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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Ethnicity and Development: The Case of Fiji

This paper contains the principal findings of a larger study by Ralph Premdas on ethnic conflict and development in Fiji. It traces the historical origins of ethnic problems on the island, the key forces which have contributed to their intensification in recent years, the various attempts made to preserve balance and accommodation and the economic, political, social and psychological impacts of the crisis in ethnic relations since 1987. The key features of the ethnic equation are familiar from other bipolar societies. The indigenous Fijians and the immigrant Indians constitute the main ethnic groups each accounting for approximately 48 per cent of the population. The colonial policy reinforced the differences in language, religion and culture between the two communities through residential and educational segregation and distinctive economic and political roles for different communities. The Indians predominated in sugar cane cultivation, commerce, industry and the professions while the indigenous Fijians engaged in subsistence farming and occupied the majority of public sector jobs, including the armed forces. The colonial dispensation assured Fijians political paramountcy, land ownership and rule through indigenous institutions. In the process, it also shielded them from the modern economy and thus contributed to their subordinate economic status.

The onset of independence brought into the open some of the ethnic tensions which had been latent during the colonial era. These arose from the issues of political representation, access to land and to jobs in the public services and the modern sector. A series of compromises and accommodations among community leaders ensured a delicate balancing of ethnic interests for two decades. These comprised dilution of democratic principles to ensure continued control of the political system by the Fijians, leasehold security for Indian sugar cultivators and sharing of jobs in the public service. This balance was upset in the 1987 elections which resulted in the defeat of the Alliance Party controlled by the Fijian elite and the formation of the government by a coalition of the Fiji Labour Party and the Indian-based National Federation Party. The subsequent coup d'état led to a suppression of the civilian regime and the institution of an increasing range of discriminatory policies against Indians.

The costs of the breakdown in ethnic balance and accommodation have been serious. Politically, there has been a loss of régime legitimacy, destruction of democracy and violation of human rights. In the economic domain, unemployment and poverty have been intensified through decline in investment and tourism and through capital flight and brain drain. Growing realisation of these costs is contributing to renewed attempts to find enduring solutions to ethnic problems in Fiji.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 1993
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD