Published in the Daily Post, Tuesday, 26 & 28 December 2000

Rotumans, a mockery of indigenous rights

By Victor Lal at Oxford

THE Council of Chiefs from the northern Polynesian island of Rotuma recently called for the establishment of a separate Ministry of Rotuman Affairs, a body similar to the long established Ministry of Fijian Affairs. The Rotumans are also being increasingly portrayed as endangered indigenous peoples of Fiji, who need to be protected front the politically demanding and economically superior Indo-Fijian community. The Interim government and some vocal Fijian racial supremacists have not only elevated the Rotumans as equals office Fijians but have accorded them superior rights over the Indo‑Fijians: all under the banner of indigenous rights But historical facts suggest evidence to the contrary. The Rotumans are not indigenous to Fiji but are merely an ethnic group in our multi‑racial, multi‑cultural, and multi‑religious country. The time has arrived for the Rotumans and their Fijian supporters to stop projecting the Rotumans as indigenous peoples of Fiji whom deserve a special place above and over other Fijian races The Rotumans who now constitute a recognisable minority with their own churches and associations, are in Fiji as a result of the accident of British colonial history.
Like their counterparts - the Indo‑Fijian, Chinese, European, and other Pacific Islanders. whose ancestral homes are in India, China, England, Australasia and Pacific Islands respectively ‑ the Rotumans are from Rotuma, a relatively remote island located four hundred sixty‑five kilometres north of the northernmost island in the Fiji group. A fertile volcanic island of forty‑three square kilometres surrounded by a fringing coral reef and a number of offshore islets, Rotuma is divided into seven districts, and each headed by a tilled chief. Rotuma has been politically affiliated with Fiji for more than a century, first as a British colony and since 1970 as part of the independent nation. Rotuma's people who have Fiji citizenship are, however, culturally and linguistically distinct, having strong historic relationships with Tonga, Samoa, and other Polynesian islands rather than with the Fijians.
In the 1840s both Roman Catholics and Wesleyans established missions on the island. Conflicts between the two groups, fuelled by previous political rivalries among the Rotuman chiefs resulted in hostilities that led the local chiefs in 1879 to ask Great Britain to annex the island group. Like Fiji, Rotuma was directly ceded to Great Britain by a separate Deed of Cession in the year 1881, on the 13th day of May. It was enjoined by the British to Fiji for administrative purposes. However, the Rotuman people never had any intention of becoming part of Fiji or a colony of Fiji, as a petition by seven Rotuman chiefs in 1970 the to the governor‑general of Fiji, Sir Robert Foster, clearly reveals on examination. In 1970 the Rotuman delegation to the London Constitutional Conference on Fiji's independence requested, amongst other things, a seat for Rotuma in the House of Representatives for the soon to be independent Dominion of Fiji. That Rotuma is sovereignty is not an issue. The 1881 Deed of Cession to Great Britain is testimony to that fact. In recent years, some Rotumans have even threatened to secede from Fiji because geographically and ethnically they have little to do with thee Fijians.
And yet the Rotumans are repeatedly portrayed as indigenous to Fiji, and who are is need of special protection, most recently in the Interim Government's 'Blueprint for the Protection of Fijian and Rotuman Rights and interests, and the Advancement oftheir Development’.

The Rotumans and ‘Blueprint'

According to the Interim Government, the Fijians and Rotumans are the 'poorest of the poor' in Fiji. Interestingly, according to the 1996 Fiji Poverty Report, the 'poorest of the poor' in Fiji are not the Rotumans or the Fijians, but Indo‑Fijians. Unveiling the 'Blueprint, the Interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase told the Great Council of Chiefs on 13 July 2000 that the 'proposals cover issues which have been of great concern to Fijians and Rotumans regarding the security of their rights and interests as the indigenous communities in Fiji, and also the advancement and acceleration of their development, so that they can participate on an equitable basis in the progress of our country'.

