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May 11, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Fiji: Good Intentions Gone Sour

It all began with the best of intentions. Back in the colonial era, Governor Sir Arthur Gordon and statesman-chief Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna wanted to protect the indigenous Fijian way of life. Legislation was passed so indigenous Fijians were allowed to lease their land but not sell it, and Indian laborers were brought in to work for the colonialists so indigenous Fijians wouldn’t have to.

Gordon and Ratu Sukuna’s efforts had some unforeseen consequences. While 85% of the total land area of the Fijian islands remained native land, Indo-Fijians quickly became dominant within the Fijian economy. By the time independence rolled around in 1970, indigenous Fijians were seriously worried about Indo-Fijian political dominance, and voting under the new Constitution was split down ethnic lines to prevent the Indo-Fijian majority from getting too much power.

In 1987, an Indo-Fijian majority coalition was elected into government for the first time. Spurred by indigenous Fijian anxiety, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka staged two successive military coups, revoked the Constitution and declared Fiji a Republic. A new Constitution was passed in 1990 to guarantee an indigenous Fijian Prime Minister and parliamentary majority.

After five years of military rule, Rabuka was elected as Prime Minister. He formed a Constitutional Review Commission with the help of New Zealand Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves, and passed a new Constitution in 1997.

In 1999, Mahendra Chaudhry defeated wrongsRabuka and became the first elected Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. He lasted just one year before a civilian coup led by George Speight took him hostage and abolished the Constitution.

Enter Commodore Frank Bainimarama. As commander of the Fijian military, Bainimarama negotiated Chaudhry’s release and then arrested Speight and his followers on charges of treason. Bainimarama assumed executive power and appointed Laisenia Qarase, the leader of the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) Party, as interim Prime Minister. The Fijian High Court restored the Constitution, Qarase became the elected Prime Minister, and the island nation enjoyed a few years of relative political calm.

Bainimarama’s 2006 coup d’état against the Qarase government was not unexpected. Qarase had provoked Bainimarama by passing affirmative action legislation to extend indigenous Fijian property rights and, worst of all, a Reconciliation and Unity Bill offering amnesty to the rebels who had hunted Bainimarama during the coup in 2000. After a series of ultimatums, the military took over Government House on 5 December. President Ratu Josefa Iloilo was forced to dissolve Parliament and Bainimarama was appointed interim Prime Minister.

2009 Constitutional Crisis

Qarase, with support from the Great Council of Chiefs and Methodist Church, eventually applied for a legal ruling on the 2006 coup d’etat. In 9 April 2009, the Fijian Court of Appeal ruled Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s 2006 coup d’etat illegal and his interim government ‘invalid’.

Bainimarama’s response was immediate. On 10 April, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo sacked the judiciary, overturned the 1997 Constitution, declared himself head of state and said elections would not be held until 2014. He then reappointed Bainimarama as Prime Minister, who in turn reappointed all Cabinet ministers to their previous positions.

The interim government then placed Fiji under a 30-day Public Emergency Regulation (PER), allowing the police to “control the movement of people” and to stop any broadcast or publication deemed to “cause disorder, promote disaffection or public alarm or undermine the government or state of Fiji”. The PER has recently been extended for another five weeks.

No Wow Now

The history of Fiji reads colonisation, constitution #1, coup, coup, constitution #2, constitution #3, coup, coup and now, predictably, constitutional crisis. The current situation is the latest symptom in an endemic outbreak of political instability.

Victoria University Masters student Keiran Barbalich recently completed his masters thesis on Fijian politics. He says Bainimarama’s government was never legitimate and it was only a matter of time before a constitutional crisis occurred.

“The 2006 coup happened and the president was so incapacitated that they made him legitimise the coup. Now I don’t care what kind of lawyer you are, it’s pretty obvious the coup was not legal. Eventually the judiciary was going to go ‘we’ll rule against the government’ and all the Bainimarama government did then was reassert itself.

