August 4, 2010

It’s a sun-filled, fun-filled destination for thousands of Australians. It’s where you’ll find footy clubs bonding boozely at the end of a long season, honeymooners strolling hand in hand along the beach and families on cheap-as-chips holiday packages draped on sun lounges and splashing in pools.

Fiji – like Bali – is a value-for-money getaway hotspot that’s become like a home away from home.

Trouble is life isn’t so free and easy for the locals. They live in the iron grip of an iron-willed man named Frank Bainimarama. The rugby loving Commodore Bainimarama grew impatient with what he saw as the clumsy, damaging ruck and maul of democracy in the island nation and punted the Prime Minister and his government cohorts out of power.

The Commodore took the helm.

Since then – and while the tourists keep on coming – Fiji has become a political pariah, frowned upon from afar, admonished by close neighbours Australia and New Zealand and sliding down a slippery slope into economic quicksand. The constitution’s been trashed, what Frank says goes and a team of his censors patrol the national news media pulling anything that may be construed as critical or unfavourable.

And Commodore Bainimarama grows more confident that Fiji his way is the right way.

Now the normally taciturn Bainimarama has granted us wide ranging access to his world and his ways. Foreign Correspondent’s Philippa McDonald has just returned from an assignment in Fiji that netted surprising candour from the controller-in-chief. Oh, and some defiance as well.

MCDONALD: You are a military dictator.
BAINIMARAMA: I am a military man but what does dictator mean to you ?
MCDONALD: You do have a very tight grip on Fijian society.
BAINIMARAMA: Yes but is that what dictatorship is about? Because if that’s the case most of the countries in this region have dictators.

With the Commodore fending off international pressure to expedite elections and return his domain to democracy, this is a timely and compelling insight into a powerful man feeling anything but isolated and a nation struggling under his rule.

*** read the full transcript or view via video on previous posting


August 4, 2010

ead the transcript of Philippa Mcdonald’s full interview with Commodore Frank Bainimarama. See video


FIJIAN RADIO: Fiji’s Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, says preparations for the meeting are well underway and he’s looking forward to meeting the interested Pacific leaders.

MCDONALD: We’ve had a somewhat unexpected invitation to a private party at the Prime Minister’s official residence, high above the capital of Suva. The self-proclaimed PM, and his wife Mary, are gracious hosts.
It’s Sunday and a proud grandfather is relaxing with his extended family. Frank Bainimarama’s grandson David is five years old today and in Fijian tradition he’s wished a long and happy life.

BAINIMARAMA: People in Fiji are very passionate about our families, not only me and my family, the whole lot of us.

MCDONALD: Commodore Frank Bainimarama rarely grants access to his private world, but as we were to see during our assignment, the coup leader, self-styled moral and political compass, and chief censor, was on occasions remarkably, well, frank.

BAINIMARAMA: We are shown in the TV and the papers every day as dictators – dictators in the sense that we go around abusing the power that we have. That doesn’t happen here.

MCDONALD: You are a military dictator though.

BAINIMARAMA: I am a military man, but what does dictator mean to you?

MCDONALD: Well you do have a very firm grip on Fijian society.

BAINIMARAMA: Yes but is that what dictatorship is about? If that is the definition of dictator, then I guess most of the countries in the region have dictators.

MCDONALD: The rolling family showcase would take us to Saturday sports day and netball with his daughter, Dee.

[To Dee at netball] I’ve heard your dad love karaoke.

DEE BAINIMARAMA: Yes, yes he loves his music. He loves his music and he loves his jokes and he loves his practical jokes.

MCDONALD: Do you love coming along and watching?

BAINIMARAMA: Yes, yes very much. Especially when my grandchildren play.

MCDONALD: It’s the tough, rough and tumble of rugby that’s the Commodore’s preferred code. At Suva’s Albert Park, the home team is playing visitors Navosa. It’s a hard uncompromising game and this military man couldn’t enjoy it more. It is, after all, the way he plays the big game here in Fiji. And he’s playing a long game too – it’s his Fiji until at least 2014.

When you took over the government in 2006, you said elections within one year, then it was elections within two years, then it was elections in four years. Now it’s elections within eight years, come 2014, is Fiji definitely going to have a democratic election?

BAINIMARAMA: Well I said 2014 we’ll have democratic election.

MCDONALD: Fiji’s coup culture began back in 1987. Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka staged two of them with the aim of asserting ethnic Fijian dominance over Indian Fijians.

LT-COL SITIVENI RABUKA: I believe that it is in the national interest that I carry out the events of this morning, take over of the government.

MCDONALD: Then came the civilian-led George Speight coup of 2000.

GEORGE SPEIGHT: This whole scenario here is for the world to focus attention on what Fijians want, okay?

