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Ethnic Division May Be Right For Fiji, as It Is Elsewhere

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG - The almost total success of George Speight's hostage-taking coup in Fiji is depressing news. But it is also a reminder of the problems of defining ''justice'' in ethnically divided societies and the futility of those purporting to represent ''the international community'' issuing pompous but meaningless condemnations.

The stark fact is that neither the international community nor the West nor anyone else has a consistent policy on these issues.

Mr. Speight, a failed businessman, has ousted the elected government of an ethnic Indian, Mahendra Chaudry, and used its members as hostages to get the better of the largely ethnic Fijian army and even the traditional Fijian Council of Chiefs.

Mr. Speight's main weapon, however, has not been the hostages but the support of a large but vociferous minority of ethnic Fijians who put their communal dominance before any other concepts or interests.

That is not a unique circumstance in societies fundamentally altered by immigration during the colonial era. Malaysia nearly reached that point in 1965 when predominantly Chinese Singapore was expelled after its politicians were seen to have threatened Malay political dominance and again during the bloody riots of 1969, which followed a breakdown of Malay cohesion.

But Malaysia has since managed to prosper by virtue of an acceptance by the more prosperous non-Malay minority that they be discriminated against until the Malays caught up economically. Meanwhile under no circumstances could the non-Malays expect to be anything other than minority and subservient partners in government. It is not fair, but it works in a rough and ready way.

While ethnic Fijians have always enjoyed some political advantages over the Indians and others, political dominance has never been assured. Nor has it been accompanied by the kind of policies followed by Malaysia since 1969 of using overtly discriminatory employment and educational policies and vast amounts of government money to try to achieve ethnic economic and social equality.

In theory democracy and nondiscrimination should be preferred. But reality is different. Western advocates of democracy need to remember that in their societies the past 40 years have seen numerous efforts, especially in the United States, to offer wholesale discrimination in favor of minorities, not all of whom were disadvantaged.

The alternative may be division. That may be physically very difficult in Fiji as in Malaysia. But one might have said the same in much of ex-Yugoslavia, where the cultural differences are probably smaller than in Fiji.

The Kosovars may well have been worthy of NATO protection from Serbian nationalism and ethnic cleansing. But in practice the West has created a separate state there just as it underwrote the secession of Croatia and Slovenia and in 1948, using the UN as its agency, divided Palestine to create a state of Israel.

More usually there is less support for separatism. The Turks in northern Cyprus have no recognition, and the Protestants in Northern Ireland get scant sympathy. Understandably, the prospect of the endless division of Russia, Indonesia, Congo etc. into ever smaller ethnic particles is frightening.

On the other hand the oppression of Tibetans, Kurds and others with reasonable claims to political independence, or at least to rights to prevent alien immigration on a scale to overwhelm their own cultures, is a real concern.

There are no easy solutions. But there can be constructive suggestions as well as condemnations. Mr. Speight is a crook, a thug and a terrorist, as the New Zealand foreign minister has said. But those who make mantras of democracy and anti-racism forget how difficult it is to balance ethnic diversity with democracy, equality and liberty. It is even more so when, as in Fiji, the nonindigenous elite has sanctuary in the rich neighbors to the south, where many have already gone.

In more populous Malaysia, few non-Malays had that option. Fiji does not need Mr. Speight, but it does need Malaysia-style policies at home and attitudes by neighbors that accept the realities of indigenous identity in Fiji as in Kosovo.