Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, July 8, 1997

A Fijian chief’s view of
‘The Pacific Way’

FIJI'S Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara stands physically and historically tall among Pacific island leaders in their successful post World War II moves out from under colonial rule -- a figure who won't be duplicated.

Thus it is locally gratifying that Mara chose the University of Hawaii Press to publish his memoirs. He did so on the urging of Robert C. Kiste, director of the University of Hawaii's Pacific Island Studies, and Sitiveni Halapua, director of the East-West Center's Pacific Islands Development Program.

"The Pacific Way -- A Memoir" is the story of a man groomed for leadership almost from birth and the fulfiller of most expectations until a revolution muddied things in Fiji in 1987 just after his 67th birthday. His greatness came pretty close to being noncontroversial until 1987. There is more controversy now because he has "kept company" with the revolutionaries in what he sees as a necessary effort to save his country from more trouble and possible bloodshed.

Fiji has a complex population dominated by two ethnic groups, native Fijian and Indian, that have little intermarriage. It is over 800,000 today with about 50.7 percent Fijians, 43.5 percent Indians and 5.8 percent Europeans, Chinese and other Pacific islanders. Until recent years, however, Indians had a slight edge over native Fijians.

Mara strongly resisted a common voter role when Fiji became independent in 1970. Instead, with the support of an understanding Indian leader, a complicated voting system was adopted with the unspoken intent of retaining control of land and government by native Fijians while recognizing the entreprenurial/business skills of the Indians and giving them a democratic voice short of control. Things went askew in the 1987 election. Indians moved into control only to have their leader unseated at gunpoint by a young military officer, Sitiveni Rabuka, who now is prime minister.

Mara had just gracefully vacated the role of prime minister after his 1987 defeat and stresses he had no advance warning of the coup. He was invited, however, to join the new government as foreign minister and decided his presence was needed as a stabilizing force. This may have been an immodest decision but it is widely viewed as correct.

Today, for much the same reason, Mara is president of the republic. This is a detached elder statesman role much like that of the old British governor general. To Mara's deep sorrow Fiji was kicked out of the British Commonwealth because of the revolution. At Commonwealth leadership meetings he had became friends with world figures and helped enhance Fiji's prestige with his own tall, suave presence, and perceptive insights. The move to oust Fiji was led by the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand, whom Mara had considered his friends.

Mara's concept of "The Pacific Way" as being one of consensus among happy peoples in Fiji and throughout the Pacific stands contradicted by the 1987 event and by plenty of past wars among Pacific islanders. He has Tongan as well as Fijian chiefly lineage because he was born on an eastern island of the Fiji group that had been conquered by Tonga.

MARA was given chiefly treatment from birth and set on a course of education for future leadership that took him at the end to Oxford University to study economics. This was deemed a necessary leadership diversion from earlier study of medicine in New Zealand. After Oxford he became a British colonial officer in Fiji. He took the lead role in talks to draft a constitution for an independent Fiji and again in the London talks that won British agreement to independence.

His memoir was crafted with the help of another British colonial officer, Sir Robert Samders, who came with him into the Fijian government after independence. He thanks the Republic of China (Taiwan) for funding the memoir project. It is just that, a memoir, rather than a biography. It is a recollection of events without all the scene-setting and supporting detail outsiders need for full understanding. It thus is best read in conjunction with other accounts of Fiji. But it has its own special value of being the story of and by the man at the center.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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