By Father Kevin Barr for the Pacific Media Centre
Many believe that coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama’s intentions are good and are in opposition to the aims of the previous indigenous supremacy 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.
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 6 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 percent 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 took 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 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 Fiji TV) 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 publishers of two of the newspapers.
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 Court of Appeal. 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 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 percent
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.
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 criticise Fiji and harp on about elections. Perhaps they need to offer their assistance and leave Fiji decide what is best for itself. They recognise 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 “look north” policy may in effect be a good balance to the previous strong influence of Australia and New Zealand.
Picture: Squatters in Suva - up to 40 percent of people in Fiji live in poverty. Photo: Fiji government.
Father Kevin Barr is economic and social justice coordinator of the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA). He is an outspoken advocate on the issue of poverty and squatters in Fiji.