Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the Military Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Fiji’s elected coalition government, headed by an ethnic Indian prime minister, was brought down through two bloodless military coups to establish native Fijian rule.

Summary of Event

The modern history of Fiji, a South Pacific island state, began with the advent of British colonial rule in 1874. The island of Fiji was handed over to the British by a group of Fijian chiefs led by Ratu Seru Cakobau; Fiji did not gain its independence until 1970. The multiethnic nature of Fijian society is a part of its colonial heritage. This pluralist society represents a tradition of interethnic mistrust, competition for power, and ethnic conflict, particularly between the two most populous groups, the indigenous Fijians and the Fijians of Indian ethnic origin. The latter group owes its presence to the importation of Indians as coolies and indentured laborers from colonial India by the British to work on sugar plantations. Revolutions and coups;Fiji Racial and ethnic conflict;Fiji [kw]Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the Military (May 14, 1987) [kw]Ousted by the Military, Fiji’s Elected Government Is (May 14, 1987) [kw]Military, Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the (May 14, 1987) Revolutions and coups;Fiji Racial and ethnic conflict;Fiji [g]Oceania;May 14, 1987: Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the Military[06490] [g]Melanesia;May 14, 1987: Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the Military[06490] [c]Government and politics;May 14, 1987: Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the Military[06490] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;May 14, 1987: Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the Military[06490] [c]Independence movements;May 14, 1987: Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the Military[06490] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 14, 1987: Fiji’s Elected Government Is Ousted by the Military[06490] Bavadra, Timoci Mara, Ratu Sir Kamisese Ganilau, Ratu Sir Penaia Rabuka, Sitiveni

In 1987, indigenous Fijians constituted about 46 percent of the island’s population; the people of Indian descent began to outnumber them around the middle of the twentieth century and constituted about 48 percent of the total population in 1987. Other groups on the island whose numbers were less numerous included Europeans, people of partial European heritage, and Chinese. The main antagonism and hostility, however, existed between the native Fijians and the Indian Fijians. Fijian political analyst Victor Lal has attributed the lack of cultural and political integration among the population in Fiji to the British policy of “benevolent apartheid” to further British colonial interests.

After its independence in 1970, Fiji adopted a political system based on the British model of a parliamentary form of government and an electoral system. In view of Fiji’s ethnic plurality, however, coupled with the fact that since 1948 the Indian population had outnumbered the indigenous Fijians, a unique system of communal electoral representation was created to protect the dominant status of local Fijians and to give representation to a variety of contending factions and interests. This system of “communal roll” instead of “common roll” angered the Indian community, which began to perceive it as a device to keep Indians in an unequal position of political power and second-class-citizen status. While trying to accommodate themselves to the new political system by becoming integrated within the power structures, members of the Indian community continued their efforts to organize politically and to keep the pressure on for a “common roll,” or general electorate. As a result of their separate demands, Indians began to be viewed as disloyal and power hungry by other Fijians.

Between 1970 and 1987, Fiji was ruled by the right-wing Alliance Party, mainly supported by the indigenous Fijians, under Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as prime minister. In the fifth general elections held April 4-11, 1987, however, the long-reigning Alliance Party was defeated by an Indo-Fijian-dominated coalition. Dr. Timoci Bavadra led the coalition of the National Federation Party (NFP) and the Fiji Labour Party (FLP). The NFP had the strong support of Fiji Indians, and the FLP represented assorted racial groups. The NFP-FLP coalition won twenty-eight of the fifty-two seats in the house of representatives, while the Alliance Party, backed mainly by the indigenous Fijians, won twenty-four seats. The coalition, led by the new prime minister, Bavadra, included nineteen Indians, seven Fijians, and two others.

The defeat of the Alliance Party indicated, on one hand, the urban middle class’s challenge to the conservative approach and influence of the Great Council of Chiefs, which was bent on perpetuating a system of tribal allegiance in Fiji and the council’s paramount position within that system. Overall, however, the Indian Fijians had not won the confidence of rank-and-file Fijians, who distrusted Indians and remained suspicious of their desire for political power and control in Fiji. The native Fijian population still believed in the traditional tribal ways and had high respect for the Great Council of Chiefs. The political legitimacy of Ratu Mara’s government had not derived from electoral victory alone but also from the fact that he was a descendant of a traditional chiefly tribe. The majority of Fijians in the native population were still rural, culturally traditional, and economically and educationally backward, whereas Indo-Fijians, by and large, were more commerce-minded and had integrated themselves into professions and the modern sector of the economy.