The Great Council of Chiefs heard that the purpose of the Blueprint for the protection of Fijian and Rotuman rights and interests, and the advancement of their development, is to bring together all the proposals to address these concerns. The Council was told that the follow-up action to be taken comprises the enactment of necessary legislation, the issuance of appropriate Government directives and the provision of budgetary allocations. Much of the measures proposed in the Blueprint can be implemented in the next two years. However, the Interim Government also proposed that a ten‑year plan for Fijian and Rotuman development be prepared.
Education, for example, Qarase pointed out 'is a very important area where we need to pay greater attention in order to improve the performances of Fijian and Rotuman children. A good and successful education is the most effective pathway to a successful future for each individual. The 10‑year plan can also set out the broad vision for all indigenous Fijians and Rotumans and for our country as a whole. The plan can thus play an important role in our current endeavour to bring greater unity to Fijians and Rotumans. For it is in our unity that we can best protect our future'. He then outlined the specific proposals summarised below, together with others, which will be part of this 10‑year plan. Qarase proposed that a meeting representative of all Fijian and Rotuman interests is to be convened by Government early in the year 2001 to discuss and to map out what should be in this ten year plan. This is to ensure that it is a plan for Fijians and Rotumans by Fijians and Rotumans for their future.
As a way of background, Qarase told the Great Council of Chiefs as follows: 'Indigenous Fijians and Rotumans make up more than 51 percent of the total population of he Fiji Islands, and their numbers, according to the 1996 Census, are continuing to grow at 1.8 percent per annum compared to the national population growth rate of 0.8 percent. They also comprise the majority landowning communities in Fiji, with customary proprietary rights to more than 3 percent of all land in the country together with associated traditional fishing rights, or qoliqoli. Given the above, anything that affects them must affect the nation. Ensuring the paramountcy of their interests and their equitable participation in all aspects of life in Fiji is thus a pre‑condition for the achievement of long term peace, stability and sustainable development in the country. What is needed is an enabling environment to facilitate the achievement of these objectives. This is what this Blueprint seeks to provide. It is to enable indigenous Fijians and Rotumans to fully exercise their rights of self‑determination within the unitary State of the Republic of the Fiji Islands. It is to safeguard the paramountcy of their interests in our multi‑ethnic and multi‑cultural society.

And it in to improve and enhance opportunities, amenities and services for Fijians and Rotumans its their development and participation.' Some of the benefits the Rotumans are to enjoy in the Blueprint are as follows:

  • Legislative Action (by Decree) ‑ New Constitution: Preparation of a new Constitution to be promulgated on 24 July, 2001 (Constitution Day) to give effect to the collective desire of Fijians that the national leadership positions of Head of State and Head of Government should always be held by them. The new Constitution is also to address other issues of importance to Fijians and Rotumans in line with the Terms of Reference, as approved by the Great Council of Chiefs. The point is stressed that it will be a new Constitution.

  • Fijian and Rotuman Development Trust Fund ‑ The establishment of a Fijian (including Rotumans) Development Trust Fund (similar to the Banaban Trust Fund and the Tuvalu Trust Fund). This is a capital endowment to be Invested to earn interest income to support Fijian (and Rotuman) development.

  • Compulsory National Savings Scheme ‑ The establishment of a national savings scheme for Fijians and Rotumans. A paper on this is favour remaining part of Fiji see a need for improvements in these areas. The building of a wharf in 1973, the inauguration of the airstrip in 1981, and the recent installation of satellite communication has helped to relieve the sense of isolation that prevailed throughout the colonial period. But if Rotuma is to be truly integrated into the nation of Fiji more has to be done. Improvements to the airport allowing larger planes with cheaper fares, more reliable shipping, improvements to the island's infrastructure including roads and facilities, and more functional bureaucratic channels will all be required. The proposal for a special ministry for Rotuman Affairs can be seen as a plea by Rotumans for creating conditions that will alleviate frustrations that have generated doubts about Rotuma's affiliation with Fiji.

Politically, Rotumans express discontent on two levels. At the national level they have felt slighted by what they consider under‑representation in the Legislature. The fact that they were given no seats in the lower house of Parliament in the original constitution was distressing, and (the current demand for two seats, one representing the constituency on the island, the other Rotumans in Fiji, is generally seen as a necessary correction. From a socio‑political as well as a demographic point of view this seems justified since the two constituencies face somewhat different circumstances; their interests only partially overlap.

