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June 20, 2000
Threats silence Fiji Indians' protests: Reuters
His home was saved in the nick of time, but the smell of kerosene remained as a potent warning to Fijian trade union leader Diwan Shankar to keep his mouth shut.
"I did not take the threats seriously," said Shankar, an ethnic Indian, visibly distressed as he inspected the damage done to his home by six men who attempted to set it on fire.
Shankar, a leader of the Fiji Trade Union Congress, vowed he would not be silenced in his opposition to coup leader George Speight, who has held Fiji's first ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhary and 30 politicians hostage since May 19. Speight and his men aim to strip Indians of political power in this South Pacific nation.
Apart from Shankar, fear has strangled protests by Fiji's Indian community amid concern for the hostages' safety and a general fear of risking reprisals in a climate of ethnic Fijian anger unleashed by Speight.
A few banners critical of Speight flap in the breeze on the west coast of Fiji's main island Viti Levu, a three-hour drive from the capital Suva, which is in the island's south-eastern region. But threatened street protests have failed to materialise.
Ben Padarath, whose mother Lavenia is a hostage, had planned a protest march through the villages to Suva. However, it was cancelled when he was warned she was at risk. Ben has gone quiet since Lavenia sent a message through the Red Cross that she was not getting food because of his actions.
It is not just vocal opponents of the coup who have been targeted. Indian taxi drivers were told not to go near parliament - where the hostages are being held - after three were robbed and assaulted in one day. One was slashed with a knife across the throat.
About 100 ethnic Indians fled last week from their village near Suva, saying they had been terrorised and blackmailed by Speight's supporters.
Chaudhry's Labour Party says it has shown 'fairly significant restraint' since its leaders were seized, focusing its efforts outside Fiji, with representations to the Commonwealth and Australian and New Zealand trade unions. "Anything we say or do could find repercussions among our colleagues in custody," former education minister Pratap Chand said.
"There is a widespread belief that the military's efforts to maintain law and order and to obtain the release of the hostages ought not to be subverted or weakened (by protest action) in any way," said one leading Indian-Fijian.
The churches of this deeply religious nation have also been quiet. It took a month for the Methodist Church to declare public support for the military, after being rebuffed by Speight in its early bid to act as a mediator. But with about 80 percent of indigenous Fijians as its members, it is an unlikely champion of ethnic Indians.
Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls gathers every day at a prayer vigil in Suva with dozen or more women, many dressed in black or wearing blue ribbons to demonstrate their stand against the coup. She remembers protesters marching en masse to where the government has been detained for five days after a 1987 coup, but said such a public protest was ruled out this time.
"There is the concern about the hostages. You don't want to do anything that will trigger a crisis," she said.
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