Main languages: Fijian, Hindi, Rotuman, English
Main religions: Christianity (mainly Methodist Church), Hindu, Muslim
Minority groups include Indo-Fijians 313,798 (37.5 per cent ), Rotumans 10,335(1.2 per cent), Banabans and Melanesians (from Solomon Islands and New Hebrides). The population consists of two principal ethnic groups: the indigenous Melanesian population or those of mixed Melanesian-Polynesian origin (subsequently referred to as indigenous Fijians), who now constitute a majority of the population (475,739, 56.8 per cent), and the Indo-Fijian (commonly referred to as Indian) population (data: Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics, 2007 ).
While indigenous Fijians tend to be regarded as Melanesians they are more homogeneous than in other Melanesian states. For example, they have one language, a more hierarchical and hereditary social structure, and a chiefly system more akin to those in Polynesia.
The remainder of the population is of diverse origins with a significant Polynesian group from the outlying island of Rotuma. Under Fiji’s citizenship and electoral laws, Rotumans are also regarded as indigenous (unlike the much larger Indo-Fijian community born in Fiji).
Banabans from Ocean Island (Kiribati) were settled in Fiji in the 1940s, after phosphate mining ruined their home island. There has been some migration from many other Pacific islands.
There is a small group of Melanesian islanders, descendants of those who were brought to Fiji from the Solomon Islands and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) during the 1800s to work on plantations.
There are other minority groups in Fiji – including the Chinese (whose numbers are again increasing) and other Pacific islanders, who are often temporary residents. Sikhs also comprise a small religious minority (2,548, 0.3 per cent). There are many Pacific islanders at the University of the South Pacific, and there have occasionally been tensions between some national groups there.
Updated September 2017
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Fiji’s society has long been marked by tensions between the majority indigenous Fijian population and an Indo-Fijian minority. Smaller minorities, including Banabans, Rotumans, Chinese, Melanesians and other Pacific islanders, remain socially and politically marginalized. These divisions have at times resulted in coups and outbreaks of violence, sustained by the legacy of colonialism, land tenure questions and the politicization of ethnicity. However, in recent years, steps have been taken to resolve these issues and end decades of ethnic politics. Yet the country continues to face serious governance problems, including the frequent use of violence and beatings by police against suspected criminals and those in custody – what Amnesty International has described as an ‘ingrained culture of torture’ among security forces. Violence and beatings in police or military custody in Fiji remain an endemic problem, and according to Fiji Native and Tribal Congress’ Niko Nawaikula, indigenous Fijians have been disproportionately subjected to these abuses.
The government has stated that the indigenous experience of marginalization elsewhere does not apply to Fiji as a result of the land right protections, with Frank Bainimarama recently claiming that 91 per cent of Fijian land is customarily owned by iTaukei. Indigenous land rights have been further strengthened under the 2013 Constitution. Nevertheless, land has historically been a source of friction between indigenous Fijian land-owners and Indian and Indo-Fijian farmers, with considerable inter-ethnic disagreement over what constitutes fair rent for agricultural leases, as well as over the non-renewal of leases and evictions of tenant farmers and the return of state land to customary owners. Among indigenous iTaukei nationalists, the underlying belief has been that Fiji is their God-given land and, as owners of the land, they have special rights and privileges that override the rights of citizens of other ethnicities. This belief has been nurtured and reinforced historically by the notion of the ‘paramountcy of Fijian interests’.
The UN Special Rapporteur on racism, following his visit to Fiji in December 2016, highlighted the positive progress that the country had made in tackling discrimination through legal reform, inclusive educational policies and other measures. However, he also drew attention to the persistence of ethnic divisions in the country and the prevalence of hate speech in the media, parliament and in public platforms online. He called for the government to fully develop a legislative framework to tackle racially motivated hate crimes to achieve lasting stability.