Sitiveni Rabuka shortly before he was named prime minister of Fiji in June, 1992.

(Reuters/Mark Bakar/Archive Photos)

Not the least important among the factors complicating the political situation in Fiji was the continued external interference of the British in the internal affairs of Fiji after independence. Such interference was ostensibly done on behalf of the native Fijians, but in fact it was intended to perpetuate Great Britain’s indirect control in Fiji and the influence of Western powers in the region to offset perceived Soviet influence. The office of the governor-general as the agent of the British in Fiji was a direct instrument used to interfere with internal Fijian politics.

The coming into power of the Bavadra government provided a cause for jubilation in the Indian community but was met with anger and resistance from native Fijians. In the existing climate of mutual suspicion and lack of national integration, the Great Council of Chiefs and other conservative elements could easily stir up already troubled waters. Soon after Bavadra’s victory, an activist political organization, Taukei, was formed to mobilize the native Fijians to demand the constitutional guarantee of the right of native Fijians to political rule.

Beginning on April 23, 1987, street protests and noisy public demonstrations began against the Bavadra government. The protesters began to send petitions to the governor-general indicating their lack of confidence in the new government. The nature of the protests and demonstrations, however; was generally peaceful. The overt grievance of the protesters was that Indians wanted to rob native Fijians of their land and their way of life.

On May 14, 1987, at 10: 00 a.m., a bloodless coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka took place in Fiji, as about ten soldiers attacked the parliament. Prime Minister Bavadra, his ministers, and other colleagues present in the parliament were arrested and detained. Meanwhile, Rabuka declared that he had seized power to “safeguard the Fijian way of life” from Indian dominance, political or otherwise. The military takeover was celebrated by jubilant Fijians, some of whom also began to harass and threaten the ethnic Indians in Suva and surrounding areas. Some began to demand that Indians should be expelled from Fiji. The coup sent waves of terror and panic among Indo-Fijians, who began to perceive their future in Fiji, their homeland, as bleak.

Following the coup, Rabuka handed over the political administration to civilian authorities under the former prime minister, Ratu Mara. Bavadra and his associates were released unharmed on May 19, 1987. Meanwhile, a multiparty caretaker government under Ratu Mara began efforts to find ways of reaching some form of political compromise whereby the government could maintain a system of communal proportional representation while guaranteeing political supremacy of the local Fijians. Although the Indian community in general was dismayed by the overthrow of Bavadra’s government, Bavadra personally became associated with the efforts under Ratu Mara for seeking a political compromise.

The first coup was followed by a second coup by Rabuka in September, 1987, which ended all political efforts to seek a multiracial compromise. The second coup was designed to establish clearly the supremacy and control of the native Fijians and the subordination of nonnative Fijians to formal secondary political status. Unlike the first coup, the September coup led to a political restructuring and power shuffle in the government. Work on constitutional changes was initiated to safeguard permanently the political control and dominance of the native Fijians. The office of the governor-general was abolished, and Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, the former governor-general, resigned to become the first nominated president of the Republic of Fiji. Ratu Mara was nominated as the prime minister of Fiji.

The new cabinet formed after the second coup included most of Ratu Mara’s old cabinet associates, four members of the military, and some members of the Taukei movement. Rabuka became minister for home affairs in the new cabinet. The racial makeup of the cabinet was seventeen Fijians, two Indians, and two members of partial European heritage. Once again, civilian rule was restored by the military, but the democratic experiment had ended. The Western-style democratic process—based on equality of citizens, free electoral competition of political parties, and the right of the majority party to come into power—was replaced by a pseudoparliamentary system controlled by traditional tribal chiefs and the hegemony of one group over others in a racially plural society.

