1987: Six Nights In May

A Fijian Nightmare Around 2.30 am I was awak­ened by the thud, thud of army boots. A gang of sol­diers had walked past me, as I lay on a sofa,
29 Sep 2018 11:00
1987: Six Nights In May
Satendra Nandan

A Fijian Nightmare

Around 2.30 am I was awak­ened by the thud, thud of army boots. A gang of sol­diers had walked past me, as I lay on a sofa, my eyes half closed, and went into Dr Bavadra’s bedroom. They stayed there for quite a while: one could hear their harsh and grating voices, and the gentle, dig­nified tones of Fiji’s Prime Minis­ter. I do not think Dr Bavadra ever recovered from the way his soldiers treated him. The story of that night remains the untold story of a very special kind of savagery by our sol­diers towards the First Couple of our country. We were spared that pain which must have seared the spirits of two brave people. First it was so unexpected; secondly these young men who were there to pro­tect him, tried to humiliate and intimidate him and his wife. They were perpetrating the terror of the terrified on their Prime Minister.

For the rest of the night I didn’t sleep. After about 45 minutes they marched out like thieves who had burgled a sacred place. As their footsteps died in the darkness, one could faintly hear the barkings of Suva’s mongrels and unlicenced dogs. It was, after all, their night.


That our army had become an in­strument of torture and intimida­tion came to light much later – from fragmentary reports of what they had done to our Labour Coalition supporters in places like Labasa, Raki Raki, Tavua and Ba – areas carefully chosen to instill fear in the lives of peasant men and wom­en most of whom wouldn’t have seen a gun except the toy ones in Bombay films. Many, like me, dis­counted this as the tendency of some to start rumours and exag­gerate the stories until fiction and truth became indistinguishable and one’s credulity was severely strained. But to get some idea of what they did to certain individu­als one has to read Kenneth Bain’s Treason at Ten. Bain was Fiji’s Deputy High Commissioner in London for more than a decade. An urbane person with a wry sense of humour, his sense of decency must have been outraged. He was, after all, a colonial civil servant and pos­sibly a sincere supporter of Mara – the civil servants who had taken over Fiji with the help of a few Eu­ropeans and businessmen of all races. Fiji during his time as a dip­lomat was doing well. I haven’t read most of the books written on Fiji after the coup except Ken Bain’s Treason at Ten and Robert Robert­son’s Fiji – Shattered Coups. The former I reviewed for First Edition on ABC Radio National and the lat­ter I helped launch at the new Par­liament House in Canberra.

Towards the end of Treason at 10, Bain, in a few words, has a portrait of Dr Timoci Bavadra:

‘He had made a journey from pa­tients to politics. Now there was an­other: from politics to patience.’

We are given details of Dr Ba­vadra, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Fiji ousted in the first coup on May 14, 1987, at 10 am. At the time of Fiji’s independence, he was earning a salary of $2,586 per annum and Mr. Bain writes:

Who would have known that from that obscure entry how his star was to rise – and fall again – seventeen years later. For the present, the in­eluctable gun had indeed prevailed – as Sitiveni Rabuka with … an un­easy chiefly and Taukie alliance … continued their lemming-like de­scent into human bankruptcy.

The book has few heroes, but many villains (some now ministers in the Rabuka regime). Ken Bain leaves us in no doubt who has his deepest admiration and respect.

On the facing page (215), Kamisese Mara, the defeated Alliance leader, is reported as saying in explanation of his decision to join the Rabuka-led Council of Ministers immedi­ately after Coup 1:

I had to do it because if my house is on fire with members of my family inside … why should I wait? I must rescue them.

“I would think,” said a judge of Fiji’s Supreme Court, “that if one’s house is on fire, one joins the fire­fighters and not the arsonists.” That sums up sharply the roles of a third-ranking Colonel and the man who had been Fiji’s Prime Minister for almost two decades.

