By Graham Leung
Graham Davis’ article published in The Australian of 16 April, 2009 presenting Commodore Bainimarama as a visionary democrat is an interesting but flawed perspective.
The argument is centered on the Commodore’s purported intention to reform the electoral system to make it more equitable.
He claims these noble ideals justify the illegitimate seizure of power and disregard for the Constitution, the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Two years after the 5 December 2006 coup, there has been little if any progress on electoral reform beyond platitudes. On 10 April 2009, the Commander was afforded another opportunity to do so. He effected a fifth coup by abrogating the Constitution and received a further ‘mandate’ of five years from the head of State whom he reappointed on 4 January 2007.
It was also suggested that the ethnically divisive policies of the Qarase Government prompted the Commander to intervene as he did. Some of the actions of the ousted Prime Minister Qarase were indeed egregious and questionable. Yet at the time of the 5 December coup, the Multi Party Cabinet had been governing successfully for some months. Prime Minister Qarase had agreed to shelve some of the controversial legislation after the most open and protracted public debate in recent times. The Fiji Labour Party ministers were participating fitfully in cabinet and there was real hope of creating a new paradigm in our governance.
Commodore Bainimarama terminated this promising experiment in political co-operation after a sustained media campaign to undermine the Qarase Government. This significant aspect, a genuine example of rare bi-partisanship, is lost in the polemic over the alleged racism of the Qarase Government. The elections it won in 2001 and 2006 were subsequently dismissed as fraudulent by apologists for the 5 December coup in concerted efforts to legitimize the Commander’s actions. Interestingly, none of these concerns were either raised or pursued at the relevant time. The 2006 election was later the subject of a partisan inquiry established by the Director of the Fiji Human Rights Commission in 2007. Its findings were a foregone conclusion.
Much has been made of the flawed democracy Fiji has in the form of our electoral system as well as the nature of the appointment of the head of State. Such criticisms do not take account of the context. It is the direct result of our history and the compromises reached by our leaders. It is far from perfect. But it was always understood that it was an evolving process. The reservation of the presidency for Fijians of chiefly rank was recognition of the indigenous Fijian population and their social structure. Such arrangements are not inconsistent with democratic ideals if they are underpinned by widespread acceptance.
The first coup occurred when one of the assumptions underpinning the system, ie Fijian unity, collapsed and allowed the Opposition to gain power. Then as now, the head of the military arrogated to himself the right to determine what was best for Fiji: different agenda, same modus operandi rendered possible by the machinations of disaffected politicians, parties and other groups.
The appeal of Commodore Bainimarama’s 5 December 2006 coup lies in his stated claim to create a ‘non racial Fiji’. Significant sections of our society have ignored or overlooked his treasonous act and lionised his takeover of government. It is perceived by some as redressing the balance and restoring some semblance of a level playing field to our political structure. Part of the rationale involves the view that the complexities of our situation, in which indigenous rights and Fijian nationalism have been exploited for ulterior ends, requires a more sympathetic appraisal of the Commodore’s approach. These issues cloud a basic proposition: a coup carried out albeit with the best of intentions is still a coup.
It also conveniently glosses over the fact that the key plank in the Commodore’s seizure of power was good governance and the alleged corruption of the previous government. There is little of the former and the latter is largely unsubstantiated. Now we are promised a new electoral system that will herald the dawn of a new era. However, it is unlikely to change the ethnic nature of our politics. The demographics suggest a decisive shift in numbers towards the indigenous Fijian population. The social engineering in attitudes the Commodore hopes for, will take at least a generation. It will not occur merely because he wishes to frogmarch us in that direction.
And how genuine is the Commodore about a multicultural tolerant society where there is equal opportunity for all? It is difficult to say with any certainty despite the rhetoric. In the decade he has led the military, it remains overwhelmingly Fijian. As is the cabinet. The militarization of the public service has seen many senior Fijian military officers occupy executive positions in government. The appointment of Indo-Fijians to a number of senior public service and corporate positions camouflages the comparative disadvantage of the Indo-Fijian community in receiving government largesse. The Commander’s condonation of the Commissioner of Police’s recent Christian crusades within the police force without regard for the beliefs of others raises further questions in this regard.
But the Commodore continues to attract significant support from the Indo-Fijian community because he validates and affirms them in his public utterances and actions. He also has a measure of indigenous-Fijian support because they respond to strong leadership.
Notwithstanding these considerations, the Commodore and those who support him have dealt our body politic a severe blow. No previous coup has received such sustained support from academia, professionals and trade unions, united in acclaiming the indefensible. In the elaborate reasoning to sanction the events of 5 December, 2006 truth is the casualty of casuistry. The five coups we have had have been used by different groups under some pretext or other to legitimize their usurpation of power. It is an indictment on all those who would substitute the barrel of the gun for the electoral and democratic process.
As for Australia and New Zealand, there is reason to suggest that they engage the regime. The lack of communication and dialogue limits their capacity to exercise some influence. But this is a mutual exercise and the regime has not helped its cause by dissembling and intemperate action. What is required is breathing space for both sides to reflect on the way forward. Our relationship with our two significant neighbours is far too important to be left in abeyance.
The purported vision the Commodore has for Fiji is a worthy one. Many of us share it. But if it is to be sustainable, it has to be achieved within a framework that respects the rule of law, democracy and human rights. The Commodore and his cohorts are either unwilling or unable to appreciate that simple proposition. His arbitrary methods merely ensure our country remains hostage to the messianic visions of military commanders in future, fed by opportunists and other ne’er-do-wells. The world is replete with such examples.
Graham Leung is a former president of the Fiji Law Society and council member of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association. He practices law in the Fijian capital Suva