OPINION: The Bainimarama government has passed a military decree that all Fiji citizens must now be called “Fijians”, while indigenous Fijians would be called “I-Taukei”.
Anonymous bloggers raged that this was part of Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum’s “sunset clause” strategy on the Fijian race.
An odd few, unaware of the statistical impact, rejoiced that Fiji citizens arriving in, or departing from Fiji, would not be required to declare their ethnicity.
But while a handful of elite educated Indo-Fijians may have welcomed this change, most “Indo-Fijians” could not care less.
More important, without widespread indigenous Fijian consultation and approval, this attempted name change will make little real difference to the social and political realities of Fiji, while it may make racial antagonisms worse.
I doubt if the Commodore asked his older brother for advice on the statistical implications of the name change, which will be a nightmare for statisticians and demographers, while wasting large amounts of tax-payers’ funds.
‘Fijian’ and ‘I-taukei’
Bainimarama argues, as have many before him, that all Fiji citizens should feel that they belong to Fiji equally, without any ethnic discrimination; that the word “Fijian” is a Western creation via Tongan mispronunciation of the word “Viti”; and that the term used by indigenous Fijians to describe themselves has always been “i-taukei”. Of course, there is some truth in all this.
But many indigenous Fijians, especially those who articulate in the English language, feel that the word “Fijian” is now synonymous with the indigenous Fijian people, their language and culture, and its usage should be restricted to them alone. There is also some substance to this view. But will the name change threaten their culture? I doubt it.
Bainimarama did not ask Fijians if they wanted to be called I-Taukei in English.
Nor did he ask Indo-Fijians if they wanted to be called “Fijians”.
Historically in Fiji, people of Indian origin have been called, and they also referred to themselves as “Indians”: look at any official statistics on Fiji, including the 2007 Fiji Census, the Ministry of Health Reports, or the many statements by their political leaders (in English or Hindi).
The 1997 Constitution tried calling them “Fiji Indians”. But “Fiji Indians” who have resettled in Australia, NZ, Canada or US, know all too well how different they are from Indians from India, despite the common DNA, languages and religions; and how “Fijian” they are, in more ways than just supporting the kava industry.
Many Indo-Fijian academics now use the term “Indo-Fijian” to emphasise our Fiji roots (thoroughly confusing the average Fiji Indian).
But even that mild term “Indo-Fijian” used to be objected to before the 2006 coup, often more so by Fiji’s colonial Europeans and “Part-Europeans” who found it politically expedient in relegating Indo-Fijians to being perpetual “vulagi” – the well-known colonial “divide and rule” strategy (read The Fiji Times in the era of editor and publisher Sir Leonard Usher).
But, probably, most Indo-Fijians have no great desire to be called “Fijians” just as they would be reluctant to adopt indigenous Fijian customs, holus bolus.
Bainimarama should know that it is only a handful of educated elite Indo-Fijians who want to be called “Fijian – and that only because of the racial discrimination they have faced in Fiji over the years.
Why elite Indo-Fijian support?
Fijian bloggers are bitterly critical of the handful of Indo-Fijians who have re-appeared in Fiji (many making money), supporting the Bainimarama coup, and the name change for all citizens to “Fijian”.
While their support of a treasonous coup cannot be justified, it is important to understand their bitterness at being racially marginalised in the land of their birth, for only then can one understand their strange continued blind support of this military regime, despite the massive damage it is doing to Fiji.
The case of John Samy, a high flying Permanent Secretary under Ratu Mara, driven out after the 1987 coup is well known, but there are many other similar people.
Naz Shameem was not supported by the Fiji government when she was an a very viable candidate for an international position; Parmesh Chand and Thakur Ranjit Singh (gone but still writing Down Under) were rejected for top Civil Service positions, despite being suitable candidates; Sada Reddy (gone) in the Reserve Bank had the frustration of seeing his junior moved to the Ministry of Finance, and then moved back above him as governor; Rishi Ram (now out of sight) was summarily brought back from being Ambassador in Japan; Surendra Sharma (gone) was not supported by the Fiji government for his bid for the Deputy Secretary General position at the ACP; and there were many Indo-Fijian executives in statutory organisations who were eliminated from top positions following the rapid Fijianisation after the 1987 coups (some of course re-appeared in the sugar industry after the 2006 coup, only to depart again after making some money).
Many Indo-Fijian professionals faced invisible barriers at the tax-free CROP organisations such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Forum Secretariat and others, partly due to the inability of Fiji citizens to network as well as the Samoans and Tongans, but also partly due to the lack of support from successive Fiji governments.
Even at the University of the South Pacific (where most qualified Pacific Islanders do not want to work, or leave soon after joining), Indo-Fijian academics in the 1970s and 1980s faced racist opposition from senior regional academics and expatriates (some of whom later became Fiji citizens).
Recently again, an experienced Indo-Fijian applicant for the Vice-Chancellor’s position was denied, while an expatriate with serious financial question marks was appointed, with the support of the Fiji government.
