor General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was appointed the first President of the Fijian Republic. Mara was reappointed Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.
The new government drafted a new constitution that went into force in July 1990. Under its terms, majorities were reserved for ethnic Fijians in both houses of the legislature. Previously, in 1989, the government had released statistical information showing that for the first time since 1946, ethnic Fijians were a majority of the population. More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians and other minorities had left the country in the 2 years following the 1987 coups. After resigning from the military, Rabuka became prime minister in 1993 after elections under the new constitution.
Tensions simmered in 1995-96 over the renewal of land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 7-year review of the 1990 constitution. The Constitutional Review Commission produced a draft constitution that expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic group, and reserved the presidency for ethnic Fijians, but opened the position of prime minister to all races. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The reformed constitution was approved in July 1997. Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth in October.
The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by the Fiji Labor Party (FLP), which formed a coalition, led by Mahendra Chaudhry, with two small Fijian parties. Chaudhry became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. One year later, in May 2000, Chaudhry and most other members of parliament were taken hostage in the House of Representatives by gunmen led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks--during which time Chaudhry was removed from office by the then-president due to his incapacitation. The Republic of Fiji military forces convinced President Mara to resign and brokered a negotiated end to the situation. Speight was later arrested when he violated the settlements' terms. In February 2002, Speight was convicted of treason and is currently serving a life sentence.
In July 2000, former banker Laisenia Qarase was named interim prime minister and head of the interim civilian administration by the military and Great Council of Chiefs. Ratu Josefa Iloilo was named President. The Supreme Court reaffirmed the validity of the constitution and ordered the Chaudhry government returned to power in March 2001, after which the President dissolved the Parliament elected in 2000 and appointed Qarase head of a caretaker government until elections could be held in August. Qarase's newly formed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party won the elections. In May 2006, the SDL was re-elected to a majority in the Parliament, Qarase continued as Prime Minister and formed a multi-party cabinet, which included nine members of the FLP.
In the lead-up to the May 2006 election and beginning again in September, tensions grew between Commander of the Fiji Military Forces Commodore Frank Bainimarama and the Qarase government. Bainimarama demanded the Qarase government not pursue certain legislation and policies. On December 5, 2006 Bainimarama removed elected Prime Minister Qarase from his position and dissolved Parliament in a military coup d'état. Bainimarama temporarily assumed the powers of the President, stating that the President was unable to discharge his responsibilities. Qarase was exiled to an outer island. On January 4, 2007, Bainimarama reinstated President Iloilo, who stated the military was justified in its behavior and promised them amnesty. The following day Iloilo appointed Bainimarama Prime Minister. Over the following weeks Bainimarama formed an "interim government" that included, among others, former Prime Minister Chaudhry and former Republic of Fiji Military Forces heads Epeli Ganilau and Epeli Nailatikau.
Under the Fiji constitution, the president (head of state) is appointed for a 5-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs, a traditional ethnic Fijian leadership body. The president in turn appoints the prime minister (head of government) and Cabinet from among the members of Parliament. Both houses of the legislature have some seats reserved by ethnicity. Other seats can be filled by persons of any ethnic group. The House of Representatives is elected; the Senate is appointed. Since the December 2006 coup, the self-appointed interim government has ruled by decree.
Fiji maintains an independent judiciary consisting of a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, a High Court, and magistrate courts. All but one of the five judges on the Supreme Court also is a serving judge in Australia or New Zealand.
There are four administrative divisions--central, eastern, northern and western--each under the charge of a commissioner. Ethnic Fijians have their own administration in which councils preside over a hierarchy of provinces, districts, and villages. The councils deal with all matters affecting ethnic Fijians.
The Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) is made up of 55 hereditary chiefs, most of whom are nominated to the Council by their respective provincial councils. It is established under the Fijian Affairs Act and recognized by the constitution.
Principal Government Officials
Fiji maintains an embassy at 2000 M Street NW, Suite 710, Washington, DC 20036 (tel: 202-337-8320).
For 17 years after independence, Fiji was a parliamentary democracy. During that time, political life was dominated by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and the Alliance Party, which combined the traditional Fijian chiefly system with leading elements of the European, part-European, and Indian communities. The main parliamentary opposition, the National Federation Party, represented mainly rural Indo-Fijians. Intercommunal relations were managed without serious confrontation. However, when a cabinet with substantial ethnic Indian representation was installed after the April 1987 election, extremist elements played on ethnic Fijian fears of domination by the Indo-Fijian community resulting in a military coup d'etat.
This began what many now refer to as the "coup cycle." The most recent coup took place in December 2006, but has its roots in the previous 2000 coup and mutiny. Military commander Commodore Bainimarama helped resolve the 2000 crisis by imposing martial law. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase led the interim government that followed. Subsequently, Qarase was elected in 2001 and 2006, but pursued some policies favoring the indigenous Fijian community.
One of the main issues of contention is land tenure. Indigenous Fijian communities very closely identify themselves with their land. In 1909 the land ownership pattern was frozen by the British and further sales prohibited. Today, over 90% of the land is held by indigenous Fijians, under the collective ownership of the traditional Fijian clans. That land cannot be sold. Indo-Fijians produce more than 75% of the sugar crop but, in most cases, must lease the land they work from its ethnic Fijian owners instead of being able to buy it outright.
In 2005 and 2006, tensions rose between Bainimarama and Qarase over legislation proposed by the Qarase government concerning land ownership, traditional non-public ownership of the foreshore, and the possible granting of immunity to some coup participants from 2000. Bainimarama began to make demands and threats, and engaged in shows of military force to intimidate the Qarase government into backing away from the controversial policies. When the Qarase government did not accede to all military demands, on December 5, 2006, Bainimarama assumed the powers of the presidency, dismissed Parliament, and declared a temporary military government.
