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Fiji Time: 1:59 PM on Friday 22 August

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Farewell

Margaret Wise
Wednesday, April 10, 2013

THE world dubbed her the Iron Lady but Margaret Thatcher showed a motherly side when she ushered Fiji into international acceptance after the coups of 1987.

"She was a real and true friend of Fiji in our hour of need," said Joji Kotobalavu, a retired long-serving civil servant who served as adviser to four of Fiji's former prime ministers.

Mr Kotobalavu recalled the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara's first overseas trip after being appointed interim prime minister in December 1987.

"Fiji was trying to rehabilitate itself after the 1987 coup and she was the first foreign leader to receive Fiji's leader. In fact, she was very warm and motherly when she met Ratu Mara. She actually poured tea for him at 10 Downing Street.

"She told him that Britain was a friend of Fiji. She said just tell us what you need."

Britain's longest-serving prime minister died of a stroke on April 8 at the age of 87. Mr Kotobalavu said this first meeting with the late Baroness was significant for two main reasons — to ensure that bilateral relations with the United Kingdom were not damaged and to safeguard Fiji's sugar market in Europe.

"After the second coup in September, the military withdrew and handed power back to then Governor-General Ratu Penaia Ganilau who then invited Ratu Mara to form an interim government.

"I was director at SOPAC at the time and Ratu Mara asked me to help him for six months to form the interim government. I sought permission of the member states and was granted leave."

"It was during this six months period that we travelled together to Britain, and then to Paris to meet Jacques Chirac and then later to Washington for an audience with Ronald Reagan. Thatcher was a great friend of Reagan and it was that first meeting with her that enabled the meetings with other key world leaders.

"Even in Britain, she carefully arranged lunch for Ratu Mara at the palace. At the time, Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth, but a meeting was allowed with the Queen's private secretary.

"After lunch, Ratu Mara was taken to an area of the palace where they kept gifts from Fiji."

Mr Kotobalavu said this gesture in itself was of significant importance.

"It showed that links were maintained. She maintained links and the palace also maintained links.

"The support from the UK after the coup was very important because of our sugar. It's a credit to Mrs Thatcher that Fiji was able to safeguard this very important market.

"We owe her enormous gratitude for welcoming us and setting the pace for return to normality."


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