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.”