MCDONALD: It was Frank Bainimarama who after almost ten weeks finally crushed the revolt. He installed a prime minister and six years later he deposed Laisenia Qarase for backing an amnesty for the Speight gang.

BAINIMARAMA: [News conference] As of six o’clock this evening, the military has taken over the government, has executive authority and the running of this country.

MCDONALD: Last year Bainimarama scrapped the constitution and now rules by decree.

Why do you think you are the best man to make decisions on behalf of almost 900,000 Fijians?

BAINIMARAMA: Well it’s not me really, it’s the military. I also mention this that the military’s the only entity that can bring about the reforms. The politicians can’t bring about the reforms for obvious reasons – they are politicians, they would love to stay in power and because of that they don’t like much to bring about changes that would remove them from power. And those are the changes that we are putting in place now.

MCDONALD: But you’ve already been in power for almost four years. By the time the elections come about it will be 2014, you would have been in power for eight years without a mandate from the people.

BAINIMARAMA: Yes but we believe as long as we’re doing the reforms that will bring about a better Fiji, that’s good enough for us. As long as there’s no abuse of power. If there’s any sign of corrupt dealings we have people removed.

MCDONALD: In Bainimarama’s world you don’t call him dictator and don’t describe him as a one man band. He insists the military runs a benign regime. But spend a week in Fiji and that simply doesn’t stand up. Bainimarama is an intimidating authority figure and he’s feared.

The media decree and public emergency laws means very few Fijians will express their views publicly. For this story I approached several previously outspoken Fijians who either fail to turn up to confirmed interviews, asked for questions in advance, or expressed fear that their phones were being tapped.

BAINIMARAMA: We know exactly who is saying what, even though they’re not saying it publicly, we know what’s happening.

MCDONALD: Do you bug phones?

BAINIMARAMA: No, (laughing). No, we’re not the Australian Government thank you.

MCDONALD: The non-compliant are dealt with swiftly. Bainimarama has sacked judges and expelled critics and diplomats. There are though a brave few prepared to stand up and challenge the regime. Reverend Akuila Yabaki of the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum is one of them. He’s particularly concerned about the crack down on freedom of expression.

REVEREND YABAKI: Well the censorship is quite serious, quite severe, within the press and also the electronic media. I mean the fact that now they’ve decided to register all holders of public phones and mobile phones should be registered, I think that is just an extension of it. See when you try and muffle the media, there are other ways in which people get things out.

MCDONALD: One of the ways Bainimarama asserts his authority is by controlling what Fijians read and hear. He’s the nation’s news director, he’s the nation’s censor. It’s eight o’clock and the deadline is looming at the Fiji Sun – one of three English language dailies. Stories are being filed and edited – but what runs and what doesn’t run will be determined in this room.
We’ve been invited to see the Chief Censor at work. He’s in his twenties, related to the interim Prime Minister and ironically, he’s asked us to censor him.

And why have you asked us not to show your face?

CENSOR: It’s obviously not something that nobody would like to do. I wouldn’t go around asking people would you like to censor the newspapers you know? That’s an infringement on media freedom, but then again what really is media freedom you know?

MCDONALD: The Chief Censor was one of five who do the rounds of Fiji’s media to make sure the interim government is portrayed in a government light. Most have never worked as journalists.

CENSOR: I studied at uni in Fiji, I studied journalism and politics and so you have a fair idea of how the world operates and you know it’s not fair with what we’re doing with the media, but it’s appropriate given that we’ve gone through some rough times.

LEONE CABENATABUA: I think this is one of the testing times for the local media industry in the country. It’s a testing time for us. And there’s a stance we’ve taken as a newspaper – this newspaper – that we are pro-Fiji.

MCDONALD: And sometimes that can mean Fiji’s Ministry of Information is the only source of political news in the paper.

REVEREND YABAKI: It gets boring to read the papers anyway. It’s all about sports and fundamentalist stuff that comes out you know? Same people write because they get through the censorship, but I think we are not favoured by the censors. Therefore people are not hearing the critical stance, which needs to be heard so that we can work out a constructive way forward.

MCDONALD: Radio is the major source of news for Fijians. Commercial radio Director Vijay Narayan is in charge of the news that’s broadcast on five stations in three languages throughout the islands.

VIJAY NARAYAN: We are passionate about what we do. We are passionate about what we have to do for the people of Fiji. We know that that’s our prime responsibility and we are trying our very best to do that.

MCDONALD: Narayan says he’s able to broadcast some measured criticism of the government, but the rigour of the official censors has also seen some editors fall into line by self censoring. A new media decree was imposed just six weeks ago. It means journalists and media organisations face hefty fines and imprisonment if they act contrary to what the interim government claims is in the national interest.
The new decree bans foreign ownership of the media, it directly targets Fiji’s oldest independent newspaper, The Fiji Times. It’s 90% owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited.

