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Fiji’s Indian Population Protests Coup

May 17, 1987

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Three thousand Fiji Indians gathered in Suva Sunday to protest a military coup and applaud community leaders who warned the country faced economic chaos if Indian rights were not respected.

The rally was peaceful, but two people were arrested for arguing with police. Several foreign correspondents who were interviewing Indians were detained, and their tapes were seized.

Speakers urged the Indian community to carry out peaceful demonstrations for the release of Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra and his Cabinet, who were arrested Thursday in a coup led by Lt. Col. Sitivene Rabuka.

Rabuka said he led the bloodless seizure to stop fighting between ethnic Fijians and Indians following the April 11 election, which led for the first time to an Indian-dominated government.

Fiji Indians, whose ancestors came to the country in the 19th century to cut cane for British sugar companies, comprise 49 percent of the 715,000 population. Ethnic Fijians make up 47 percent.

Early Sunday, the army moved the arrested ministers from the prime minister’s residence to a government guest house.

A large crowd of demonstrators gathered outside to demand their release, then marched to a park in central Suva.

Ravin Prasad, a member of the Labor Party which had formed part of the overthrown government, said the coup had hurt Fiji’s economy and ″it will get worse if this persists.″

Many Indians closed their shops Saturday to protest the coup, and Indian workers walked off the job at Nadi Airport. Indians dominate commerce in Fiji, but native Fijians have tradiionally held important government posts.

Prasad said an Indian delegation would go to the British High Commission on Monday and seek support from London.

Indians taking part in Sunday’s demonstration said they would fight Rabuka’s vow to keep Indians from ever assuming political power again.

″Do they think they can make us stay in our offices and in our shops?″ cried one angry young Indian, who would not give his name. ″We run the economy of this country. If we close our shops they’ll have to start planting crops now because they’ll have no food by Christmas.″

About 750 Indians also demonstrated Saturday outside the prime minister’s residence. No injuries or violence were reported.

On Saturday, the 38-year-old Rabuka, a Fijian, told a news conference the takeover would ″safeguard Fijian land and protect the Fijian way of life.″ He said a new constitution would be written to guarantee Fijian supremacy in this South Pacific island nation, which lies between Australia and Hawaii.

Australia said Sunday it is urgently trying to make contact with Bavadra, after receiving a smuggled appeal for help from the deposed leader. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Canberra, Geoff Crawford, said Australia’s high commissioner in Suva, John Piper, received the letter late Saturday, and Australia was considering a response.

Bavadra’s family told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Saturday that the detained leader gave them letters asking help from the New Zealand and Australian governments.

Australia and New Zealand, the two major powers in the South Pacific, have refused to recognize the new regime, but ruled out military intervention.

Rabuka predicted his government would soon win recognition from other countries, despite regional leaders’ widespread condemnation of the coup, the first in South Pacific.

Australian unions threatened to boycott Fiji shipping. That would endanger tourism, the fastest growing sector of the Fijian economy, which is also based on sugar, dried coconut meat and gold.

Rabuka has pledged to release Bavadra, who is also Fijian, and his ministers after drafting a new constitution and calling elections, but he has not given any timetable.

On Saturday, Rabuka said Bavadra’s Cabinet was a threat to ethnic Fijian landholders. He also charged that two Cabinet members had strong links with the Soviet Union and Libya and said he was concerned that Fiji, long under a pro-Western government, was moving away from its traditional friends.

Bavadra said on the day of his election that Fiji might follow New Zealand’s lead and ban nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed warships from its ports.

In London, Buckingham Palace said Queen Elizabeth II has contacted Fiji’s governor general, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, but a palace spokesman refused to disclose what was said. Ganilau denounced the coup and announced a state of emergency, a move backed by the British Foreign Office.

Buckingham Palace said Saturday that Ganilau was acting with the queen’s authority, as her representative in Fiji. A former British colony, Fiji was granted independence in 1970 and became a member of the 49-nation Commonwealth. The queen is Fiji’s titular head of state.

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