May 19th 2000 … twenty years ago George Speight and armed rebels took 36 Fijian Members of Parliament hostage in the parliamentary complex in Suva, Fiji.
So began a months long saga covering Speights Fiji coup d’état for Associated Press of America (AP).
Speight held the parliamentarians, including Fijian-Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and seven cabinet ministers, hostage for fifty six days. President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was another casualty … forced to resign early into the coup and effectively replaced by a military government controlled by Commodore Frank Bainimarama … his first taste of leadership power.
Covering the coup was a rollercoaster. Access to major stories was relatively easy. We were often allowed inside the Parliament House complex where Speight held court with M-16 armed rebels (just yards from the hostages), whilst Bainimarama enthusiastically staged personal media events. Armed skirmishes were pretty frequent. Many Fijian Indians suffered racially inspired attacks. Managed twice to get myself ‘detained’ by armed rebels … but that’s another couple of stories involving rebels and a US seafood cannery at Levuka and rebels holding hostages at Korovou.
Bainimarama agreed and signed a peace accord with Speight on July 9th , PM Chaudhry and the hostages were released by Speight on July 13th … and then July 27th Bainimarama ‘did the dirty’ on Speight, had him arrested and eventually charged and convicted of treason.
The media contingent covering the coup were fantastic … looking after each others backs and keeping each other ‘informed’ was the norm. (We had ‘curfew passes’ from both the rebels and the military … was a good idea to remember which pass was in which pocket when out and about tormenting troops and rebels of an evening 🙂 ). I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the late and great AP photographer and Pic Ed of the time … Russell McPhedran … who sent me on two tours to cover the coup.
Twenty died during the coup upheaval. Speight remains incarcerated for life. Bainimarama still runs Fiji …
That’s it in a nutshell …
Here are just some of many Images I made and filed during the several weeks covering the coup twenty years ago … All images © Brian Cassey (from top) … A Speight rebel bars entry to Korovou where military and police hostages were being held … George Speight arrives to sign the peace accord. Two weeks later he was arrested accused of treason … Fijian Indians at their house torched in a racist attack … Fijian troops off to round up rebels after Speights arrest … Fijians pray for peace at a rally during the coup … A Speight rebel patrols the parliamentary complex where hostages were being held.