It looks like the Fiji Times will close down, how do you feel about that?

BAINIMARAMA: I feel disappointed because there’ll be a lot of job losses, but as I continuously said Philippa, that’s not my doing. That was the doing of the management.

MCDONALD: The Times declined the ABC’s request for an interview and would not allow filming inside the newsroom. News Limited has less than 2 months to find a buyer for its shares.

BAINIMARAMA: They’ve never acknowledged me as Prime Minister of this nation even though I’ve been Prime Minister for the last four years.

MCDONALD: So they’ve got to go.

BAINIMARAMA: No, it’s really not that, but what I’m saying is they’re not doing the right thing by the people of this nation.

MCDONALD: The military’s iron grip on the country isn’t readily obvious to visitors. The roadblocks and night curfews, which followed the coup, are long gone so it’s not surprising that Australians and New Zealanders, find Fiji an affordable paradise.

MARK ROBERTSON: Financially it was fantastic. We got a really good deal.

CHANTAL ROBERTSON: We got a really good deal. We got seven nights for the price of four.

BAINIMARAMA: We have over 40,000 Australians that come in every month to tell us that Fiji’s great. They’re voting by their feet, so who’s the loser here? Certainly not Fiji.

MCDONALD: The truth is though this high volume business has only been achieved through a radical devaluation of the Fiji dollar. The hotels and their employees don’t make much money, even the tourists see that Fijians are struggling.

CHANTAL ROBERTSON: My husband and I were sitting on the grass enjoying the view and I said I feel really guilty and he asked why, and I said well you know we’re here and we’re relaxing and you can see all the people working around you and on the drive up here you could tell that there were quite a few shanty settlements.

MCDONALD: For all of Bainimarama’s so called reforms, and he’s very vague about what they are, Fiji is hurting. The economy is fragile and rural Fijians are moving to where there’s work and educational opportunities. By some estimates, 15% of Fijians now live in squatter camps, and in the capital it could be as high as 20%. There are nine of these squatter camps dotted around central Suva alone. They’re home to thousands of Fijians who live in extremely cramped conditions.

Kelerayani Likuuiwau has lived here for four years with her extended family. Even though Mrs Likuuiwau’s husband is in full time work, a home of their own beyond the settlement can only be a dream.

FATHER KEVIN BARR: There’s limited space between the houses but as you can see, the people are living it pretty roughly.

MCDONALD: Father Kevin Barr is a Catholic Priest who’s worked among the poorest in Fiji for more than thirty years.

FATHER KEVIN BARR: Poverty has been increasing steadily since independence. I think in 1977 it was about 7-9% of people in poverty, now the figure is about 40-45%.

BAINIMARAMA: Poverty is a big issue everywhere, especially so in the small Pacific island development states. We’re not kidding anyone but we’d like to get out of that.

MCDONALD: Cause the squatter settlements have grown in numbers, 43% of people are living below the poverty line.

BAINIMARAMA: Yes but it will grow because we’re trying to stop that because of families that are trying to move into the urban areas for education and mostly that. And we’re trying to keep that in the rural areas so they don’t have to come up.

MCDONALD: One of Father Barr’s priorities is to try and empower Fijians in the squatter settlements, to urge them to be more proactive in making decisions for themselves. A kind of community democracy, which since the coup has eluded Fiji.

FATHER KEVIN BARR: We say to people wake up, look around you, see what your problems are and see what you can do about them. Take responsibility and our motto is stand up and walk, stand up and talk. Stand on your own two feet. Speak out for yourselves. So we encourage people to take responsibility and overcome their culture of silence.

MCDONALD: Fiji’s sugar industry is in desperate trouble and they’ve been asking the military regime for help. This rail bridge at Sigatoka was wiped away by floods two years ago. It hasn’t been repaired and that alone has increased production costs. Infrastructure across the country is failing.

BALA DASS: The future looks really bleak, really bad because the cost of production is very high and the sugar price is very low. For example the farmers, we get this year about 50 dollars per tonne and the cost of production is over 40 per tonne or more. So basically you are left with very little profit.

MCDONALD: Two hundred thousand people, about a quarter of the national population, are reliant on the sugar industry but it’s getting harder to make money. The European Union has told Fiji that it’s prepared to help restructure the industry, three hundred million dollars is on the table, but the price is a return to democratic government. Bainimarama’s refused.

Since the coup three and a half years ago, Australia and New Zealand and others have tried to isolate Fiji diplomatically and economically. It’s been suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands forum, but these penalties seem only to have strengthened Bainimarama’s determination to run his own race. And as part of that, he invited the Melanesian brotherhood to this meeting last week to show that Fiji still carries weight in the Pacific.