Indeed it was the intervention by the judiciary that prevented Mara and the military men from grab­bing power a day after the act of treason by Rabuka and his masked Royal soldiers. The story of the her­oism of the Fiji judiciary, particu­larly its expatriate officers, is yet to be told. And it remains, for the peo­ple of Fiji, one light, although con­siderably dimmed, amidst increas­ing and encircling gloom. After the second and more fatal coup on Sep­tember 25, some members of the judiciary were harrassed and im­prisoned. The sense of outrage by the often much maligned expatriate community in Fiji and their cour­age to oppose the regime is worthy of a book on its own. It seems they, more than most, realised that the real casualties in the tragedy were democracy and democratic institu­tions. And human relationships. As journalists, lawyers, and diplomats many risked their personal safety to make people see clearly through racial and religious bigotry; and they jeopardized their families’ se­curity to give refuge to the hunted

Ken Bain is particularly horrified at the humiliation and human suffering inflicted on the innocent – at one time inconceivable in the Fiji context. He enu­merates them vividly. During the crisis many people were made to:

  • walk naked in the street, sometimes holding human excrement,
  • stand for up to twenty-four hours in an iron water tank,
  • swim in sewerage ponds filled with human excrement,
  • lie or sit naked for hours at a time on hot tar-sealed roads,
  • submit to rape and other forms of sexual assault by soldiers, often in uniform and at army check-points,
  • walk barefoot in hot mill mud (mill mud is the by-product of the sugar refining process), and
  • walk long distances carrying heavy loads while watched by soldiers.


Men and women were lashed upright to a military truck for periods of up to twenty-four hours. Children were subjected to degrading punishment for violating the Sunday edict banning sport, picnics, gardening and swimming: in Ba, children were beaten with sticks until they could no longer stand and then forced to rub their noses on a concrete floor. Others had to wet their faces with fresh cow dung and lick it: a gross violation of Hindu custom and religious belief.

Of course it was more than a violation of Hindu custom – human rights have a place in Fiji. Before the May Coup, Fiji was one of only a dozen countries without a single po­litical prisoner. All that changed on May 14 at 10 am when a whole government was abducted and imprisoned. It is the enormity of that criminal act that leaves one quite numb even to this day. Let us not forget, Bain seems to imply, that what happens to a migrant community today can happen to a migrant country tomorrow. History, recent history, is littered with images of such brutality and bullying. Apolo­gists here and elsewhere, find this indigenous racism of a few more acceptable than colonial racism. That would indeed be the treason of our silence and shame. And Ken­neth Bain is especially critical of those who should have understood the nature of this political bestiality, how they rose to welcome it and give it respectability and apologia in statements, articles, books and media propaganda. In­digeneity is not necessarily noble: think of what so many so-called indigenous population did to their fellow citizens on the European continent. The Holocaust is part of that history of unspeakable horrors. And yet it happened in my life-time, instigated by a couple of megalomaniacs.

In his ‘Foreword’ to the book, Dr Timoci Bavadra wrote:

Images of the brutalities, intimidation and other forms of coercion directed at so many innocent people are dif­ficult to erase. Equally vivid is my continuing concern about the economic crises into which our country was plunged, prompting a surge in unemployment and poverty. I was also concerned about the carefully manufactured racism which spread its divisive, and destructive tentacles through our society and has become a central part of the institutionalised fabric of public life.

Yet, despite the dreadful nightmare that a South Pacific ‘paradise’ became, Mr. Bain has a special place for Fiji, having served her for almost forty years he hasn’t lost faith in her people; (albeit in her present rulers he has none) and he makes a compassionate appeal in the last lines of Treason at 10.

Yet there must surely be a shared compassion for the vul­nerable of all races who suffer in the Fiji of today, who have come to know repression, hunger and helplessness, and who thus yearn to escape but do not have the capability to do so or a land of refugee available to them. They are the bricks in the rebuilding that is yet to come by those with courage and endurance to attempt it.

He could have added: with a bit of help and genuine concern from Fiji’s friends within our region and the Commonwealth.

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