From Fiji Daily Post, Tuesday, 6 December 2005, p. 5.

The politics of land leases


It is one of the great paradoxes in the indigenous versus immigrant land rights debate in the country that the Rotumans have been drawn, or have shamelessly allowed themselves to be drawn, into the politics of land leases now brewing in the country.

As I have repeatedly protested since the birth of the affirmative action blueprint programmes, that historically, physically, and geographically, the Rotumans are not the 'sons of the soil', and must not be accorded special treatment over the Fiji Indians, Chinese, Part­Europeans and other minority races in Fiji.

On what grounds can a Rotuman claim to have a say in the decision‑making process on the issue of land leases in the country. Forget about reaping benefits, scholarships, grants, business licences, taxi permits, housing, jobs, education etc, etc as 'indigenous people of Fiji'. The Government has allocated $28 million to fund the blueprint programme and out of the 29 programmes in the Social Justice Bill, 10 are for Fijians and Rotumans.

The Rotumans neither are signatories to the Deed of Cession nor featured in any of the debates during the formation of the Native Land Trust Board in the 1940s. As I have repeatedly pointed out in my previous columns over the years, Rotuma was ceded to colonial Fiji in 1881 for administrative purposes.

For some, their only qualification to a bite of the racist 'indigenous cherry' is that some of their kith and kin were directly involved in Sitiveni Rabuka's racist coup, and one of their kind was involved in the plot to assassinate Commodore Frank Bainimarama in the failed November 2000 mutiny. They have contributed no more than any other non‑ethnic Fijian group in the country.

One has to stretch his or her logic to accept that a Rotuman has more rights to land on the mainland of Fiji, than the late centenarian Bechu Prasad, who died without owning the piece of land, which he had toiled on for a century in Nadi. For that matter, why should a newly arrived Rotuman to mainland Fiji have more land and special rights, than a descendant of a Solomon Islander, who has lived in Suva for over 70 years?

I am not anti‑Rotuman but until and unless this controversial issue is satisfactorily resolved, the Fijians will always have a problem justifying their right to land in the country. If Rotumans could just walk off a jetty in Suva, and become 'native' overnight, why can't my family members who have lived in Tailevu for generations, be accorded the same native rights?

Many of my family members are Christian and fluent in various Fijian dialects. They were born in Tailevu, live in Tailevu, and are buried in Tailevu. My late grandfathers were fondly addressed as Tui Levu and Tui Lailai. In the 1960s and 1970s, they ran a bus service deep into Verata, whose current chief is Ratu Timoci Vesikula, a former Cabinet minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and a trustee of the NLTB.

My family members have contributed through blood, toil and tears, to make what Fiji is today. Many are ashamed of the disgrace that the pseudo Fijian nationalist George Speight and his goons have brought to the once proud province, and so am I and other non‑Fijians. Why should the Tailevu Provincial Council ask what the Rotuma Council of Chiefs thinks of the ALTA Bill, instead of asking what my own family thinks of it as the loyal subjects of the province?

I will be commenting on the ALTA‑NLTA Bill and its future implications in another column, but suffice to say that a vast majority of non‑Fijians, including some silent muttering Fijians, do not accept the Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's dragging of the Rotumans into the land lease debate.

In his address so the nation on December 1, 2005, he told his listeners: 'For the Great Council of Chiefs and the Fijian and Rotuman people, there was a proposal in this Bill, which was important to them. It was included in the Bill at their request. It is to allow chiefs and other Fijian and Rotuman leaders, who are public office holders, to also serve their people, at their request, in their traditional councils like the Great Council of Chiefs and Provincial and Tikina Councils.' He said 'by rejecting the Government's Constitution Bill, the Fiji Labour Party has ignored and disregarded the sincere wishes of the Fijian and Rotuman chiefs and their people.'

One could pose a counter factual question at the Prime Minister and the Great Council of Chiefs: "Why have you ignored the protestations of non‑Fijians who do not accept that Rotumans have any right to lord over them, and to directly benefit from the Government's Affirmative Action Programme."

Many non‑Fijians are at pains to be treated as second‑class citizens in preference to the Rotumans, whose rights were suddenly enshrined in the 1997 Constitution as reflected in the preamble when it refers to the indigenous Fijians and Rotuman people.

As most Rotumans will readily admit, a separate Rotuma Land Act, and not the Native Land Act that administers land under ALTA in the country govern them. There is no land administrative body on Rotuma such as the NLTB. The Laisenia­ led SDL Cabinet has, however, approved the review of the Rotuma Land Act, which has been blamed for various land disputes on the island. Since there is no clear documentation of land ownership, inter‑family and intra‑community rows over who owns what are all too common.

The Rotumans should get their own house in order, instead of poking their noses in why and for how long an Indian farmer should be allowed to remain on native Fijian land on the mainland.

It is a travesty of justice that the fate of the Fiji Indian farmers, who have transformed Fiji from jungles to a tourist paradise, be told by Rotumans or their chiefs that they should accept a particular type of a native lease, and for 20 or 50 years: 'If not, it will be an insult to our culture and tradition as indigenous peoples of Fiji'.

Sorry, if Fiji is to become a truly multi‑racial nation, the Rotumans should honourably ask the Government to change the (remove to) preamble to the 1997 Constitution on indigenity, instead of joining the Government to brow‑beat the Fiji's Indians to accept the land leases.

• VICTOR Lal is a political analyst, residing in Oxford.