SIR MICHAEL SOMARE: [Prime Minister, Papua New Guinea] It’s quite normal here. If you’ve been to Africa and you see those countries that are under military are different. He is doing what is best for Fiji people. That’s what he believes and he has done that.

MCDONALD: And the pomp and ceremony continues as if to reassure Fijians that everything’s just fine. Today Fiji’s navy is celebrating a birthday – 35 years of patrolling the waters around the country’s 300 scattered islands. It was the only job Commodore Bainimarama had known before commandeering a country.

BAINIMARAMA: This was where I started in 75. It has a special place for me.

MCDONALD: For the navy and army, coup rule has had some benefits. While other government departments are struggling, there’s been a 40% increase in the defence budget.

Bainimarama is a Methodist, but has had no hesitation intimidating preachers. Twenty-seven church leaders are charged with organising meetings in breach of public emergency regulations.

You’ve effectively silenced the church and the chiefs haven’t you?

BAINIMARAMA: Well yes in a way, but you know Philippa for us to bring about these reforms as I’ve said, we need to stop all people speaking out against the government and its reforms. And these two entities were most vocal because they were politicised so I need to silence them, I need to have them silenced.

MCDONALD: Since the first coup 23 years ago, the indo-Fijian community has shrunk. But for those that stay Bainimarama claims to be an advocate of all Fijian’s living together in racial harmony. That’s what he says is motivating him to eventually change the constitution and electoral laws. For now, Fijians wait.

Will you run for Prime Minister come democratic elections?

BAINIMARANA: Philippa I can’t make that decision now.

MCDONALD: So you may?

BAINIMARAMA: I really don’t know. To tell you the truth I have, people have asked me about it but I’m not… even thought about making plans for that because if I do that, it’ll change the way I think about the reforms, every thing, because I’ll think like a politician and as a politician we’re not going to bring about the reforms that we want to put in.

MCDONALD: So at the moment you’re thinking like a military man and a military leader running a country, but you won’t rule out running for Prime Minister come 2014?

BAINIMARAMA: I’ll think about it when the time comes, but not right now.


August 2, 2010

It was quite disappointing to see go offline.

Good news is that it’s back on and apparently the interruption was due to a story about kanalevu Teleni being suspended, that was hotly denied by certain sections of the ig.

So why take offline?

Couldn’t have been a rumour as they’re now claiming to save face for the over the top, overzealous authoritarianism.

According to the ig police the kanalevu one was in Cicia Island, Lau  for a passing out parade at the only secondary school there.

Crikes, he’d scare the poor kids there. As they’d probably say in Cicia  ‘Ma raica a ketepoka mataveve ma jiva’

Next thing you know there’ll be a decree about not being allowed to look at anything or anyone sideways.



August 1, 2010

THE Pacific is not always pacific; its hub nation, Fiji, is run by the army. Nor is it, for most of its inhabitants, the paradise the holiday posters present.

It is one region we overlook at our own peril. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer stressed last week that it is our natural sphere of influence. Or it could be, if we paid it more attention.

Australia’s bigger friends and allies, especially the US, take Canberra’s lead to manage troublesome issues in the islands and to help guide them to prosperity.

So far, Australia’s line on Fiji — that military ruler Frank Bainimarama is so unyielding and provocative that, as Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says, “you can’t have a one-way dialogue” — has led the rest of the West.

But that will continue to hold only if Canberra demonstrates that it generally retains the backing of the Pacific on this issue, and that it is on top of regional issues in general.

Our leader won’t be there, even though Australia is the outgoing chair of this premier organisation in the region. Smith may be there, depending on how the federal election campaign is going, but he’s not letting on yet.

Someone senior from Canberra will show up, Smith says, presumably someone with a safe seat.

For Australia’s policy aims to prevail, it will now need to rely on leadership at the forum summit to come from leaders broadly aligned with Canberra’s regional perspective, chiefly New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key and Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who is angling for forum institutions to be shifted to Samoa from suspended Fiji.

The Australian government has failed to replace Pacific Islands secretary Duncan Kerr, who quit last September. And cabinet is short of people with any experience in the region other than Smith and the overburdened Simon Crean.

Australia’s aid budget is heading towards $8 billion a year by 2015. A large proportion of it is being spent in the Pacific.

Australia keeps forgetting that our continent is fringed by islands, places we mostly fly over, and through whose waters our ships sail, taking iron ore to China and bringing back 3-D television sets.

But no other industrialised country has the Third World on its doorstep in the way the Pacific is on ours. Europe’s former colonies are remote by comparison.

Events suddenly drag our attention back to the proximity of our island neighbours, and we scramble around in search of understanding, and of plausible policies. During one of those interludes of engagement, Kevin Rudd presented a Port Moresby declaration in PNG hailing “a new era of co-operation with the island nations of the Pacific”.

