Colour, Class and Custom

Six: Conclusions—Tradition as Smokescreen

Many of my conclusions about the importance of race, class, custom, and specific interest as factors of explanation for the coup have already been made in the appropriate sections of this paper. In this section I give an overview of those conclusions, with a particular focus on the 'Politics of Tradition'.

Race has undoubtedly been the most commonly offered explanation for the coup; it so qualifies on the basis of countless news reports alone. Among academics, however, it has found less favour. Its primary academic champion, Scarr, in my view fails to make a convincing case. Scarr's acceptance of the 'myth of cultural homogeneity' leads him to presume that Rabuka had the support of all Fijians—an unspoken mandate which made his actions more a revolution than a coup. Such a presumption is not justified. Race does remain an important factor in the coup, however, and helped it to succeed: it was one motive behind the coup-makers' actions, and the rhetoric of race was of great importance in winning tacit support for the coup from those Fijians who were wary of Indians.

The class factor is promoted only by a minority among academics. It explains very well the rise of those forces overthrown by the coup, without which no coup would have occurred, and is therefore a necessary part of any coup explanation. It is insufficient, however, to adequately explain the motives of the coup-makers. Those motives were more than the protection of 'ruling class' wealth and privilege.

Explanations involving intervention by the CIA and other external forces are difficult to substantiate, and are supported by few academics. External intervention also fails the test of necessity: the coup may be perfectly adequately explained without it. In the absence of firm evidence, it will remain an explanation of negligible importance.

The personal motives of Rabuka, Ganilau, and Mara, and the group motives of the military and corrupt Alliance supporters, all played important roles in the coup. Most can be explained in terms of other factors: military interests, for example, were tied to those of the chiefs. Ganilau and Mara, however, were of particular importance: had they strongly opposed the coup, it may well have failed. Thus their specific interests (and of course Rabuka's) were the most necessary of any for ensuring the coup's success.

Custom was a necessary cause of the coup; the increasing political influence of commoner Fijians, and to a lesser degree that of the west, were of major concern to the coup-makers. More importantly, however, custom explains the coup-makers themselves. The forces behind the coup were the chiefs and their supporters, largely drawn from the east. The coup-makers, who naturally were an essential cause of the coup and its success, are themselves a product of custom. Therefore the importance of race, class, and specific interest, which lies in their role as motives of the coup-makers and coup supporters, is secondary to that of custom.

But is any one factor sufficient to explain the coup? The answer is no: all played an important role. Only external intervention and corruption would probably not have been necessary for the success of the coup; and of these, the latter probably did play a part, while the former may have done. As for race, it is possible to speculate that in a Fiji without Indians, a class challenge to customary forces could well have been sufficient to provoke a coup; but in Fiji as it actually exists, race was undoubtedly an important element, if not in causing the coup, then at least in ensuring its success.

The difficulty lies in determining the relative significance of these factors. My own determination is that, while almost all are necessary elements in an explanation of the coup, custom provides the best framework within which to incorporate those elements. Also, even though the other factors were important, custom is the factor most nearly sufficient in itself to explain the coups.

The growing role of 'tradition' in Pacific politics

Fiji is only one of several countries in the Pacific which have seen an increase in the political role played by custom in the recent past. This regional trend seems to imply a growing dissatisfaction with mere political independence from former colonial rulers, and a search for a more profound independence: an independence, as far as is practicable, from 'Western culture'.

A century of colonial rule caused or accelerated the demise of many of the practices and beliefs of the Pacific's indigenous peoples. In their place, local variants of well-established European practices arose, being either imposed by colonial powers or adopted by local inhabitants. Now, in an attempt in part to build a truly independent identity, some in the Pacific are attempting to recapture their pre-colonial practices. While it is now impossible to bring those practices back in their entirety—some have been forgotten, some are no longer wanted—it is possible, they believe, to adapt existing 'Westernized' practices so that they more strongly reflect 'indigenous traditions'.

These developments have affected many different aspects of society in the countries of the Pacific. Some of those aspects, such as local art and craft, have never been totally 'Westernized' (although it is doubtful that any have been completely immune to changes brought on by colonization and modernization). In such cases the process of 'recapturing indigenous traditions' is more one of revival than of adaptation or reinvention.

