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What lurks beneath

By Mark Hayes - posted Wednesday, 30 July 2008

There were precious few heroes in the midst of the chaos in Fiji during the 2000 crisis.

A bunch of armed, mutinous, special forces soldiers, incited by shadowy, still largely alleged plotters, surrounded by opportunists and grievously deluded and manipulated villagers, fronted by a charismatic, rather wild eyed, garrulous, shaven headed character named George Speight, himself a kai Loma (mixed Fijian-European), charged into Fiji’s Parliament on Friday morning, May 19, 2000, declaring they’d carried out a “people’s coup” against the Labour Party Coalition Government led by Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. The coup - “the cause” - was to protect Indigenous Fijian rights from a land and political grab by the crafty Indo-Fijians.

In downtown Suva, mayhem erupted, with widespread looting and arson as mobs rampaged around the town, often targeting Indo-Fijian businesses, helping themselves to anything they could steal in the chaos.


The police and military were powerless to prevent Fiji’s third, and most violent, coup.

For the next 56 days, Speight and his gang held Chaudhry and 30 other politicians, including several Indigenous Fijians including a senior Fijian female chief, hostage in the Parliament complex, which was surrounded by loyal soldiers.

Heroically navigating through this fraught and potentially exceptionally dangerous mess was the Director General of the Fiji Red Cross, John Scott.

Pictures of Mr Scott, wearing his Red Cross tabard, walking into and out of Parliament surrounded by armed thugs were published world wide as he and his staff carried out the organisation’s strictly neutral mission to provide aid and comfort to all in distress. The hostages called him “an angel” and he joked about feeling around underneath his tabard looking for his wings.

Books and analytical articles published after the crisis eventually abated all paid ample testimony to Mr Scott’s genuinely heroic courage and work. At times, however, he was scared shitless.

Just when the Fiji situation seemed to be stable, on Thursday lunchtime, November 2, 2000, soldiers from the then disbanded Counter-Revolutionary Warfare unit, Fiji’s SAS, some of whom had supported the Speight-fronted putsch and were in detention at the military headquarters in Northern Suva awaiting trial, escaped. Getting weapons, they rampaged around the camp with the intention of killing military commander, Commodore Vorque (Frank) Bainimarama, who they blamed for the failure of the May 2000 coup.


The fortuitous return to barracks by the Third Fiji Military Regiment, generally regarded as the most professional in the Fiji military, assisted loyalists to put down the mutiny while Bainimarama was hurried away from the shooting, barely escaping alive.

When the shooting ceased, surviving rebels captured and locked up again, and the camp secured, several rebel’s bodies were delivered to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital and Suva’s morgue, bearing clear signs of having been beaten to death after capture. The Red Cross’ John Scott saw some of those bodies, later giving rise to rumours he knew more about the killings than he ever let on.

When some of the coup perpetrators finally got to court, Mr Scott declined to be a prosecution witness, saying that doing so would compromise his organisation’s strict neutrality.

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An Island Calling is directed and produced by Annie Goldson. It is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, 5.00pm, Thursday, July 31, 2008, Greater Union 4. A promotional clip is on YouTube here. First published in New Matilda on July 24, 2008.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Hayes is a lecturer in the journalism program at the University of Queensland where he specialises in Pacific media and journalism contexts and practices. He still wishes he was back in Suva teaching journalism at the University of the South Pacific.

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