In the past decade or so, first the notion of an arc of instability emerged, triggering military deployments — still under way — to Solomon Islands and East Timor. Then, in December 2006 Bainimarama became the most remorseless of Fiji’s coup leaders, and he is now engaged in a bitter arm-wrestle with Canberra.

His Engaging Fiji conference last week saw him sign up four other Pacific leaders, including PNG veteran Michael Somare, and representatives from other countries, to his communique saying that “Fiji’s strategic framework for change is a credible home-grown process for positioning Fiji as a modern nation and to hold true democratic elections”.

It appears perverse that having signed up to this, they can continue to uphold the forum’s suspension of Fiji. But that is what is most likely to happen at next week’s forum, illustrating that cultural notions of solidarity are what counts, and that the same people can sign up to apparently contradictory positions on different days in different places, according to the prevailing ethos of the group.

This year the forum’s chairmanship will shift to the host, Vanuatu, whose Prime Minister Edward Natapei postponed the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting slated for Fiji and declined to attend the replacement Engaging Fiji event, but sent his Foreign Minister Joe Natuman.

First John Howard then Julia Gillard turned to regional solutions for asylum-seekers. But such arrangements are much harder to bed down than newcomers to regional politics can conceive.

East Timor is reluctant to play ball. And while Nauru is telling the federal Coalition that it is eager to reopen its processing centre, its government is not in a great position to take any initiatives. It has not been elected for three parliaments, because the MPs returned at polls twice this year already remain equally divided. Supply is obtained only by constantly rolled over emergency powers.

The pilot Pacific migrant workers scheme has floundered, the ponderous structure involving agents failing to bring in the limited numbers envisaged.

The annual ministerial forum between Australia and PNG was scrapped by Canberra this year due to the election, and replaced with a quick visit by Smith.

The Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands has been a substantial — though expensive at more than $1bn — success story, one whose core method marks a strong contrast to conventional aid dogma.

But the Solomons’ national election, due on the same day the forum summit opens, will provide a clearer view of the durability of this ambitious project.

The awkwardness of our situation derives partly from the intense familiarity of islanders with Australia, whose domestic news — including sport, in which Pacific players are increasingly prominent — often spills over into their media, while at the same time Australians are not perceived as islanders, any more than we are seen further north as Asians. Australian politicians are thus almost as well known to the island elites as they are to Australian voters. Their inattention during the current campaign to international issues can’t be fudged by a glib phrase.

Everyone who mattered knew as soon as Gillard referred to a regional solution that the problem it was aimed to resolve was essentially Australia’s, not the region’s..

The ABC’s veteran Pacific reporter Sean Dorney pointed out, however, at a Lowy Institute discussion of such issues in Sydney this week, that because the Pacific is watching closely, sometimes it applauds too. “Kevin Rudd’s apology to Aboriginal Australia resonated especially widely in the Pacific,” Dorney says.

Australian National University Pacific studies convener Katerina Martina Teaiwa, from Fiji, says that “Australia does some wonderful things in the Pacific”, especially praising the role of the youth ambassadors. “It would be great if the Australian government learned from such people on the ground in the islands,” she says.

She points out that “while Australians view the Pacific as out there, growing numbers live here, including many who have come via New Zealand. There are plenty in Australian jails, for instance.”

PNG’s high commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani, says there is a generation gap about knowledge of the Pacific in Australia, with younger people knowing far less. He is optimistic that Smith will attend the forum.

Lepani says PNG wants to keep the door open for Fiji, with Somare one of the leaders who attended last week’s Engaging Fiji meeting, out of concern that “if Fiji were allowed to float away to other influences, the cost to the region of salvaging the relationship would become too great”.

Unless Fiji is hauled on to the table at the forum meeting, the agenda will be dominated by the long-drawn-out saga of Pacer Plus. This comprises the extension of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, an intra-island trade deal — though one that encompasses many exceptions, chiefly to protect local manufacturers.

Extending it in the shape of Pacer Plus to include Australia and New Zealand would vastly improve its scope and provide a much-needed head-turning effect, encouraging business to take another look at the region.

But this is proving contentious, the debate dragging on as growing numbers of international non-government organisations add their voices of opposition, and as Fiji’s crucial role — as the region’s communications hub — becomes difficult to negotiate while it remains suspended from the forum.

Subsistence — fishing and farming — remains an option for many islanders, but one that provides a diminishing proportion of their daily needs and aspirations.

The ANU’s Teaiwa rightly points to sport and culture as two areas in which the Pacific enjoys a natural advantage, and the forum needs to place these higher on its agenda.

But they are unlikely to prove sufficient to meet the growing expectations of islanders for the material benefits of modernity.

