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The Sayed-Khaiyum Thesis Conspiracy Theory

The Sayed-Khaiyum Thesis Conspiracy Theory
Xu Qinduo, a political analyst and senior fellow at the Pangoal Institution
September 12
10:18 2014

Most people would think ridiculous claims that the Americans knew in advance about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, that Pope Benedict resigned before he was exposed as part of the Church’s sex scandals, that Jews are taking over the world, or that Bill Clinton was  quietly assassinating his associates. People who believed such conspiracy theories would be considered to be out of their minds.

But  Fiji has never been short of its conspiracy theorists, people who think —or want others to think—  events are master-minded by some dark forces.

Think of the historic (and still active) fear generated by claims that the “Indians” were taking over Fiji, or more recently the Muslims, Al Queda or, believe it or not,  the Syrian army. Think of  the innumerable plots in which Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, a convenient target, is supposed to have been engaged.

I was thinking of this when I listened to an hour-long radio interview with Mike Beddoes, recorded about three weeks ago.

Much of the interview was used to repair the damage caused to the SODELPA image by Laisenia Qarase’s ramblings about Verse 135 in the Qur’an and a Christian State, but then he turned to the supposed plot, traceable back to before the coup,  by two men (Voreqe Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum) to take over the country.

All you have to do, he told his audience, is to read Sayed-Khaiyum’s thesis. It is all there, how iTaukei land, institutions and customs will be taken.

No ordinary document

Before discussing the offending thesis (supervised, incidentally, by Prof. Yash Ghai), readers should know that a thesis is not an ordinary document. It is a highly structured exercise designed to answer research questions. The questions in Sayed-Khaiyum’s 2002 Master in Laws thesis, “Cultural Autonomy: Its Implications for the Nation-State, the Fiji Experience” were whether iTaukei autonomy helps or hinders iTaukei full participation in Fiji, and at what point autonomy could threaten the integrity of the country.

His conclusion, based on an extensive survey of the relevant literature, was hardly surprising and certainly not new. Both the government-commissioned Spate and Burns reports of the 1950s concluded that aspects of iTaukei autonomy were holding iTaukei back from full participation in the economy. In the 1960 Rusiate Nayacakalou and ‘Epeli Hau’ofa said much the same thing. ‘Epeli wrote:

“It is the privileged who can afford to tell the poor to preserve their traditions. But their perceptions of which traits of traditional culture to preserve are increasingly divergent from those of the poor because n the final analysis it is the poor who have to live out the traditional culture, the privileged can merely talk about it, and they are in a position to be selective about what trait they use or more correctly urge others to observe.”

The writers intent

In the 1990s historian William Sutherland wrote of “the historically forged alliance between white capital, the colonial state, the chiefs and the newly emergent Fijian bureaucratic bourgeoisie.”

None of these writers were condemning iTaukei culture, and neither was Sayed-Khaiyum, but they were pointing to aspects of the culture which benefited a small number of iTaukei and disadvantaged the majority.

Even Ratu Joni Madrawiwi, in many of his speeches, spoke of the need for improved iTaukei leadership, service to the people, and the need to adapt to today’s realities.

 

Sayed-Khaiyum’s words

Sayed-Khaiyum had this to say of the relationship between culture and self-worth:

“To maintain one’s self-worth culture needs to be dynamic and vibrant.  Capturing it in institutions makes culture parochial, irrelevant, prone to manipulation and serves only the interests of a few.

“Cultural autonomy must have a sunset clause. Its prolonged continuation will place a stranglehold on the very members it seeks to protect, and it will concomitantly disallow the critical cultural space in which a just, vibrant and coherent nation-state can flourish while embracing diversity.”

 Mick Beddoes reading

I can see how Mick Beddoes’s reading of the thesis supported his conspiracy theory (and I can see how useful that might be in winning votes), but a more thoughtful reading would show that it is not iTaukei culture that Sayed-Khaiyum was criticising. He recognized its importance in maintaining self-worth and group identification.

He wanted to see a dynamic and vibrant iTaukei culture that works in the interest of ordinary iTaukei and allows the creation of the “cultural space” that would allow all races to flourish in a vibrant nation-state.

What he, and many scholars before him, were criticising was the use of  cultural institutions that favour an elite, work against the interests of ordinary iTaukei, and keep the nation divided along racial lines. And many people would say Amen to that!

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