One aspect of society, however, has been 'Westernized' in practically every country of the region. This aspect, furthermore, affects all others and determines the way these societies will develop. That aspect is politics. The entire framework of politics in each Pacific country—with bodies of elected representatives, governments drawn from those representatives, and written constitutions specifying how these processes will work—is based on a Western model (usually the Westminster model, but in some cases a presidential model). This is not to say that Pacific politics is in some sense a carbon copy of Western politics, with every country's parliament a duplicate of its colonial ruler's, and every election campaign a mimicking of an Australian or British campaign. On the contrary, some aspects of Pacific politics and political systems are unique.[71] The complicated racially-based electoral system described in Fiji's 1970 Constitution was like no other. Such examples, however, distinctive though they may be, can hardly be said to reflect 'indigenous traditions'.

In an attempt, then, to make this dominant aspect of society more closely conform to 'tradition', thereby clearly establishing an 'indigenous' identity for their respective countries, elements throughout the Pacific are working to incorporate more 'tradition' into their political systems. Post-coup Fiji provides the most prominent examples of this process, and raises some disturbing questions.

The role of 'tradition' in Fiji is already a major political issue, and will continue to be one throughout the 1990s. But what is meant by 'tradition' in the context of Fiji's politics? 'Tradition' is not a term easily defined; its meanings and connotations are varied, and they sometimes conflict. A generally-accepted everyday definition is that a 'tradition' is a belief or practice which has been handed down from generation to generation. This implies to most people that traditions have remained unchanged for as long as can be remembered. In the Pacific context, to speak of something as a 'tradition' further implies that it derives from pre-colonial (or pre-European contact) beliefs or practices. The umbrella terms 'tradition' and 'traditional' collect these individual traditions into a single whole, a unique 'belief-system' or 'way of doing things' which has the weight of history and experience behind it.

For some years historians and anthropologists have questioned this simplistic view of tradition. A considerable body of literature has emerged in the last decade on the subject of the 'invention of tradition', some of it focussing on the Pacific experience.[72] Central to all of this work is the observation that many 'traditions' (and hence much of 'tradition') in any one society had their beginnings not in the mists of long-forgotten eras but rather during recent history. Many examples have been given of 'traditions' which originated in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. According to the generally-accepted definition given above, then, such 'traditions' would seem not to be traditions at all.

The 'invention of tradition' argument seems at first to reduce the value of the label of 'tradition'. How, it may be asked, can any practice be traditional, in the sense that it is linked to the distant past, if it can be shown to have been invented or significantly changed at some stage in the last one or two hundred years? Furthermore, why is it important to some in the Pacific that invented elements of systems of government and other aspects of the political process be seen as genuinely 'traditional'?

The latter question is a key one in any discussion of 'tradition in Pacific politics', one only beginning to be considered by political scientists and others. For most people (in the Pacific as elsewhere) the issue of 'invented traditions' is unfamiliar, if not unknown. Questions about the 'inauthenticity' of traditions do not occur to those who are not aware that their 'traditions' may be invented. Most people believe the generally-accepted definition given above: that is, that anything labelled a 'tradition' is long-standing and not of recent origin.[73]

The label 'traditional' can actually afford new practices a large measure of protection from subsequent questioning and attack. A new generation, not having known a time when a certain practice did not exist, and having been told only that that practice is 'traditional', may treat that practice as if it were traditional—that is, a genuinely time-honoured practice—even if it was invented only a generation before. So labelled, the invented practice acquires an exalted status not enjoyed by its competitors; it has an advantage against any suggested replacement, in that it is now the 'tried and true' alternative.

There is, I would suggest, commonsense in favouring the 'tried and true'; there is commonsense in following a thoroughly-tested path which has been found adequate by previous generations, in the same way as employers prefer job applicants with relevant work-experience to applicants without. This 'commonsense' explanation may also explain the certain degree of comfort that many people gain from traditions—that is, from continuing to do things as they have been done for many generations. In the Pacific, a similar explanation may also apply to the emphasis given to the indigenous nature of local traditions; traditions are seen to come from pre-colonial ancestors rather than from colonial outsiders, and hence are seen as being more in harmony with the local people, having been developed under and for local conditions.

The concept of the 'invention of tradition', although gaining prominence upon the release in 1983 of Hobsbawm's and Ranger's collection of the same name, has been discussed by Pacific scholars for some time—in particular those concerned with Fiji. Peter France's pioneering work The Charter of the Land (1969) focused attention on the invented character of many 'traditional' institutions in Fiji. Fiji is in fact a key example, often discussed in this context: here was a colony with a prominent nineteenth-century governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, who actually wished to preserve Fijian traditions and Fijian ownership of land. In 1876, Gordon convened the first 'Great Council of Chiefs' to ascertain customary land rights, inventing a prominent Fijian political tradition in the process: no such body had existed in the divided and war-torn country beforehand. The chiefs so brought together actually disagreed about the nature of customary rights; this confusion was only resolved when Gordon threatened that, unless a decision were made, Fijians' land would be given to Europeans. The chiefs suddenly reached agreement, and so from an invented Council of Chiefs acting under duress came the invented tradition of the mataqali as the land-owning unit (Rutz 1987:537-38).

