Pacific News Spot: A Change in Flag to Represent a Modern Identity

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Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama announced on the 3rd of February that the Fijian flag (pictured above) will be replaced on the 10th of October. This date will signify the 45th anniversary of  independence from the British Empire which occurred in 1970. This is no coincidence as the motive for replacing the flag is to shun the colonial past of Fiji. In its place Bainimarama wishes for a flag design that represents the Fijian national identity and position in the world in the modern era. This involves removing the colonial symbols of the Union Jack and the shield motif that depicts the St George cross, a lion, sugar cane, bananas, a palm tree, and a dove. Each represents a source of colonial domination for a variety of reasons. The Union Jack, St George cross, and the lion are obvious direct references to Britain. Sugar cane and bananas represent the Fijian plantation past whereby Indian labourers were indentured to work such plantations. This to Fijian Indians is not the imagery that they fondly remember. Furthermore sugar cane and bananas no longer represent a large proportion of Fiji’s economic activity, this has long been overtaken by the tourist sector. The dove also does not represent local wildlife or fauna that many call for to be represented in the new flag. The past actions of Prime Minister Bainimarama have foreshadowed a change towards a more representative flag. In 2013 during a new year’s speech he stated that Fiji was in need of a new flag, however preparations for the first democratic elections since a coup in 2006 put such a task on hold. Furthermore, the elections needed to pre-date the change in flag in order for its design to hold some democratic legitimacy. Bainimarama in his time of military decree also removed the queen’s head from the national currency, and has scrapped the queen’s public holiday. Therefore it should come as no surprise that a change in flag has been announced. New designs for the flag will be offered in a national competition which school children are also encouraged to participate. In this announcement by Bainimarama it must be asked, what is the current local opinion of changing the flag? How will it incorporate and account for Fiji’s ethnic diversity? Where does this move stand with regards to other flag changes directed against the colonial past?

Local reaction to Bainimarama’s announcement is starting to come through. It has been mixed and has caused debate within the media. On “Pacific Beat” radio 05/02/15, the designer of the current flag, Tessa Mackenzie, claims that on the ground approximately 75% of the population generally oppose a change in flag. She claims that the Fijian people rally around and proudly display the Fijian flag during sporting events such as the rugby 7s. She also alludes that the sky blue background of the flag is unique and has become emblematic of Fijian identity. The chiefs of Fiji have supported Bainimarama in claiming that the part Britain has played in the Fijian past is now over and that a change in flag needs to represent that. Again Tessa Mackenzie says it’s a mistake to run from the past, it cannot and will not be ignored by changing it.

Another prominent criticism is that it will be difficult to agree upon a design that represents all of the ethnic groups of Fiji, particularly the Fijian Indians. Despite the fact that the current flag symbolises colonial dominance and exploitation of the British Empire over Fijian Indians, a new flag may equally deny them the opportunity to be displayed prosperously in Fijian national identity. If purely indigenous Fijian symbols are used then it would signal yet another blow for Fijian Indians and their position in Fiji. It must be noted that the coups of 1987, 2000 and 2006 were all initiated by indigenous Fijian outrage of Indian Fijian dominance in parliament. As a result of these violent political events the Indian population, which was around half of the national population, plummeted to less than a quarter, as they migrated out to other Pacific nations. In 2014 however a move towards Indian inclusion/connection occurred with the visit and acceptance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Fiji. Giant banners welcoming Modi were displayed all over the country to welcome him as a representative of the Fijian Indian’s homeland. During this visit considerable aid funds were negotiated, signalling a renewed recognition of the Indian population in Fiji from both the Fijian and Indian governments. If Bainimarama wishes to continue the sentiment of Indian political and cultural inclusion, then Fijian Indian symbolism must be included in the flag.

It is important to note that a change in flag, especially away from colonial symbolism, has many successful precedents which are shown below. Canada changed their flag away from one that also displayed a Union Jack and a shield, much like Fiji. The South African flag was changed from one which was a mash up of the Dutch East India Company flag, the Union Jack, and the flags of two South African Republics. The British New Hebrides had the Union Jack and a crown symbol. The flags that these three nations changed towards successfully represents and displays their national identities. Canada changed their flag image to an iconic maple leaf in 1957 which is generally considered as part of the fauna that is representative of Canadian identity. In 1994, South Africa changed to a flag known as the “reconciliation flag” which was a part of the ethnic renegotiation movement that the nation experienced with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. It was initially only supposed to be an interim flag during this process of reconciliation, however it was accepted as the permanent flag as a nod to this reconciliation history. The flag of the New Hebrides, which was adopted in 1980, has many components that represent their identity. The green represents the richness of the islands, the red symbolizes the blood of wild boars and men, and the black the ni-vanuatu people. The yellow Y-shape represents the light of the Gospel going through the pattern of the islands in the Pacific Ocean. The emblem in the black is a boar’s tusk the symbol of prosperity worn as a pendant on the islands. The flag change came as it claimed independence in 1980. The name of the New Hebrides was also changed to Vanuatu to complete the identity change. These flags all provide examples of a change from a colonial themed flag to one that appropriately represents independent national identity. As a result there is certainly hope that Fiji can achieve the same results. Currently the only other flags of independent nations that display the Union Jack are New Zealand, Australia, and Tuvalu. Currently New Zealand is planning on changing its flag to one that’s black with a silver fern depicted in the middle. Such a proposed flag clearly represents New Zealand identity and unity. It is generally believed that changing the Australian flag would be much more difficult due to long standing racial tensions and complexities.

Currently no official release is available from Britain on Fiji’s proposed change of flag. Leading up to the 10th of October, more debate will occur on what symbols shall be included, and/or debate on the change’s relevance to Fiji. I will continue to follow opinions on the flag change and national identity. So keep posted!

 

South African flag change

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Canadian Flag change

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New Hebrides / Vanuatu flag change

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lucaswatt

lucaswatt

Lucas Watt is a PhD candidate with the school of Media and Communications at RMIT University. His project title is “The Domestication of Mobile Money in Fiji: An Ethnographic Study”.