Britain's queen is still the 'king of Fiji'
Suva - Fiji's powerful Great Council of Chiefs caused some surprise when they announced they wanted the queen of Britain, on the other side of the world, to formally open their proposed new chiefly complex.
But they had a good reason: Queen Elizabeth II is officially the "King of the Fiji Islands", council chairperson Epeli Ganilau said.
The monarch holds the paramount titles of "Tui Viti" and the "Vunivalu", Ganilau explained, even though the former British colony has been independent since 1970 and a republic since the first 1987 coup.
Fiji's status as a republic only represented severance from the queen as head of state at government level, he said.
"We did not just pluck a name out of thin air. This complex is a significant achievement for us and we felt it was only fitting that the holder of the title that is above all other chiefs officiate at the opening," Ganilau said.
"Her status is on record. There is no doubt that she remains so, because to relinquish the title or have it removed requires another traditional ceremony and that has never been done," said Ganilau, whose father, Penaia, was the first governor-general of the Pacific nation after independence.
He admitted that even some Fijians did not know that Queen Elizabeth was the top chief of their country.
"It is not widely known that she is the paramount chief of Fiji in the traditional sense; only some of the council members remembered her status and I can say this generation of young people do not know of this connection at all.
"Her returning to our shores would strengthen this relationship we have and hopefully open the eyes of the younger generation."
Archives show the top chiefly titles were bestowed on the English throne in a traditional installation procedure in 1902 when then-monarch King Edward was represented by the governor.
The procedure was repeated in 1937 "on the observance of His Majesty's (King George VI's) birthday throughout the empire".
The 1937 ceremony was in the presence of all high chiefs, a sizable crowd including "a number of natives from Bau island in ceremonial dress".
A whale's tooth presented at the ceremony represented the colony's "loyalty to the high chief, the King of Fiji".
During the 1987 coups, led by military strongman Sitiveni Rabuka, the queen was understood to have taken a personal interest in events and contacted key people.
It is because of this personal interest that the council is hopeful she will make another visit to the nation, with her last being in 1982.
Fiji's chiefs are concerned about the potential erosion of indigenous tradition and culture, including efforts by the Christian church groups that are sprouting in the country, Ganilau said.
Some Fijians are using religion as a way of getting around traditional obligations, including participating in traditional ceremonies, he said.
And some of the churches are not culturally sensitive, for example, banning certain traditional rituals and the traditional drink, kava.
Meanwhile, some of the indigenous youth were abusing kava and marijuana, another concern of the chiefs. - Sapa-AFP