From Fijitimes Online

The birth of 'Viti kei Rotuma'

Sunday, August 06, 2006

THIS article serves to formally acknowledge, but more importantly refute the views expressed in Victor Lal's latest article titled, Are Rotumans indigenous in blueprint?" which featured in July 2006.

It is the fourth such article written since 2000 by the same person who is obviously determined to discredit, embarrass and blatantly insult the chiefs and people of Rotuma.

Despite his claim to the contrary that "this is not a personal attack on the Rotuman community, many of whose members are very good personal friends of mine, and some are even related by marriage to my family", I consider his very misleading and vindictive views to be that of a racist as they have been consistently offensive and insulting.

In fact, he has the gall and audacity to challenge the authenticity of our indigenity and this is most unacceptable as it questions the integrity of our heritage and indigenity as islanders of Rotuma which is part of the Republic of the Fiji Islands.

As Rotumans we are conscious of our unique Polynesian heritage and are equally proud of our special traditional ties with our indigenous Fijian brethren and other Pacific Islanders which date back through the ages when our forefathers settled the islands during their early migratory voyage across the Pacific.

No accident of history

In an earlier article, Mr Lal claims that, "The Rotumans, who now constitute a recognisable minority with their own churches and associations, are in Fiji as a result of an accident of British colonial history."

What utter nonsense and distortion of the truth.

The following are official archival excerpts of the events leading to the formal proclamation when the island of Rotuma and its indigenous people became part of the colony of Fiji.

Following the last battle of Saukama in 1878, the chiefs, in their wisdom but more importantly fear of further conflict amongst the different districts and clans, came to the collective decision that their "only chance of escaping from future calamities was to be found in absorption into the colony of Fiji".

Consequently, the first attempt by the chiefs in this regard was made on June 18, 1879 when a letter was sent to Sir George William Des Voeux, who was Acting High Commissioner in the absence of Sir Arthur Gordon, suggesting that, "for the promotion and acceptance of Christianity, but more importantly for the Rotumans to live together in peace and harmony, Rotuma and Fiji should be under one government".

Leutenant Graham Bower, Commanding Officer of HMS Conflict, was dispatched to Rotuma to consult further with the chiefs and on July 14, 1879 confirmed our forefathers' desire to petition for cession when the chiefs collectively signed a document which read: "We the chiefs of the Island of Rotuma have heard and understood the letter of the Governor of Fiji. We have also heard the words of the Officer of the Great Queen of England, and we ask the Great Queen to rule our island, and to receive us as subjects. We ask for a magistrate, and we promise to obey him and to keep the peace with one another."

This pledge by the chiefs and the people was further reinforced by High Commissioner Sir Arthur Gordon's visit to Rotuma in December 12-16, 1879 when his dispatch to the Colonial Office in Whitehall, London read:

"At all these meetings the most eager desire was expressed for a favourable answer to the petition addressed to Her Majesty by the chiefs and the people, and I have no doubt of the sincerity and unanimity of their desire to be incorporated in the Colony of Fiji. Their motives are indeed very obvious and natural, and I believe them to be quite right in supposing the step to be the only one which will assure them domestic peace, and freedom from vexatious interference on the part of strangers."

A response to the chiefs' petition of cession was finally received on September 17, 1880 from High Commissioner Gordon which confirmed, "the Queen's gracious acceptance of their cession of the island to Her Majesty."

The official dispatch read: "The Queen has listened graciously to your petition, and accepts you as her subjects. I rejoice that your wish is thus accomplished. I trust that peace and prosperity may ever endure among you in consequence."

This acceptance by Queen Victoria led to the issue of an official proclamation by High Commissioner Gordon on November 5, 1880 confirming the formal incorporation of Rotuma as part of the Colony of Fiji.

Issue of sovereignty

Mr Lal claims that, "Rotuma's sovereignty is not an issue" when referring to the Constitutional Talks in London prior to Fiji's independence in 1970.

