- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

MUANIWENI, Fiji Two days after a screaming, cursing mob torched the house his grandfather built in this lush farming valley, Gayn Datt wept at the sight of the ruins as they smoldered under a soft tropical rain.

Mr. Datt and his wife were in their own home next door when the mob, local youths who have been terrorizing ethnic Indian farmers in this valley for weeks, arrived.

"They came up the hill. There was a lot of shouting and swearing, and they were throwing stones. They poured petrol all around and then whoosh it was all flames," Mr. Datt said this week.

Raids, hostage-takings, beatings and burning attacks on the ethnic Indians of Fiji's small rural communities have become commonplace since a nationalist uprising on May 19 that toppled the elected government and started more than 11 weeks of civil unrest.

Mr. Datt's nephew and his three children had been living in his grandfather's house but fled a few days before the house was torched because of previous threats by the youths.

"We have nothing left here," said Mr. Datt's wife, Sapaya. "No radio stolen. No TV. They killed our milking cow. We haven't planted any crops for two months they told us not to."

Three homes were razed Monday night in Muaniweni, a hamlet an hour's drive from Fiji's capital, Suva. The night before, two houses were set on fire in a nearby town, and a few others were torched in previous nights on the northern island of Vanua Levu.

Ethnic Indians, descendants of indentured laborers brought to work Fiji's sugar plantations from 1870s to the 1920s by the British colonial rulers, now make up 44 percent of the South Pacific nation's 814,000 people.

Claiming ethnic Indians had too much power and were threatening Fijian culture, failed businessman George Speight and armed supporters stormed parliament on May 19, taking dozens of officials hostage. Mr. Speight demanded the multiracial constitution be scrapped and the government, the first led by an ethnic Indian, Mahendra Chowdhry, ousted.

Mr. Speight tapped a vein of resentment among Fijians toward ethnic Indians, who have come to dominate business and commerce. A nationalist rally in Suva the same day as the coup turned into a riot. Indian-owned shops were looted and burned. Attacks on ethnic Indians spread into the country.

Fiji's military, which imposed martial law to try to stop the unrest, agreed to Mr. Speight's demands to secure the freedom of the last of the hostages on July 13. Since then, a strongly indigenous Fijian Cabinet has been appointed to oversee the rewriting of the constitution ahead of elections, possibly in three years.

Thousands of people mostly ethnic Indians are trying to flee Fiji, afraid for their safety and the potential for financial ruin following the near-collapse of the economy.

Fiji's economy, dependent on tourism and sugar exports, has been crippled and could be hurt even more by a large-scale exodus of ethnic Indians. Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the United States and France have imposed limited sanctions.

The military has cracked down, arresting Mr. Speight and hundreds of his supporters in Suva. It also has quelled isolated pockets of rebel support outside the capital, reclaiming a barracks on the island of Vanua Levu where soldiers yesterday shot one rebel to death and arrested 37 others.

But although they are becoming less common, attacks on rural ethnic Indians continue.

The unarmed police appear to have done little to stop the attacks. At the police post at Muaniweni, inquiries about what was being done to find those responsible for Monday's rampage were met with blank stares and shrugs.

Military spokesman Maj. Howard Politini said many of the farm raids have nothing to do with Mr. Speight's cause. "They are just a criminal element who think they can get away with it and use the coup as an excuse," Maj. Politini said.

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