Fiji has a relatively diverse economy, increasingly centred on tourism. The long-standing core of the economy, sugar, has declined because of global movements away from protection and towards free trade, and failure to invest in modernization and to extend leases. Most sugar production has been undertaken in two large areas on the two main islands by Indo-Fijians, but since the late 1990s indigenous Fijian landowners have been withdrawing leases and this has resulted in greater poverty amongst former cane-cutters and both rural–urban and international migration. The third key element of the economy, textiles, has also experienced a rapid decline, again because of the movement to free trade. Also, both agriculture and tourism are vulnerable to climate change. Growing dependence on migration and remittances has resulted in the structure of the Fijian economy becoming more like that of such remittance-dependent countries as Tonga and Samoa. Especially outside the two main islands, many Fijians are largely dependent on subsistence agriculture and fishing.
Updated September 2017
Fiji is one of the largest Pacific island states, consisting of over 330 islands, of which 112 are populated, though almost 90 per cent of the population lives on the two main islands Vanua Levu and Viti Levu. Most of the islands are of volcanic origin. The country typically experiences a hurricane every other year, and the most pressing environmental issues facing Fiji are deforestation, soil erosion and the impact of climate change.
The indigenous Melanesian population of Fiji has been there for more than 2,000 years. Although one Fijian language covers the whole country, there are sub-regional dialects, especially on Vanua Levu and the eastern Lau islands. The first European settlement in the islands began in the early nineteenth century and in the ensuing decades the influence of various colonial powers increased. In 1874, Fiji became a British colony.
Under British rule, indigenous Fijians were governed by a system of indirect rule through their chiefs. In 1874, the British governor created a Great Council of Chiefs, or Bose Levu Vakaturaga, to secure their active collaboration. Following the signing of the Deed of Cession in 1874 by some (but not all) leading chiefs of Fiji, the British colonial administration instituted pivotal policies that affect inter-ethnic relations to the present day. First, the native policy required that ethnic Fijians reside in their nucleated villages and engage in agricultural livelihoods as small-holder or peasant farmers until the 1960s. A significant aspect of the native policy related to customary ownership of land and its non-alienability. The British governor decided that only 10 per cent of Fiji’s land area could be alienated to white settlers. A further 7 per cent accrued to the ‘Crown’. Close to 83 per cent of the land was recognized as owned by indigenous Fijian land-owning groups.
The second significant policy was the invitation to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) of Australia to establish sugar cane plantations and mills in the colony. Between 1879 and 1916, 60,500 Indian indentured labourers were brought to Fiji to work for CSR and other planters. They thus settled in the two main sugar areas on the two largest islands.
Colonial society was founded on a hierarchy of race and on differential treatment based on ethnicity. The colonial administration encouraged the separate economic development of different communities. Historically, the mainstream market economy – the large commercial plantations, sugar mills, port and mill towns, mining, tourism and other commerce – were the domain of Europeans and migrant workers and their descendants. Indigenous Fijians (or iTaukei) were compelled to live in rural villages. However, over time, they acquired education and some sought to break out of the village way of life. This system created a three-tiered economic structure with Europeans and Chinese at the top tier, followed by ‘Indians’ in the middle tier, and Fijians in the bottom tier. This image of inequality is widely held among indigenous Fijians, although the reality has always been somewhat more complicated. However, perceptions play a critical role in inter-ethnic relations, and indigenous Fijian leadership has maintained that their community must hold political power in their own country, as economic power is held by others.
Opposition to Indian migration to Fiji was latent in the colonial period. In post-independence years there was more concerted opposition, directed at the numerical dominance of Indo-Fijians and their pre-eminence in commerce and some parts of the public service. Resentment has increased at times of high unemployment, and in the 1970s there were occasional calls for repatriation of Indo-Fijians. In 1982 the Great Council of Chiefs sought to reserve two-thirds of parliamentary seats for indigenous Fijians. Indo-Fijians have remained landless, dependent on leasing land from indigenous Fijians, hence many have moved into urban commerce.
After independence in 1970 the new Constitution safeguarded the interests of the indigenous Fijian community in terms of access to land, through having a majority in the Senate and through the assurance that they would have almost half the seats in the lower house, the House of Representatives. Despite these guarantees, and despite the relative growth of the indigenous Fijian population (through differential natural increase and emigration rates), opposition to Indo-Fijians continued. Political parties and elections were essentially divided on ethnic grounds.
