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Changing of the guard in South Pacific. Fiji turmoil signals wider review of domestic issues, Western ties

It is a mere speck on the vast geopolitical map. But Fiji's second military coup in four months holds significance beyond the island nation's shores. This is so, say analysts, because as the country undergoes massive political, social, and economic changes, the effect is likely to ripple through the region.

In the South Pacific, Fiji is a pace-setter, and it's transformation comes at a time when neighboring island nations seem particularly susceptible to change. For beneath the recent overlays of increased Soviet and Libyan involvement in the South Pacific, many of these tiny countries are entering a phase of post-independence maturity. The placidly, pro-Western backdrop is being repainted, albeit slowly, as new leadership assumes control.

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In the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, and a few other islands, the old guard is stepping down or being voted out. This year has ushered in a ``new generation of Pacific politicians ... young, well-educated, ambitious,'' says John Hailey of Honolulu's East-West Center.

Historically, these islands have oriented themselves to their Western mentors, such as the United States, Britain, and France. But as nearby Asian nations rise to economic prominence, these new Pacific leaders are savvy enough to see the opportunities of initiating ties. When traditional Fiji trading partners Australia and New Zealand sharply criticized the first military coup, Fiji was quick to send its foreign minister on a tour of Asian nations to set up new trading agreements.

Fijians are undoubtedly not alone in reviewing old ties. For instance, the $4 million or so that the United States spends on aid in the South Pacific is viewed by many as a token gesture. Australia spends some $300 million on Papua New Guinea alone. While the reservoir of goodwill established by American servicemen during World War II compensates to an extent, it does not run as deep with this latest generation of politicians.

Indicative of their growing sense of selfhood, Pacific leaders have been notably less judgmental of the Fiji coup than Western officials. Indigenous islanders, such as the Maoris in New Zealand, the Hawaiians, and the Kanaks in New Caledonia, who have lost control of their land to European settlers, understand all too well the Fijians' desire to hold on to political clout.

Still, many believe Fiji's role in the Pacific has been damaged by the coup. ``Fiji was the leader in cooperative regional organizations,'' says Robert Kiste, director of Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii. ``Former Prime Minister Ratu Mara was the founding father of the Pacific Islands Forum. Fiji was an example ... of stability and democracy in the region. Now it's a horrible disappointment....''

Or as one US State Department official put it, ``Fiji was qualitatively different from the rest of the South Pacific. How could they mess it up!''

After the first coup in May, Fiji appeared to be headed to restoring democratic rule. Last week, moderates were on the verge of announcing a caretaker government designed to eventually produce a new constitution giving Fijians more political power than the ethnic Indians, who slightly outnumber native islanders.

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Now, it appears, radical elements have regained the upper hand. Coup leader Col. Sitiveni Rabuka has shattered moderates' efforts. He is making noises about nullifying the parliamentary-style Constitution that has guided Fiji since independence in 1970. Both coups, Col. Rabuka says, were to ensure ethnic Fijians' political supremacy. Just before the first coup, an Indian-dominated Cabinet was elected for the first time.

While few observers believe Rabuka's tactics will be copied elsewhere, there's concern about the signal the Fiji coup sends. ``Clearly, the message picked up by other countries of a pluralistic character in the region is that the way to establish the preeminence of a minority is through force,'' notes Henry S. Albinski, director of the Australian Studies Center at the Pennsylvania State University.

Troubling to Western diplomats too, is Libya's continuing, shadowy assistance to various groups in the region. British officials said last Sunday they were reviewing the more than $1 million in annual aid to Fiji. (The US cut off its $1 million in aid after the first coup.) If British aid is halted, Libya has reportedly offered to replace the funds.

Infusions of foreign capital are likely to become more important if the tourism- and agriculture-based Fijian economy continues to weaken. Neither investors nor tourists find instability inviting.

Just how or when Fiji will resolve its crisis is unclear. Observers see some hope in Rabuka's plan to meet with all parties on Monday to discuss the next step.

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