An Assessment of the Current Situation in Fiji

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					An Assessment of the Current Situation in Fiji
By Fr Kevin Barr

Background

In order to understand the current situation in Fiji we need to go back a little.

In 2000 the democratically elected People’s Coalition Government of Mahendra
Chaudhry was ousted by George Speight in a coup involving civilians and some elements
of the army. The proclaimed aim of the coup was to protect indigenous Fijian rights.
Political hostages were taken, parliament was trashed and orgies held for almost a month.
Finally Commodore Frank Bainimarama (newly appointed head of the army) tricked
Speight and put down the rebellion and released the hostages.

He took over the reins of government temporarily until he was able to appoint a civilian
interim government led by Laisenia Qarase (a banker). The deal he struck was that
Qarase and his interim government were not to seek election but be a caretaker
government until elections were held. However Qarase and his team used their position
to fight the election. They won and proceeded to introduce very racist or pro-Fijian
legislation which discriminated against Indo-Fijians and other races. They even took
back into their government a number of people associated with the 2000 coup.
Bainimarama objected and by 2006 friction between Qarase and Bainimarama was high
and Bainimarama threatened to take over the reins of government if Qarase did not back
down on his pro-Fijian legislation. He was very stubborn and refused. Finally on 6th
December Bainimarama took over in a bloodless coup.


Bainimarama in Charge

Unlike the 1987 and 2000 coups which were carried out in the name of “indigenous
Fijian rights”, this coup was in the name of multiculturalism. Moreover, while the 1987
and 2000 coups sought to protect the economic interests of certain business and
traditional elites, this coup aimed to address corruption and economic mismanagement
and see that the economy works in the interest of all Fiji’s people (35% - 40% of whom
live below the poverty line).

Despite some opposition from various political parties and other groups, Bainimarama
took over and appointed an Interim Government. There was strong opposition from the
SDL party (Qarase’s Party) and the Methodist Church (which has taken a very strong
pro-Fijian nationalistic stance in the 1987 and 2000 coups).

Bainimarama tried to unite people by inviting everyone to come together and draw up a
People’s Charter – a way forward for Fiji. The Catholic Archbishop (who had firmly
stated his opposition to the coup) agreed to be co-chair of the People’s Charter
Committee with Bainimarama. Unfortunately the SDL Party and the Methodist Church
refused to be part of the Charter and stood in opposition. After 6 – 8 months of work the


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People’s Charter was promulgated by the President. It is a very good document and tries
to address Fiji’s problems and show a way forward.

Since December 2006 life in Fiji has been very calm and relatively peaceful. There were
three unfortunate incidents of men being taken into police or army custody and dying
because of the severe treatment they received. (Courts have since brought the perpetrators
of two of the incidents to justice.) Some Women’s NGO groups have taken a strong stand
in opposition to the Interim Government and the army and have spoken up against any
appearance of human rights violations. However, they have a very narrow interpretation
of human rights. Other prominent NGOs (such as the Citizen’s Constitutional Forum and
ECREA) while condemning the unlawful take-over of government and occasionally
voicing opposition to some decisions, have tried to work with the Interim Government in
helping to find a way forward.

One constant problem has been the holding of elections. Australia, New Zealand and the
countries of the Pacific Forum have been pushing for elections as soon as possible in
order to return Fiji to democratic rule. Early on Bainimarama (under pressure) said
elections would be held in April-May 2009 but he withdrew this promise. In fact he does
not want to have elections until some of the big problems underlying previous coups have
been addressed. These are ethno-nationalism (often mixed with religious
fundamentalism), the position and authority of the Great Council of Chiefs, economic
mismanagement, and most of all the biased electoral process enshrined in the
Constitution. Many agree on the need for electoral reform but it was difficult to undertake
this because it was part of the Constitution. Unfortunately Australia, New Zealand, the
US and the EU have been obsessed with pushing Fiji to have immediate elections. If this
happened we would almost surely have another racist government followed by another
coup. Elections alone will not ensure democracy.

The Media (newspapers and TV1) have taken a very negative approach to Bainimarama
and the Interim government and have often been very unbalanced in their reporting of the
news. Despite many calls for a better reporting of the news from within the country the
media have taken a very negative stance. The Government expelled the expatriate editors
of two of the newspapers.

Court Cases

Qarase took out a court case to challenge the authority of the President to appoint
Bainimarama as Prime Minister after the 2006 coup. The three local Judges of the High
Court unanimously (and without any pressure) declared the President did have the power
to do so and that the Bainimarama Interim Government was legal. The case then went to
the Supreme Court. The three judges were from Sydney and they declared
Bainimarama’s regime illegal. They said he must resign and that the President should
appoint a new caretaker Prime Minister (not Qarase) to be in charge until elections were
held as soon as possible. Bainimarama resigned but the President then abrogated the
Constitution and said he would rule by decree. He appointed Bainimarama as Prime
Minister and basically reinstated the Interim government. Bainimarama said elections



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would not be held until 2014. A state of emergency for one month has been declared,
foreign journalists expelled and a curb placed the local media. Constitutional
appointments are being re-negotiated. The currency has been devalued by 20%.

To all intents and purposes the country goes on as usual. There is the usual peace but
everyone knows that temporary controls have been set in place. No public protests and
gatherings are allowed. But day to day life goes on without interruption. Kids go to
school, workers go to work, tourists arrive (in slightly less numbers maybe) and no-one is
harmed.

With the Constitution abrogated the way is open for electoral reforms to be carried out so
that a more free and fair non-racial election can be held. Almost surely the People’s
Charter will provide a road-map for the way forward.

After the Supreme Court decision of the Sydney judges (which hopefully was not biased
but which nevertheless upheld Australia’s position) I think the rest was inevitable –
abrogating the Constitution, the President ruling by decree, clamping down on the media,
the appointment of Bainimarama as Prime Minister and the re-appointment of the Interim
Government.


Conclusion

Many believe that Bainimarama’s intentions are good and are in opposition to the aims of
previous coups. Some think he is power-hungry but others say that he needs time to carry
out the necessary reforms and set in place a new non-racial vision for Fiji. Maybe he
does not always get the best advice and certainly some mistakes have been made. There
is division in the political parties, the judiciary, the Churches and the NGO community.
Your position depends on the perspective you take.

There has been some religious mirth surrounding the coup. Some called it a “Catholic
coup” because many of the army officers involved were Marist Brothers Old Boys (and
then the Archbishop became co-Chair of the People’s Charter and two catholic priests
had non-political positions on the electoral and other boards). Some called it a “Muslim
coup” because a number of Muslims took up positions of authority under the Interim
government. Again others called it a “Hindu coup” because it received support from a
number of Hindu organizations.

Very recently New Zealand seems to have taken a different stance towards Fiji. The
Foreign Minister says perhaps they should not criticize Fiji and harp on about elections.
Perhaps they need to offer their assistance and leave Fiji decide what is best for itself.
They recognize that Fiji needs to be allowed to solve its own problems in its own way.
This has been a dramatic change and a very welcome one. Hopefully Australia and the
US will take a similar approach. Because of the strong opposition from Australia and
New Zealand, Fiji has been turning for help to India and China and receiving it. This




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“look north” policy may in effect be a good balance to the previous strong influence of
Australia and New Zealand.


21 April 2009

Father Kevin Barr is economic and social justice coordinator of the Ecumenical centre
for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA)
kjbarr@ecrea.org.fj
www.ecrea.org.fj




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