Monday, July 27, 2009
Bainimarama's interview on SBS
REPORTER: Mark Davis
Commodore Voreqe Frank Bainimarama is fast becoming the pariah of the Pacific, damned and feared as a dictator by many. Increasingly isolated in the region, he is on a mission to transform the racial politics and the constitution of his country - no matter what anyone thinks, in or outside of Fiji. But in classic Pacific style, today's task is far more prosaic - he's picking up the fruit and vegies.
BAINIMARAMA: The international community think we are a failed state, we are a failed African state. Do you see me driving around in a tank? Everything is working well. It's not a failed state. A lot of people don't want to understand the situation here - especially Australia and New Zealand. Is it because I'm a military man?
REPORTER: Yes, of course, you've seized power. You're a military man in a nice shirt, but you're still a military man.
BAINIMARAMA: I keep telling everyone a radical change needs to be brought in. And radical change cannot be brought in by some weak organisation.
REPORTER: Can you run a country like an army camp? And can you do that for another five years?
BAINIMARAMA: I can't run a country like an army camp.
REPORTER: Well, you're doing it now.
BAINIMARAMA: No, I'm not.
REPORTER: Well, you're demanding…
REPORTER: Well, you're demanding changes and you're demanding obedience.
BAINIMARAMA: Yes, yes for a reason, because we want to bring about changes and you can't bring about changes if you wait 20 years for that to come about. You need to have it done - today.
Mark Davies: When he seized power in 2006, Bainimarama promised that elections would be held this year. That expectation was dashed three months ago when he suspended the constitution, sacked the judiciary and announced he'd be ruling for another five years.
Now banned from entering Australia, Bainimarama has agreed to an extended and rare interview to clear up what he believes are misunderstandings about his ambitions - a message he would have liked to have delivered to the leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum.
REPORTER: What went wrong?
BAINIMARAMA: What went wrong? I say there's a lot of misunderstanding by the international community of what transpired here - Australia and New Zealand, being big brothers, wanted to stamp their mark as big brothers and hence the isolation of Fiji from the forum.
REPORTER: Well, they've done a good job, I mean…
BAINIMARAMA: They have certainly done a good job.
REPORTER: Australia's Foreign Minister says that he did warn you that unless you declared that there would be an election these consequences would follow.
BAINIMARAMA: Why should he be warning me? Why is he warning me? Is he the forum? He's not the forum. The forum is a group of island nations in the Pacific - it's not Australia, it's not New Zealand. But do you see what's happening? They are using bulldozing tactics to have their way with the forum. But why do you think they are doing it?
REPORTER: Because they don't like to see a military dictatorship in the region.
BAINIMARAMA: Dictatorship? Dictatorship as in what? What am I doing?
REPORTER: You suspended the constitution, you sacked the judges, you have seized power.
BAINIMARAMA: I sacked the judges? Where did you get the brief that I sacked the judges?
REPORTER: Probably every media report on the planet.
BAINIMARAMA: The judges went out when His Excellency abrogated the constitution.
REPORTER: Yes, but the judges declared your government, or your rule, illegal.
BAINIMARAMA: No, no, the judges were removed when the constitution was abrogated.
REPORTER: So, the constitution was removed and then the judges are then removed with it?
REPORTER: Let's get real here.
BAINIMARAMA: Let's get one thing right, they were not the only thing that was removed.
REPORTER: Everything removed except your power.
BAINIMARAMA: No, that was removed. I was reinstated as prime minister the day after. Let's just get things in perspective. There may not be a constitution, but the laws are back. So, if you walk down the street right now, and you break a law, you'll be taken to the police station and investigated and charged and taken up to the judiciary, which is now been sworn back.
REPORTER: There's a pretty good chance I could break a law on the streets of Fiji - I'd just have to bring my camera out and try and speak to an opponent of yours and I'd be breaking a law.
BAINIMARAMA: Well, yes, but that's law by decree. There's a decree in place for that - the Public Emergency Regulation. So there is a law.
Mark Davies: Today Bainimarama is opening a convention. They're big business in Fiji and as prime minister, he is often happy to oblige with his presence. Until recent months, the regional response to Bainimarama has been a relatively tolerant one with tourism and trade continuing to bubble along. But now Australia and New Zealand are now becoming far more damning of Bainimarama, and more threatening - clearly determined to isolate him and his regime.
REPORTER: I mean there's now talk of economic sanctions, for instance, which would be a disaster for you.
BAINIMARAMA: So what's the answer? Are you saying we should go to an election? Is that the answer?
REPORTER: That would certainly be an answer. All your problems would disappear tomorrow.
