Perfect one day, brutal the next

  • Michael McKenna and Rory Callinan
  • From: The Australian
  • July 05, 2010

Fiji resorts

Source: The Australian

AUSTRALIAN academic Brij Lal wasn’t expecting trouble when he was called to the front gate of his family home in Suva.

But when the Canberra-based, Fijian-born professor, researching a new book in the island nation’s capital, looked down the driveway and saw four burly men leaning against unmarked government four-wheel-drives, he knew something was very wrong.

His fears were confirmed when he heard the chilling command: “Come with us, you are needed up at the barracks.”

The long-time headquarters of Fiji’s military, the Queen Elizabeth II barracks, high up on the hill overlooking Suva, has also become the sinister beacon of power for dictator Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama.

Since overthrowing the democratically elected government of Laisenia Qarase in 2006, scores of Bainimarama’s opponents have been hauled to the barracks where they have been held for days, sometimes weeks, beaten and, in the case of some women, had their heads shaved before being marched to exhaustion.

Despite being an Australian citizen, Lal realised as he sat book-ended by two plain-clothed soldiers in the back of the 4WD, that he was about to receive a nasty lesson in what happens when you don’t respect the coup.

“As I was being led away, I called out to my wife, ‘Quick, ring the Australian embassy’,” Lal says in his first interview about his detention last November.

“I wasn’t that worried because I was standing up for what I believed in. But fear is always at the back of your mind when you are dealing with people who are not rational.”

Several hours before in a radio interview, he had dared to express concern about the then-recent expulsion of the Australian high commissioner James Batley and his New Zealand counterpart for allegedly interfering in the appointment of Sri Lankan judges to Fiji’s judiciary.

At the QEII barracks, Lal, a professor of Pacific and Asian history at the Australian National University, was locked up in a barren, 4m by 6m concrete prison cell.

He sat for two hours until the cell door opened and before him stood Colonel Sitiveni Qiliho, one of Bainimarama’s most feared and fanatically loyal underlings.

Qiliho immediately launched into a verbal assault.

“Qiliho reminded me about the reality on the ground and that the military was fully in control and that my views were not acceptable,” Lal recalls.

“He said we didn’t understand the noble motives and the intentions of the military for Fiji; he was yelling and pushed me at one point and my glasses fell off and broke on the ground.”

Lal says he was saved from further harassment after Qiliho took a phone call. To this day, he doesn’t know who called the military thug.

“He went out for five minutes and then came back and said, ‘All right, you can go, but I don’t want to see you around here. I want you to take the first flight out of Fiji.’

“These are people who are used to a different rule, marching to a different step, for whom freedom of speech [is an] alien value.”

Lal took the next flight to Australia and has since been banned from returning to his country with his wife who, at the time, was also working in Suva.

For many Australians, his treatment by the military government would have come as a surprise.

The bloodless 2006 coup may have rocked diplomatic ranks and fuelled instability between Melanesian countries, but it has barely registered within the wider communities of the region.

Tens of thousands of holidaymakers, mainly from Australia and New Zealand, have seized on the discounted packages of desperate Fiji resorts and airlines that have been on offer since the coup in December 2006.

But few tourists get to see how Fijians live under martial law. In Suva, just a few hours’ drive from the Coral Coast resorts, the government of Bainimarama, a career soldier and rugby fanatic, has become increasingly erratic and oppressive.

It is a far cry from the early days after Bainimarama’s coup – the fourth in 20 years – in which he espoused the pursuit of noble causes: ridding the country of its enshrined racism against the dwindling Indo-Fijian population, and holding elections in 2009.

The election timeframe has now blown out to at least 2014, with the constitution and judiciary dumped last year after a court ruling against the legitimacy of the Bainimarama government.

Over the past four years, Bainimarama has also seized control of state assets, taken control of the police and the public service by appointing coup sympathisers, re-established an internal spy service and deported foreign journalists.

The rule of law has been replaced by a cascade of decrees drafted by his confidant, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, that serves his regime and outlaws any dissent.

