Date: 02-28-2001

HONOLULU -- Fiji's Court of Appeal ruling today that the 1997 constitution remains valid and that the military-backed interim government is illegal was expected, Pacific island experts at the East-West Center said. But the government is now faced with containing any violent protests to the decision as well as strong international pressure if it defies the court order.

"It would be difficult for any court to endorse the violent overthrow of the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry," said a statement from Gerard Finin and Terence Wesley-Smith. "It would also be difficult for a court to support the subsequent abrogation of the 1997 constitution by the Fiji military forces who assumed power at the height of the hostage crisis."

The two said, however, that the interim government of Laisenia Qarase, installed by the military after a coup by indigenous Fijians last year, would likely argue that the restoration of either the 1997 constitution or the Chaudhry government is unrealistic given the strong opposition of powerful groups. Chaudhry was Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister.

The interim government is also likely to point out that a constitutional review process is already in place, and that it anticipates national elections will be held in the near future.

"At the same time, it must brace for considerable pressure from the international community if it defies the court order," Finin and Wesley-Smith said.

They said Fiji's immediate challenge would be to control the public protests that are likely to occur as well as contain any outbreaks of violence.

Finin is a research fellow at the East-West Center in the Pacific Islands Development Program. Wesley-Smith is an associate professor in the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies, University of Hawaii, and also an adjunct fellow at the East-West Center.

The Fiji court said the 1997 constitution allows for the vice president to act as president until March 15 unless a new president is appointed under the constitution. That would mean Ratu Josefa Iloilo, a native Fijian, would serve as interim president until then. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara resigned as president Dec. 15.

Gerard Finin can be reached at 808-944-7751 or and Terence Wesley-Smith can be reached at 808-944-7720 or
This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center