Military & Aerospace

Ethnic Armies Revisited
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 30 Sep , 2011

The article Ethnic Armies was first printed in the Indian Defence Review – April-June 2000

Eleven years ago, following a coup in Fiji, leading to the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mahendra Chaudhry, and the apparent complicity of elements of the Fijian armed forces therein, the author began a study of the ethnic dynamic at play in the armed forces of his native Trinidad, the neighbouring country of Guyana and Fiji.

Fiji has effectively excluded Indo-Fijians from national political leadership while in Guyana racial vitriol is never far from the political diatribe launched against the government which is supported by Indo-Guyanese.

Since the original article much has changed. Trinidad has had no fewer than five General Elections, culminating in the election of the country’s first female Prime Minister, Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a Hindu Indo-Trinidadian. Guyana’s President Bharrat Jagdeo is demitting office with elections due in late 2011. Fiji is now under a de facto military dictatorship that has, rather surprisingly, acted to assuage at least some apprehensions of the Indo-Fijian population and to act against some of the grosser abuses perpetrated by the native Fijian population. Furthermore, recently, Guyana’s Disciplined Forces Commission has had its report finally approved by the country’s parliament and an unseemly row over ethnic representation in the Trinidad and Tobago’s Police Service led to the dismissal of the Indo-Trinidadian Chairman of the Police Service Commission.

It needs to be reiterated that the Indians of Fiji, Guyana and Trinidad are now largely third-generation migrants, having been brought as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations. This labour importation took place between 1834 and 1917. Indo-Fijians, Guyanese and Trinidadians are all citizens of their respective countries. Furthermore, in numerical terms, Indians comprise very substantial proportions of the populations in these nations – ranging from 40% in Trinidad, to 43.5% in Guyana, to 37.6% in Fiji. Indians represent the largest racial grouping in both Trinidad and Guyana but while Indo-Fijians comprised over 45% of Fiji’s population in the late 1980s, massive emigration had dramatically reduced their numbers.

Politically, Fiji has effectively excluded Indo-Fijians from national political leadership while in Guyana racial vitriol is never far from the political diatribe launched against the government which is supported by Indo-Guyanese. Trinidad is, as always, more complicated with racial factors clearly playing a role in politics but with the current Indo-Trinidadian prime minister enjoying considerable support across ethnic lines but having significantly lower support among non-Indo-Trinidadians and with a much lower level. Racial tension in Trinidad is much lower than in either of the other two subject countries and relations between the two main ethnic groups – African and Indian – are generally harmonious.

This article is not intended to be a rehash of the data, or the conclusions contained in the original. Rather it is to provide an update on the situation as it relates to the ethnic composition of the security forces in the subject countries.


In October 2007, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces finally revealed details of its ethnic composition. The data, however, was worse than expected – of 3527 full-time personnel only 15 were Indo-Fijian.1 This represents a ludicrously low 0.425% of the military establishment.

Despite his purported desire to end racial strife and discrimination, Commodore Bainimaramas choice as Fijis Police Commissioner led to a major incident of racial and religious tension.

These figures represent a massive deterioration in the representation of Indo-Fijians, who even in 1975 contributed 36 members of the 1030 strong military forces.2 It would therefore appear that factors other than the usual excuse of rigours physical standards deterring Indians are at play. The participation of the military in each of the successful armed overthrows of Fijian governments almost certainly has served to deter Indo-Fijians from enlisting in an outfit that has repeatedly shown itself to be biased in its dealings with the community.3

The current military dictatorship of Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama has openly expressed a desire to move away from the existing communal electoral rolls which are heavily biased in favour of the indigenous population to a single common electoral roll and has advocated a policy that moves away from special rights and protection to the indigenous Fijian population. However, his regime has not moved decisively to end the de facto exclusion of Indo-Fijians from the armed forces and his regime’s failure to hold elections is cause for major concern.

Despite his purported desire to end racial strife and discrimination, Commodore Bainimarama’s choice as Fiji’s Police Commissioner led to a major incident of racial and religious tension. Commodore Esala Teleni embarked upon a Christian crusade within the Fijian Police Force and openly encouraged and/or forced Indo-Fijian police officers, the vast majority of whom are Hindu or Muslim to participate. In an unprecedented display of bigotry, Teleni called Indo-Fijian officers “backstabbers and liar” and issued thinly-veiled threats of dismissal.4 Commodore Bainimarama’s apparent support for these comments was inexplicable.5 However Teleni “resigned” as Police Commissioner in August 2010.6

There have been recent signs that more Indo-Guyanese are coming forward to join the GPF with anecdotal evidence suggesting that near parity in recruiting numbers has been achieved on occasion.

It would appear that the Fijian police, once a majority Indo-Fijian outfit, have also suffered a decline in Indo-Fijian representation. Though the Fijian police claim to closely represent the ethnic composition of the population, it would appear that at most 30% of the Fijian police are of Indian descent – a sharp drop from 45.5% in 1984.7

It is difficult to determine what the future holds for the Indo-Fijian population, much less its composition of the protective services of that nation. That the political discourse in Fiji degenerates so easily into racially exclusivist and racially supremacist language on the part of indigenous Fijian politicians is a damning indictment on that country and such attitudes are incompatible with civilized countries in the 21st century.


In May 2004, Guyana’s Disciplined Forces Commission submitted its final report a year after being constituted. The Commission’s report dealt with inter alia measures to increase the efficacy of the Disciplined Forces as well as addressing the ethnic imbalance issue that has long plagued the Guyanese protective services. Of particular interest to the subject at hand were the details released on the ethnic composition of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) and the Guyana Police Force (GPF).

In testimony before the Commission, the GDF indicated that it had, in 2003, an actual strength of some 2630 personnel – 20 short of its authorised strength. Of these 80% were Afro-Guyanese, 8% Indo-Guyanese and 12% of other races.8

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Sanjay Badri-Maharaj

is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security and the author of The Armageddon Factor – Nuclear Weapons in the India-Pakistan Context  

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