‘All coups are bad’

George Speight surrounded by supporters at the height of the coup in 2000. The author says no coup, no matter its stated intention, undermines the rule of law. Picture: FILE

MAY 14 remains ingrained in the minds of many Fijians, including those who have migrated to other countries. This day gives us an opportunity to ponder two major events that happened 108 years apart but intricately linked.
As it played out on May 14, 1987 and the period of events after that, the emergence of descendants of indentured labourers from India in both commerce and politics is contended to have played a role in the military coup led by Sitiveni Rabuka, now the leader of SODELPA (Social Democratic Liberal Party).
Fast forward to May 14, 2018, we are 139 years past from the arrival of indentured labourers and the first military coup is 31 years old. Standing alone, these are different events in the history of our country but have had significant impacts in the course of our nation’s social and economic progress.
Debate in Parliament this week provided an interesting take from both sides of the house regarding the coups. Most of the time, it seemed that coups were selectively used as a rhetorical tool to invoke good and bad from the past with the intention to amend it for political ends.
There is no scarcity of literature on the struggles and triumphs of the indentured labourers and their descendants. Unfortunately, the most notable writer around this theme and history, Professor Brij Lal and his wife (Professor Padma Narsey) remain banned from returning to the country of their birth.
When questioned about the ban in Parliament in March 2015, the then minister for immigration, national security and defence Timoci Natuva argued that Prof Lal’s actions were viewed by the government of the day as prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order and security after the 2006 coup.
As Prof Lal rightly argued, if this is the price one has to pay for standing up for freedom of speech, no one will ever be able to serve him the notice of bankruptcy.
If we really live a new and a better democracy than ever before, how come a humble professor of history continues to be harmful to peace, public safety and security? Indeed English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton seems to live forever even though the term “pen is mightier than the sword” was phrased by him in 1839.
While May 14 also remains one of the darkest in Fiji’s history, May 19 in 2000 and December 6 in 2006 should be equally treated as darkest days as well. On all of these dates, democratically elected governments were forced out of power with the use of guns.
So, when we talk about coups in this country, let’s be honest. All coups are bad, regardless of the intention. One cannot disagree with the method but agree with the objective(s). That should apply to 1987, 2000 and 2006.
Whether you call it a clean-up campaign or a radical intervention, fundamentally coups involves undermining the rule of law and use of arbitrary power in the pursuit of political gain.
Giving a coup another euphemistic name does not change what it is. Doing so is setting a treacherous precedent as the English language is not short of euphemisms. Doing so means there can be good coups and there can be bad coups. With this type of reasoning, we are treading on dangerous ground.
If there is a good coup, it is possible to have better coups.
Bad memories started flooding into my mind of what I heard about the 1987 coup and the years thereafter, as a small boy growing up on a rural farm. I am certain there are children of both major ethnic communities who share such memories from the 2000 and 2006 coups.
Perhaps one can argue that the 1987 coup started all coups and that it is the worst of all the three coups. This could by implication mean other coups were not bad. Such an argument is also dangerous as the next coup maker can always claim an ingenious motivation for a coup with an innovative label.
Do we want to set the stage for a leader to carry out a coup in the name of promising a better way of life and quick solutions to the problems facing the population?
In the same breadth, one can also argue the next coup is as bad as the last coup (for whatever reason) but brings about a cycle of anarchy and economic hardship.
In December 2011, on the eve of five years since the 2006 coup, a joint letter signed by Human Rights Watch, International Trade Union Confederation, International Federation of Journalists and Front Line Defenders asked the interim government to stop “… the ongoing serious human rights violations in Fiji and realise the promises that your government made at the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2010”.
The letter also alleged that that “… four people are reported to have died in military or police custody and several people have been intimidated, beaten, sexually assaulted, or subjected to degrading treatment”.
As they say, history is the same old same old. That is usually the way when history repeats itself. Coups in Fiji have shown that when one group is targeted, all people are vulnerable.
Misrepresenting the past could muddy public understanding of influential events. Therefore, let us understand our history, our society and what we want for the future. Then only we can safeguard democracy and individual rights.

* Neelesh Gounder is a senior lecturer in economics at USP. These are his views and not of The Fiji Times or of USP.

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