“All the hysteria from the New Zealand media completely misses the point. The point is that the judiciary ruled against Bainimarama and said he didn’t legally exist. If you’re a dictator with that much power, what’re you going to do? Of course you’re going to overthrow them, and of course the judiciary was going to rule against him. What’s most surprising is that it took the judiciary the best part of two and a half years to do it.”

Pacific Bad Boy

Recent developments have swept the mainstream media into a righteous frenzy, much to the frustration of alternative commentators. Professor Crosbie Walsh AKA ‘CrozWalsh’, a former senior academic at the University of the South Pacific, expressed his disgust at TV ONE ‘gutter journalism’ in a blog post on 27 April.

“It started with the sensational News Headlines: ‘Talk of Uprising in Fiji’—surely of extreme importance but unmentioned in the story! When the item started journalist Lisa Owen, freshly arrived from New Zealand, interviewed a Fijian female silhouette who spoke tearfully of the President’s ‘treason’…

“This commentary was filmed against a backdrop of crowded buses, a squatter settlement, and a street beggar contrasted with Commodore Bainimarama, resplendent in his white naval uniform. No text was needed; the film told all. “How could any decent New Zealander do anything other than condemn the evil Bainimarama and what he’s doing to Fiji!”

The international solution to the Fiji constitutional crisis goes something like ‘box those bad boys into a corner until they make good’. Australia and New Zealand have called for an immediate return to democracy and, after Bainimarama failed to hold elections by May, the Pacific Forum suspended Fiji’s membership based on the regime’s “total disregard for basic human rights, democracy and freedom.”

Say what? Defining democracy is a slippery task. As Victoria University senior Politics lecturer Xavier Marquez points out, “if a certain country does not have the exact same set of institutions as New Zealand, it doesn’t necessarily mean the country is undemocratic.

“The question is whether the previous regime was any better, especially if you take into account the intentions of the current ruler.”

Ask Aiyaz

Salient was unable to secure an interview with Commodore Bainimarama, as he is currently visiting an undisclosed location in Indonesia. Luckily, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum called up Newstalk ZB talkback host Leighton Smith last Monday to answer just the question we wanted to ask:

Leighton Smimith: “What is the intent of the Bainimarama regime?”

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum: “Under the 1997 Constitution we had an electoral system where people were categorised along ethnic lines. A citizen of Fiji had two votes, one for their specific ethnic group and one for the open seats. You can’t run a modern nation state based on ethnicity or communal voting. You end up with parties and politicians who are only geared towards serving specific ethnic groups, and even within the communal voting you end up with distortion.

“We want to have good and strong institutions of democracy and accountability, not just by way of lip service. Democracy is not only achieved through having elections. Let’s get the system right.”

Leighton Smith: “Now I’ll ask you a question that you might find offensive… could it be that Fiji is simply not sophisticated enough for the pure sort of democracy you’re pursuing?”

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum: “If you talk to a hundred different people, they’ll give you a hundred different definitions of democracy. Our version of democracy is that everybody in Fiji is treated equally as a common citizenry irrespective of your ethnic or religious background, and that we have a system whereby the ordinary men and women of this country can access information, justice, and basic amenities like water, roads, electricity, education, and heath facilities… where you are able to express your views through people who represent you in a system that is fair and equitable.”

While dodging Smith’s racist insinuations, Sayed-Khaiyum let rip with one of the most flawless definitions of democracy ever to waltz out the mouth of a Pacific politician. Not only that, but the People’s Charter For Change, Peace and Progress (2008) seems to be a solid plan for how the regime is going to get there.

Barbalich agrees. “The Charter reads very well, it is a very nice document. If it was drafted by an elected government then the West would be praising it, but it’s not. Everyone has conceded, even Qarase agrees that what Bainimarama wants to do to the electoral system is correct. The question is how they’re going to do it.”

The People’s Charter: Constitution #4?

