Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Postcolonial Fictions? Other texts, other lives--an Australian-Fijian experience

Satendra Nandan

I would like to begin my talk with the 1991 Annual Report by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,2 submitted to the Human Rights Sub-committee, of which Senator Chris Schacht is the Chairman. It is not a literary text and yet it ought to be of concern to writers and academics. Senator Schacht is an articulate and sincere campaigner in Australia's effort to promote Human Rights, especially within our region. He comments on Human Rights from Beijing to Baghdad; East Timor to Eastern Europe; Bougainville to Burma. I, of course, applaud all that. But while thumbing through the 1991 report, I've failed to decipher in that 272-page document any reference to Fiji. Consequently, I shall concentrate part of my conversation with you this afternoon on Fiji and certain aspects of the Australian Government's response to the sad Fiji situation since the Fijian coups of 1987. Human values, human rights are integral to literary culture sharpened by political awareness.

Australia's record, in recent times, on Human Rights issues has been generally remarkable, both within the nation, and internationally. Admittedly though, in recent months, it is marred, on the other hand (in fact Gerry's hand), by the treatment meted out to the boat people and refugees from certain countries. Fortunately, in the Australian community there are still voices of conscience and compassion that are heard; for instance those of Justice Marcus Einfeld and Dr Fred Hollows.

Some of us are familiar with the United Nations Universal Declarations of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 out of the ashes of the second world war. Australia's own Dr H. V. Evatt's contribution to that document was especially significant as he presided over the UN General Assembly meeting at which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. More than two score years ago those rights may have appeared too idealistic. Today, in our changed and changing world, they are basic human rights and in every "civilized society," they are the ordinary expectations of ordinary citizens. And if we accept the transcending sovereignty of nature, because the problems of our environment affect all of us, then we must also recognise the transcending sovereignty of human (nature) or human rights. National sovereignty, in my opinion, comes after Human Rights for we must have some conception of the kind and quality of our humanity we wish to foster, forge and share in our one and only world.

We have, of course, moved from the first generation of rights: initially purely individual, civil and political guarantees against interference by state; they now include an affirmative obligation on the State to advance the economic, social and cultural well-being of all their people - the so-called second generation of rights. Most recently the international community is debating a third generation of human rights - the collective rights of peoples. It is, therefore, important to note that soon after Columbus' quincentennial commemoration, 1993 will be the Year of the Indigenous Peoples. Needless to say in the process of righting the historical wrongs, especially of the Eurocentric variety, though now some Asian, African, Arabian and American countries are outdoing each other in sheer savagery to human beings, the other victims of colonialism are often ignored. Hidden between the pages of history is the fate of the diasporic peoples. Perhaps their story - both as victims of colonialism and racial religious fundamentalism - may be given some recognition in the year 2001, where such migrants become the metaphor for a new millennium. Certainly Australia would be a good place to begin.

Australia's own concerns and emphasis on Human Rights issues are analysed in some detail by Stuart Harris in a monograph edited by John Girling, published last year.3 The book's title is Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region and Harris' chapter is on "Human Rights and Australia's Foreign Policy." Several countries are discussed but Fiji, PNG and Indonesia hardly merit a mention. Perhaps it is easier to deal with distant lands where Australia's involvement is not so obvious. But why go to the academics, when Gareth Evans in his book Australia's Foreign Relations (1991) devotes almost ten pages to Human Rights issues. Why, he asks, should governments bother to pursue these rights in the international arena? And one answer, he says, is this:

. . . that for a country like Australia, human rights policy involves an extension into our foreign relations of the basic values of the Australian community: values at the core of our sense of self, which a democratic community expects its government to pursue, Another is simply that governments like ours believe that moral obligation is its own justification, and that a commitment to good international citizenship demands no less than acting to help secure universal adherence to universal rights.4

It is quite clear that the journey from the road to Botany Bay to the Kokoda Trail has been a long, long journey, and "the values at the core of our sense of self," I hope, include even me. (After all, in a sense, I am more Asian-Pacific "Australian" than my friend, Senator Evans).

