The day Parliament was rudely adjourned

IT was a hot and clear Friday in May 2000. Parliament was in session and the House met at 10:40am pursuant to adjournment.

Then Speaker of Parliament, Dr Apenisa Kurisaqila took the chair and read the prayer to start the parliamentary session of May 19.

One of the backbenchers in Parliament is said to have known what was about to happen there soon as he had received a call some time earlier.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister then, Dr Tupeni Baba, presented the report of the Joint Sector Committee on Social Services and the Legal and Consequential Legislation on the Social Justice Bill (Bill No.3 of 2000).

Dr Baba called on the House to pass the Bill and was noting some of the committee’s recommendations when several heavily armed people stormed in and jumped over the Bar.

As documented in the book speight of violence written by Dr Baba, his wife Unaisi Nabobo-Baba and New Zealand journalist Michael Field, the armed men shouted “sit down, sit still and remain calm”.

Mr Kurisaqila asked what was happening and one of the strangers said it was a civil coup and everyone should hold tight and not move.

The stranger told the Speaker that it was a civil coup by the people, the iTaukei people and that he should retire to his chamber straightaway.

He told the Speaker to co-operate so that nobody would get hurt.

When the stranger said it was a civil coup with arms and ammunition, by the people and for the people, Dr Kurisaqila responded and told him it was an illegal act.

The stranger then told him that they did not want anybody to get hurt and not to make things difficult or else he would be forced to use the gun in his hand.

He also asked that members of the Opposition leave the chamber with the Speaker.

Dr Kurisaqila, who was still standing at that time, pointed a finger at the stranger and told him to shoot him first if he was going to shoot anyone in the House.

When an Opposition member told the stranger that they would not leave without their Speaker, the second person fired two shots towards the ceiling.

The Speaker, Leader of the Opposition and Opposition members then left the Parliament chamber, leaving only the government members and six parliamentary staff there.

According to speight of violence, Parliament was unceremoniously adjourned at 10:55am on May 19, 2000.

About one year before this, the Fiji Labour Party had won a landslide victory in the 1999 general election, defeating the Soqosoqo Vakavulewa ni Taukei Party and National Federation Party coalition.

The FLP formed the government in coalition with the Party of National Unity and Fijian Association Party, and Labour leader Mahendra Chaudhry became Fiji’s first Fijian of Indian descent prime minister.

The People’s Coalition Government was in power for one year when it was removed in a civil coup on May 19, 2000.

In the months and days leading up to the coup, there were some disgruntled people who did not like a Fijian of Indian descent being the country’s prime minister and some marches were also held.

Furthermore, the book also talks about indications from some people that a coup was in the making and it would be on May 19, coinciding with the big march that had been planned on that day.

It then describes the stranger firing two shots in the Parliament ceiling as George Speight, who had carried out the coup and is now serving a life sentence in prison for it.

“Speight had achieved the first goal, taking Parliament,” the book says.

“When Rabuka seized Parliament in 1987, he had trucks outside waiting to haul the politicians into captivity but Speight had no such plan and once in control of the assembly, seemed confused about what to do next.

“Many noted Speight’s furious sequence of phone calls.

“As the attackers were tying up the hands of the politicians, Speight kept saying they would be surprised to see the real leader of the coup.

“When the mystery man failed to show, Speight told his captors he was going to be late: ‘Well I have to take it on from here’.”

Dr Baba writes in the book that Mr Chaudhry and other government members then were forced on their knees from behind and handcuffed and then told to sit in front of the parliamentary secretary-general’s table.

He wrote that about 160 shops in Suva were looted and many were burnt and destroyed in acts of vandalism.

“A number of key shops were untouched, lending later to an air of wider conspiracy.

“If circumstantial evidence is significant, the nature of Speight’s behaviour in the early part of the coup suggested he did not know what he was doing.

“Rabuka’s coup had been thought out and even put in writing but Speight was making things up as he went along.”

Dr Baba writes that when the gunmen stormed inside Parliament, he remained standing with the report he was tabling, thinking that only the Speaker had the right to make him sit.

“I looked around me. The seat on my right, that of the co-deputy prime minister was empty. It had been empty for some time as Adi Kuini Speed had been sick and was away in Canberra for treatment.

“I noted that the Labour Minister’s immediately behind me, that of Tevita Momoedonu, was also empty.

“The Health Minister, Isimeli Cokanasiga’s seat was also empty, he too was sick.

“And so was the seat on the far end of the front bench on my right, that of the Minister for Education, who was away in Vanuatu to attend the USP Council which my partner Unaisi was also attending.”

Dr Baba says they were then handcuffed, beginning with the then prime minister (Mr Chaudhry).

He writes that Mr Chaudhry resisted but he told him, “it’s okay…let’s go along and we’ll see what they’re doing”.

“They came to me and like the other ministers, I was handcuffed and required to sit on the floor.

“Speight (whom I really didn’t know) was making calls on his mobile. It was obvious he wanted to connect with someone or some people.

“He wasn’t getting through and was clearly frustrated.”

Dr Baba writes about Speight calling out the names of some people who he wanted to join his “new government”.

He says a chief who was on the government side told Speight that he needed time to think when his name was called out.

“In handcuffs, we were instructed to remain in Parliament under the watchful eyes of the guards who were in military uniforms and armed with weapons,” he wrote.

“We were then ordered to all move outside and as we reached the porch, we were separated: the Indian members were ordered to move into the Government members office at the bottom floor of the next building.

“I sensed immediately that the rebels wanted to separate us as was done to us in the first coup of 1987. This was a weapon to break our solidarity.

Dr Baba talks about how the government members were separated and kept in different places of the parliamentary complex and how others were also kept captive on the first night.

* NEXT WEEK:

The hostage crisis continues.

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