August 01, 1988

Reviewer Booked

Filed under: Archive,Books

On June 22 this year, Som Prakash was invigilating examinations at the University of South Pacific when the Fijian military authorities turned up and hauled him off to Queen Elizabeth barracks. Under the terms of the Internal Security Decree, the security forces can hold people in detention for periods of up to two years without explanation or trial.

The minister responsible for the Decree is Brigadier (he used to be Colonel before he promoted himself) Sitiveni Rabuka. The reasons given for Som Prakash’s arrest were his alleged involvement in arms smuggling, an activity now linked with the extremist Taukei faction and never with pacifist Indian intellectuals.

The more likely explanation for Prakash being among the first Fijian citizens interned is that in a modest publication entitled Coup and Crisis: Fiji a Year Later, published by the Labor Party in Fiji, he contributed a book review of Eddie Dean’s authorized biography Rabuka – No Other Way. Coup and Crisis sold its first run of 300 copies in 48 hours. A reprint of 2,000 was being prepared when Som Prakash was seized.

Eye-witnesses reported that while he was being taken from the campus military personnel roughed him up and taunted him with references to his review. Som spent fourteen days in detention during which time be was allowed no visitors. His wife, Sofya took food to the barracks twice a day but never saw him once. Subjected to physical and psychological torture he was described by representatives of International Red Cross as being severely disoriented. By that stage he believed his family had been murdered and he was generally in a bad way.

When he was freed as a result of intensifying pressure diplomatically and in the media, Som Prakash was forbidden to discuss his period of detention and was not allowed to leave Fiji for two years. He is under virtual house arrest, a curfew has been imposed on him from· 9pm till 5am and he has been intimidated and beaten up by security forces since his release. All this for a book review. Prakash lectures in English at USP and from 1984 until 1987 he studied at the Centre for New Literatures in English at Flinders University where he is reading for a Ph.D. When he was arrested representations were made by friends and colleagues at Flinders through the Vice Chancellor and Australian diplomatic authorities in Canberra and Suva. Efforts are now being made in both capitals to have bans on Prakash lifted so that he can return to Australia with his family to resume his studies. By the time this goes to press we will know whether those efforts have been successful or not.

The Prakash case is a disturbing instance of the sweeping powers used by the Rabuka regime to eradicate all forms of dissent and is indicative of Rabuka’s own megalomanic style. Even his biographers, without a hint of irony, subscribe to the Brigadier’s gung ho image:

“As a toddler, Sitiveni Rabuka was the only boy in the village who had toy guns. His father, a school-teacher, could afford to buy toys for his young son; most of the boy’s playmates made their own toys. Even before he went to school, he had been taught basic weapons drill by an uncle, who was in the Fijian Army. Toy pistols, holsters and gun belts were part of play-time from his earliest memories. He played ‘not war games but cowboys and Indians’.”

“On May 14, 1987, aged 38, Sitiveni Rabuka led a raid on Fiji’s Parliament House in the nation’s capital Suva, to remove a Government dominated by Indians of an entirely different kind.”

It is. hardly surprising that in characteristically judicious response, Som Prakash would want to take issue with a self-serving apologia for violent insurrection:

“Rabuka has what he calls ‘talents for theatrics.’ But to extend the metaphor of the stage a little further, depicting their hero as a tragi-comical one. Here is a man who professes loyalty to the Queen and the High Chiefs and ends up being disloyal to both; a man who acts on behalf of the Taukeis and the Council of Chiefs and gets disenchanted with each of the groups; a man who considers Fiji God’s gift to the Fijians but refuses to allow God’s hand in populating Fiji with a variety of races; a man who claims divine inspiration and yet admits making some crucial mistakes… The reader is left to decide whether Sitiveni Rabuka’s real motivation comes from his own ego or God; whether his delusions of grandeur are pitiable or dangerous. … One feels sorriest for him when he admits to. being somewhat “confused by the increasing complexity of the situation” –a situation at least partly created by none other than Sitiveni Rabuka himself. The real tragedy of course is that the people of Fiji, now and for generations to come will pay a bitter price for a bit of political adventurism by a third ranking officer in the Royal Fiji Military Forces who had so much potential for doing good to our nation by choosing the other, more obvious but less dramatic, way.”

For writing this in Suva you get house arrest. Others have been interned and menaced by the Fijian military and even with strong sanctions from Australia and New Zealand there are no assurances that the situation will improve. The Prakash case has highlighted as clearly as any single issue in Fiji since the coup that not only has democracy taken a dive, fundamental human rights have also.

“Reviewer Booked” The Adelaide Review August, 1988. p.10.

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