When that expatriate VC left under strange circumstances (never publicly revealed to the taxpayers of the region) the Indo-Fijian candidate was appointed as Vice Chancellor, due to the strong support of the current military regime. I suspect that Fiji National University would also not have appointed an Indo-Fijian Vice-Chancellor, had it not been for support by the Bainimarama regime.
It is not surprising therefore that there are many elite and educated Indo-Fijians who support the Bainimarama coup, and his military decree calling all Fiji citizens “Fijians”.
But I strongly suspect that the average person of Indian origin in Fiji will still not call himself a “Fijian” while in Fiji.
Most Indo-Fijians, when in Fiji, understand “Fijian” to mean indigenous Fijians.
But abroad, all Fiji citizens are referred to and refer to themselves as “Fijian”, just like Vijay Singh and Colin Philp, who carry Fiji passports.
Those indigenous Fijians who feel that Bainimarama’s name change threatens the viability of Fijian culture, should stop worrying. Calling a rose a mokosoi changes neither the rose nor the mokosoi.
There will merely be a large wastage of tax-payers’ funds changing all government department names, stationary, regulations, etc from “Fijian” to “I-taukei”.
But more seriously, this name change will cause great confusion in the area of official statistics, such as censuses, surveys, and national indicators, where ethnicity is an important variable to be distinguished for monitoring of development indicators.
Why are statisticians silent?
For many of Fiji’s official statistics and indicators (such as that required for MDGs), it is important to know accurately not just the total number of men, women and children there are in the country by age, but also by ethnicity.
There are significant ethnic differences in fertility rates, infant mortalities, life expectancies, food consumption patterns, school retention rates, business participation, etc. These must be monitored by ethnicity if we are to assess Fiji’s development progress in areas where ethnic groups lag behind.
For instance, to project population numbers between censuses, it is essential to know age specific fertility rates by ethnicity, as well as the net migration numbers by ethnic groups.
If births and deaths, or arrivals and departure cards, don’t record ethnicity, we cannot accurately know the base populations for any ethnic group, in any one inter-censal year.
Indo-Fijians have relatively higher emigration rates than indigenous Fijians, which differences are easily picked up from arrival and departure cards at the airports – if the ethnicity is recorded. Of course, there are ways around these problems, but the solutions will be expensive.
And then, there is the statistical nightmare for the whole world that for any statistics on Fiji published over the last century, the word “Fijian” before 2011 means indigenous Fijians, but from 2011 means all citizens (but perhaps not, depending on the producer of the data).
Note that the Bainimarama regime has no clue what they are going to call the ever-shrinking numbers of “Indo-Fijians”, in all the forms etc where ethnicity will still need to be filled in- in education, health, household surveys, censuses, etc.
Or what they are going to call all the other minority groups who are also committed Fiji citizens – like the kailomas, Rotumans, Rabi Islanders, Solomoni, the few kaivalagis, or the increasing numbers of itinerant Chinese.
Why are scarce taxpayers’ money being wasted on all these unnecessary name changes which will only cause confusion?
Surely, to make all citizens feel they belong, all that is needed is an end to racial discrimination and racist rhetoric.
And, if any government wants to have national name changes, it needs to be done by widespread consultation and dialogue- currently totally denied by the media censorship.
Doing it through the barrel of the gun will not change people’s minds, even if the objectives are good.
As the Rugby Union lottery saga indicated, the Bainimarama regime’s actions are making Fiji’s race relations worse, not better, except that the racial tensions are all hidden by the continuing senseless media censorship. But the exploding and under-reported crimes in the country may be indicative.
This short-sighted illegal Bainimarama regime should immediately remove the media censorship within Fiji and let all Fiji people discuss freely what names they would like to be called within Fiji, and what is the most sensible for us, keeping in mind all the requirements for development statistics and convenience for the users world-wide.
And, just like these and national name changes, also let Fiji people freely discuss the even more serious and far more debatable public policy changes that continue to be made by military decrees: secret pension “reforms”, secret disposal of Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) assets, secret privatisation of public assets; secret government borrowings and government expenditure; arbitrary civil service appointments and sackings; arbitrary board appointments and sackings; ineffective orders and backflips on school zoning, silly limits to school fees, ineffectual price controls, and now, the senseless reversals of policy on the Wages Councils hurting the tens of thousands of badly paid, non-unionised workers (more on this soon).
All these draconian orders are clearly having unintended but very predictable negative consequences, while this military regime and its arrogant henchmen experiment with tax-payers’ funds, with no accountability, and total media censorship on dissenting views.
The list of their failed experiments is growing longer by the day.
While their cast of performers is shrinking by the day.
Soon they may be down to two stars, with a supporting actor or two from the private sector.
In the meantime, all Fiji watches with fascination, the scenes from Tunisia and Egypt.
Seems worlds apart, doesn’t it?