Good intentions not enough to protect Fiji from peril

By David Costello
April 20, 2009 12:00am

FROM a distance, it might appear that Fiji’s military dictatorship is a relatively benign affair.

There are no shootings of dissidents, and the harassment of foreign media is rather polite.

When expelled Australian ABC correspondent Sean Dorney arrived in Sydney last week, he reported that he was not physically threatened when being kicked out.

There are those who argue that military leader and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is Fiji’s best hope of creating a democracy which gives the Indian minority a fair go. His mission, after all, is to reform the communal voting system, which is grossly weighted to benefit indigenous Fijians.

He also wants to end the corrupt system under which the Great Council of Chiefs elects the president and supervises the system under which land rentals are collected and disbursed.

These sentiments ignore the darker realities of post-coup Fiji. Since Bainimarama overthrew the elected government of Laisenia Qarase in December 2006, there have been a stream of reports about soldiers beating and harassing opponents of the ruling clique.

The events of the past 10 days have darkened the regime’s already poor reputation.

Bainimarama and his ally President Ratu Josefa Iloilo have conducted a wholesale purge of institutions, sacking the country’s judiciary, including three Australian judges on Fiji’s Court of Appeal.

Respected technocrats, most notably Reserve Bank Governor Savenaca Naruba, have been shown the door.

All of this hurts the national economy which is already suffering because of downturns in the sugar and tourism industries.

One scenario floated last week was that the country may be on the way to becoming the “Burma of the South Pacific”.

That argument, advanced by ANU academic Brij Lal, does not suggest that Fiji will track Burma’s sorry history of slave labour and mass murder. It is more to do with the entrenched militarisation of democracy and Suva’s deepening isolation.

The military regime has tried to portray Fiji as a place where it is business as normal. Government spokesman Major Neumi Leweni has been heard on radio saying that children were going to school and people were shopping. Underneath this picture of tropical tranquillity, however, there is fear and tension.

Newspapers have military censors in their editorial departments and are justifiably scared that one slip-up could land staff in jail. A Fiji TV reporter was jailed for 36 hours last week just for for reporting Dorney’s detention.

Journalists know that sometimes the military does more than just lock up its opponents.

Amnesty International’s 2008 report on Fiji said that three men had died after assaults in military detention in the previous 12 months.

When it comes to the economy, everybody is suffering.

Since 2006, the crucial sugar industry has borne the brunt of international sanctions with the European Union suspending an assistance package worth $500 million. EU officials have warned that the latest crisis will make it harder to negotiate a new deal.

Sugar employs a quarter of the workforce and brings in 22 per cent of export earnings. Its decline means hard times in the countryside.

Tourism is also doing it tough with Tourism Fiji chairman Patrick Wong reporting that arrival numbers and room occupancy levels in January this year were down 27.6 per cent from January 2008.

National wealth is in freefall. In 2006, Fijians had a GDP per capita of $US6049. By 2008, this had slumped to $US3900.

Australia and New Zealand have led moves to isolate Bainimarama and his supporters, but the country’s neighbours have also had enough of his repressive tactics. Niue Prime Minister Toke Talagi, the current head of the Pacific Island Forum, wants Fiji to be suspended immediately from the regional organisation.

Through all this, Bainimarama has stood firm, pledging that there will be no new elections until 2014. He says it will take at least that long to establish a fairer electoral system.

But while his motives may, in part, be honourable, his methods are not. Fiji cannot afford another five years of military rule.

David Costello is The Courier-Mail’s foreign editor.

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