At the local level, on Rotuma, there is a good deal of discontent with the current arrangement. Complaints about lack of communication between the Rotuma Council and the people they serve, about the Council's ineffectiveness in formulating and carrying out development policies, and about the alleged self‑serving behaviour of Council members, are widespread.
Many of the people Howard and Rensel have talked to propose reconstituting the Council so that there are more representatives and its members more accountable. Whatever support the independence movement has on Rotuma, and particularly that provided by the M'lmahao group probably derives as much or more from discontent with the Council as from dissatisfaction with Fiji. The attempt by the dissidents to replace the chiefs with 'ministers' from each district is testimony to their anger and sense of alienation. Quite apart from the independence issue it would seem to be worthwhile for Rotumans to consider ways to reconstitute a governing body that wound enjoy popular support as well as authoritative legitimacy.

To date the voices that have received the most attention have often been the shrillest and the most polarised. Both sides make unrealistic claims regarding the degree of support they enjoy among tine Rotuman people. Howard and Rensel believe that before any final decisions are made Rotumans need to participate in a full discussion of the issues and to consider a range of practical, workable solutions. Hopefully saner more reasonable, voices will prevail. At some point, after the options have been thoroughly debated and narrowed down to those that are practicable, a referendum might be held so that an assessment can be made concerning Rotuman opinion.
According to Howard and Rensel, the situation of Rotumans in the nation of Fiji is unique insofar as they are there as a result of an accident of British colonial history. Rotumans nevertheless contributed willingly to Fiji's development during the colonial and post‑colonial periods. However, the termination of colonial rule, the coups, and the subsequent withdrawal of Fiji from the British Commonwealth, raise legitimate questions concerning the legacy of union. Rotumans have good reasons for wanting to preserve their unique cultural heritage. Many are apprehensive about being dominated by Fiji, about being nothing more than a neglected minority in a multi‑cultural state. If Fiji wants to retain and strengthen Rotuman loyalty it will have to address these concerns and work together with Rotumans to find satisfactory solutions. For their part, Rotumans need to formulate for themselves more clearly than has yet been done, through discussion and possibly referenda, just what it is they want, so that negotiations  can proceed on a firm footing.

Rotuman leader concerned about Regimes Blueprint
Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Council of Rotuma, Visanti Makrava has expressed concern at the Interim Regime's Blueprint for Fijian and Rotuman development. In an interview published in the Sunday Post, Makrava stated: "Fijians and Rotumans are trying to compare themselves with Indians and Asians in commerce. What we don't understand is that the Asians and Indians are reaping the hard work of their ancestors centuries ago and here we are trying to jump into something that was never part of our life and we are getting our fingers burnt.” “This is why I am concerned with the Interim Government's [Blueprint] idea. It has to be very careful in the provisions it makes under this document if not then we must expect a generation of frustrated Fijians and Rotumans if this fails again”.
Makrava was made the Chief Executive of the National Bank of Fiji after the 1987 racially motivated military coups. He saw the total collapse of the Bank within a few years through scandalous loans and corruption; it also cost the taxpayers over $300m to salvage public deposits. Makrava was forced to resign after the bank dealings were revealed  in the Parliament. An inquiry into the collapse of the Bank and the loans made has not resulted in any conviction yet.