This is most insulting and disrespectful to Rotumans as it questions the validity, but more importantly, the legality of our very existence and status as a minority indigenous group in Fiji.

The participants of the Constitutional Talks in London prior to Fiji's attainment of Independence in 1970 failed in their deliberations to consider Rotuma's sovereignty and special status as an indigenous minority entity as enshrined in the island's Deed of Cession.

In fact, it is my humble opinion that the Talks should have focussed on Sovereignty and all matters pertaining to safeguarding indigenous concerns and interests.

I strongly believe that we deserve better than being allocated one Senate seat in the post-independence parliamentary/Legislative government set-up.

How wrong, insensitive, but more importantly ignorant and insulting can he be?

It is all about sovereignty, for our standing and status as members of the indigenous community in connection with the Government's Blueprint for Affirmative Action is purely based on our indigenity to our home island of Rotuma, to the proclamation of November 5, 1880 which confirmed and sealed the official formalisation of our absorption as part of this nation.

And lastly, it is about our sovereign rights which were enshrined under the terms of our Deed of Cession of May 13, 1881.

The preamble of our Constitution clearly reflects and legalises the wishes of our chiefs and forefathers that we should share a common destiny with our Fijian brethren as indigenous people and one nation.

Following Queen Victoria's endorsement of our chiefs' request, and the traditional chiefly assent and acceptance of the paramount chiefs of Fiji, Rotuma became part of the Colony of Fiji as confirmed by the Proclamation Order of November 5, 1880.

This was soon followed by the Proclamation of the Deed of Cession which was signed by our chiefs and Sir Des Voux (who succeeded Sir Arthur Gordon) as Western Pacific High Commissioner and Governor of the Colony of Fiji during a brief, but solemn ceremony on the isthmus of Motusa, Rotuma on May 13, 1881.

The official terms of the Deed of Cession read:

"We the chiefs of Rotuma, with the knowledge and assent of our respective tribes, and in accordance with their desire, do, on our own behalf and that of our respective tribes, hereby cede and surrender absolutely, unreservedly and unconditionally to Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, the possession of and full sovereignty of all ports, harbours, roadsteads, streams and waters, and all foreshores and all islands and reefs adjacent thereto: praying that Her Majesty will be pleased to extend to us such laws as now govern her native subjects in the Colony of Fiji, or such other laws as in Her Majesty's wisdom she may see fit to make and appoint for our Government and for the maintenance of peace and good order."

No free-riding

Mr Lal continues with his virulent rhetoric by suggesting that, "It is to be sincerely hoped that migrant Rotumans or those born in Fiji, whether lawyers or layman, will not hide behind the sulu of Fijian nationalism to trample upon the rights and aspirations of the Indian community to benefit themselves and their kinsmen on the island of Rotuma."

As Rotumans we acknowledge with humble gratitude that we are merely equal citizens of Fiji who do not plan "to freely ride on the economic back of Indo-Fijian toil ...".

Nor do we intend to "forcibly gorge into the wealth of the nation and expect the Indo-Fijians to wait for the crumbs from their master's table, the supposedly indigenous Rotumans of Fiji", as rudely inferred by Mr Lal in one of his articles.

Since the cession, generations of our people had excelled and continue to excel in all fields of work wherever they are whether in the public service, private sector, the military and disciplined services or the church.

Over the years our small indigenous community worked very hard together with the rest of the different communities of Fiji in serving and building this nation to what it is today.

Although our individual and collective contributions to nation-building throughout the years could be assessed as modest and small, it is also my opinion that overall, it has been quite substantial.

We have been "punching well above our weight", but do not wish to claim any credit for our contribution to society nor do we expect any special favours from any quarters.

Viti kei Rotuma

As Rotumans we are very mindful and value with great pride our special traditional relationship and connection with Fijians which originated from the days of the early migration and settlement of the islands by our forefathers.

Our loyalty and commitment to this country is steadfast, resolute and unquestionable.

In peace and war, we stood firm and endured with our Fijian brethren as an indigenous community and entity.

