Date: 06-14-2002

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Understanding Differences Is Key

HONOLULU (June 14) -- "Talanoa" is a Pacific-island style of dialog that brings people together to share opposing views without any predetermined expectations for agreement. Since a May 2000 coup in Fiji held government leaders hostage for 56 days, a series of East-West Center-sponsored talanoa has drawn political opponents, religious leaders, former hostages and coup sympathizers in an effort to rebuild national unity.

Last weekend the process saw a breakthrough -- the leaders of Fiji's two main ethnic parties agreed to form committees to discuss tough land issues and constitutional reform on a regular and sustained basis. Former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, whose Fiji Labor Party mainly represents Indo-Fijians, and current Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, an indigenous Fijian who leads the Soqosoqo Duavata Lewenivanua, will personally head the land committee. The other committee will report directly to them. The East-West Center will continue to serve as secretariat.

Sitiveni Halapua, director of the East-West Center's Pacific Islands Development Program and architect of Fiji's five talanoa sessions, believes it's a forum that could work in other conflicts around the world. "To say people have to agree to something is starting at the wrong end. Whose fault it is for not striking an agreement becomes the primary focus."

Talanoa participants set the parameters for their discussions: inclusion, reconciliation, mutual respect. "People are afraid of differences but they are a fact of life," said Halapua, talanoa moderator. "The ultimate goal is living with the differences. Understanding them better is a good start."

Indigenous Fijians led a coup in May 2000 against the government of Chaudhry, the first prime minister of Indian descent. Chaudhry and members of his government were held hostage for almost two months.

In November the talanoa first brought together Chaudhry and Qarase, who was elected last year. Native Fijians represent about 51 percent of the total population, and Indo-Fijians about 44 percent.

Qarase, who attended a meeting of Pacific Island leaders at the East-West Center earlier this year, said the talanoa has been useful in understanding ethnic divisions. "Talanoa takes the issues away from debate in parliament...from scoring political points and glossing over issues. I reckon that if we continue the process, we will be able to resolve land and constitutional issues."

Chaudhry said on a Fiji television report after the weekend session that the most important challenge is "to build trust and reduce suspicion and fear among leaders and the community," and to assure all Fijians that they can feel secure. The most important step is that "we have begun talking."

Chaudhry and Qarase met before the talanoa to set an agenda covering three of the most controversial issues in Fiji: land, constitutional reform and multiparty cabinets. Participants decided to await a Supreme Court ruling on the multiparty cabinet.

Halapua said that while the talanoa now focuses on the leaders of the major ethnic parties, eventually the forums will have to reach "deeper and wider. The ultimate goal is to try to promote understanding between the two communities."

For the next two weeks Sitiveni Halapua can be reached in Fiji at the Suva Motor Inn at 679-331-3973 or fax 679-330-0381. At the East-West Center call 808-944-7745 or email

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center