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August 18, 2000
Only a small elite wants to keep us out: Mahendra Chaudhary
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
Deposed Fijian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry sought India's support to ensure an early return to democracy in the Fiji islands. Chaudhary's multi-ethnic cabinet was dismissed in a coup, by George Speight, on May 19, 2000.
"We have chalked out a plan to ensure a return to the 1997 constitution, which I have discussed with Prime Minister A B Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh," said Chaudhary. He said that people of Indian origin and ethnic Fijians got along very well and only a small elite was keen to ensure that Indians did not hold important offices in Fiji.
Speaking at a crowded press conference in New Delhi, Chaudhry said the Indian government should discard its cautious approach and be more active in ensuring restoration of democracy.
"I can understand India being restrained when I was in captivity, but now it must speak up and play a much more assertive role in forcing Fiji to return to multiracial democracy," he said.
He dismissed fears about the future of ethnic Indians in Fiji. "This cannot be a reason for playing a passive role," declared Chaudhary.
He pointed out that the present interim government has recognised that his government was dismissed illegally by Speight, who is now in prison facing charges of treason. "If the government states that Speight's actions were wrong, it is only logical that parliamentary democracy be restored," said Chaudhary.
He said the first step should be the setting up of a 'government of national unity' with the aim of reconciliation and reconstruction. "If Fiji refuses to return to democracy, it should be expelled from the Commonwealth," maintained Chaudhary.
India assured that it would continue with the sanctions imposed on Fiji after the coup by the Commonwealth nations and persuade more nations to join the sanctions.
However, there is no question of India rendering any military help to restore the Chaudhry government. According to Chaudhary, the matter was not discussed. "Military intervention is no solution to the crisis," he said.
Chaudhry dismissed statements issued by the present interim government in Fiji asking him not to speak against it. "These statements are issued by people who connived with the coup plotters. They have no right to make such statements," he declared.
Explaining the situation in Fiji, he said that at the grassroots level, people of Indian origin and ethnic Fijians get along very well. "It is only a small elite that is keen to ensure that Indians do not hold important offices in Fiji," he said.
Talking about the issue of the land lease, he said the solution was for the Indian community to reduce dependence on agriculture as a source of income. "The land is owned by native Fijians, who have leased it to the Indians for 99 years. Fijians are not keen to extend the lease. The Indian community cannot depend on something it does not own," he said.
Chaudhry pointed out that the coup could occur since 99.5 per cent of the armed forces comprises native Fijians, who covertly supported the coup. Incidentally, the earlier coup of 1987 was carried out by the armed forces.
"Every time there is a multiracial cabinet in Fiji, there is a coup. This problem is not incidental, and has to be addressed so that multiracial democracy and governments are respected by all," he said.
Earlier on Friday morning, Jaswant Singh called on Chaudhry while in the forenoon, the latter called on the prime minister. Later, Vajpayee hosted a luncheon in honour of the deposed Fijian prime minister.
At both the meetings, the situation in Fiji was discussed. The Indian government has reiterated its support for the multiracial Fijian constitution, which came into effect in 1997, 10 years after the 1987 coup that disenfranchised people of Indian origin.
Prime Minister Vajpayee said that there should be international pressure to restore democracy in Fiji.
Mahendra Chaudhry thanked the government and people of India for their support and said that he looked forward to a major Indian role in restoring democracy in Fiji.
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