Jul 1 1987

Purging Politics From the Fiji Coup

Vernon Walters clip from Fiji Times

Vernon Walters meets the press (Fiji Times, 5/2/87).

It was widely reported that the May 14 military coup in Fiji had one basic cause—ethnic rivalries between Melanesian Fijians and Indo-Fijians. A sampling of headlines: “Military Coup in Fiji Follows Racial Unrest” (Christian Science Monitor, 5/15/87); “Coup in Fiji: Rising Tide of Nationalism” (International Herald Tribune, 5/22/87); “A Bloodless Coup Reveals Ethnic Tensions in a Tropical Land” (Time, 5/25/87).

But another factor was hardly alluded to by the US media: the antinuclear policies of the government overthrown by the military. The fact that Fiji’s elected government had opposed US nuclear policy in the region was reported before the coup, but it disappeared into a memory hole immediately after.

When Dr. Timoci Bavadra’s coalition was elected on April 12, the New York Times (4/13/87) ran this from Reuters: “A leftist coalition that has pledged to ban US nuclear warships from Fiji won an election victory today over the staunchly pro- Western party that had ruled since independence from Britain in 1970.” Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an article (4/30/87) headlined “Fiji’s Leaders Weigh Curbs on Nuclear Ships,” which discussed the new government’s move toward nonalignment.

But the antinuclear issue vanished from Kristof’s prolific post-coup coverage. He would only go so far as to say that the coup leader was critical of the “nonaligned foreign policy of Dr. Bavadra’s government” (5/17/87).

Along with most US reporters, Kristof explained the military takeover in terms of “the deep bitterness felt by many ethnic Fijians at the Indian-dominated government elected on April 12” (5/14/87) and an “attempt by ethnic Fijians to regain control of the government after the election April 12 of a new government composed mostly of Indians” (5/16/87). The Times’ 185 column inches on the Fiji coup neglected to mention that the four-week-old Bavadra government had instituted free medical care, resolved to protect Fijian timber resources, created an Institute for Fijian Language and Culture, and promised greater access for Fijians to Fiji Development Bank loans, which had been going to foreign-owned business.

Kristof’s reports from Fiji also failed to take note of the momentous visit to the tiny nation by the chief US delegate to the UN and former CIA deputy director Gen. Vernon Walters–two weeks after the election and two weeks before the coup. Kristof could not have missed the headline announcing Walters’ visit in the Fiji Times (4/28/87): “America’s UN Man to Make 3-day Visit.”

Walters’ presence sparked a regional controversy in light of suspicions about US involvement in the coup. “Wherever that character [Walters] travels around the world, there always seems to be a transfer of power from a democratically elected government to a military junta,” New Zealand MP Bill Sutton told the New Zealand Herald. (Sutton was apparently referring to Walters’ role in the 1953 Iranian coup that brought the Shah to power and the 1964 overthrow of Brazilian President Goulart.)

It was not until a month after the coup that readers of the New York Times were offered an alternative explanation for the takeover. In a four-inch item buried on page five, the Times reported (6/19/87): “Dr. Bavadra said the Reagan Administration might have secretly arranged the coup because of concern over Fiji’s decision to ban nuclear-powered ships from its ports.” The Times delivered too little, too late; most of the US media delivered even less.

Glenn Alcalay, a Pacific analyst and freelance writer, is doing anthropological research on US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands at the New School for Social Research in New York.