But let me digress for a moment and refer to a couple of pieces, in fact, three, in the media: Dennis Altman's essay in Time on 31 August 1992; Richard Woolcott's essay the following week in the same publication and Greg Sheridan's in The Australian of November 11 1992.5 We see three quite distinct perspectives on Human Rights related issues. Altman emphatically denies that "there's an unbridgeable gap in moral attitudes between Australia and Asia." This perception, he says, is wrong. And, I think, he is right. To think Human Rights were begotten by - and belong to - Western Europe is also to misinterpret history. Colonialism, Nazism, Communism are not Asian-Pacific inventions; nor was Marx born in Beijing or Christ in London. The point is that the so called values of liberal Western democracies were not created by one race; that is a claim made by Western vanity; they were fed by innumerable sources. This is the very sort of thing that is happening to the Australasian civilization now. And that is why when Asian-Pacific dictatorial regimes and their apologists argue that democratic institutions and human rights are alien to our cultural environments, we forget how easily some of them have espoused fascism, communism, the uses of modern weaponry and propaganda techniques as if these were their second nature. So cultural sensitivity is a mere excuse of these repressive regimes. The students who stand in front of those savage tanks in the streets of Beijing, the young elected leader who cannot move out of her house in Burma, the writer who is under house arrest in Jakarta, the ordinary people of Dili and Bangkok, all reinforce those values of human dignity and political decency with their lives, often with their deaths.

Altman writes "Australian ability to play a role in Asia" comes in part from the fact that they embody many of the valued that a new generation of Asians admire. It is true that the Australian Government will always be under considerable pressure to deal with their opposite number, even when they uphold policies that Australians find abhorrent. But relations with Asia demand more than merely dealing with regimes in power and Australians should not compromise basic principles to win the favour of particular governments. But ignoring questions of human rights is no more likely to win respect. Trade deals have a very short life. Australia is in danger of lurching from the old superiority complex toward Asia to a new feeling of inferiority, which is no better a basis for good relations."6 On the other hand, Mr Woolcott and Mr Sheridan talk of "reality" and "national interest."7 Mr Sheridan says Human Rights produces a vast amount of humbug, cant and grandstanding (he should know) and any dialogue on these matters should not ignore national interest. Mr Woolcott, the recently appointed chairman of Australia-Indonesia Institute, knows "reality." Mr Sheridan is quite certain of what constitutes our national interest. Any argument that reality can change with a gun or national interest vary with wheat subsidies is anathema to people who believe in the mind-forged manacles of economic rationalism and moth-eaten monoliths in our diverse, plural, hybrid secular, migrant world.

But let me return to Fiji. Australia has been involved in Fiji long before the islands were ceded to Great Britain on 10 October 1874. In fact Queen Victoria, re-enacting Caesar, had refused to take Fiji twice. But the mischief caused by early traders, whalers, adventurers, missionaries, escaped convicts, fugitives and planters caused such havoc that the Queen was compelled to accept Fiji as a shining seashell in her crown next to Kohinoor. On 14 May 1879 the first Indian indentured labourers arrived in Fiji via Calcutta.8 Indeed, the first 87 were brought into Queensland but the White Australia Policy saw them reshipped to work on the CSR company's sugar plantations in Fiji. The CSR company was to become more powerful and profitable than the colonial administration. The company departed from Fiji only when Lord Denning, in 1969, exposed their pitiful exploitation of these landless, nameless peasants from India.

Australia and her many large companies have been involved in Fiji, for better or worse, for decades. In the 1982 elections, Australian business interests rather insidiously attempted to tamper with Fiji's electoral process. ABC's Four Corners reported that and it lead to a Royal Commission of Inquiry in 1983 that destroyed Mr Kamisese Mara's credibility as the Prime Minister of Fiji and led to his eventual electoral defeat in April 1987.9 In May 1987, again certain Australian business interests were responsible for destabilizing Dr Bavadra's newly elected government. The role of the Fiji Manager of the Western Mining Company is worth investigating. It is generally believed that the Taukeis and Rabuka's military men were given considerable amounts of money through Australian channels to organize and orchestrate an agitation against the Bavadra Government. Not much credence is given to any CIA involvement for the simple reason that the coup was so successful. Later, of course, when an apartheid constitution was foisted upon the people of Fiji, Mr Hawke, after a breakfast with Mr Mara at the 1991 South Pacific Forum, declared that the people of Fiji should accept the constitution. A couple of months ago, the Colonel himself was feted in the Parliament House in Canberra and Mr Evans was delighted to shake his Macbethean hands, play golf and have lunch in the most expensive Parliament building in the world. Bob's "jihad," to use Greg Sheridan's word, against South Africa, Gareth's acceptance of indigenous racism in the South Pacific alongside his condemnation of colonial racism in South Africa, Paul Keating's knowledge of what apartheid does to the inner fabric of any society, whether in Sri Lanka or South Africa, and his awareness that none of his four children, if they were Fiji citizens, could ever dream of becoming Prime Minister of Fiji, didn't seem to matter. Rabuka's republic was given a full 21-gun royal salute, normal relations restored, military aid resumed. And as soon as the native colonel returned home, he declared that Indians, the citizens of Fiji, should be deported. He didn't actually say where but he had in his mind, I suspect, a corner of Australia that would forever be Fiji. Canberra Spring had made no difference to tropical racism. It was all caviar to the self-promoted, self-proclaimed General in another third world of the Third World.

