Fiji Coup d’État … May – August 2000

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.

Fiji Coup May - August 2000 - Images © by Brian CasseyFiji Coup May - August 2000 - Images © by Brian CasseyFiji Coup May - August 2000 - Images © by Brian Cassey Fiji Coup May - August 2000 - Images © by Brian Cassey Fiji Coup May - August 2000 - Images © by Brian Cassey Fiji Coup May - August 2000 - Images © by Brian Cassey

Russ …

It was a kick in the guts … the news that my mentor and mate … photojournalist legend and World Press Photo winner Russell McPhedran … had died in his sleep at the age of 82.

Sounds silly … but I’d never thought of that happening to ‘Russ’. Not large in stature, but massive in character and accomplishments, Russ had a more than significant influence on my career as a photographer. in the late 80’s and 90’s Russell took this brat of a freelance under his wing … as he did with so many other less than experienced photographers … taught me the ropes and trusted me to work on photo assignments of international importance for Associated Press of America (AP).

Just some of those stories were … the tsunami disaster in Sissano Papua New Guinea, George Speight’s coup in Fiji, the evacuation of survivors of the Bali bomb blasts, the exodus of Timor Leste refugees from the aggression of the Indonesians … and the World Economic Forum riots closer to home in Melbourne. There were many more … including a memorable few days in Port Douglas searching for Clinton’s ‘Monica Lewinsky’.

Russ had asked me to rush to Port when the story ‘broke’. It was soon obvious that Monica wasn’t there and wasn’t arriving either.  I rang Russ to let him know. The call went something like this … “OK Brian … can’t hear you … just putting my golf clubs in the car and I’ll be up there in a few hours”.  He was too … his second love after beating everyone to the best news pic was golf.

Before I learned about ‘the wires’ and agency ‘play’ Russell had already made some of the most memorable images of the twentieth century. Arguably the most notable was the image (described by Australian photojournalist and commentator Mike Bowers as the best known news Image ever made by an Australian) of a member of the Palestinian ‘Black September’ terrorist group during the murderous attack on the Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

There were many more Russ images that circled the planet just like he did during a career that began at The Sun newspaper in Sydney. Wordsmiths have penned many tributes to Russ over the last few days … and tell his story far better than I. Please find a couple of them here … from the New York Times and the South China Morning Post. There are many more on the net …

Mike Bowers made this memorable statement when Russ was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame last November … “Few photographers take a picture powerful enough to enter the permanent consciousness of a nation, let alone become instantly recognizable around the world. Russ has a clutch of them”. Mike’s full tribute is here.

Russ’s funeral on Monday … ‘A Celebration of Life’ … was as memorable as his work and I was honoured to be there to say goodbye. The throng in attendance was a ‘who’s who’ of Australia’s media … including PJ colleagues Mark ‘Crusty’ Baker, Rick Rycroft, Rick Stevens, David Gray, John French, Paul Matthews, Phil Hillyard, Stephen Holland, Verity Chambers, Peter Morris, Patrick Riviere, Gregg Porteous, Will Burgess, Quentin Jones, Paul Lovelace (apols for those missed) … and former Nikon supremo John Swainston who also kindly picked me up from the airport. Russ’s spouse Shirley and former News Ltd Chairman and CEO John Hartigan brought … a rarity at a funeral … applause from all for their telling of Russ ‘tales’. Post event ‘tales’ went on at the Great Northern pub that eve.

Yes … it’s too late now to say but … Russ … I owe you … lots … Thanks … the pleasure has been all mine.


Russell McPhedran - Olympic Games 1975