Both Fiji and Tonga were drawn into the British sphere of influence – Fiji was a colony from 1874 and Tonga was under British protection from 1900. Both gained full independence in 1970, as Britain gradually withdrew from the Pacific.
Britain was ‘in a leaving mood’ by the early 1960s, and New Zealand fears of ‘a British “scuttle” in the Pacific’ had little effect. Once its imperial parent left, the ‘stability and welfare of the islands must, in the longer term, be of increasing importance to us,’ wrote an anonymous foreign affairs official.1
Fiji satisfied the 19th-century New Zealand imperial dream in a way no other Pacific Island did. It bought more goods than any other island from New Zealand, and supplied raw materials to New Zealand industry. From 1874 a plantation system was set up under Australian control to supply unprocessed sugar to the Colonial Sugar Refinery’s Auckland factory.
Between 1879 and 1916, 60,553 Indian labourers were brought to Fiji to work on the plantations. Although many stayed, there was little intermarriage between Fijians and Indians. Labour disputes during the 20th century, in which the indigenous Fijian elite sided with the European community, further entrenched racially defined communities. Constitutional arrangements put in place prior to decolonisation in 1970 reserved parliamentary seats for ethnic Fijians and Fiji Indians, and ensured indigenous Fijians predominated in the Senate. From independence in 1970 to 1987, Fiji was governed by the Alliance Party, in which the indigenous Fijian elite was dominant.
The first coup, in May 1987, was led by the mainly indigenous Fijian military. It came in the wake of an election that brought a largely Fijian-Indian-backed government into office.
In September 1987, when negotiations led by Fiji's governor-general proposed a government of national unity, the military again intervened, declaring Fiji a republic. The coup resulted in suspension of New Zealand defence cooperation and trade-union blockades of Fiji-bound vessels at New Zealand ports. The Australian and New Zealand governments contemplated intervention. Other Pacific Islands Forum member states were more sympathetic. When Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, an indigenous leader and former prime minister, accepted appointment by military leaders as prime minister, his actions were described by Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Sir Michael Somare as ‘something all Pacific people both understand and respect, and will support’.2
In May 2000 a small group of indigenous Fijian extremists seized control of Fiji’s Parliament, removing from office Fiji’s first ever prime minister of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry. The coup gained support from some sections of the military. President Ratu Mara was removed from office and the 1997 constitution was abrogated. In March 2001 the Fiji Court of Appeal restored Fiji’s constitution, and fresh elections were held in August. Nonetheless Fiji remained on the Commonwealth agenda until 2004 because of the new government’s reluctance to follow the 1997 constitution’s power-sharing provisions.
The elections of August 2001 resulted in a government led by Laisenia Qarase, an indigenous Fijian. Squabbles between Qarase and military commander Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama led to another military coup in December 2006, which New Zealand made last-ditch efforts to forestall. Three successive New Zealand heads of mission in Suva were expelled over the period 2007–9.
The coup created severe difficulties for the Suva-based Pacific Islands Forum. Bainimarama assumed the chairmanship of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in 2011, with the support of some leaders in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi remained strongly opposed to Fiji’s military regime.
While Fiji moved sharply away from democratic rule, Tonga steered a reverse course. Under the 1875 constitution, Tonga’s king directly appointed the prime minister and cabinet, who sat in Parliament alongside MPs selected by nobles and a small group of popularly elected MPs.
In the 1990s and 2000s pressure for democratic change grew. Australian and New Zealand troops were despatched to Tonga after 2006 riots in the capital, Nuku’alofa, in which eight people died and the business district was burnt down. In 2010 King George Tupou V agreed to new arrangements under which 17 of the 26 MPs were popularly elected, and the selection of the prime minister came under the control of Parliament.