The fact that the colonel's gun had brutalized a developing democratic culture (for with the death of the Parliament, all other reflected freedoms had vanished that fatal noon), that it will take more than a generation, if we are lucky, for the people of Fiji to regain their sense of balance and belief that instead of a multicultural society, the colonel has created a culture of racism, corruption and cronyism didn't seem to cross anyone's mind at Banquo's banquet. And these have been accepted within the region and by the Australian Government with frightening speed and given indecent respectability. Its symbolic and actual expression, of course, is the current apartheid constitution10 that has propelled the colonel to Prime Ministership of post-coup Fiji, with blatant gerrymandering and disenfranchisement, with a group of "unrepresentative swill" who make up his cabinet. Of course, the people of Fiji were compelled to participate because their choice was not between the lesser of two evils but the evil of the two lessers. The illusory belief was that in Fiji we may yet achieve a peaceful resolution if only our neighbours cared a bit.

Furthermore, the question of why a country like Fiji should need military aid has not even been raised. Two coups are not enough. Besides they were bloodless: as if there ever is a bloodless coup! How much blood do you see in a heart attack? So we seem to have washed our hands. That the Fijian army is 100% ethnic Fijian, that there is not a single Fiji Indian in a Cabinet of 26 ministers, that most, if not all, top civil service positions are reserved for ethnic Fijians, mainly from one region, that 85% of all land in Fiji is owned by Fijians, these facts are, through a calculated and callous indifference towards a migrant and defenceless community, totally ignored by a continent made of migrants. Fiji doesn't need ethnic cleansing. It's already quite clean. And ethnic Indians, who have lived in Fiji longer than half of Australia's population here, are not the only victims.

But it is interesting to ponder over Australia's attitude to Fiji and see the reasons for behaving with such impunity. Is it one of cultural sensitivity or diplomatic duplicity? People tell me there are several reasons for this:

That Australia's racism, to which Woolcott alludes in his essay, makes it accept racism in its neighbours. There's a feeling that Chiefs and Indians can manage with a fig leaf of democracy; again you can see the hidden racism in such an argument: because people's cultures may differ, the democratic aspirations, too, will be different from those of a predominantly Anglo-Saxon society. Then there is a sense of guilt towards its Aboriginal people; the fact that Fijians are the world's most privileged native people because of the Indian presence doesn't matter much; the vast majority of non-Fijians affected by the terrible constitution and regime's policies are non-Christians, so who cares. They will be ignored during the second coming anyway. The Hindus have too many gods; the Muslims don't recognize the Saviour as God. It's not surprising, therefore, that a group of Christian fundamentalists burned temples, mosques and gurudawaras in Fiji, and their leader, when he came to Canberra during the World Conference of the Churches, was accorded full ceremonial welcome as Senator Ray was when he visited Fiji's military forces recently. Besides, although the Australians and Indians fought two world wars side by side in the defence of an empire, some Europeans seem allergic to the word "Indian" since at least 1492. After all, India was at the forefront of an anticolonialist movement that reduced the largest Empire to a rubble; in the South Pacific Fiji Indians were the first to ask for independence and equality. Maybe it has something to do with spin bowling as well, for cricket, as we know, is the only area of real and imagined conflict between Australia and India. And, of course, the Indians don't play rugby (why anyone should play that game, except the Canberra Raiders, boggles my mind!) India also created the non-aligned movement when the cold war was hotting up and her special relationship with the Soviet Union made Indians suspect in a world order that divided us into angels and devils. Australia's militaristic pretensions as part of the imperial experiment may also explain her connections with militaristic regimes in the region, especially during the Cold War era.