We continue to be mindful and cherish with great humility and pride the favourite catchcry of Viti kei Rotuma of our chiefs and elders, in our interaction with other members of the community in all matters pertaining to the matanitu, vanua kei na lotu.

Native land

Mr Lal further asserts that, "Rotumans have no right to entangle in the ALTA-NLTA controversy".

We have no intention of interfering or being dragged into the ALTA-NLTA land lease debate nor do we wish "to poke our noses into why and for how long an Indian farmer should be allowed to remain on native Fijian land on the mainland," as Mr Lal asserts.

This debate and the final resolution of the issue is best left to the Fijian landowners, the appropriate authorities and other interested stakeholders.

As "sons of the soil" of our home island Rotuma, we are primarily concerned and interested in ensuring that our separate Rotuma Land Act is administered and amended in the best interest of our small community.

Serving Fiji well

Mr Lal also claims that, "Rotumans have contributed no more than any other non-ethnic Fijian group in the country".

We do not dispute this.

However, we contend that our contribution to national progress should not be measured against our economic or political clout but rather on sovereignty, indigenity, our loyalty, commitment and service to our nation.

The President, Ratu Josefa Iloilovatu Uluivuda, whilst concluding his address at the opening of of the Parliament on June 6, 2006 reminded us about the call to service.

He said, "Honourable Members and Senators, I call on all of you to make service to the country the guiding principle of your work. Our people look to you as leaders to guide our nation towards greater harmony and prosperity. You now have the opportunity to take Fiji to a destiny when future generations will say: They Served Their Country Well."

Generations of Rotumans have served and will continue to serve our beloved country well.

After more than 42 years of loyal and dedicated service as a military officer, (Deputy Commander/Chief of Staff, Republic of the Fiji Military Forces), United Nations Assistant Secretary General/Force Commander, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration and more recently as Fiji's High Commissioner to Australia and Singapore, I believe that I can justifiably claim that I have done my duty and served the vanua, matanitu kei na lotu well.

In this regard, I would like to ask Mr Lal as to what service has he done to this country to qualify him to be so scathing and vexatious in consistently questioning and challenging our status as respectful, law-abiding, hardworking good citizens of this country?

Does he consider his claim to be a political analyst who reads law in Oxford a qualifying criteria to be so bitter and vengenful in voicing his anti-Rotuman rhetoric publicly?

We are not impressed nor are we amused.

Mr Lal's suggestion that, "Rotumans should honourably ask the Government to change the Preamble to the 1997 Constitution" is indicative of an arrogant and insensitive individual who is obviously oblivious to the socio-political realities and local dynamics of our evolution into nationhood over these past years.

I consider it the ultimate insult to the Fijian and Rotuman people.

As Rotuma's newly elected Parliamentary representative I believe it is incumbent upon me to denounce Mr Lal's baseless and uncalled for vitriolic and vindictive attacks against my chiefs and people and correct his racist views and knowledge of our special relationship of Viti kei Rotuma.

During my swearing-in by the President as a Minister of State and Parliamentarian, I was very mindful of the terms of the Oath of Allegiance that I am required to serve our beloved Fiji and our small Rotuman electorate well.

As a former soldier, I consider my long and continued service to Fiji as an obligation which I will have to fullfil to the best of my ability.

A new multi-party Cabinet has now been formed and I believe that all good citizens of Fiji will want to see it work, therefore we should be more tolerant, accommodating and forgiving for true reconciliation to be achieved and peace and harmony to reign.

As a Christian, I will ask my chiefs and people to forgive Victor Lal for the great injustice he has done against us and hope that he is more sensitive, fair and considerate in future as such controversial and divisive public utterances are not conducive to reconciliation, peaceful and harmonious co-existence within this diverse multi-ethnic nation of ours.

May Almighty God continue to richly bless this beloved country of ours Fiji.

The author is the Minister of State for Immigration & Ex-Servicemen. He is also the Member of Parliament for Rotuma.