In 1985 the multi-ethnic Fiji Labour Party (FLP) was formed and, led by a Fijian, Dr Timoci Bavadra, won the April 1987 election in a coalition with the Indo-Fijian-based National Federation Party (NFP). Although the FLP awarded sensitive ministerial posts to Fijians, there was powerful opposition and in May 1987 a military coup led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka overthrew the government. When the governor-general established a caretaker government of a coalition including FLP members, a second coup in September 1987 again overthrew the government. In October 1987 Rabuka declared a republic, and there was violence against, and victimization of, supporters of the previous government.
Rabuka subsequently handed over power to a chosen civilian government under long-time prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamesese Mara, with a new Constitution drawn up in 1990 by Rabuka, which gave preferential treatment to the indigenous Fijian population, guaranteeing Fijian political supremacy in a race-based political system in which the majority of seats in both Houses were allocated to ethnic Fijians.
Rabuka again became prime minister in 1994 and Mara became president. In 1995 a two-year process of reviewing the 1990 Constitution by a three-person commission began, which included a prominent Indo-Fijian critic of the government. A revised Constitution was agreed in 1997. Despite ethnic Fijian opposition, that Constitution was implemented in 1998.
In 1999, with the indigenous Fijian vote split between five parties, the Fiji Labour Party again won a majority in Parliament and Mahendra Chaudhry became the first Indo-Fijian prime minister. The policies of his social-democratic government (including the removal of value-added taxes on essential goods, the end of the Rabuka government’s programme of privatization of public utilities, the removal of Rabuka appointees from statutory boards, and the exposure of corruption from the post-coup era) earned the former trade union leader widespread opposition in the business community. Chaudhry’s premiership also raised concern over perceived threats to indigenous Fijian paramountcy, when he promised 30-year land leases to Indo-Fijians, at a time when they were expiring.
This enraged many indigenous Fijians and in May 2000 a part-Fijian businessman, George Speight, associated with the nationalist Taukei Movement, along with a section of the army, took over parliament and held the prime minister and members of the government hostage for 56 days. Eventually the remainder of the army restored peace, an interim administration was appointed, led by Laisenia Qarase, and Speight and some followers were jailed. The 2001 election restored a measure of democracy, despite grave concerns over the lack of representation of Indo-Fijians in government as the new Constitution demanded, whereas two members of Speight’s party were included in the cabinet. The notion of a government of national unity proved impossible to establish until members of the Labour Party joined a multi-party cabinet after the 2006 elections.
However, the legacy of violence against Indo-Fijians during and after both the 1987 and 2000 coups, the greater political power of indigenous Fijians, concern over economic growth (as tourism, sugar and other economic activities slumped) and fear for the future all led to substantial emigration of Indo-Fijians, so that indigenous Fijians had again become a majority by the turn of the century. These tensions persisted in ensuing years: for instance, in 2005, relations between the ethnic Fijian and Indo-Fijian communities were strained by the debate over the Reconciliation, Unity and Tolerance Bill introduced by the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Key provisions of the bill provided amnesty for ‘political’ crimes, though the commander of the Fiji Military Forces (FMF) sought full punishment for all offenders. Parliament also supported bills giving Fijians greater control over resources, including coastal land, partly in the wake of pressures for compensation.
Through a military coup on 5 December 2006, Prime Minister Qarase was deposed and Frank Bainimarama a former military commander, came to power. It was Fiji’s fourth coup since independence in 1970. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, protests against the military take-over were firmly suppressed. Anyone openly expressing anti-government sentiments was detained, humiliated and tortured. A number of indigenous Fijians died from beatings and torture at the hands of the police and military. The immunity decreed by the government has meant that members of the security forces have not been held accountable for gross violations of the human rights of citizens yet again. Unlike the previous three coups, the 2006 military usurpation of power is widely perceived to be anti-indigenous Fijian and pro-Indo-Fijian. Highly respected iTaukei institutions, such as the Great Council of Chiefs, the Methodist Church, the Fijian (now iTaukei) administration and the Native (now iTaukei) Land Trust Board were seen to be under attack, as were measures of affirmative action for indigenous Fijians.