Electoral reform is a key part of the People’s Charter. According to Pacific Studies programme director and senior lecturer Teresia Teaiwa, Fiji’s complex alternative voting system and ethnically-based electorate system has contributed to Fiji’s ‘coup culture’.

“It tended to create landslide victories for ethnically-based parties, so in 1999 you got the landslide victory for Chaudhry’s Labour Party and in 2001, Qarase’s SDL Party got the landslide victory. Both parties were supposed to orchestrate ‘governments of national unity’ by inviting minority or opposition parties to share power… but that provision in the constitution was much too idealistic.”

Teaiwa thinks electoral reform may not be enough to realise Bainimarama and Saiyed-Khaiyum’s dream of a common Fijian citizenship.

“It can be achieved structurally, as in reform of the electoral system… which will take one to two years. It is being achieved now, culturally in the promotion of multiculturalism through popular media and art forms, but whether it will be achieved in the hearts of Fiji’s staunch communalists, we can’t know.”

Donasiano Ruru left Fiji three years ago to pursue his Development Studies PhD in Wellington. He says consultation with the Fijian people is essential before a new constitution can be adopted.

“A constitution is a dynamic legal document and it needs to be reviewed through dialogue. It’s not about voting. It’s about educational awareness before integrating the People’s Charter into the new constitution. The people need to understand it so at the end they can claim ownership.”

Ruru says the leadership role played by the Great Council of Chiefs and Methodist Church also needs to be taken into account.

“Frank’s coup is different from the other coups because he does not have the support of the Great Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church. Rabuka got the support of the chiefs for his coup in 1987, whereas Frank completely disregarded them and even destabilised the Great Council.

“We have to get the chiefs and the Church in dialogue. It’s not something you impose; you have to bring them on side. It’s only when these people become part of the review that we can be assured of political stability. Right now is a dangerous situation because they just don’t seem to be working together.”

Human Rights and Media Fights

An Amnesty International press release on 20 February says the human rights situation in Fiji is “deteriorating by the day”. Pacific Researcher Apolosi Bose says the public emergency regulations are creating a culture of “extreme fear and intimidation.”

“There has been a major chilling effect on a once-robust NGO and human rights defender community. In the absence of a free press to hold the military to account for their actions and a judiciary to provide a balance of power, the work of these human rights organisations is crucial. But they are being crippled by repression. With no one to stand up on behalf of the abused and the vulnerable, there is a real risk of further grave human rights abuses occurring against civilians.”

The Age
reported a “spate of attacks” on the homes and cars of pro-democracy Fijians on 7 April, and a group of soldiers convicted of killing teenager Sakiusa Rabaka in 2007 have just been released on “compulsory surveillance orders” but, outside of Fiji, it is simply not clear how much “further grave human rights abuse” has occurred since the April crisis.

Teresia Teaiwa argues that the media need to take some responsibility for censorship. “To be honest, I think there is as much a problem with sensationalist and profit-driven media irresponsibility and structural economic problems within the media industry as with government encroachments on the freedom of the media.

“I’m all for media freedom, but I ob- ject to rabid media baiting of governments, whatever political stripe they may be.”

Island Nation Isolation

Assuming Bainimarama and Saiyed-Khaiyum are genuine in their desire for ‘true’ democracy, it will still be another five years before a new Constitution and electoral system are put in place. Given the additional pressure placed on Bainimarama by Fiji’s growing poverty rate and escalating ‘brain drain’ migration of skilled workers, it may be only a matter of time before his good intentions go sour and the human rights situation gets really nasty.

The antagonistic attitudes of New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Forum have shut down all traditional avenues of international support. As pointed out by ‘CrozWalsh’, “in displays quite uncharacteristic of good diplomacy, we have bailed ourselves and Bainimarama into a corner, leaving neither a way to escape with dignity intact.”

The international community needs to get smart, get humble and be more sensitive to Fiji’s current political needs. Until then, the people of Fiji will have to continue navigating these dangerous times alone.

