by Graham Davis - The Australian
Fiji's military leader, Frank Bainimarama, has proposed a summit meeting with Australia and New Zealand to try to resolve the impasse over his refusal to hold elections for another five years.
With the expiration of the deadline today for Commodore Bainimarama to announce an election date this year or face suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, the dictator has defiantly said his own agenda stands.
"It is not going to happen. There will be no elections until September 2014," he said.
Commodore Bainimarama said an election this year would restore the "racist" government of former prime minister Laisenia Qarase, whom he deposed at gunpoint in 2006.
"Qarase is finished. He will only return over my dead body," he insisted. But the Fijian Prime Minister wants to map out a way forward to rebuild Fiji's shattered relationship with its traditional partners and has challenged the Australian and New Zealand leaders to confront him in person.
"I would like to see Kevin Rudd and John Key face to face so I can explain things clearly to them about the changes we need to bring about," Commodore Bainimarama said.
Stressing that the summit should be "immediate", the Fijian leader expressed frustration about the attitude of Australia and New Zealand to his attempts to purge Fiji of racism and undertake electoral reform before elections in 2014.
"That's the sad part about it. I don't think the international community much appreciates what's happening here.
"They need to come and find out," he said.
Commodore Bainimarama was speaking after Fiji suffered fresh political upheaval early last month, when the Fiji constitution was abrogated, a clampdown launched on dissent and the media, and President Josefa Iloilo said elections would be delayed until September 2014.
Fiji faces becoming the first member to be suspended from the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Australian, Commodore Bainimarama was both conciliatory and pugnacious.
He predicted that the forum would baulk at suspending Fiji in spite of sustained lobbying from Australia and New Zealand.
He announced that the month-long state of emergency imposed in Fiji would be extended, including media restrictions.
And he repeated allegations that Australia was spying on Fiji and tapping his telephones.
He revealed that his long-term plans to produce a multi-racial democracy included the restoration of the Queen as Fiji's head of state.
On his summit proposal, Commodore Bainimarama called on Canberra and Wellington to drop their insistence on an election in Fiji this year.
"That will only ensure the return of the racist government I overthrew in 2006. We need to get rid of racism in the next five years and then have elections that people recognise will bring about true democracy in Fiji."
Commodore Bainimarama said he was prepared to give the Australian and New Zealand leaders a "cast-iron guarantee" that elections would be held in 2014, but not before.
Anticipating their response that he had broken a pledge to hold elections this year, Commodore Bainimarama denied that it was ever a formal undertaking.
"The Tongan Prime Minister, who was chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, came to me for an informal chat and said 'Look, there's a lot of pressure on us and on you to set a date for elections. Why don't you come up with 2009?' So I said, 'If we want to change that, we can talk about it later on'. I thought it was something we could discuss, a possibility, not something set in stone," Commodore Bainimarama insisted.
The military chief said he did not believe the forum would proceed with its threat to suspend Fiji.
"No one has ever been suspended from the forum, and I just can't see it happening. It's beyond its mandate to suspend a member nation. In fact, if it was up to me, we would have removed Australia and New Zealand because they're putting undue pressure on the Pacific islands and that's not how we operate in the Pacific," Commodore Bainimarama said.
The region's elder statesman, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Michael Somare, warned on Tuesday that he was running out of patience with Commodore Bainimarama's regime, and the forum had no choice but to suspend Fiji if it failed to meet today's deadline.
But the Fijian leader said Sir Michael "would be thinking twice" about telling member countries of the need to do so.
"Sir Michael Somare and Fiji have a very wonderful, strong relationship going back to the days when he and Ratu Mara (the founder of modern Fiji) were friends. That relationship will remain," he said.
Commodore Bainimarama appealed to his fellow island leaders not to be swayed by Australia and New Zealand.
"Fiji was one of the initiators of the forum. Why would they want to suspend Fiji? Is there killing on the roadside? Why suspension, just because we don't go along with what the Australians and the Kiwis want?"
He also asked his fellow leaders to consider, in their deliberations, supportive comments last week to a US congressional hearing by a Samoan member of the congress, Eni Faleomavaega.
He told US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Australia and New Zealand were making "nasty accusations" against Fiji and "acting with a heavy hand" about a "situation that is more complex than it appears".
Ms Clinton promised to examine Mr Faleomavaega's complaints and acknowledged Australia and New Zealand as the source of much of the US's information about Fiji.
"She should listen to his advice," Commodore Bainimarama said, expressing his hope for a change in US policy.
"There's someone who understands what's happening in Fiji. At least she will have somebody else besides Australia and New Zealand to listen to."
Commodore Bainimarama also said he was unfazed by threats to move the forum secretariat from Suva, Fiji's capital.
"There's no need to move the forum headquarters, but I guess if they come to that decision, we'll assist them. I don't think it's going to happen."
In his interview with The Australian, the military chief also announced that Fiji's month-long state of emergency, due to expire on May 10, would be extended.
The clampdown has seen the media muzzled and a prominent indigenous nationalist, Iliesa Duvuloco, detained for allegedly distributing pamphlets calling for a military uprising.
"We want this calm to continue for a while. The emergency regulations were brought in entirely for media censorship to ensure calm. I'm very worried about people like Duvuloco inciting people to rise up against the military and the Government of the day," Commodore Bainimarama said.
He repeated allegations previously made by his Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, that Australia has been spying on Fiji.
He said he had personally confronted Foreign Minister Stephen Smith with evidence that his telephone calls had been tapped in breach of Fiji's laws.
"We had to caution Stephen Smith about spying on us, that this was illegal in Fiji, and in that meeting he didn't say anything. He didn't deny or admit it, but I took that as confirmation, bugging our phones and listening to our conversations."
But the military chief described it as an irritant, and said it had not made him more cautious about what he said on the phone.
"I really don't give a damn what they hear," he said.
The Fijian leader outlined some of his plans, including closer ties with China and India, which have replaced Australia and New Zealand as Fiji's confidants and evident means of support.
Confirming that Chinese aid to Fiji had risen dramatically, he said: "Yes, the Chinese are giving us money. We have a wonderful relationship with China and we're trying to build on that. They're very sympathetic and understand what's happening here, that we need to do things our own way."
Commodore Bainimarama said his main task in the next five years before an election was to promote the notion of racial equality over the indigenous supremacist agenda of the government he deposed.
Pointing to recent high-level Indo-Fijian appointments, including the governor of the Reserve Bank, Sada Reddy - who replaced an indigenous Fijian - the military chief said: "My vision for Fiji is one that is free of racism. That's the biggest problem we've had in the last 20 years and it needs to be taken out.
"It's the lies that are being fed to indigenous Fijians that's causing this. We need to get rid of Qarase and everything associated with the 2000 coup and begin entirely on a new path."
The military chief envisaged that when democracy was eventually restored in five years, Fiji would ask the Queen to resume her position as head of state. The country declared itself a republic during the first coups of 1987. "I'm still loyal to the Queen - many people in Fiji are," he said, acknowledging her photograph above his desk. "One of the things I'd like to do is see her become Queen of Fiji again."