Coup culture haunts Fiji

  • Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor
  • From: The Australian
  • November 07, 2009 12:00AM

KEVIN Rudd’s warning this week that he would not let Fiji export its “coup culture” through the Pacific sounded impressively steely, like his approach to asylum-seekers. But it’s misconceived.

Other Pacific Island countries face threats — corruption, a failure to deliver services and a lack of productive jobs prominent — but coups are not among them.

Simply, they can count themselves fortunate to lack the soldiers and weaponry required, which were among Britain’s perverse colonial bequests to Fiji and have since received lavish funding from the UN.

The chief challenge is not to keep coups at bay from other countries but to prevent the coup culture, the new order, from pervading every facet of Fiji’s life.

The row this week, including the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, appears to confirm that travel bans imposed by Australia and New Zealand on people in senior positions under the regime, their spouses and children, appears to be biting.

Coups in 1987 and 2000 shattered the myth of Fiji’s paradise but failed to undermine the mostly impressive quality of its public life and governance.

Sitiveni Rabuka, the first coup leader, stood in elections in 1992 and became prime minister until 1999. He did not openly defy the chiefs but, by grabbing power as a commoner, initiated the steady erosion of chiefly authority.

George Speight, who seized the elected government in 2000 and kept the cabinet hostage for 56 days, failed to ignite the popular uprising he had expected and remains in jail.

The coup led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama in December 2006, however, has been something else altogether. Its reach has proven pervasive.

Bainimarama has succeeded in militarising the country, with soldiers and sailors — usually lacking qualifications for their new positions — installed in almost every influential office. If not the military, then relatives of the new movers and shakers.

For instance, the new chief executive of the state-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation is Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, brother of powerful Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

Earlier this year Bainimarama’s brother-in-law, Commander Francis Kean, who had been sentenced to 18 months’ jail for punching and kicking a man to death at the wedding of Bainimarama’s daughter, was re-appointed head of the navy after being released from jail, where he had remained on full pay.

The chief justice appointed by Bainimarama, Australian and British citizen Anthony Gates, said last weekend: “One thing is clear, the judiciary in Fiji will not be cowed.”

But there have been waves of judicial sackings and resignations since the latest coup.

If one thing is clear, it is that the judiciary is indeed likely to be cowed. Amnesty International recently released a report highlighting “a climate of fear” in Fiji, which describes “a pattern of government interference in the judiciary, severe censorship of the media, and the harassment and arrests of government critics”, such as Australian National University professor Brij Lal, a Fiji-born Australian, who was expelled on Thursday following critical remarks about the regime.

The next challenge for Fiji is to finalise its budget, a task principally in the hands of John Prasad, a food technology expert appointed by the regime as permanent finance department head. Revenues are tumbling, with sugar prices falling fast, without compensating funding from the European Union following the government’s refusal to go to elections.

Garment sales are lower because of the global downturn, and tourism numbers are being sustained only by severe discounting. At the same time, Bainimarama has required the government to address a succession of ad hoc demands for higher spending, including paying every school child’s bus fares, costing $1.5 million a year.

Global ratings agency Moody’s has said in unusually robust language that Fiji is suffering from a “coup culture”.

Bainimarama answered: “Fiji is probably one of the best tourist destinations in the world but underneath there is a rot that we need to get rid of.

“This is the action that would stop all coups, that would stop all the destabilising forces from bringing up race issues from now onwards. That’s what we are trying to do.” His rationalisation for his coup is that he intends to establish a less racially based political structure in Fiji, where voting has run in part on ethnic lines since independence. At the time of Rabuka’s first and second coups in 1987, the country was almost equally divided demographically between ethnic Fijians and the rest, mainly the descendants of Indian labourers indentured by the British to operate the sugar industry.

Since then, many Indians with portable skills and savings have left, leaving ethnic Fijians at more than 60 per cent of the population. And Indians are continuing to leave, despite the claims of Bainimarama that he plans to introduce a constitution and political structure in which they have more of a stake.

The Fiji that Britain left was said to be ruled by a “three-legged stool”: the army, the Methodist Church and the chiefs.

But Bainimarama has already slashed the authority of the church and the chiefs, transforming this stool into a pogo stick in which the army, the recipient of three pay rises since the coup, holds all power.