Commodore Bainimarama's interim government has pursued what he terms a "clean-up campaign" to root out what he considers to be large-scale corruption in Fiji. A number of civil servants, including the Chief Justice, were summarily suspended or dismissed due to unidentified corruption concerns. Many individuals who spoke out against the coup were taken to military camps where they have been questioned and sometimes abused.
Fiji is one of the more developed of the Pacific island economies, although it remains a developing country with a large subsistence agriculture sector. For many years sugar and textile exports drove Fiji's economy. However, neither industry is competing effectively in globalized markets. Fiji's sugar industry suffers from quality concerns, poor administration, and the phasing out of a preferential price agreement with the European Union beginning in 2006/2007. The European Union has promised a large amount of financial aid to assist the ailing sugar industry, but, post-coup, has clarified that the aid will only be forthcoming if Fiji cleans up its human rights situation and moves quickly to democracy.
In 2005, the textile industry in Fiji markedly declined following the end of the quota system under the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) and the full integration of textiles into WTO General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. The income from garments plummeted by 43% in 2005 with the end of the ATC quotas. Garments now account for approximately 12% of Fiji's exports and sugar approximately 24%. Other important export crops include coconuts and ginger, although production levels of both are declining. Fiji has extensive mahogany timber reserves, which are only now being exploited. Fishing is an important export and local food source.
Gold is also exported. However, in December 2006, gold mining ceased when Fiji's biggest mine, the Vatukuola Emperor gold mine, closed. The mine changed ownership in March 2007, and there are some indications that it could be operational again before the end of 2007.
The most important manufacturing activities are the processing of sugar and fish. Since 2000 the export of still mineral water, mainly to the United States, has expanded rapidly. By the end of 2006, water exports totaled around U.S. $52 million per year, an increase of 28% over 2005 and an increase of 775% since 2000.
Recent estimates for 2005 show a GDP growth rate of 1.7%. The estimate for 2007 is minus 2.5%.
In recent years, growth in Fiji has been largely driven by a strong tourism industry. Tourism has expanded rapidly since the early 1980s and is the leading economic activity in the islands. Approximately 550,000 people visited Fiji in 2005. However, the December 2006 coup caused a major drop-off in tourist arrivals. The tourism industry responded by introducing cut-rate packages, but even with the discounts there were only 25,000 tourist arrivals in January 2007 as compared to 40,000 in January 2006. The economic downturn has caused thousands to lose their jobs, especially casual or seasonal workers in the tourist industry.
About one-third of Fiji's visitors come from Australia, with large contingents also coming from New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. In 2005, more than 70,000, or around 13%, of the tourists were American, a number that has steadily increased since the start of regularly scheduled nonstop air service from Los Angeles. In 2004, Fiji's gross earnings from tourism were about $418 million, an amount double the revenue from its two largest goods exports (sugar and garments). Gross earnings from tourism continue to be Fiji's major source of foreign currency.
Fiji runs a persistently large trade deficit, F$1.94 billion (U.S. $1.17 billion) for 2006, although tourism revenues yield a services surplus. Australia accounts for between 25% and 35% of Fiji's foods trade, with New Zealand, Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan varying year-by-year between 5% and 20% each. Since the 1960s, Fiji has had a high rate of emigration, particularly of Indo-Fijians in search of better economic opportunities. This has been particularly true of persons with education and skills. The economic and political uncertainties following the coups have added to the outward flow by persons of all ethnic groups. In recent years, indigenous Fijians also have begun to emigrate in large numbers, often to seek employment as home health care workers. Remittances from overseas workers, often undocumented, are second only to tourism as a source of foreign exchange earnings. Fiji is also attempting to brand itself as a potential movie-filming site and has been the location of a small number of feature films.
Fiji has traditionally had close relations with its major trading partners Australia and New Zealand. Currently, a number of countries including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have placed targeted sanctions on the illegal interim government. Fiji has pursued closer relations with a number of Asian countries, including the People's Republic of China and India.
Since independence, Fiji has been a leader in the South Pacific region. Fiji hosts the secretariat of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum, as well as a number of other prestigious regional organizations. In 2002, Fiji hosted the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Summit with more than 80 countries represented. During the ACP Summit, the Nadi Declaration was adopted regarding economic cooperation with the European Union. In July 2003, Fiji hosted the South Pacific Games, a prestigious event that went far beyond athletics and symbolized the country's return to normalcy. In September 2005, Fiji hosted the 51st Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference. Fiji became the 127th member of the United Nations on October 13, 1970, and participates actively in the organization. Fiji's contributions to UN peacekeeping are unique for a nation of its size. It maintains about 600 soldiers and police overseas in UN peacekeeping missions, with MFO Sinai in the Middle East, East Timor, and Iraq. Fiji also has a number of private citizens working in Iraq and Kuwait, mostly in security services.
Relations between the elected government of Fiji and the United States were excellent. The United States has not recognized the interim government established by the illegal December 5, 2006 coup. Fiji maintains an embassy in Washington DC, as well as a Permanent Mission in New York at the United Nations. Although the United States provides relatively little direct bilateral development assistance, it contributes as a major member of a number of multilateral agencies such as the Asian Development Bank and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. The U.S. Peace Corps, temporarily withdrawn from Fiji in 1998, resumed its program in Fiji in late 2003.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
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Revised: Oct. 2007