Under the new political system in Fiji, steps were taken to ensure racial and ethnic inequality with the drafting of a new constitution to safeguard the right of native Fijians (by implication, Fijian chiefs) to political rule. A constitutional council was appointed to undertake work on the framing of the new constitution. A draft of the amended constitution was presented in September, 1988. It called for the president and prime minister both to be Fijian and for a unicameral legislature with thirty-six Fijian members. This document was rejected by Indians, led by Bavadra, as militarist and racist. A later version of the constitution, presented in late 1989, called for a bicameral legislature, with a senate consisting of appointed chiefs and an elected house of representatives with thirty-seven Fijians, twenty-six Indians, and five others. Before its implementation, the new law was to be endorsed by the Council of High Chiefs and the Great Council of Chiefs, both of which upheld the right of Fijian supremacy. More amendments were sought in 1990, and in 1992, Rabuka became prime minister under the new constitution.


The most serious consequences of the 1987 coups in Fiji were borne by the local Indian population. The Indians’ long struggle for equal political rights in Fiji, which they considered to be their homeland, ended in despair. Their future in Fiji became more uncertain and insecure in view of the new constitutional amendments initiated after the second coup to give the native Fijians a permanent right to political rule. Indians were further disconcerted by the already existing land-ownership laws, according to which more than 90 percent of the land was under permanent native Fijian control; Indians could only rent or lease land for residence or agricultural purposes. The fear of a possible Indian expulsion from Fiji and the memory of the nightmarish Indian and Asian experience of deportation from Uganda during Idi Amin’s rule continued to haunt Fijian Indians.

After the coups, a number of Fijian Indians, mostly from the educated middle class, began to emigrate to Australia, New Zealand, and other Western countries. The prospects of migration were dim for those Indo-Fijians who belonged to the rural, unskilled, and less prosperous strata. The size of the Indian population in Fiji declined after the coups, although Indians remained slightly more numerous than native Fijians.

A possible explanation of the peaceful and nonviolent nature of the coups was that Fiji needed its Indians as much as they needed Fiji as their homeland. The Indians’ contributions to and integration in the educational, economic, and intellectual life of Fiji were great assets for the entire Fijian society. The sudden, significant withdrawal of the Indian population could cause disruptions of the Fijian society.

The overthrow of the Bavadra government meant the end of the democratic process, the denial of political rights, and the denial to a people of a homeland. It also signified the victory of the tribal chiefs in perpetuating their interests and control over the native Fijians.

Ethnic tensions and unrest did not end in Fiji with the establishment of the new constitution in 1990. As prime minister, Rabuka formed the Constitutional Review Commission, and its findings led to the adoption of another constitution in 1997. In 2000, another coup toppled the government of the Indo-Fijian prime minister elected under the 1997 constitution, Mahendra Chaudhry. Discord between native Fijians and Indo-Fijians promised to continue well into the twenty-first century. Revolutions and coups;Fiji Racial and ethnic conflict;Fiji

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ali, Ahmed. Fiji: From Colony to Independence, 1874-1970. Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific, 1977. Presents a chronological and analytic historical account of the politics and society in Fiji as a British colony and during the period surrounding Fiji’s independence. Includes discussion of the development of the multiracial and multicultural character of Fiji during this critical period and its implications for the future of Fijian society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lal, Brij V., ed. Bittersweet: An Indo-Fijian Experience. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004. Collection of essays published in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the first arrival of indentured Indians in Fiji. Presents descriptions of many aspects of the lives of the Indians in Fiji, including festivals, family relationships, and discriminatory treatment. Features photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lal, Victor. Fiji: Coups in Paradise. London: Zed Press, 1990. One of the best works available about the political history and the nature of group conflict in Fiji. Analyzes in depth the causes and consequences of the two military coups and the reversal of the democratic process. Offers a sophisticated political examination of the historical, sociological, and economic reasoning behind the moves to perpetuate the political insecurity and second-class status of Fijians of Indian ethnicity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Fiji Indians: Marooned at Home.” In South Asians Overseas: Migration and Ethnicity, edited by Cohn Clarke, Ceri Peach, and Steven Vertovec. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Discusses the events surrounding the coups of 1987 in Fiji and the struggle for political equality, status of insecurity, and future of the Fijian Indian community.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mamak, Alexander. Colour, Culture, and Conflict: A Study of Pluralism in Fiji. New York: Pergamon Press, 1978. Presents a sociological analysis of race and group consciousness in the multicultural and multiracial Fijian society. Includes discussion of the historical and political reasons behind the lack of national integration and sense of nationalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mara, Ratu Sir Kamisese. The Pacific Way: A Memoir. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997. Memoir presents Mara’s perspective on the political history of Fiji in general as well as on the coups that took place in 1987.

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