Canberra to maintain a hard line on Fiji
Rowan Callick | September 07, 200
Article from: The Australian
THE Pacific-watching community, such as it is in Australia, is wringing its hands about what to do about recalcitrant Fiji – but Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is displaying no second thoughts.
He is going for the jugular.
The government has asked the UN to order a “progressive replacement of Fijian troops” in peacekeeping operations – which provide the third-biggest source of national income after tourism and sugar.
A Foreign Affairs Department spokesperson said last week: “We have conveyed our position on a number of occasions to the UN at senior levels, and the UN has advised us that it is aware of and has taken account of our position.”
This tactic strikes at the core of the support for prime minister and military commander Frank Bainimarama – his own army colleagues, who have been the principal, arguably the only, material beneficiaries from the coup he led in December 2006. What happens when the perks stop coming?
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully has said that “it is very hard to see how (the UN) can justify using military people who have overthrown the rule of law in their own country as the agents to enforce the rule of law as peacekeepers somewhere else”.
The army spent a long time responding to the coup in mid-2000 when George Speight seized the entire cabinet and held them hostage in the parliament compound for 56 days.
Eventually, it did regain control, and Speight was jailed for life. Bainimarama set up Laisenia Qarase, a government banker and senator – in which role he championed affirmative action for ethnic Fijians – as prime minister.
But Bainimarama failed to gain the enhanced status and voice in the public realm he felt he deserved. The attempted mutiny of November 2000, when five mutineers and three loyal soldiers were killed, underlined his sense of unease, his desire to gain a more prominent role and with it greater control over the nation’s – and his own – destiny.
He appears to have been sincere in seeking a less racially based political structure in Fiji, where voting has run in part on ethnic lines since independence from Britain in 1970. This stance was accompanied by a stepping up of the tension between the army and the government led by Qarase that it had installed, undiminished by that government’s obtaining narrow mandates at elections in 2001 and 2006. The first coup in Fiji, and in the Pacific generally, was led by then colonel Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987 in order to reinforce the dominant position of ethnic Fijians at a time when the country was more equally divided demographically.
Since then, and substantially as a result of Fiji’s political instability, the members of the Indian community with portable skills and savings have largely fled, leaving the ethnic Fijians with at least 60 per cent of the population.
The Bainimarama coup, while ostensibly to support fairer status for the Indians, has instead seen an acceleration in their exodus as they fear both the economic consequences of the promised four further years of military rule and an eventual reckoning by suppressed Fijian nationalists.
In April, Bainimarama raised the stakes considerably by abrogating the constitution, sacking the judiciary, imposing censorship on the media, replacing the Reserve Bank head and declaring that no election would be held until September 2014.
Justice delayed, justice denied. Democracy delayed that long, democracy also denied.
The army has taken on Fiji’s other core institutions, including the chiefs and the Methodist Church – which have formerly championed the ethnic Fijian cause – and effectively silenced them, too. Since April, Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum and since last week from the Commonwealth. Its foreign reserves have slumped, in part because of its “coup culture”, says ratings agency Moody’s, which like its competitor Standard & Poor’s has downgraded Fiji this year.
The measure that has been most effective, though, hitting Fiji’s elite hardest, has been the ban on entry to Australia or New Zealand by people in senior government positions or boards – and their families.
This underlines the importance to Fiji of those two “great powers” of the region. It also provides people who view the military regime with distaste, with an excellent excuse not to accept invitations to serve it.
Is China seizing the chance of rushing in to the resulting vacuum? Wang Yongqiu, the head of Pacific relations at China’s Foreign Ministry, formerly posted to Suva and Canberra, told The Australian during the recent Pacific Islands Forum summit in Cairns: “While we are conducting interactions with Fiji, we have tried to persuade it to conduct friendly relations with its neighbouring countries, but its future is decided by its own people and its own government.”
Carefully calibrated words. China naturally wants to increase its influence, but not at the cost of utterly alienating Australia even at this awkward time between Beijing and Canberra. It has learned from the global response to its earlier embrace of outcast regimes in Africa.
Fortunately, we have in James Batley, our high commissioner in Suva, Australia’s top Pacific diplomat.
But within Australia, many Pacific-watchers worry that Canberra’s strategy of isolating the Suva regime is counter-productive because it leaves no room for incentives for the military to do the right thing.
Peter Thompson, the second-eldest of a fifth generation of Britons in Fiji and Fiji’s secretary for information during the first coups, talked on ABC Radio National’s Counterpoint program about a recent visit to Suva.
He had a 90-minute meeting with Bainimarama, and compared his line on multi-ethnic harmony with the worrying legislation lined up by Qarase to return all freehold land and beaches to the original Fijian owners, and to free Speight and his gang.
It’s true that such forms of democracy in Fiji have not been healthy in recent times. But at least there was an institutionalised capacity to debate and disagree.
The inflexible Suva regime has given little cause to believe that it is truly capable of serving people, as opposed to ordering them about. It is a military regime of a different order entirely, in its ubiquity, from that imposed by Rabuka. It has deployed ill-equipped military officers to run almost every area of public life.
Jon Fraenkel, a Fiji expert and former resident, now at the Australian National University, said recently that Bainimarama “has cast himself in the role of a modern-day Robespierre seeking to transcend the parochial divisions of the ancient regime, or as a born-again Kemal Ataturk intent on building a modern secular order.
“More usually, ‘coups to end all coups’ that aim to transcend communal divisions have ended in forms of dictatorship. The idea of the army that stands above the fray finds little historical support, especially when the military itself reflects communal divisions – as in Fiji where it remains 99per cent indigenous,” Fraenkel says.
Should Australia be “imposing” democracy on such a country – especially when it does not push China, for instance, to become democratic?
This is where the politics, the “art of the possible”, comes in to play. Compared with China, Fiji has been a democracy, however flawed. It has now gone backwards. And it is hurting, economically and socially. It is hard to see the status quo surviving another five years, as planned.
If the military regime were simply to be invited back into the fold in the meantime, the message, the precedent, would be clear. You can seize power, defy the world, and win. If, of course, you have the weapons – and personnel trained, hardened and rewarded through UN international operations.