The Asian Development Bank forecasts that the Pacific island economies will expand by just 0.5 per cent in 2010, after contracting by 1.4 per cent in 2009. And even this poor performance is in many countries eroded by high inflation and rapid population growth.

But yet again, a resources boom in PNG is throwing it another economic lifeline, reflected in its Asia-level growth rate.

The $16.5bn liquefied natural gas project being developed by ExxonMobil, Lepani says “holds out the chance for us to move on” — including to shed the sometimes awkward aid relationship with Australia.

He says Australia’s assistance in establishing trust funds in which to place the vast LNG income may prove crucial in preventing “itchy fingers getting hold of them”.

And support for the project was already paying off, with $2bn construction work pouring into Queensland.

In contrast to the Pacific, the ADB expects developing Asia to bounce back to high growth this year after shrugging off the effects of the global financial crisis.

East Asia comprises the main market for many of the islands’ exports. Yet the two regions are mostly kept in different silos by international bodies, aid agencies and academic disciplines.

There is little cross-fertilisation and little spillover from the lessons of Asian development success to the Pacific.

Many visits to Asia by islanders are, unfortunately, chiefly in supplication. This reflects a colonial and post-colonial focus in the Pacific — led by its political elite — on the distribution rather than the creation of wealth, reflecting both traditional “big man” concepts and a modern over-reliance on government.

The Pacer Plus deal, despite its flaws, at least re-orients that focus towards growth rather than aid and spending.

But Australia’s voice in its favour at the forum will be weighed in part by the influence of its representation.

The election timing is bad luck in this regard, but it does appear to fit a long-standing pattern of intermittent disregard.

Pacific club leaves Fiji on the outer

* The South Pacific Forum was founded in 1971 to improve the mutual interests of its member nations, paying particular attention to trade, tourism, shipping and education.

* The first meeting in 1971 was the initiative of New Zealand and held in Wellington.

* Australia and New Zealand are significant aid donors and offer large markets for island exports.

* Regional peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands (2003 to date), Nauru (2004-09) and Tonga (2006) have helped stabilise Pacific Island nations.

* Such missions emerged after the Biketawa Declaration at the Kiribati summit in 2000.

* At the August 2008 meeting, the forum threatened to suspend Fiji if it did not hold elections by March 2009. A deadline of May 1 was rejected by Fiji, which was suspended indefinitely the next day.

* The suspension was described by forum chairman and Toke Talagi of Niue as “particularly timely given the recent disturbing deterioration of the political, legal and human rights situation in Fiji since April 10, 2009”.

* The forum will welcome Fiji when it returns to constitutional democracy through free and fair elections.

GDP im pacific islands

Source: The Cairns Post


August 1, 2010

FORMER Fiji prime minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhry has pleaded not guilty to 12 offences relating to money laundering and tax evasion.

Chaudhry’s lawyer, Rajendra Chaudhry, who is also his son, entered the plea on behalf of his father in the Suva High Court today, Radio Fiji reported.

Rajendra Chaudhry also made an application for bail variation, saying his father needed to travel overseas for medical treatment.

Justice Daniel Goundar will rule on the bail variation next Friday.

Chaudhry, Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, was deposed as prime minister in a nationalist coup in 2000 after being held hostage for 56 days.

He was arrested by Fiji police last week and charged with 12 offences relating to tax evasion and money laundering, which date back to just after the coup.

It is alleged he held up to $400,000 in a Commonwealth Bank of Australia account and $50,000 was given to his daughter in Australia without procedures being followed.

The decree was brought in earlier this year to modernise Fiji’s laws and ensure consistent sentencing is handed down by the courts.



July 28, 2010


July 28, 2010

THE Fiji military regime’s arrest of former PM Mahendra Chaudhry last week struck Australian journalist Russell Hunter as perverse – and telling.

Mr Hunter, when editor-in-chief of the Fiji Sun, was seized from his home in Suva and expelled from Fiji two years ago while Mr Chaudhry was the regime’s finance minister.

He was targeted for publishing stories based on what appears to be the material over which Mr Chaudhry has now been charged.

The big difference is that since then Mr Chaudhry has quit the government run by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, whom he has accused of being “autocratic and dictatorial”.

Mr Hunter, now the Apia-based development editor of the Samoa Observer, said yesterday: “Justice moves in mysterious ways in Frank’s Fiji.”

Mr Chaudhry was charged last Friday with money laundering, tax evasion and failing to declare foreign currency. Now the Labour Party leader, in a country in which political parties are unable to function normally, he was finance minister in the Labour administration that was pushed from power in Fiji’s first military coup in May 1987.

Mr Hunter said: “At the time a close intimate and favourite of the dictator, Mr Chaudhry nevertheless had no lack of political enemies, and it was they who began surreptitiously circulating documents that claimed Frank’s financial messiah was somewhat less than pure.”

