Born Kamisese Kapaiwai Tuimacilai Mara, May 6, 1920, in Lomaloma, Fiji; died from complications of a stroke, April 18, 2004, in Suva, Fiji. Politician. As a tribal chief of the Lau Islands of eastern Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara led his people to independence from Britain, becoming Fiji's first prime minister in 1970. During the Cold War he was an important ally of the United States, Australia, and New Zealand in the South Pacific. Considered Fiji's "founding father," Mara is credited with uniting the islands' feuding tribes toward the common goal of independence. "His leadership was marked by discipline, vision, and a keen and penetrating intellect," observed the sitting prime minister at the time of his death, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Belonging to an indigenous noble family in a British colonial society, Mara grew up in Vanuabalavu in the archipelago of Lau. Fiji consists of some 300 islands, its populace generally divided between Melanesian and Polynesian cultures. Mara became the tribal king of Lakemba, Lau's largest island. He studied medicine at the University of Otago in New Zealand. But prior to earning his degree, a Fijian leader, Rau Sir Lala Sukuna, recalled him to be groomed for the diplomatic service of his country. He was sent to Oxford University, where Sukuna had been the first Fijian to graduate. There, Mara learned modern history and earned a master's degree in political science; later, he studied Third World development principles at the London School of Economics. He also excelled in sports, especially in cricket. He returned home to assume various tribal and political responsibilities. In 1963, Mara founded the Alliance Party (AP), which represented multiracial interests (Fijian, European, part-European, Chinese, and Gujerati Indian), and was soon appointed to its chief magisterial position. That year, women were fully enfranchised in Fiji. In 1965, Britain granted Fiji a measure of self-government. The island's leaders, accustomed to ruling by birthright, began to adopt the principles of elective government.
In 1970, Mara received the "Instruments of Independence" from the Prince of Wales, making Fiji a sovereign nation within the Commonwealth, and after becoming prime minister he set about forming a government that cut across race, creed, and color lines. The West looked upon his efforts favorably. For more than a decade foreign investment poured into Fiji. The economy, formerly hampered by the post-colonial caste system, made strides with strong sugar and tourism industries and by encouraging free enterprise. But while many of the middle class became rich, the poor generally remained destitute. As the disparity between the haves and the have-nots grew, racial tension increased, and Mara was accused of dynastic favoritism and corruption.
A coalition of opposition parties was formed to contest the AP, and in the general election of 1987 Mara was ousted. But the following month, Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka led a successful coup attempt backed, it was alleged, by Mara's eldest son, perhaps even by Mara himself. In October of that year, Rabuka named Fiji a republic. Mara became its first prime minister, officially to prevent further upheaval, particularly amongst rival Melanesian and ethnic Indian factions. However a new constitution was written that put the interests of ethnic Fijians over others those of other groups, earning the Great Council of Chiefs—its promulgator—the condemnation of India, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1992, heading the Fijian Political Party, Rabuka took over the role of prime minister and Mara became vice-president. Two years later, after the death of the sitting president, Mara assumed the country's presidency. In May of 2000, another coup brought Mara down, this time permanently. Along with his daughter and many others, Mara was held hostage in Parliament for 56 days by an armed gang with ties to business and the army. After they threatened his daughter's life, Mara agreed to step down and retire from public life. Shortly thereafter, one of the coup plotters, George Speight, appointed himself acting premier, and as a result the British Commonwealth suspended Fiji's membership.
Though Speight was arrested two months later at the order of the Great Council of Chiefs, he was briefly an MP in the new government, but in 2001 he was expelled for poor attendance in parliament. Speight would later be found guilty of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mara, who published a 1997 autobiography, The Pacific Way, suffered a stroke in 2001 and never fully recovered. He died from stroke-related complications on April 18, 2004, in Suva, Fiji, at the age of 83. His burial ceremony was a colorful affair attended by thousands and held in a mixture of Fijian and British styles: 600 soldiers carried his coffin to the burial grounds guarded by traditional warriors dressed in palm leaf skirts and wielding clubs. Mara is survived by his wife, Lady Ro Lala Mara, two sons, and three daughters.
BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/3680829.stm (January 2, 2005).
BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1300499.stm (January 2, 2005).
Independent, (London), April 20, 2004, p. 34.
Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2004, p. B13.
New York Times, April 20, 2004, p. A21.
Times (London), April 20, 2004 p. 26.
Washington Post, April 21, 2004, p. B6.
—D. László Conhaim