In the past year there have been more than 50 legally binding decrees that cover anything from children’s school homework to February’s crime decree, which permits a coup if “it is done with good intention”. Most have gone unnoticed outside Fiji.

But last week, the latest decree – the media industry development decree – drew worldwide condemnation for its repression of a free press.

The decree includes two-year jail terms for editors and journalists whose work is deemed against “the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends against good taste or decency or creates communal discord”.

It also orders that media outlets must be 90 per cent owned by Fijian citizens who live permanently in the island nation.

The Fiji Times, the oldest, (founded in 1869) and largest of the country’s newspapers, is wholly owned by News Limited, publisher of The Australian. It has three months to comply with the decree or be closed down.

The law follows intimidation of reporters by soldiers, deportation of foreign-born newspaper executives and, last year, imposition of censors into newsrooms to ban “negative” stories about the government.

The man charged with overseeing the new media laws, former Canberra academic Satendra Nandan admits the foreign ownership changes are directed at the Fiji Times because of its coverage of the regime, particularly after the scrapping of the judiciary and constitution last year.

“The Fiji Times is an institution, a part of everyday life here, and has a number of very fine journalists,” he says.

“We had a media that was vibrant and vigilant until things went wrong in 2006 and then some parts of the media became abusive and scurrilous.

“The Fiji Times took a strong stand against the current government and the abrogation of the constitution and they didn’t consider the national interest.”

But beyond the democratic ramifications of the media decree is the predicted impact of the retrospective crackdown on foreign investment like that of News, which bought the Fiji Times 23 years ago.

Former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, the first coup leader, who was elected in 1992 and held power until 1999, said it would send the wrong message to international business.

“I am worried that future foreign investors will be scared away because there is no certainty with Fiji laws,” he says. “And no local will buy [the Fiji Times] in the next three months because any prospective buyer will be worried about the next decree, and then the next, under this government.”

On Friday, Bainimarama rejected the view that the media decree would hurt foreign investment or that it would have a “positive effect on access to accurate information”.

“Fiji has a vibrant and growing media industry in print, broadcasting and the new media, with lots of potential for investment,” he told Auckland-based Radio Tarana.

“Currently we have 14-plus media outlets, not including internet. While the Fiji Times claims to be a vital source of independent news, so are the other media outlets.”

Since the coup, the international community – including Australia, New Zealand and the Europeam Union (which has a long tradition of giving aid to the region) – has been careful not to damage the wider Fijian community in their efforts to return the country to democracy.

Australia and New Zealand have imposed travel sanctions on members of the regime, military and their sympathisers. Fiji has also been suspended as a member of the Pacific Islands Forum.

But both the Howard and Rudd governments, with the full support of foreign affairs officials, have refused to take any further action for fear it might damage the local economy.

“Trade sanctions and the like are not on the table, it would only hurt the average mum and dad who are trying to support their families,” one Australian foreign affairs official says.

But the Fijian economy is far from robust, with the falling price of sugar (the country’s main export) and half-empty resorts, despite the discounts and a 20 per cent devaluation of the Fiji dollar this year.

The fragility of the economy was confirmed on Friday by Bainimarama in delivering the country’s budget as finance minister.

In his budget, Bainimarama says the government’s deficit – which had been capped at 3.5 per cent of GDP – is now hovering at about 5 per cent.

Bainimarama also canvassed moves to seek a loan of around $F1 billion (about $594 million) from the IMF to inject into the economy.

He is unlikely to get the loan without making moves towards an earlier election – and such moves don’t appear to be on the cards.

But the dire situation may force the dictator’s hand or that of the community he rules with fear.

One Australian foreign affairs official says the Fijian people are now inclined to accept the Bainimarama regime.

“They are not complacent, but they are resigned to the situation and they want to get on with life,” he says. “Bainimarama has been looking comfortable.

“The sad fact is that if the economy gets really bad, then the people may have no choice but to stand up to him and his thugs.”


2 Responses to “Perfect one day, brutal the next”

  1. Junta thugs of Fiji Says:

    An excellent article on the realities of the terrible situation in Fiji under the human rights abusing murdering thugs of this evil military regime.

  2. Gurl Says:

    An excellent article x2

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