Fiji coup leader takes down government he helped form
SUVA, Fiji (AP) -- The man credited with resolving Fiji's last coup has staged his own.
Like the three that went before, the latest takeover Tuesday was rooted in the deep ethnic divide between the indigenous Fijian majority and the ethnic Indian minority. But this time the instigator says he's protecting minority rights, not safeguarding those of the majority.
Commodore Frank Bainimarama was widely regarded as a national hero when he brokered a resolution to Fiji's last coup in 2000 without bloodshed and restored democracy.
Six years later, that reputation is in tatters after the former peacemaker seized control and dismissed the prime minister of this picturesque South Pacific island nation.
After 2000, Bainimarama, an indigenous Fijian of low tribal status, became a hero of the ethnic-Indian minority, while his role split the ethnic Fijian majority.
Fijian nationalists led by failed businessman George Speight had stormed the Parliament and took prisoner for 56 days the country's first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, plus more than 50 government ministers and lawmakers.
Bainimarama forced the then-president, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, to resign and declared martial law before the nationalists surrendered. He promised amnesty to coup participants, but later reneged and the ringleaders were arrested, tried and imprisoned for treason. He set up an interim government and chose former banker Laisenia Qarase to head it.
Qarase's leadership gained the legitimacy of two general elections. But Bainimarama grew increasingly frustrated with Qarase's nationalist leanings, in particular three pieces of populist legislation that offered pardons to the 2000 coup plotters and handed coastal land rights -- lucrative to the tourist industry -- to indigenous Fijians.
"It is hard to believe that the man who stood up for the rule of law in 2000 is today its main threat," the Fiji Times newspaper noted Monday.
A rift opened between Qarase and Bainimarama -- chief of the overwhelmingly indigenous Fijian military since 1999 -- and has steadily worsened.
Bainimarama warned last year he would declare martial law if the government passed the amnesty bill, saying the military had "no qualms about removing a government that will bring back chaos."
Bainimarama's position has hardened, with persistent claims of corruption against the government and threats his "clean up campaign" will resume imminently.
He has also accused Qarase of trying to get rid of him 11 times in the past five years.
In his declaration Tuesday, Bainimarama named the contentious bills as the reason he had reluctantly seized power, saying they "would undermine the constitution and deny many citizens their rights."
He said a new government would be appointed that "will lead us into peace and prosperity and mend the ever widening racial divide that currently besets our multicultural nation."