Kamisese Mara survived the 1982 elections by the narrowest of margins. While visiting here, he claimed the Opposition party was given $1 million by the Soviet Union and that he had a letter to prove it. When questioned during the Inquiry, he said he had no evidence (indeed the letter was forged by the Queen's three notorious knights) and Mara claimed he had used "poetic licence" thus inflicting enormous damage on the creative credibility of local poets. So there are a lot of reasons. But what concerns me is that if Human Rights are so blatantly abused in Fiji, both in the Supreme Law of the Land, the Constitution, and in daily practice, then why has Australia normalized relations so swiftly and, more insidiously, why has it resumed military aid to any army that did such terrible things to its citizens, during and after the two coups? Surely Australia could have discussed the possibility of making the Fijian army a multiracial one; it could have questioned the credibility of an army that dishonoured its tradition and the recruitment of its soldiers for the UN peacekeeping missions; most importantly, why do islands like Fiji need an army? Fiji wastes more than $50 million on its military. What for? Could it not be better spent on education, health and improving the lot of women in garment factories run by Australian and New Zealand business men in collusion with a handful of civil servants and local businessmen? It is only now, after so much water has flowed over broken bridges, that we get the news from London and Washington as to who created Saddam Hussein. Must we have his little clones in our region too? Australian military aid to PNG, since the Bougainville crisis began in 1988, has gone up to $53 million, from $28 million.

There is, of course, another aspect: if soldiers trained in South Australia kill unarmed people in Dili, if Australian military equipment is used to dump bodies in the Bougainville sea, if Australian money is used by a racist army in Fiji to harass, bully, intimidate and violate people's rights in Suva, then what is our responsibility as a nation? If people from these places become boat people to our shores, should they not be given shelter and a home here? After all, we have contributed to their plight, and desperate needs make people do desperate deeds. These are, I think, issues we ought to be deeply concerned about: they are issues of human rights, human lives and human values within any human community.

Gareth Evans says in his book, with reference to Fiji:

"Australia can neither be the region's policeman nor its arbiter of political legitimacy."11

Fair enough.

But then Australians shouldn't be seen as the merchants of death either, nor the undertakers of democracy. For no amount of sophistry through any political silk can hide the hypocrisy. Besides, the promotion of human rights through democratic institutions and processes will only strengthen our sense of security. It's difficult to find an example where a truly democratic country has invaded another. I also feel that Australia has not used its diplomatic skills and resources to help solve peacefully the problems of a peaceful people in Fiji. I'm not able to fathom its enigma of deliberate indifference but it took, in Sri Lanka, thirty years of hidden apartheid to explode with such savage brutality. Fiji is no exception: the paradise of the Pacific could become the pariah of Oceania, if we ceased to care. And our backyard problems could become our frontyard nightmares. Peaceful resolution to Fiji's political problems need the commitment of countries like Australia. Above all the concerns of its people: academics, writers, journalists and critics. There are other texts and other lives in our postcolonial regions of the mind.

The University of Canberra

1 A longer version of this paper is being published in the proceedings of the conference on "Media Images of Australia-Asia: Cross Cultural Reflections," held at the University of Canberra in November 1992.

2 The Submission of Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Human Rights Sub-Committee, 1:1. See also: "A Review of Australia's Efforts to Promote and Protect Human Rights," December 1992, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

3 Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region edited by John Girling (ANU: Canberra, 1991). See Harris' chapter on "Human Rights and Australia's Foreign Policy," 92-102.

4 Gareth Evans, Australia's Foreign Relations: In the World of the 1990s (Melbourne: MUP 1991) 145.

5 Dennis Altman, "Ask Not What Asia Can Do for Australia, " 31 August, 1992, Richard Woolcott, "Reality and an Asian Neighbour," Time, 7 September 1992, and Greg Sheridan, "Where We're Wrong on Human Rights," The Australian, 11 November, 1992.

6 Altman, 64.

7 Woolcott, 76, and Sheridan.

8 See K. L. Gilion's Fiji's Indian Migrants (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1973) and Brij Lal's GIRMITYAS: The Origins of the Fiji Indians (Canberra: Australian National University 1983).

9 See Richard Lal, Coups in Paradise (London: Zed Press, 1991).

10 See A Fraud on the Nation, (Nadi: Sunrise Press, 1991).

11 Evans, 177.


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