Fijian 'tradition' was also subject to what Martha Kaplan (1989:359) has termed 'the invention of disorder'. Some genuinely indigenous practices were actively suppressed by the Fijians' new colonial masters. Fijian practices and institutions 'had to show social utility in relation to colonial goals and purposes' to qualify as 'traditional' in British eyes; those that did not were categorized as superstitious, heathen, or criminal. In the extraordinary example of luve ni wai rituals (not understood by the British, and therefore seen as subversive) these newly-proclaimed 'disorderly' practices were also claimed to be unacceptable to Fijians themselves (ibid.:352). The suppression of luve ni wai was therefore not merely the suppression of a tradition, but the invention of a negative tradition.

Not all invented tradition has been the result of colonial dictates. Roger Keesing, in his important article 'Creating the past: custom and identity in the contemporary Pacific' (1989), has criticized aspects of the reinvention of tradition by Pacific peoples themselves. In 'what purports to be [the] study and revival of cultural traditions', says Keesing, Pacific peoples, particularly Fourth World minorities, 'idealize and mythicize the cultural past as a Golden Age' and 'edit out human sacrifice, chiefly oppression, bloody wars [and] patriarchy' (1991:169). This process of idealizing and editing, says Keesing, is prompted by Western values of right and wrong, and draws on 'Western-derived countercultural critiques'. Keesing's criticism of this process of ideology-construction—perhaps his main one—is that 'such ideologies become self-delusory if they are not interspersed with visions of "real" pasts that cast into relief not simply their idealized virtues, but their cracks of contradictions' (1989:36).

Lately, some anthropologists have attacked the notion that invented traditions are somehow 'false' or 'inauthentic'; in this context Keesing's remarks about 'spurious pasts and false histories' have been criticized (see Linnekin 1991:175). In the words of Nicholas Thomas (forthcoming), 'assumptions have clearly become more sophisticated ... it is now emphasized that created identities are not somehow contrived and insincere'. Some anthropologists are attempting to exorcize what Margaret Jolly has termed 'the spectre of inauthenticity'. In part this stems from anthropologists' recognition of their discipline's limits: the 'real' pasts of Pacific peoples can only ever be imperfectly uncovered. 'Invented' tradition is therefore being seen as a focus of anthropological study as important as 'real' tradition, and change in tradition is being accepted as an inevitable (and desirable?) aspect of Pacific life.

While this new strand to the literature is to be welcomed, and its arguments appear valid in the more general context of Pacific societies and cultures, it has the potential to set back the study of the growing role of tradition in Pacific politics. In effect it limits criticism which might be made of present-day 'traditional' political institutions, disallowing any criticism that is based on the 'inauthentic' nature of the traditions underpinning those institutions. In so doing it undermines any examination of those institutions' political legitimacy, legitimacy which may derive to a significant degree from their 'traditional' nature.

The implication of the 'exorcism of the spectre of inauthenticity' argument in the Fiji coup debate is that the invented nature of Fijian traditions is not legitimate ground for criticism of today's 'traditional' politics. In the political context, however, I believe that the task of exposing inauthenticity remains a valuable one. In political systems, problems arise when invented 'traditional' political institutions—such as the Great Council of Chiefs, or the pre-eminence of Eastern chiefs over all Fiji—are portrayed as authentic, because they gain a large measure of their legitimacy from that false authenticity. As previously noted, this false authenticity can actually afford such institutions much protection from attack, particularly in a community, such as the indigenous Fijian community, which values tradition highly. In effect, these inauthentic traditions are conferred an unfair advantage over alternative arrangements, and 'traditional' figures, such as chiefs, gain a similarly unfair advantage over their commoner rivals.

Those standing to benefit, politically, from 'inauthentic' traditional political institutions (mainly chiefs) may be as unaware of that inauthenticity as are most other members of their society. But this should not imply that, as there is no intent to deceive, the hunt for inauthenticity should be called off. If the basis of chiefly political legitimacy is questionable, this should be made known, for there is much at stake: political institutions have the potential to affect every aspect of people's lives, and not necessarily for the better, as many aspects of post-coup life in Fiji have shown.