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About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (11)

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  1. Kerry says:

    Actually, quite a lot of Fijian-born citizens are fighting their way to the Consulates and getting visas to enter Australia or NZ, as we sit ruminating on this topic.

    They are voting with their feet, and leaving before Bainimarama puts all his years of tactical training with the NZDF into practice gunning down citizens who he doesn’t like the look of.

    Other Pacific Nations have entreated Bainimarama to negotiate, but his absence from the Pacific Forum, and other gatherings recently, has been a message to diplomats throughout the region that he will not be ‘negotiated’ with, he will only dictate the terms of his own coup.

    That his administration has been called illegal does not bother him, as the sacking of the Judiciary and the suspension of the Constitution in April, enacting martial law, has shown.

  2. Ian Anderson says:

    “Actually, quite a lot of Fijian-born citizens are fighting their way to the Consulates and getting visas to enter Australia or NZ, as we sit ruminating on this topic.”

    Long before the current flare-up we suspended Fiji from our Pacific work-visa agreement. Those agreements are pretty exploitative anyway, but suspending the agreement screws a lot of Fijian citizens. We’ve consistently isolated Fiji since this coup, unlike in the previous Fijian coups. Basically we’re trying to cover our collective ass and maintain an elite to trade with.

    Bainimarama’s not shaping out to be a paragon of democracy, but our role in the situation is not pretty. We should take some responsibility rather than painting him as a cartoon villain and making wildly disproportionate claims about “the Burma of the South Pacific.”

  3. Tania says:

    Excellent stuff Nina. I am compelled to reassess my predjudices

  4. T says:

    I second what Tania has said. Fantastic article. Well done.

  5. Nive says:

    Finally someone is telling the story like it is. To point out that Australia and NZ are making the situation worse is very important. Good job, Nina.
    I don’t know if Bainimarama is really wanting one-man-one-vote, or whether it was his only way to survive. As an Indian I will tell you this, my father told his children 30 years ago that Fiji is a racist country, we are not treated as equal, so get an education and go wherever you may.
    To date, Bainimarama is THE ONLY PERSON who has offered this opportunity, for all citizens of Fiji to be treated as equal. It’s a big deal that he is an indigenous Fijian, and it does not matter at all that he holds his position as PM illegally.

  6. Gotta give props for this. You’re hitting them outta the park, Miss. Fowler.

  7. Nina says:

    Thanks for the feedback – wasn’t sure quite how to play it when I wrote it. Didn’t stress the media freedom – blank pages and full on censorship is pretty scary – or mention the $184,740 payout Bainimarama has awarded himself. Or the $15 million increase in military budget since last year.

    As Nive said, Bainimarama is the only PM, elected or otherwise, to push for a reform of the electoral system so voting is not based on race. I support Maori seats at national and regional level in NZ, but Fiji has got the system seriously out of whack. I couldn’t find anyone who disagreed with this – even Bainimarama’s staunch enemies accept that electoral reform is needed.

    The other thing to consider – Bainimarama staged the 2006 coup in part because Qarase was offering amnesty to the rebels who staged the 2000 coup. Now he’s stuck. He’s in power, he’s trying to put in electoral reform – it needs to happen – but what happens once he loses the position of PM? Back to the military and military justice. Bainimarama knows his government is illegal, he knows as soon as he loses power he’s fucked.

    I can’t think of a more dangerous position for Fiji to be in. NZ needs to get in there and help Bainimarama do what he’s doing – help fund an Electoral Review Commission, help fight poverty, help the education system, give Bainimarama some diplomatic options so he doesn’t feel like he’s trapped. Sure, he’s a dictator but give Fiji a happy dictator working towards fair elections, not some scared guy with control of the military and no options.

  8. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    I second Michael Oliver’s sentiment, Nina – your articles this year have been of the highest quality and i’ve really enjoyed reading them.

