Pariah of the Pacific
Paul Toohey | January 29, 2009
FIJI'S self-appointed interim Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, is a conundrum. He claims to dream of a united, tolerant and prosperous nation where the indigenous Fijian majority and the Indian minority live together in peace. He wants to reform the electoral process and guide his country to parliamentary democracy.
On the other hand, Bainimarama seems to lack the self-awareness that might remind him that he is a dictator. He stole government by coup in late 2006. Bainimarama doesn't refer to it as a coup. He calls it "an intervention from the Fiji military forces". In early 2007 he promised there would be full elections by March this year. Deadlines to prepare for these elections have come and gone.
Bainimarama's promise of returning Fiji to democracy has failed to materialise. He has installed military buddies in senior ministries, caused Fiji's partial suspension from the commonwealth and has earned censure and "smart" sanctions, such as visa denials, from Fiji's biggest regional aid providers, Australia and New Zealand.
Bainimarama has also attracted the attention of the UN, which has hinted at expelling Fiji from various peacekeeping missions across the globe, and has said that no Fijian troops will be included in any new missions until the country holds elections. There are 3500 soldiers on overseas missions or on secondment, none of whom would thank Bainimarama if they lost their well-paid jobs.
Fiji has long had a proud if oversized military, which has given the country much prestige. That prestige is now non-existent. The Fijian military has shown a repeated propensity to break its country's trust by crashing heavily into politics.
Bainimarama addressed the UN General Assembly in 2007 and 2008 with what appeared to be erudite speeches dedicated to peace and democracy but which were, ultimately, impossibly contradicted. Bainimarama is a prime minister without a parliament, ruling instead with the assistance of a dozen interim ministers but, sitting above them, a military council made up of senior officers.
Observers believe there is no plausible sign of any group forming within Fiji's military to oust Bainimarama and return Fiji to democracy; and even if such a group did exist, diplomats would argue another coup would not be in the country's interests. All they want is for Bainimarama to hold an election.
Perversely, Fiji saw one of its best tourism years in 2008, helped along by large numbers of Australians attracted to heavily discounted travel deals. The strong travel warnings issued by the Australian Government advising visitors to exercise extreme caution in Fiji, and to watch out for political events and personal attacks, appear to have been ignored. But Fijians are living in isolation and fear. Anecdotally, there has been a sharp rise in muggings and late-night home invasions by an emerging criminal culture born partly out of desperation, and partly out of clear signals from Fiji's military command, whose message has been: if you want it, take it.
Fiji is a founding member of the Pacific Islands Forum, designed to promote goodwill and prosperity among the Melanesian and Polynesian brotherhood, with Australia and NZ playing a cashed-up, avuncular - some of these tiny member nations would say patronising and overbearing - role.
A special leaders' meeting was convened for Port Moresby on Tuesday to attempt to force Bainimarama to hold elections. Bainimarama didn't attend, claiming he had too much to do at home with his country devastated by flood. It was a ruse to avoid a humiliating lecture, and Bainimarama instead sent his interim Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
Because Sayed-Khaiyum is not a leader, he was not allowed a seat at the forum. He was instead called to the floor to face a grilling from leaders including Kevin Rudd, who was disturbed to note a media report from Fiji on Monday in which Bainimarama said a general election could be as long as 10 years away.
Australia is sorely unimpressed with Bainimarama, and things got personal when its high commissioner to Fiji, James Batley, received four death threats last year: one hand-delivered, the rest in the mail. These threats, coming after the expulsion of NZ's high commissioner, were considered credible, in that they showed knowledge of Batley's movements around the capital, Suva.
It does not necessarily follow that there was any real intention to kill Batley, one of Australia's most respected diplomats. But Australia believes the threats came from the military leadership and reveal its dark, petty heart. Not surprisingly, a police investigation has not been able to source the threats. Bainimarama controls the police.
In his welcoming speech at the forum, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Michael Somare pleaded with the 15 sitting member PIF nations not to impose punitive sanctions that would damage ordinary Fijians. Smaller island nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati rely on Fiji for their air links, and are likewise concerned that Bainimarama could lash out and cut their links to the world.
Australia did not go into the leaders' meeting demanding Fiji be expelled from the forum. Such a position would be difficult to turn back from and, even if justified, would not play well with other member nations, particularly the sensitive New Guineans, who consider Fiji part of the region's Melanesianbrotherhood.