Rotumans and Qarase at UN
On 16 September 2000, in his address to the 55th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, the Interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, again repeated the assertion that the Rotumans are, like the Fijians, indigenous peoples of Fiji. He began his speech by pointing out the following: 'We are a country of many communities and many cultures. All have contributed to Fiji's development. We have all accepted each other as citizens and as communities, and Fiji is our common and permanent home. But we also have peculiar features, which bear directly on inter‑communal relationships within our society.' He also spoke on the population: 'We have a total population of around 800,000. Indigenous Fijians and Rotumans makeup 52 percent and are growing at 1.8 percent every year. The second major ethnic group is our Indian community. They make up 43 percent of the population, but with a low birth rate and emigration, this is continuing to decrease at 0.3 percent each year. The other communities in Fiji are Europeans, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders.'
The Interim Prime Minister Qarase also touched on the land issue: 'Then there is land ownership. The Indigenous Fijians and Rotumans own, by custom, 84 percent of all land in Fiji. Much of the best of this, however, is on lease for various purposes, residential, commercial and agricultural, and more than 60 percent of the tenants are members of our Indian community. Most of the agricultural leases are sugar cane farming leases, and more than 75 percent of these are held by Indian tenants, and most of these tenants have lived on their leased land for three generations. In our urban areas the situation is the reverse. The majority of property owners, of businesses, of those in the professions, of those working for a regular income, are non‑Fijians, and mostly Indians.'
He also touched on religion: 'In religion, more than 57 percent of the population, the indigenous Fijians and Rotumans and the other minor communities, are mostly Christian. On the other hand, the remaining 43 percent, the members of the Indian community, mostly belong to the Hindu, Muslim and other faiths.'
The Interim Prime Minister then spoke on culture and value system: 'Indigenous Fijians and Rotumans have a hierarchical social structure. Traditional hereditary chiefs and commoners alike have their place and role in society, and are bound together by reciprocal obligations of loyalty, obedience, and of sharing with, and caring for, each other, and everyone in the community. Fijians value their democratic rights as individuals, but as a community, they know their place in their traditional society.'
The Rotumans, along with the Fijians, were also portrayed as having a low living standard. 'And in our general living standards, even though the indigenous Fijians and Rotumans own 84 percent of the land in Fiji, they have, on average, the lowest level of household income, and they also lag well behind the other communities in almost every aspect of life in a rapidly expanding market based economy'. In the context of Fiji, what the Interior Government hoped to build was a new partnership between indigenous Fijian and Rotuman communities, and the other communities as the basis of living together in our multi-ethnic and multi‑cultural society, in the 21st Century. Qarase assured the UN that Fiji will return to constitu- (sic) to be presented to the GCC for its approval. The Fund is to finance increased Fijian and Rotuman equity and other forms of participation in business, and also investment in education. The concept has been discussed before and agreed to in principle in both the FAB and GCC.
Law on Affirmative Action ‑ Enabling legislation on affirmative action for Fijians and Rotumans to accompany the relevant provisions of the new Constitution. FDB Loan Scheme - Continuation of the FDB Loan Scheme for Fijians and Rotumans but to exclude other communities who are to he covered by a separate scheme at the FDB.

Do Rotumans deserve Special Status
Before contesting the Rotumans special status in the Blueprint, we may ask who are the Rotumans in Fiji and Rotuma? Two specialists on the Rotumans, Alan Howard and Janet Rensel, had put together the following account of the Rotuman community as a background paper for the Fiji Constitution Review Commission in November 1995.

Briefly, Fiji census reports that over the past several decades document a dramatic shift in the distribution of Rotumans, with an ever-increasing proportion recorded away from their home island. According to the 1986 census, 73.5 percent of Rotumans lived elsewhere in Fiji. Out migration increasingly has involved young couples who either migrated with their children, or left Rotuma single, married in Fiji and had their children here. The high rate of emigration for Rotumans of working age is understandable. Fiji's diversified economy provides a broad base of employment whereas Rotuma's does not. Rotumans in Fiji are employed not only by the government but also by the private sector. After young Rotumans leave the island in search of further education and employment, many opt to stay away, to marry and establish families and residences of their own. Some choose to go back so Rotuma, for shorter or longer periods, to visit, take a job, fund a spouse, or resettle. Whether or not they return, many Rotuman migrants actively maintain connections with their home island.
Only 29.5 percent of all Rotumans were living on Rotuma in 1986, while 28.3 percent were recorded an living in Rewa district, 19.7 percent were recorded as living in Naitasiri and 14.6 percent were recorded as living in Ba. Comparatively, while indigenous Fijians were also heavily concentrated in these areas, they are far more evenly distributed across the country. According so Howard and Rensel, statistics on Rotumans and Fijians suggests that almost 30 percent of Rotumans would have to relocate to approximate the population distribution of indigenous Fijians. Off‑island Rotumans are heavily concentrated in the major urban centers of Fiji, with the largest concentration in the Suva/Lami area (64.1 percent). An additional 9.5 percent were in Lautoka and 6.1 percent in Vatukoula. Fully 87.8 percent of Rotumans living off‑island were classified as 'urban' in the 1986 census, representing 61.9 percent of the total Rotuman population.
The 1986 Census shows Rotumans reporting high rates of educational attainment, with 58 percent completing Form One or higher and over four percent reporting at least some post‑secondary education. In contrast, Fijians reported 47 percent having completed Form One or higher and only 1.5 percent some post-secondary education. The Index of Difference indicates that Fijian educational patterns would have to shift 17 percent to approximate the somewhat higher rates of educational attainment seen among Rotumans.