    I agree with your latest comment, bar one stipulation: whilst aiding Bainimarama in the process of electoral reform on Fiji is undoubtedly the best course of action, how would governments in the Asia-Pacific region go about doing it without being seen as holding double standards over their supposed support for democratic governance? It just seems like a case of “damned if you do, damned if you dont” – support a dictator and risk being seen as hypocritical; stonewall him and you jeapordise any genuine democratic reforms said dictator intends to implement.

    Cheers, Matt.

  9. Ian Anderson says:

    “how would governments in the Asia-Pacific region go about doing it without being seen as holding double standards over their supposed support for democratic governance?”

    They already worked with the previous coups which where supported by the Council of Chiefs, so it wouldn’t be a double standard. If they were “seen” as holding double-standards, that would be their own PR backfiring.

  10. Nive says:

    For me, these are the most important facts on Fiji:
    1. For over a hundred years Indians have lived in Fiji as second-class citizens. Their votes have not allowed them to choose a leader of their choice. It was only when the Fijians voted for Indian leaders that an Indian became PM. This is so because of the biased electoral system.
    2. At the same time Fiji’s economic success was only due to the hard work of Indians. Otherwise, Fiji would have looked just like the Solomon Islands.
    3.Is not being treated as an equal citizen a depravation of the Indians’ basic human right? Should not the international community be supporting any moves to rectfy this gross injustice?
    4. As I said before, Bainimarama is the only leader in Fiji’s history to acknowledge this injustice and endeavour to do something about it. Hence, the People’s Charter. There is a lot of support for the People’s Charter in Fiji.
    5. It is also true that Bainimarama did right and wrong, wrong and right, several times from 2000 onwards. He is not a polished politician. He is not proficient at understanding legislation. Despite all that he seems to be mostly on the right path. Compare him to Rabuka. Rabuka and his army did absolutely evil things, just to humiliate ordinary citizens. I was there in 1987, attending university in Suva. Rabuka had the backing of the chiefs. Bainimarama does not have the backing of the chiefs. Figure this out for yourselves.
    6. One thing Bainimarama did wrong was to not give Chaudhury back the prime-ministership. Chaudhury is the one Indian leader who has successfully led (indeed foundered) a multi-racial party, the FLP. Chaudhury is also the only prominent Indian leader who did not have anything to do with the 1997 constitution. The 1997 constitution should have been the opportunity for the Indian leaders to push for the unjust voting system to be changed to give every citizen equal rights. How dare Dr. Brij Lal continue giving his erronous commentary on Fiji’s affairs at the drop of a hat, from Canberra! He has a lot to answer for.
    7. For dozens of years Fiji’s military have gone to serve in extremely high conflict zones of the world, and come back to live in a peaceful community in Fiji, without any psychological help, or any de-sensitising program, which I believe should have been offered to them by the UN. I believe this exercise, over the years, have raised the army’s acceptance of violence. Most officers feel violence is okay. They feel that compared to the Middle East, Fiji is a peaceful place. Indians and Fijians don’t hate each other; Israelis and Palestinians hate each other.
    8. As the army is part and parcel of Fiji, it needs good, strong leadership. The ultimate aim is for the army to realise that with power comes responsibility. Bainimarama’s leadership, together with the military council, is the closest we’ve got so far to shaping the army to be more responsible. Compare this to Rabuka’s time and you’ll get the picture.
    9. Fiji has its own unique problems and the solution will only come from within. By supporting the Fiji President’s actions and aspirations the international community can help the citizens of Fiji.

  11. Elisapeci says:

    Hi Nina,

    Sorry this response is a bit late ummm blame the essays that are due…anyway, Just thanking you for such a comprehensive article on the Fiji saga. Great debate here.

    Just to let you know, I am a mature Fijian student @ Victoria and we also have a social forum in the group section of myvictoria titled ‘luveiviti think thank’. Please pass the word around for any student that might want to further their discussion on this topic. They can join up as we will be linking this story in that forum once all assignments are out of the way.

    Cheerio & vinaka
    ni sa moce/namaste or goodbye for now.

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