These documents ended up, in August 2007, in the hands of Mr Hunter and of London-based former Fiji journalist Victor Lal.

But, Mr Hunter said, “we need to go back a little further to understand this bizarre story.

“When he and his cabinet hostages were released by a prison-bound George Speight (10 years ago), Mr Chaudhry embarked on a worldwide tour spreading the word about the legitimacy of his cause as an elected prime minister and raising funds for the ‘poor Indians’ suffering in Fiji as a result of Speight’s abortive coup.

“And indeed there were many of these. It’s not quite clear exactly how much was raised, as Mr Chaudhry received the money, much of it in cash, himself.”

Mr Lal began a series of articles that appeared in the Fiji Sun. But for legal reasons, Mr Hunter said, the paper was not at that stage ready to identify Mr Chaudhry as the “minister with overseas millions”. Mr Hunter said: “As Lal’s inquiries continued, the story took weird twists and turns.

“I received a visit late one night in January 2008 from a person I knew only slightly. This person handed me a plain brown envelope, and after a few pleasantries, left. The envelope contained the full tax records of Mahendra Chaudhry, revealing that the authorities knew about” his fund-raising efforts, but had not pursued him over the issue.

“The fact Mr Chaudhry was at that time the minister responsible for the taxation authority may or may not have been relevant,” Mr Hunter said.

“The first thing I needed to do was to get this explosive collection of documents out of the country before somebody came looking for them. Someone eventually did.

“We assumed that anything addressed to Lal from Fiji would be opened, and so the air freight package was addressed to a Father Murphy who lived near to Lal’s then residence in Oxford.

“These became known by the codename ‘the Murphy papers’ in emails between Lal and myself, as we suspected – rightly as it turned out – that our emails were being read.

“Lal received the Murphy papers and immediately knew, as I did, that here was the final piece of the jigsaw. We published in full across five pages on Sunday, February 24, 2008, and I was abducted from my home by soldiers the next day, held overnight and put on a flight to Sydney the next morning. I am still prohibited from entering Fiji.”

The regime claimed Mr Hunter was a threat to national security. The Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, then announced Mr Chaudhry had done nothing illegal, wrong or even improper.

“Now, however, things are dramatically different. Mr Chaudhry’s unblemished character is under siege.

“How does a completely innocent man two years ago become an accused felon today — when no new information has been brought to light?

“In Frank’s Fiji, that’s not so difficult. Anybody previously proved innocent can quickly find themselves assumed guilty by the simple means of speaking out against the illegal regime.”


July 28, 2010

FORMER Fiji prime minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhry has appeared in court in Suva, charged with crimes relating to money laundering and tax evasion.

Fiji police say Mr Chaudhry, who was held hostage for 56 days before being deposed as Fiji’s leader in a nationalist coup in 2000, was arrested yesterday morning.

Fiji police spokeswoman Ema Mua said Chaudhry appeared in Suva Magistrates Court this afternoon and was granted bail.

“He’s out on bail and he’s got bail condition and he’s to appear in the High Court next month,” Ms Mua said, later correcting the next court date to July 30.

“He’s to surrender his travel documents, passport, and he’s to report in to the nearest police post to his home every Thursday.”

Mr Chaudhry, who was Fiji’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, was charged with 12 offences relating to tax evasion and money laundering, Ms Mua said.

The 68-year-old former Fiji Labour Party leader and former trade union leader did not enter any pleas, according to the fijivillage news website.

The 12 charges date back to just after the 2000 coup and include providing false information to the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority.

Mr Chaudhry was briefly finance minister in the current military-led government of Frank Bainimarama, during which time an independent audit cleared him of any wrongdoing in relation to his overseas financial dealings.

It is alleged he held up to $225,000 in a Commonwealth Bank of Australia account and a large sum given to his daughter in Australia was made without procedures being followed.

Mr Chaudhry made history in 1999 when he defeated former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka to become Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, following constitutional changes which weakened the hold of ethnic Fijians on the government.

But a year later, on May 19, 2000, failed businessman George Speight led a group of special force soldiers into Fiji’s parliament, where he seized Mr Chaudhry and his government, holding them hostage for 56 days.

During the stand-off, the Fiji Military Forces took power, declared martial law and installed an interim prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, who a year later won the post in a democratic election.

Mr Chaudhry never returned to office, but has served in Commodore Bainimarama’s interim government, which seized power from Mr Qarase in a 2006 coup.

Speight and co-conspirators, Timoci Silatolu and Josefa Nata, were convicted of treason and jailed for life.

Speight, who was initially sentenced to death but had his term commuted to life, is serving his time on Nukulau Island, off Suva, while Silatolu and Nata are in the country’s maximum security prison.

