Two bills at heart of Fiji coup tension

In New Zealand arguments over ownership of the foreshore galvanised Maori into political action. The same issue in Fiji is destabilising the democratically-elected government.

Two bills are at the centre of the dispute between Fiji's military and its government -- the Qoliqoli Bill to give native Fijians proprietary ownership of foreshore land and the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill, which allows for individual amnesties for coup perpetrators and supporters.

Fiji military commander Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama has for months spoken out against the bills which Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's government is pushing through Parliament.

The Qoliqoli bill would transfer ownership of the foreshore in traditional fishing areas and set up a commission to regulate and manage fishing resources.

Tabling the bill in August, Minister for Fijian Affairs, Land and Provincial Development Ratu Naiqama said ownership was at present vested with the state. Under the bill the land would be deemed native reserves and its status could only be changed at the request of native owners.

The Qoliqoli Commission would issue fishing licences and appoint guardians.

No commercial operation could go ahead unless it had approval. Income from operations would go into a trust fund for owners.

Cdre Bainimarama has said the bill would kill tourism considering hotels and businesses dependence on the waterfront.

"We will be left without grass skirts, our canoes and a life back to cannibalism and Christianity will be useless," he said.

"People in power are greedy and promote divisive legislation for their personal agendas. What will happen to the common Fijian when there are no investors?"

Mr Naiqama said the commission would allow commercial operators to come to an agreement.

"Why should the hotels have unlimited use of the Qoliqoli area fronting their hotels?"

"If some hoteliers cannot comply and respect our laws... Fiji is not the place for them to invest and live. As the saying goes 'when in Rome do as the Romans do'."

The Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill proposed to grant amnesty to perpetrators of the 2000 coup and compensate victims of it from May 2000 to March 2001.

The bill was deeply unpopular with polls showing significant opposition. Support was split on racial lines with more indigenous Fijians supporting it.

In May 2000, rebel soldiers fronted by convicted traitor George Speight overthrew ethnic Indian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry in the name of indigenous nationalism and held his government hostage for 56 days.

The military put down the coup, but Chaudhry's Fiji Labour Party-led government was not returned to power.

The first of two military coups in 1987 also removed an Indian-dominated government.

Ethnic Indians make up an estimated 37 per cent of Fiji's population of 900,000.

Mr Chaudhry's party opposes the bill and Cdre Bainimarama was instrumental in resolving the 2000 coup and does not want to see parties involved escape justice.

Mr Qarase tried to ease the tension, saying significant amendments would be made.

He said the amnesty clauses would be changed so the Constitution was not violated and independence of law enforcing agencies protected.

Cdre Bainimarama wants both bills dropped or for the Government to resign.


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