Rotumans in Occupation
The 1986 Census showed that the majority of Rotuman men were engaged in cash-based employment (57.1 percent) while Rotuman females were more evenly split between cash employment and the role of homemaker (27.5 percent versus 40.1 percent). After cash employment, the most likely activity for Rotuman males was that of student (9.6 percent). A similar, though slightly less marked, relationship is seen for Fijians with 55.3 percent of Fijian males engaged in cash employment, while 6.7 percent are students. The somewhat higher percentage of total Rotumans engaged in cash work is accounted for mostly by more women in the work force (27.5 percent of Rotuman women versus 17.8 percent of Fijian women). Correspondingly, a smaller percentage of Rotuman women are categorised as homemakers.
The projected populations for Rotumans in 1996 and 2006 suggests that even with moderate fertility decline the greatest growth is among the youngest Rotumans across the projection period. The overall picture of Rotuman population growth is one of moderate increase in the foreseeable future.

[continued from Monday]

Rotumans in Occupation
The 1986 Census showed that the majority of Rotuman men were engaged in cash‑based employment (57.1 percent) while Rotuman females were more evenly split between cash employment and the role of homemaker (27.5 percent versus 40.1 percent). After cash employment, the most likely activity for Rotuman males was that of student (9.6 percent). A similar, though slightly less marked, relationship is seen for Fijians with 55.3 percent of Fijian males engaged in cash employment, while 6.7 percent are students. The somewhat higher percentage of total Rotumans engaged in cash work is accounted for mostly by more women in the work force (27.5 percent of Rotuman women versus 17.8 percent of Fijian women). Correspondingly, a smaller percentage of Rotuman women are categorised as homemakers.
The projected population for Rotumans in 1996 and 2006 suggests that even with moderate fertility decline the greatest growth is among the youngest Rotumans across the projection period. The overall picture of Rotuman population growth is one of moderate increase in the foreseeable future. This will contribute to Rotumans' maintaining a relatively young population into the twenty‑first century. Continued fertility decline will reverse this trend eventually, but a shift is unlikely to occur in the near future. While the Rotuman population comprises only a small segment of the total population of Fiji, it has grown substantially over the past century. This trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, though it is highly unlikely that Rotumans will become a numeric force in Fijian population dynamics. Nonetheless, Howard and Rensel argue, contributions to a society cannot be measured in mere numbers. In this regard, Rotuman demographics present a picture of an well-educated, economically productive people who should be viewed as an asset to the nation of Fiji as a whole.

Rotumans and May riots, looting
The Interim Prime Minister Qarase explained why it was important to secure the paramountcy of Fijian and Rotuman interests in Fiji: 'The crux of our political crisis in Fiji is that indigenous Fijian and Rotuman communities felt threatened by certain policies which the non‑indigenous leadership of the Peoples Coalition Government had implemented following their decisive victory in our national elections in May 1999. It was this fear and anxiety about their future as the world's only indigenous Fijian and Rotuman community of just over 420,000 people that led to mass demonstrations and ultimately the Coup d'etat on May 19th this year. It manifested itself also in the mass looting of shops, destruction of property, and threats to people and their families, and unfortunately and tragically, the victims were mainly members of our Indian community. It was in this serious and deteriorating law and order situation that the Fiji Military Forces responded to a request from our Police to take over direct control of law and order and the protection of citizens. To facilitate this role, the Fiji Military Forces abrogated our 1997 Constitution on 29th May... However, as the civilian Interim Administration, we have ourselves taken over from the Army and, as I have said, we are firmly committed to returning Fiji to constitutional parliamentary democracy.'