PNG is also in the process of embracing Rudd, as he is embracing them, after many bad years with John Howard and Alexander Downer, whom Somare - the region's longest-serving leader, known locally as the grand chief - feels did not accord him the respect to which he believes he is entitled.
Australia has avoided imposing trade sanctions on Fiji, instead denying Australian visas to all senior Fijian military and their families, members of the interim Government and senior appointees of that Government. While this has good annoyance value, Australia has no desire to crush ordinary Fijians.
Australia gives Fiji an annual $27 million in aid, but that has now dropped by 20 per cent, not because of any financial sanctions, but because that money was intended for law and justice programs. Australia believes it is pointless to fund such programs in the present environment, but continues its health and education programs.
Diplomatic capital is an intangible but real asset. Fiji's has fully eroded. Bainimarama has talked about a "look-north" policy - meaning China - which would mean less reliance on Australian and NZ aid. The reality is that he - or, more to the point, Fijian people - need Australia and NZ. China is probably not thinking too much about heavy investment in small Pacific islands. Even if it were, China, like everyone else, would rather deal with leaders who had credibility.
Australian authorities believe Bainimarama's thugs have pulled Fijian citizens into military headquarters for beatings. A judge's house was burned to the ground. Before his coup, Bainimarama was under investigation for the murders of five soldiers in the 2000coup. That matter seems to have gone away, for now. Bainimarama has also been emboldened by a recent decision of a single judge of the Fiji High Court that decreed Fiji's president had the power to appoint the interimGovernment.
Three senior newspaper figures have been bullied and expelled from the country in the past year. The latest, Fiji Times publisher Rex Gardner, was given his marching orders this week. Rudd, talking in Port Moresby this week, said the coup had rendered Fijians voiceless. "I believe anyone who is deprived of their democratic voice, anyone who is deprived of fundamental freedoms of the press - and for goodness sake, look what happened with the publisher of the Fiji Times today - is deprived of the lifeblood of being in a normal democratic community."
Bainimarama's mantra is that Fiji's sick electoral process should be fixed before there can be any election. The system guarantees that a certain number of seats must go to Fijians, and that others must go to Indians. He sees it as unrepresentative, and he's no doubt right. On the other hand, he claims his own coup gave him a mandate to rule. Bainimarama has promoted a people's charter, which he claims is his first step to electoral reform and "Fiji's own way of addressing its problems". As part of the process, Fijians were asked to fill out feedback forms on which they had to provide their names and addresses. The interim Government claimed the forms showed Fijians overwhelmingly gave their blessing for Bainimarama to embark on electoral reform before holding an election.
Bainimarama says his objective "is to rebuild Fiji into a non-racial, culturally vibrant, united, well-governed, truly democratic nation that seeks progress and prosperity".
He claims he staged the coup to end a strongly indigenous Fijian government that was, as he rightly claims, seeking to entrench Fijian rights over the Indian minority. He makes sense with his argument that it's a dead end for Fiji to pursue an ultra-indigenous policy line. But he does not seem to realise that no one asked him to install himself as prime minister. Even if a credible electoral system were to be introduced in Fiji, the demographic balance has now swung so far in favour of indigenous Fijians that they would retain a comfortable majority anyway.
So why not just hold an election and let the cards fall where they may? Bainimarama, having illegally taken government, no longer has the courage to take his ideas to the people. If he went to the polls tomorrow in a fair election, the government he ousted would probably be returned in a flash. Bainimarama is stalling for time and is trying to work himself out of a corner, and quite possibly a long prison sentence.
The PIF leaders issued an edict on Tuesday that required Bainimarama to announce an election date by May 1, and to hold elections before year's end. If not, it would be suspended from the forum. This might not seem a stern measure but Rudd stressed it was the unanimous decision of all Pacific leaders. It was agreed that if Bainimarama ignored the communique, financial sanctions would follow. But the most powerful message from Tuesday was that Fiji is now politically isolated in the region, and therefore the world.
That the threat of suspension stung was evidenced by Sayed-Khaiyum's reaction. He had been sent from the room as leaders discussed their measures and seemed stunned at the demand for elections. He launched into a diatribe against Australia and NZ, accusing them of leaning on smaller member nations.
Australia's strong wish is to break the coup culture and return Fiji to what it once was, the cornerstone of the Pacific. To achieve that, Bainimarama is slowly being suffocated of the sense of legitimacy he craves.