Discussions of 'invented traditions' in politics can encounter a cool reception from some quarters. In some cases—and Fiji is probably one—customary rulers will not wish to know about the inauthenticity of their institutions, and an intent to deceive may then emerge. In such cases the task of exposing inauthenticity is an even more valuable one. But why, in such cases, do we see an attempt to portray 'invented traditions' as 'authentically traditional' in the first place, when in other aspects of society and cultural life invented traditions may be perfectly acceptable and even inevitable?

One explanation may be that to accept that a 'traditional' political institution is invented is to accept change, the very antithesis of 'authentic' tradition. If a traditional institution is shown to have been invented, it loses some of its 'tried and true' reputation, and demonstrates to 'tradition'-minded locals that 'traditional' political institutions are not necessarily rooted in the distant past, and need not be. Customary leaders whose forbears may have sanctioned radical change (as occurred in Fiji) can hardly then argue that a similar degree of change today would violate 'tradition'. In Fiji, such a set of circumstances would have left traditionalists with little defence against (for example) Labour Party proposals to make the distribution of rents from Fijian-owned lands more equitable.

The question then to be asked is, 'who controls the process of making political institutions more traditional?' Moves towards an expansion of the role played by tradition in Pacific systems of government have not always proved to be in the interests of those they are claimed to benefit—that is, the bulk of an indigenous population. An expansion of the role of 'tradition' in Fiji has meant the strengthening of a customary elite. Furthermore, under the guise of 'tradition', basic concepts and rights adopted during or after colonial rule, such as freedom of expression or equal representation, have been replaced with restrictive rules which conflict with Western values. These rules have served to reinforce hierarchy and restrict opportunities for voicing dissent in a manner which has directly benefitted the customary elite.

Rhetorical references to 'tradition', the term carrying with it a wide range of deep implications for any Pacific audience, serve well the current regime. 'Tradition', when promoted as an expression of indigenous values and independence, serves as a smokescreen to disguise moves by Fiji's customary elite towards entrenching itself in power. Nobody really knows what level of Fijian support the post-coup regime commands. Even if, however, it has the support of a majority of Fijians, it is doubtful that that majority is fully aware of the implications of the regime's policies for the rights and values it has come to expect. The smokescreen of tradition has clouded over such questions. The legitimacy of the post-coup regime as being representative of the Fijian people is therefore questionable.

The military-backed government seems to have shared doubts about its level of Fijian support, which Lal suggests is why it refused to put the Constitution to a referendum and why an election was not held for some years; the government wanted no visible demonstration of any lack of support among those Fijians whose interests it was supposedly defending ('Dateline', SBS Television 10 November 1990).

But even if Fijians were united in their support for chiefly rule, another question remains: why should the Indian half of the population be expected to subject itself to another culture's idea of a 'traditional political system'? It may be acceptable for culturally homogeneous nations such as Tonga to adopt electoral systems biased toward customary groups.[74] Fiji, however, is no longer culturally homogeneous.

When studying the political events of Fiji, which to date have been dominated by British colonialists and Fijian chiefs, it is easy to overlook the Indians, and even, as do Rabuka and some others, to dismiss them as 'immigrants' who shouldn't expect to wield real power. But these Indians are nowadays all native to Fiji. The past generations chose Fiji over India,[75] but the newer generations have known no other country than Fiji. Most could not afford to leave, and most would not want to leave. That they choose to stay in Fiji, however, does not mean that Indians should accept an infringement of their basic rights; each Indian has as much of a right to participate in the determination of the country's political system as does each Fijian.

A political system which can only satisfy Fijians is therefore unsatisfactory. Some form of compromise is needed. The 1970 constitution's form of democracy, with racial voting, over-representation of Europeans, and a Fijian-dominated upper house, was one such compromise.

The disappointment caused by the coup, both locally and internationally, was therefore well-founded. The compromise so essential for Fiji had already been found. It was that very compromise which was overturned and replaced with a system satisfactory only to an unknown fraction of one element of Fiji's racial mix.

Richard Mulgan, in an article entitled 'Should indigenous peoples have special rights?', reaches a more general set of conclusions, but they apply here:

Of course, the position of the descendants of precolonial peoples can be improved on. ... But this should not be done in the name of special political rights for indigenous peoples as such. ... Some compensation for past wrongs may be necessary and desirable, but it is the present and future that count, and the guiding principles for the present and future must be justice and equality for all citizens (1989:388).