Mr Chaudhry was the leader of the Fiji Labour Party until 2008 and controversially backed Commodore Bainimarama’s 2006 bloodless coup, in which the military leader seized power from Mr Qarase’s government.


July 28, 2010

Regime charges Fiji’s ex-PM Mahendra Chaudhry

  • Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor
  • From: The Australian
  • July 24, 2010

FIJI’S government has charged former PM Mahendra Chaudhry with money laundering, tax evasion and failing to declare foreign currency.

Mr Chaudhry, who was detained by police on Thursday, was bailed for $F1000 ($575) to return to court next Friday. He was required to hand in his passport and must report every Thursday to Suva police station.

The arrest received saturation coverage from the military regime’s propaganda arms.

The core of the 12 charges is that Mr Chaudhry failed to notify the Reserve Bank of Fiji about his bringing in to the country about $1.5 million during the past decade, including donations from India, after he was removed from power by a coup in 2000.

The money was allegedly first kept in Australia, before being taken to Fiji. Mr Chaudhry, 68, was represented in a packed Suva Magistrates Court by his son, lawyer Rajendra Chaudhry. No plea was entered.

An Amnesty International spokeswoman said: “Since April 2009, we have witnessed a pattern of interference with the judiciary by the authorities in Fiji, for example, the sudden sacking of judges and magistrates.

“Politicians critical of government have also been targeted through measures like travel bans, suspension of pensions and malicious prosecution.

“These moves are part of a broader pattern of stifling dissent. The authorities have no respect for the rule of law.”

Labour Party leader Mr Chaudhry is the last of Fiji’s three surviving former prime ministers to be penalised by the government. Sitiveni Rabuka, who won an election after turning democrat following his 1987 coups, was earlier this year stripped of his pension for criticising the regime.

Laisenia Qarase, the leader toppled by Commodore Frank Bainimarama in December 2006, has been charged with abuse of office while he was chairman of Fijian Holdings from 1992-95.

Mr Chaudhry, the only Fiji Indian of five national leaders to be elected since independence from Britain in 1970, was held hostage, with most of his cabinet, in the 2000 coup led by George Speight.

He at first backed Commodore Bainimarama after the latter seized power in the name of reform in December 2006, and was made finance minister. But they had a falling out, and Mr Chaudhry resigned two years ago, later attacking Commodore Bainimarama as “autocratic and dictatorial”.

The arrest of the former prime minister tops a tumultuous week in Fiji. Commodore Bainimarama scored a public relations coup by staging an “Engaging Fiji” meeting just a fortnight from the annual summit of the Pacific Islands Forum, from which Fiji has been suspended.

He attracted to his rival gathering the leaders of PNG, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu, and representatives from other island states.

Yesterday at the meeting, he called on Australia to partner with him in reforming Fiji: “Further interruptions wouldn’t in any way help Fiji’s situation, and will only strain relations” and “dampen our aim for elections”.

He earlier announced that Fiji had decided to join the Non-Aligned Movement of more than 100 developing nations, and that the Arab League had invited the Pacific island countries to collaborate with it.



July 18, 2010


Reports of the recent dismissal of five Fijian magistrates without notice has the New Zealand Law Society gravely concerned that the country’s military rulers are undermining the independence of the judiciary.

Law Society president Jonathan Temm said it had been advised of the dismissals which included one magistrate who questioned the propriety of a prosecution by the Fijian government agency Independent Commission against Corruption.

Mr Temm says the prosecution was against a human rights lawyer and her husband and involved charges alleging breaches of the law related to Suva City Council misdemeanours, along with a charge of fraud.

“It appears that a government agency – which was purportedly established to fight corruption – is being used in a manner inconsistent with its statutory purpose. The effective dismissal of judicial officers attacks the independence of the judiciary,” he said.

“Of most concern is those judicial officers apparently dismissed for rejecting prosecution cases brought by the military government or its agencies.”

Mr Temm said a Law and Justice report issued by the Citizens Constitutional Forum organisation found that 40 judicial officers were dismissed in the year to April 2010, in addition to the five recently dismissed magistrates.

“The Fiji Law Society has bravely condemned the dismissal of Fijian magistrates and public prosecutors and says that Fiji’s judiciary is effectively no longer independent,” he said.

The rule of law is under attack in Fiji and this should be a significant concern to the people and government of New Zealand, Mr Temm said.

Last week Fiji expelled Australian envoy Sarah Roberts for what it said was meddling in the country’s internal affairs after Australia had lobbied for a Melanesian summit in Fiji to be postponed.

The summit was cancelled by organisers who cited concerns about democracy and “good governance” since the 2006 military coup.

Roberts is the second senior Australian diplomat to be expelled from Fiji in less than a year after the high commissioner and his New Zealand counterpart were removed last November over alleged interference in Fiji’s judiciary.