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Fiji has experienced escalating political tensions over the past fortnight, with opposition politicians arrested, extra police deployed across the country and fierce political debate, amid concerns the tensions could lead to civil unrest and violence.
What is this all about?
The tensions stem from a contentious land bill that the Fijian government has just passed. Critics of the bill claim the changes will remove power from landowners. The government maintains that the amendments are purely administrative.
The bill has been hugely unpopular, with the opposition presenting a petition signed by more than 30,000 people (out of a population of just short of 1 million) to parliament last week, and there are concerns the move could trigger chaos in the politically divided Pacific country.
What has happened since the bill passed?
Fiji has a history of political turmoil since gaining independence from Britain over three decades ago, and land and racial issues have been at the heart of the tensions.
Following the passing of the new legislation on Friday, there have been two major fires: one in the western town of Ba and the other in the capital, Suva, which were reportedly lit by landowners in response to the bill’s passage. A week before the parliament was to debate the bill, two other properties – a shop owned by a Muslim man and a local mosque – were set ablaze in the northern island of Taveuni. A Taveuni resident called the fires “shocking”, saying it was the “first time something like that has happened in Taveuni – not even in the coups.”
The government denies the fires are connected or have anything to do with the land bill. Rusiate Tudravu, the acting commissioner of police, described people trying to connect the fires as “opportunists”.
Police have erected several security checkpoints around the country amid rumours of unrest.
In the past week more than a dozen opposition figures, including two former prime ministers and the leaders of three main political parties, have been detained by the criminal investigations department for making statements concerning the amendments to the land law.
According to police, the arrests were part of a “proactive” approach to thwart any schemes that could cause civil instability. Police also arrested a man from Western Fiji for making social media posts “inciting violence”.
The defence minister, Inia Seruiratu, told parliament he was “sorry” about the arrests but police were just “doing their job because of the mistakes of what has happened in the past. We don’t want Suva to be burnt again. Whatever statement we are making, let’s do it with responsibility because words are powerful.”
But a civil and political rights advocacy group said that “intimidation of opposition lawmakers and politicians” should stop.
Josef Benedict, Civicus’s Asia Pacific researcher, said: “It is a blatant attack on their rights to peaceful expression and association. Everyone, including the political opposition, have a legitimate right to take part in public affairs and should not be silenced just because the authorities don’t like it.”
What is the bill about?
Under the land bill passed last week, bill 17 of the iTaukei Land Trust Act of 1940 will be amended in a way that will remove the power of iTaukei (Indigenous) landowners over their land, according to critics.
The bill was passed on Friday despite fierce debate and significant opposition.
Section 12 of the Land Trust Act deals with consent and bill 17 “removes the requirement of obtaining the consent of the iTaukei Land Trust Board for any mortgage, charge, pledge or caveat on a lease under the act”.
In effect, this would mean that if the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB), which has full oversight of all Indigenous-owned land, granted a native land lease to someone, and if the lessee decided to use that land for different purposes other than mortgages, charges, pledges or caveats and so on, they could do it without having to seek the board’s permission.
Fijian lawyer Richard Naidu said he did not believe bill 17 would remove landowners’ control of their land but that it was an example of “bad legal drafting”.
The prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, said the new legislation would not “steal the decision-making power” of Indigenous landowners, as claimed by its opponents, whom he said had “misled” Fijians who added their names to the petition.
“We are reforming a broken, time-wasting and piecemeal approval process,” Bainimarama said, adding that the changes would empower the TLTB “to focus on improving the value of iTaukei land and to ensure long-term prosperity for iTaukei landowners”.
But opposition MPs delivered emphatic reactions about the manner in which the legislation was introduced. Among them was Ro Teimumu Kepa, a Sodelpa MP, paramount chief and former deputy prime minister, who said Bainimarama was “systematically stripping the vanua [land] of their rights and privileges”.
“We see ourselves as guardians and custodians over anything that is Indigenous which belongs to us because we have to safeguard it,” he said. “What is ours is ours, it is not for you to take from us.”
The majority of land in Fiji – 87% – is owned by Indigenous people and managed by the TLTB. The remaining is either freehold or state-owned. The TLTB, which Bainimarama chairs, fully supports and endorsed the changes.
The nation’s chief legal adviser, Aiyaz Sayed-Kahiyum, said that “even with the removal of the consent for mortgage” of native land, landowners would continue to benefit.
“Ownership and the title of iTaukei land is and will always be protected both under the 2013 constitution and iTaukei land act.”