In subsequent years, amidst a crackdown on media and civil society freedoms, the government stated its commitment to reduce inter-ethnic tensions through a range of measures. This included a provision that schools to change their names if they carried an ethnic label previously, for instance ‘Fijian’ or ‘Indian’. Conversational Bauan Fijian and Hindi became a required part of the curriculum in primary schools. In terms of political representation it took steps to move towards a system of proportional representation with no ethnically-based reservation of seats. It also decreed ‘Fijian’ as the common national name for all citizens.
This process culminated in the drafting of a new Constitution in 2013 that aimed to end the ethnically-defined divisions that had defined the country’s politics in the previous decades, instead affirming a single Fijian identity and including a range of progressive provisions in areas such as language education and land rights. This was followed shortly afterwards by free and fair elections in 2014, ushering in the end of years of military rule following the 2006 coup.
Politics has long been dominated by differences between the two main ethnic groups and political parties which represent their interests. Largely as a result of this ongoing ethnic tension, the country has experienced four military coups and a military mutiny since 1987. The most recent coup of 2006, led by Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, promised to bring an end to the country’s system of ethnic classification. Yet progress towards this goal has been slow, and Bainimarama’s regime was strongly criticized for infringing basic rights such as free speech and peaceful assembly.
Previous efforts to develop a more appropriate constitution for Fiji to resolve its longstanding ethnic divisions had culminated in a reformed Constitution, approved in 1997, that included complex attempts at power-sharing. Under the 1997 Constitution, Fiji had two legislatures alongside a powerful Great Council of Chiefs. The Senate had 32 seats, of which 14 were appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs, nine by the Prime Minister, eight by the Leader of the Opposition and one by the Council of Rotuma. The House of Representatives had 71 seats, of which 25 were opened to all ethnic groups (elected by universal suffrage), but other seats were to be elected by separate communal electoral rolls such as 23 for ethnic Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians 19, three for other ethnic groups, and one for Rotuman Islanders. Yet in the years afterwards ethnic polarization increased.
Given the evident limitations of the 1997 Constitution in addressing Fiji’s fragmented political environment, reflected in its more recent coups, the country’s Constitution again underwent revisions. In August 2013, the government of Fiji released the final version of its Constitution, paving the way for elections in 2014. The new draft, which received presidential assent in September, sought to break down ethnic divisions and create a single national identity. The new Constitution abolished regional and ethnically based constituencies in favour of one national constituency covering the whole of Fiji. However, this was criticized for favouring larger political parties. The text has also been denounced for its restrictions on free speech and the extensive powers granted to the state, including detention without charge or trial in times of emergency, as well as immunity for government officials for a wide range of human rights abuses.
With regard to indigenous peoples’ rights, the new Constitution recognizes the customary title of the indigenous Filjians (or iTaukei), Rotuman and Banaban to their lands, and their rights to royalties to resources extracted from those lands. It has been criticized, however, for not affirming the indigenous right to free, prior and informed consent. Finally, the new Constitution calls for compulsory multilingual education in iTaukei and Fijian Hindi, alongside English, and the provision of translation in court proceedings.
Over and above the constitutional framework, there are also some important provisions that address discrimination in Fijian domestic law, including the revised Public Order (Amendment) Decree 2012, which broadly prohibits vilification. However, it has attracted criticism for not complying with international standards and for undermining other important human rights and freedoms, including freedom of association. Furthermore, Fiji does not have any comprehensive legislation to prevent and combat ethnic discrimination. Most troubling, perhaps, is the fact that very few complaints, prosecutions and convictions relating to ethnically motivated crimes have gone through the courts or via the Fiji Human Rights Commission, despite reports of institutionalized or de facto ethnic discrimination in the country, including by law enforcement officials.
Updated September 2017
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- Fiji: The challenges and opportunities of diversity (2013)
- Economic Development, Democracy and Ethnic Conflict in the Fiji Islands (2001)
- Fiji (1987)
News and updates
- Grave concerns for freedom of expression in Fiji, says rights group (14 August 2013)
- Fiji government must open up constitution process if it wants to achieve truly inclusive democracy (9 April 2013)
- Fiji Government risks losing public support for new Constitution, says international rights organisation (17 January 2013)
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