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Political crisis takes center stage in Fiji

SHARE Political crisis takes center stage in Fiji

SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Even the ousted prime minister feels sorry for new Fijian President Ratu Josefo Iloilo, who is expected to name a new Cabinet as soon as Monday with no obvious options that aren't full of pitfalls.

Fiji's eight-week parliamentary hostage spectacle ended last Thursday, but the political crisis is far from over.

A country dependent on tourism and trade faces international isolation if it continues the path toward guaranteeing indigenous Fijians superiority and the prospect of more internal turmoil if it doesn't.

The head of the influential Fiji Trades Union Council, Felix Anthony, is talking about economic sanctions and claiming many are ready to suffer as much as needed to restore democracy.

But many others aren't — they're making plans to leave, mindful of the looting and burning that followed the May 19 coup and largely targeted Indian businesses.

Mahendra Chaudhry, the first ethnic Indian to become prime minister, wants his government reinstated and is developing a strategy with other members of his ousted government coalition.

Rebel leader George Speight still hasn't left the Parliament complex where he staged the coup and freed the last 18 legislators on Thursday. Laundry hung from the windows Sunday. He says any Cabinet that doesn't include his men is unacceptable.

One Speight supporter already has been rewarded, raising the hackles of diplomats. Jope Seniloli is the new vice president, the first in succession behind the 79-year-old Iloilo, who has Parkinson's and relies on an oxygen bottle.

Foreign diplomats admit this is one of the murkiest situations they've encountered because the very fundamentals of Fijian culture are being challenged.

Talk of guaranteeing that their rights come first has struck a cord among indigenous Fijians, who comprise 51 percent of the population and resent the economic and political clout of ethnic Indians, who make up 44 percent.

While Speight has mounted a challenge to authority, he has done so by respecting custom. He wears his Western suit jacket and tie over a traditional sulu skirt. He held traditional ceremonies seeking forgiveness from the hostages before they were released and when his men surrendered weapons taken from a military armory.

The Great Council of Chiefs, the traditional power, has tacitly supported his goals of ethnic superiority by appointing both of his nominees for president and vice president. There have even been reports that Parliament could be dissolved and lawmaking handed over to a group of second-tier chiefs.

Indians have been basically told they are second-class citizens. Even if the Constitution isn't rewritten, the psychological damage already is apparent, and the rift between the two main ethnic groups seems wider than ever.

The military's reputation has taken a hit for not taking a more stringent position. Soldiers stood by and even handed over their weapons to protesters rather than risk bloodshed that could further inflame the situation.

This much is clear: the tourism industry has taken a particularly brutal pounding, worse than after a pair of remarkably similar 1987 coups that followed independence in 1970 from nearly a century of British rule.

Resorts that normally would be packed with Australians and New Zealanders escaping the Southern Hemisphere winter and American couples on honeymoon are empty. The manager at one, when told of a cancellation, said she would send staff home because no one else was staying there.

The industry recovered from the 1987 coups to prosper. It is planning to launch a multimillion-dollar campaign soon in an effort at damage control. But with the United States, Australia and New Zealand warning its nationals to leave the country, Fiji has been transformed from an idyllic beach resort to a high-risk destination.

Labor Strikes also are possible that could cripple Fiji's other critical sector, the sugarcane industry. No wonder that Chaudhry, when asked what he thought about Iloilo, said: "I feel sorry for him."