By Ariela Zibiah
Prisoner 302: A Fijian Prime Minister’s Story of his Life, of Military Rebellion, National Oppression and a Handful of Miracles by Laisenia Qarase (Fiji, 2022) is a lot more than one man’s attempt to capture the period between the 2000 coup by George Speight through to the 2006 coup, and beyond. For those who lived through this period, the book should probably come with a warning on the potential to re-live trauma, as it comprehensively takes us through those days, and more.
Whatever your political affiliation or opinion of the author, this book carries in it a slice of history during a time when the exercise of ones’ basic human rights like expressing an opinion could cost you your life. The pages elicit a rollercoaster of emotions; names of people in the upper echelon of the executive who perpetrated the assaults and humiliating acts litter the pages of this tell-all.
There are a few themes that come through in this book, one of which was the deplorable violence that punctuated this period; abhorrent acts perpetrated against Fijians. A chapter titled ‘Abuse and Torture’ is 29 pages of horrific detail of torture, physical assault and verbal abuse, acts designed to humiliate and break spirits, bullying maneuvers meant to scare and warn: acts that generated self-censorship for risk of being dragged to the barracks for having a voice. Those tortured included chiefs like Ro Teimumu Vuikaba Kepa, priests like Father Barr, academics like Dr Brij Lal, media bosses like Mesake Koroi, artists like Laisa Vulakoro and businessmen like Ulai Taoi (who was the president of the Fiji Indigenous Business Council then).
The book publishes some of the survivors’ stories in their own words. The accounts are heart wrenching. You could’ve been sitting right next to Father Kevin Barr as he receives a series of telephone texts swearing at him, one labels him a “fucked-up priest”, another reminds him of his work permit number. Imagine a relentless barrage of “intense verbal abuse, foul language and explosive anger” aimed at Professor Brij Lal whose spectacles broke during the ordeal, practically rendering him blind. Ro Teimumu was taken from her home “in the dead of night”, first placed at a Central Police Station cell before being moved to the Queen Elizabeth Barracks cell, for offering to help the Methodist Church host its annual conference.
Taoi notes how the punches and kicks landed where the abuse wouldn’t be visible. An excerpt:
Professor Lal reportedly said of his experience that “…he wouldn’t wish the experience he had endured on his worst enemy”. To have survived such thuggery at the hands of soldiers who then got to be “in charge of all the mechanisms of the state including the courts” (Pg283) would have to be the ultimate insult they would have had to then live with — for more than a decade.
The language and style of Prisoner 302 is accessible. It could’ve been better structured but its content forces you to turn the page. Despite some repetitious references towards the end of the book, this was a deep dive into a lot of issues we need to have a national conversation about. The book humanises a former prime minister who professes personal and professional regrets.
The imposition of the 2013 Constitution on a nation that shared the humiliating exercise of seeing a document they’d contributed to trashed (Ch59), is obviously a sour milestone. Imposed by decree, the 2013 Constitution gave excessive power to a selected few who then started a systematic dismantling of our national systems. Indigenous rights went out the window as the project to remodel Fiji into a “modern state” began, structurally embedding the “sunset clause” which was designed to end indigenous-related provisions like the Great Council of Chiefs (Ch67).
A timeline of Fiji’s political history (1835–2014) is helpfully provided (Pg 595–603). Qarase was prime minister of Fiji from 2000 to 2006. In July (2000), the military commander then, Voreqe Bainimarama, asked Qarase to lead an interim government. Qarase announces a new party by May 9th, 2001 and takes the country to elections. He forms the next government. In May 2006, Qarase wins his second elections and forms a government with Fiji Labour Party. Party leader, Mahendra Chaudhry chooses not to be in Qarase’s Cabinet although he joins Bainimarama’s government when the latter staged the fourth coup at the end of the same year, (December, 2006).
Qarase was essentially on house arrest after Bainimarama’s coup; there is a section on his daring escape from his Richards Road residence (Suva) to Mavana (the Lau Group). The couple travelled in disguise, in a police patrol car which armed soldiers at various check points were uninterested in. In escaping the day he did, Qarase avoided being transferred to Nukulau, an island used to jail coup perpetrators off the Suva peninsula, the next day.
Prison 302 is a subjective historical recollection of lived experiences, underlining the thin line between the personal and the political. Boundaries — family and friends — were redefined as a people told that the purpose of the 2006 coup was to “clean-up” against corruption watched as soldiers and family members were appointed to key state posts, and in governing bodies of various state companies.
We all lost a piece of ourselves over the last 16 years; those who came out looking the worst were the enablers. Our bodies inevitably became locations of trauma. Some bled to death, some survived with deep wounds. The mental exhaustion of self-censorship was perhaps the most personal of all consequences.
Prisoner 302 is however a gift to young Fijians who’ve only known dictatorial rule. It is timely considering the intentional attempt to create an alternative historical and national narrative in recent years. The rights of the people, particularly our children, to be exposed to different perspectives, and choose how they feel about it, must never again be compromised. We owe our children a robust, intellectually stimulating environment in which they can question without fear.
Prisoner 302 emphasises the importance of writing our stories. It is an immense contribution to our national repository of wisdom, knowledge, and personal perspectives. As a heterogenous Pacific nation, such a resource is imperative for our unique socio-economic and political realities. We can develop locally informed Fiji or Pacific-specific development concepts and approaches for genuine national progress, as opposed to struggling with foreign ones.
Prisoner 302 has something for all Fijians — teenagers, history and politics students, aspiring politicians but it comes especially recommended for the new guard in governance.
Whatever our politics, we owe ourselves this gift of hindsight.
This article first appeared on Ariela’s blog on January 29, 2023.