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Minorities feeling fear in Fiji

Democracy’s end has ethnic Indians looking to leave

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SUVA, Fiji — The first ethnic Indian to lead Fiji said on Saturday he would not try to dissuade minorities from leaving the South Pacific nation as it moves to turn them into second-class citizens.

"I'm hardly in a position to advise them otherwise," said Mahendra Chaudhry, the prime minister ousted in a May 19 coup and released from eight weeks captivity on Thursday with 17 other legislators.

"Any community that has gone through this twice, it's a natural thing for them to want to find a safe home," Chaudhry said, referring to earlier coups in 1987.

In the latest coup, Chaudhry and the hostages were freed after the military and influential tribal chiefs bowed to the rebels' demands to strip Fiji's ethnic Indians of their political rights.

Chaudhry said the decision to disenfranchise the Indian minority and guarantee the superiority of indigenous Fijians had "torn at the very fabric of society."

The Indian community that makes up 44 percent of Fiji's population is in disarray. Many sound defeated, almost despondent, particularly if they are poor and have little chance of getting out of the country.

They worry about a renewal of the violence, looting and arson that was aimed mostly at Indian-owned business after the coup began. Rebels led by George Speight stormed Parliament and took the government ministers hostage.

Expected international sanctions, backed by Chaudhry and the main union, probably will exert some pressure, but the rebels who wrought the coup have shown little concern for them, saying three decades of democracy are over and it is time to ensure that Fijian rights come first.

Fiji's Indians thought this had all been settled after a pair of 1987 coups led by Sitiveni Rabuka, a former military officer who later became prime minister and now heads the seat of traditional power, the Great Council of Chiefs.

All parties signed off on the 1997 multicultural Constitution. But it didn't take long before the same disaffection among indigenous Fijians that fed the 1987 coups began to rise again from perceived favorable treatment of Indians by the first Indian-led government.

Having devastated Fiji's economy — which the Indians dominate — the civil unrest of the past 11 days has subsided. But Speight seemingly has the power to get the people to rise again.

No figures are available, but foreign embassies have reported sharp increases on requests for residency from ethnic Indians since the coup.

But many bristle at any suggestion that they should leave.

"I'm a third-generation Fijian," said Felix Anthony, an ethnic Indian who heads the Fiji Trades Union Congress. "This is my country, too. I intend to stay and fight on."