To argue for a compromise political system is not to deny that the Fijian people could be better represented in Fiji's economy, nor that it is important to maintain Fijian culture. Given that Fijians' culture is unique, while Fiji Indians' culture is a modified form of that existing in India, there is, arguably, a greater need to bolster the former against subsumption. But unquestioned and unchecked rule by a chiefly oligarchy was not a part of post-independence Fijian culture, despite the persistence of chiefly interests below the political surface. As Tupeni Baba has said, 'the current constitution takes the Fijian people backwards more than a hundred years' (speaking on 'Dateline: power play in paradise', SBS Television 10 November 1990).

The ordinary people of Fiji, of all races, believed by 1987 that democracy was well-established in Fiji. Lawson has argued that this was always a false assumption, and events seem to support her argument. But that this belief was widespread surely indicates that the potential existed for democracy to become well-established—at least to the point where a coup could not have overthrown it so completely in a matter of weeks or days. As Robie says (1989:286):

Christianity was introduced to Fiji only 150 years ago; now it is a deeply embedded part of Fijian culture. Can it seriously be suggested that democracy cannot be a part of it as well?

Unfortunately, the forces for democracy in Fiji now face a difficult task. Possibly their most profound setback came in November 1989 when Timoci Bavadra lost his fight with cancer; estimates of the number attending his funeral at Viseisei ranged from 20,000 to 50,000 (Islands Business December 1989). The provisions of the 1990 constitution have made any outright election win by Labour and/or the NFP impossible. Fiji's opposition forces have splintered, and their chances of gaining any political power of real significance seem slim.

Fiji's forseeable future will therefore be dominated by the chiefs and the military. The continuing role of the latter in Fiji's politics seems assured. The RFMF's numbers have swelled from 2,000 in 1987 to 5,000 today, and its budget allocation for the 1990/91 financial year was F$38 million (compared to a health care allocation of F$29 million). Furthermore, the military, as Sanday notes, has become increasingly politicized since the coup: the level of officer-training in non-military skills (such as law and political science) has increased, for example, and four former Alliance MPs have been granted commissioned rank (Sanday 1989:15).

Rabuka, of course, remains prominent in post-coup politics. After two years of pressure from Mara to choose between the army and politics, Rabuka finally responded by opting for the latter. He left the army in August 1991, and became minister for Home Affairs and co-deputy prime minister (see Sydney Morning Herald 17 August 1991); at the time of going to press he has, through some clever factional manouvreing, emerged victorious from the first elections held under the 1990 constitution as Fiji's new prime minister. He had already declared his desire to be prime minister in August 1990, at that time saying his goal was to

fulfil my objectives and my promises of 1987. My objective was the firming up of the Fijians as the true owners of this country. ... My promise was to look after the guests, the non-Fijians (Pacific Islands Monthly August 1990:11).

The 'firming up' of the 'true owners'—the chiefs—has already been achieved. With the 'guests' now defeated, thereby removing a source of concern shared by many Fijians, divisions within the Fijian community will be exacerbated. Conflict between commoners and chiefs, however, will probably not become obvious to the public, given the biases of the electoral system, and given that laws are made possible by the 1990 Constitution which prohibit any attacks on the 'reputation, the dignity and the esteem' of the chiefs.

More obvious will be a resurgence of tribal rivalries, as the three confederacies (and a possible fourth) vie for power and influence. Robie has described one case of tribal rivalry which has already occurred:

On 22 January 1988, three spear and club-wielding Taukeists raided the Suva offices of Radio Fiji in an abortive coup attempt which failed to gain the support which had been expected. ... The crude plot ... involved a scheme to kidnap President Ganilau and replace him with ... Ratu Sir George Cakobau (1989:248).

The plot was an attempt to 'restore the social order represented by ... the head of the Kubuna', Cakobau (ibid.:285). Cakobau's potential as a 'rallying point for widespread opposition to the Tovata ascendancy' was also noted by Norton:

Ratu George, supported by several other Tailevu chiefs, voiced his displeasure with the regime of Mara, Ganilau, and Rabuka (all of Tovata) by boycotting a meeting of the Council of Chiefs (1990:148).

Cakobau's death in November 1989 has, for the present, lessened any threat to the Tovata chiefs, but challenges from other areas are likely to arise now that the only arena in which significant political change may be achieved is the chiefly system.

Custom not only provides the best framework for explaining the coup; it also provides the model for Fiji's politics in the 1990s and beyond. Fiji's political system will thus make a fascinating subject for study by political scientists, and the literature of the coup will undoubtedly be joined by a large body of literature dealing with Fiji's politics after the coup. Unfortunately, for the majority of Fiji's people, Fijians and Indians alike, subservience to an oligarchy of chiefs may prove less a source of fascination than a source of frustration.

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