Blueprint and Indigenous Footprint: A Mismatch
From the above analysis of the history of Rotumans, it can be seen that they are not the indigenous peoples of Fiji. In other words, their historical footprints from the island of Rotuma to Fiji do not entitle them to a priority of place in the Interim Government's Blueprint. They must be treated as equals with other non‑Fijian races and not as the so‑called 'sons of the soil' in Fiji. It is to be sincerely hoped that émigré Rotumans or those born in Fiji, whether lawyers or laymen, will not hide behind the sulu of Fijian nationalism to trample upon the rights and aspirations of the Indo‑Fijian community to benefit themselves and their kinsmen on the island of Rotuma.
Above all, the Rotumans had no right to join George Speight and his murderous henchmen to unleash the evil that pervaded Fiji and the Indo‑Fijian community in May 2000 in the pseudo garb of indigenous rights and paramountcy in Fiji.
Rotuma only accidentally became a part of colonial Fiji in 1881. The indentured forebears of the Indo‑Fijian community were already beginning to build the current prosperity of Fiji as far back as 1879. They not only created the modern cash economy from which the Rotumans are benefiting but also shielded the indigenous Fijians from some of the detrimental aspects of the process of modernization, enabling them to develop at their own pace. The indo‑Fijians came in a 'slave ship' from India and not 'a sailing ship', from Rotuma. In fact, the ancestors of the Indo‑Fijians resembled more the Fijians of the past and the present: they had lived in nucleated villages before coming to Fiji, had their own traditional lifestyles, and like the Fijian chief and commoners, had their own hierarchical social structure, that of Brahmins (upper caste) or charmars (lower castes).
But the harshness of the indenture system and the receding memory of India created a 'new Indian' in Fiji, as seen in their descendants' ‑ the Indo‑Fijians. As Interim Prime Minister rightly told the UN but without explaining the causes of fragmentation and differences: 'Indigenous Fijians and Rotumans have a hierarchical social structure ... With our Indian and other communities, people are much more individually based. There is, therefore, greater consciousness and emphasis on one's individual rights and freedoms ‑ the right to equality, the importance of education, success in one's professional life, security of property rights'.
Those Rotumans planning to freely ride on the economic back of Indo‑Fijian toil and sacrifice will be well advised to pay heed to the words and wisdom on an indentured Indian labourer to his descendant:   

pity me not then,
nor mourn for a dying, decrepit man
think of what I was and what you can be for I hope ‑
as I see you grope
your journey from here
will be without fear
as mine might have been

As the Indo‑Fijian community remains 'marooned' in Fiji, the Rotumans and their leaders must acknowledge that they are merely equal citizens of Fiji and not indigenous peoples of Fiji. They have no right to forcibly gorge into the wealth of the nation and expect the Indo‑Fijians to wait for the crumbs from their masters' table ‑ the supposedly indigenous Rotumans of Fiji.

The historical footprints of the Indo‑Fijians in every walk of life snakes longer throughout Fiji than that of the Rotumans or those on the Kio and Rabi islands. The inhabitants of Kio Island are Polynesians from Tuvalu. The Tuvaluan Government bought the island in 1948 to relocate some of its own inhabitants due to lack of fertile land in their country. Tuvaluans living on Kio are self‑governing but are Fiji citizens. Rabi Island was bought for the inhabitants of Banaba (Ocean) Island in 1942 as their own island had been ravaged by phosphate mining making it uninhabitable. Banabans are self‑governing but are Fiji citizens.
However, none of these islanders, including the Rotumans, are indigenous to Fiji. The Rotumans and their Fijian supporters do not need an Einstein to calculate which year comes first: 1879 or 1881.
The self‑respecting Rotumans must themselves request to be treated as equals with other races in any new constitutional dispensation not on the basis of dubious indigenous rights heritage but as worthy citizens of Fiji. Their Fijian supporters must stop dragging them into the vortex of indigenous rights.

VICTOR LAL read law at Oxford University where he has held Reuters, Wingate, and Research Fellowships in race and constitutionalism in multi‑ethnic states. He is the author of Fiji: Coups in Paradise, and is a regular commentator for Daily Post.