Re-imagining “ethnic” coups in Fiji: problematising narratives of rupture

Is it possible that against the supposed ontological quality of ethnic conflict in Fiji, crisis can create conditions for positive and not simply disruptive social relations?

In 1987 and 2000, Fiji experienced so-called “ethnic” coups. This led to talk of Fiji’s culture of coups. Before leaving for fieldwork some years later, I imagined myself researching in the shadow of a presumed ontological ethnic conflict between the country’s Fijians and Indo-Fijians.

I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork and speaking to people about the coups from a time of relative stability some years later. Entangled in life in Suva, the capital city of Fiji, my research opened up two competing realities: the present I was experiencing and the past of my interlocutors’ memories.

My own experience was animated by being treated like an Indo-Fijian, and seemed to jar sometimes with the past that my informants and interlocutors were creating for me through their memories and stories.

Indo-Fijians I spoke to recalled being protected by Fijian neighbours and friends for whom these coups were ostensibly undertaken; and their Fijian protectors spoke to me about worrying and caring for the safety of those targeted by the coups.

On one hand, my presence and embodiment as a presumed Indo-Fijian seemed indexical of the subtleties of ethnic conflict. On the other hand, listening to my informants talk of the 1987 and 2000 coups, I became aware of how crisis dynamises social relations in ways that aren’t necessary during stable times.

The collusion and collision of different ethnographic presents in my research, bringing together informant memories alongside my own (partly auto-) ethnography some years later, has forced me to re-imagine the epistemologies of conflict that animate what we think we know about coups in Fiji.

It has become fashionable to speak of crisis and violence solely in terms of rupture, fear, loss and phenomenological reorientation of the worst kind. Without refuting the reality of such claims, my ethnography seems to indicate that socio-political conflicts and crises – including those that manifest as (ethnic) coups – can create or amplify intimacies that resist overly simplified conflict narratives and rhetorics.

Is it possible, then, that when conflict transitions from verbal discourse to performance, positive social relations emerge or are realised more fully than in times of relative stability?

I would say yes.

The implication of this is that we cannot entirely dichotomise conflict and peace. To do so does violence to our understanding and appreciation of the intimacies that crisis potentially creates: when Fijians protect Indo-Fijians….

(Or to take the more internationally known case of the Rwandan genocide, when Hutus protected their Tutsi friends and neighbours.)

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