“OUR chiefs,” said Taniela Veitata, now an Opposition MP, “are really the guardians of the peace in Fiji.” A day after he and his Taukei colleagues had been plotting the next stage in the plan to depose Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra, Veitata was laying down the law in Parliament about racism.
“Peace is quite distinct, Mr Speaker, from the political philosophy of Mao Zedong where he said that political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. In Fiji, there is no gun. But our chiefs are there; we respect them …”
Seven minutes later, at the stroke of ten o’clock, ten soldiers wearing gasmasks burst into the chamber.
“Sit down everybody, sit down,” barked the squad leader, a captain disguised by a balaclava and brandishing a 9mm pistol. “This is a takeover. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a military takeover. We apologise for any inconvenience caused. You are requested to stay cool, stay down and listen to what we are going to tell you.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka, dressed in a suit and a sulu stood up in the public gallery. He strode towards the Speaker – his uncle, Militoni Leweniqila.
“Please stay calm, ladies and gentlemen,” Rabuka said. “Mr Prime Minister, please lead your team down the right,” the colonel said. “Policemen, keep the passage clear. Stay down, remain calm. Mr Prime Minister, sir, will you lead your team now.”
Outside in the corridor, Ratu Finau Mara, son of the former Prime Minister [Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara], stood making sure the passage was clear. A back-up team of about 12 soldiers in full combat gear and armed with M16 assault rifles waited there. Moments earlier, Finau Mara had been making room in the passage for the soldiers to enter Parliament.
Shocked, Bavadra, his cabinet ministers and MPs were led outside at gunpoint to two waiting military trucks and ordered to get in.
Education Minister Dr Tupeni Baba, noticing uncertainty on the face of a soldier near him, made a gesture of resistance. “We’re not going on the trucks,” he said.
“Dou raici koyo, sa lako yani oqori,” snapped the captain. “Watch out for that one heading your way.”
Rabuka grabbed a loaded M16 from a nearby soldier and cocked it at Baba’s head. Baba, the most outspoken of any of the indigenous Fijian ministers, moved but still protested defiantly.
[Excerpt from David Robie’s Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific (Zed Books, London, 1989), pp. 218-219.]
Flashback to the George Speight attempted coup – 19 May 2000
At precisely 10.50am, [Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tupeni Baba] was stopped in mid-sentence as three men, two holding guns and one walking calmly towards the Speaker's chair, entered among screams.
That is when our complaints about being stuck in Parliament just about stopped - guns? We looked at each other, realised our good fortune and started counting the gunmen.
[Speaker Dr Apenisa] Kurisaqila was demanding to know: "What is this? What is this?'
In a more composed manner with his books in hand, Dr Kurisaqila said: "This is an illegal takeover!'
Within seconds all seven doors were shut by gunmen and [a group of Fiji Institute of Technology students in the public gallery] were told to leave.
In the press gallery, we were told to stop recording things, stop writing and just remain seated; the door to our room was locked from outside.
In the meantime, George Speight was telling Dr Kurisaqila to sit down. He turned to Opposition members and told them to leave the chambers. All left except Opposition Leader Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Sam Speight (George's father), Jim Ah Koy and Ofa Duncan.
Speight's repeated request for the lot to leave was backed with a gunshot at this point; Dr Kurisaqila and these Opposition members refused to budge…
[Excerpt from Matelita Ragogo's article "The day of the parliamentary gunmen". She was one of three journalists reporting in the parliamentary press gallery on the morning when Speight’s gunmen walked in. From the University of the South Pacific journalism students’ coup archive.]
And Fiji, 14 May 2010… what of the so-called "coup culture" set in motion by Rabuka? The man who led the country's first two coups last month publicly apologised for his actions and has been on a personal journey of seeking forgiveness from its victims. He told the Fiji Sun:
“On this personal journey I am trying to go to all the victims of 1987 to apologise for what I did,” he said. He began in 1997 with Queen Elizabeth II when he was then Prime Minister. After carrying out the coup, Rabuka severed
ties with the British monarchy and declared Fiji a Republic.
“I also tried to return my OBE (Order of the British Empire) medal but Queen Elizabeth told me to keep it because I earned it before I carried out my 1987 actions,” he said.
Rabuka has also apologised to the family of Dr Bavadra; Defence Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau, son of the former Governor-General and the Fiji's first President Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau; and to former junior officers.
But in the end, too little too late. Rabuka unleashed a damaging culture that has devastated Fiji for more than two decades, crippling the economy and political and social institutions. A legacy of ruin.
Pictures: Top: A Rabuka coup soldier in 1987. Photo: Matthew McKee (from Robie's Blood on their Banner). Above: A Speight gunman in 2000. Photo: Joe Yaya/USP coup archive).
- University of the South Pacific student journalists' 2000 coup archive - ACIJ website
- Rabuka says 'we can all live in harmony' - Fiji Village
- 23 years on since Fiji's first coup - Fiji Broadcasting Corporation