The authorities have appeared to support the rise of the New Methodist Church, a rival institution established by former Air Pacific staff member Atu Vulaono, brother of police commissioner Esala Teleni, who is himself a former naval commodore like Bainimarama.

There are signs of some friction emerging within the ranks of the new order, however, with Bainimarama ordering evangelistic police chief Teleni to cease running “crusades” that the latter has claimed to be the most effective answer to crime.

“People say I’m mad,” Teleni has said, “but I’m mad for Jesus.”

The religious authority that appears to be emerging as a substitute for electoral accountability or constitutionality — the constitution was abrogated in April, when the judges were all sacked and elections put off for at least five years — was also apparent at the swearing-in, on Thursday, of the new President.

Following his induction as President by Gates at Government House, overlooking Suva Harbour opposite the now-abandoned parliament, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau read the 13th-century prayer of St Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace”, words also used by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 on her first election as prime minister of Britain.

Ratu Epeli, the then military commander, was in Australia when Rabuka led the first coup in Fiji, in May 1987, and was deposed. Bainimarama appointed him vice-president following his own coup.

But the Great Council of Chiefs, which under the 1997 constitution ratifies such appointments, rejected Ratu Epeli, although he is a senior chief and son-in-law of founding father Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

The council was then effectively disbanded by the military regime. But not everyone in the military has sided with the boss. The potential for splits there remains Bainimarama’s greatest point of vulnerability.

It was revealed on Thursday that the former second in command of the Fiji Military Forces’ land army, Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka, a PhD student at the Australian National University, has applied to Australia for a protection visa because he fears for his safety if he returns. Baledrokadroka told Radio Australia that Bainimarama “obviously wanted to politicise the military. He sees anyone who speaks out as an enemy. At the moment he is just hell-bent on retaliating against Australia and New Zealand.”



  1. Vasiti Osborne Says:

    Well Soili, this is a very good summation of what we have going on in Fiji there is nothing much left to say at least for those on our side of the fence.

  2. Talei Tabusoro Says:

    Yep Yeah and Yes ! to your title Solivakasama;

    what we have been saying all along at least those of us who are right thinking. Vo and his Mobsters came to power by the people’s guns (military) then expect us, right thinking people to accept that they are in this coup end all coups??? I doubt they even beleive their own lies no matter how stupid they are.

  3. Anon. Says:

    Those who do not learn from past mistakes are condemned to repeat them.

    There are many qualified within Fiji to take up judicial post – but chose not too because of the fragant breach of law & ethics this would imply.

    No legal practitioner with any understanding & duty towards their profession would touch these appointments.

    Any attempted justifiction for those that have & do is a mere facade
    for self serving oppurtunism. Anything else is mere commentary.

  4. Budhau Says:

    Anon, when you make a statement, you should be ready to back that up with facts.

    You wrote, “There are many qualified within Fiji to take up judicial post – but chose not too because of the fragant breach of law & ethics this would imply.”

    Yes, I am sure that there may be some who are not willing to take up these positions because of the reasons you state above.

    However, we also know for a fact Fiji always had foreign judges. We had Sri Lankan judges come here after the 1987 coup, the balk of judges who had resigned after the coup were from Australia and NZ.

    Therefore, your argument that we have qualified judges does nto hold water – we never had enough qualified judges.

    Secondly, there are some qualified lawyers in Fiji who are unwilling to takle up these position, not because of the reason you gave but simply because they or members of their family need to travel to ANZ for medical and other reasons and they are not willing to jeopardize the this ability to travel by taking up these jobs.

    You wrote, “No legal practitioner with any understanding & duty towards their profession would touch these appointments.”

    Hey Anon – we have seen numerous coup – just count from Ian Smith in 1965 onwards – and Legal practitioners have come down on both sides of this argument – where to serve as judges or not.

    Anon – if you were trying to show us your writing skills in the above post – good job, however, if that was some exercise in critical thinking, you have failed miserably.

    Talking about culture – I think the author in the above piece mentions something about who ruled Fiji – the army, the Methodist Church and the Chiefs – you should try and wipe out that culture – that all these three institutions should play any role in politics.

    …and who stated this coup culture – and don’t forget some foreign powers who were behind the 1st coup or they came on board just after Rabuka pulled the coup…and now they want to end this coup culture.

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