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Fiji Marks 2 Year Anniversary of Coup Attempt

The second anniversary of George Speight's coup attempt in Fiji finds the nation showing some signs of recovery, but the political strife and social division the uprising caused lingers.

The storming of Fiji's Parliament by indigenous rebels still casts its shadow over Fiji. Sunday marks the second anniversary of the coup that failed-businessman George Speight led.

The coup ousted the country's first ethnic-Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. The rebels held him at gunpoint for 56-days inside the Parliament compound. During that time, much of the country fell apart, economically and socially.

Poverty rose along with unemployment, as international sanctions imposed against the country hit hard. For months, tourists stayed away, hurting hotels and restaurants.

George Speight has since been jailed for life for treason. He maintains he acted to protect indigenous rights from the increasingly powerful Indo-Fijian minority.

The former rebel leader has asked the country's president for a pardon. Diplomatic sources predict Speight could be a free man by the time the third anniversary of his rebellion comes around.

In many ways, the nationalist agenda he promoted has prospered, despite his imprisonment. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, who won the first post-coup election last September, is a hardline nationalist. He has promised Fiji's indigenous community much of what Speight did.

Mr. Qarase promises to make the native community richer and more politically powerful at the expense of the Indo-Fijian minority.

The legitimacy of the Qarase government is questionable. Both Fiji's Appeal Court and High Court have ruled that the prime minister is acting unconstitutionally by excluding the opposition, Indian-dominated Labour Party from his cabinet.

Fiji's constitution, drafted in 1997, says that any party polling more than 10-percent of the vote in a general election is entitled to a place in the cabinet. But Mr. Qarase flatly refuses to do business with the Labour Party, led by the deposed Prime Minister Chaudhry.

Fiji's Supreme Court, the highest judicial body, is expected to make a final ruling on the matter.

The coup also widened Fiji's racial divide into a gaping chasm. Ethnic Indians originally came to Fiji in the 1800's, brought in to work on the sugar plantations. Over the generations, they have come to dominate much of the country's commerce, overshadowing the indigenous Fijian islanders.

Traditionally, indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians have lived separate lives. Recently, native landowners expelled Indian cane farmers from sugar plantations, adding to racial tension. The evicted farmers now are living in squatter camps beside highways.

The key sugar industry is suffering, along with garment manufacturing because many overseas buyers abandoned Fijian contracts during the coup and have yet to return. Skilled workers are leaving the country, the very people Fiji needs most.

The lone bright economic light is tourism, which is bouncing back. A record-breaking year is expected as visitor arrivals surpass pre-coup levels.