BAINIMARAMA: So all these friendly nations want us to go to an election and then they stop all this hassling?
REPORTER: Absolutely, I think that's quite clear.
Mark Davies: For now, Bainimarama's biggest headache doesn't come from foreign nations. The real power he is challenging doesn't lie in Canberra or Wellington - it lies in a thousand traditional villages across Fiji. While all the correct indigenous protocols are being followed today, it is those same protocols and the associated privileges that Bainimarama is directly challenging. In essence, he's proposing sweeping constitutional changes to eliminate electoral, employment and other advantages given to indigenous Fijians over their ethnically Indian compatriots.
REPORTER: Why can't you take those reforms to an election and say "This is what I want to do"?
BAINIMARAMA: How long would that take?
REPORTER: It would take six months.
BAINIMARAMA: Do you think the reforms are going to be made?
REPORTER: Reforms wouldn't, but you could put them to the people. I mean, it's up to the people to decide whether they want those reforms.
BAINIMARAMA: If there were going to be any changes to the electoral reform, why didn't we make the changes in the last 30 years?
REPORTER: Do you need five years to do that?
BAINIMARAMA: Yes, I do.
REPORTER: You've had three already and you haven't done it.
BAINIMARAMA: It's not exactly an easy thing to do, you must admit.
Mark Davies: Ironically perhaps, today's convention is one for the international media. The Asian Pacific Institute for Broadcast Development has pushed ahead with holding its annual meeting in Fiji despite Bainimarama having recently turned off the lights on the local media.
BAINIMARAMA: Allow me to take the opportunity to thank the AIBD members for remaining firm in your decision to bring the AIBD general conference to Fiji. I am aware that there have been pressures….
Mark Davies: With police now in attendance in all newsrooms in Fiji local reporting amounts to little more than rugby news, factory openings and car accidents.
BAINIMARAMA: Ladies and gentlemen, my government believes in media freedom. However, the media must ensure that their work does not impact negatively on the right of others or the stability and wellbeing of a nation.
But it's not a military dictatorship where we abuse our authority.
REPORTER: Well it depends what you call abuse your authority, sir. I mean, you've got censorship that would do North Korea proud.
BAINIMARAMA: You're kidding me? You're joking?
REPORTER: I'm not joking. You've got intelligence officers sitting in the TV station there as the journalists edit their stories.
BAINIMARAMA: What do you think they're sitting down there? Tell me.
REPORTER: To make sure that there is nothing that criticises you or upsets you.
BAINIMARAMA: No, no, no - they are there to ensure that the press will not come up with any stories that will cause instability. That's it. They can print whatever they want, but irresponsible journalism is not going to be tolerated.
Mark Davies: No Australian or New Zealand media organisations have come to this party but Bainimarama has become used to that.
BAINIMARAMA: Well, there's always resistance, especially from Australia and New Zealand. That's the unbelievable thing about it. Maybe at some stage they'll get over it.
Mark Davies: And if Australia can't get over it, it appears that other nations can. Back at Bainimarama's office, the Russian ambassador waits for an audience. He may be becoming isolated in the Pacific but there is still no shortage of ambassadors knocking at his door. The Chinese, in particular, have become generous donors to Bainimarama in recent years.
BAINIMARAMA: Over the last four weeks, we've had as many as five ambassadors that have turned up here, providing their support.
Mark Davies: According to Bainimarama, other nations have a greater understanding of what he is trying to achieve.
BAINIMARAMA: You see, there's a lot of things that you from Australia and New Zealand don't see. You don't understand the politics in Fiji.
REPORTER: If you an election were held today, I think you'd agree, Mr Qarase would probably win it.
BAINIMARAMA: He would win it and where would that take us?
REPORTER: Representation of the will of the Fijian people. And I guess I ask you, where would it take us?
BAINIMARAMA: It's not going to take us anywhere because as I've said we are trying to change the mindset of the people from the racial issues that were prevalent in the last 10 years to what we want to take Fiji to.
REPORTER: Equal suffrage Multi-ethnic equal rights?
BAINIMARAMA: Exactly. Isn't that what the Australians would want?
Mark Davies: Bainimarama first came to international prominence when racial tension exploded in Fiji, in 2000. Then, George Speight, indigenous activists and a rebel army seized parliament and overthrew the government of Mahendra Chaudhry. They claimed that Indian Fijians were exerting too much power in Fiji. On the street, Indian shopkeepers bore the brunt of the attendant mob.
Out of the chaos came Frank Bainimarama. He tricked Speight into signing an accord and then promptly arrested him and fought down his army. Bainimarama installed Laisenia Qarase as prime minister but they quickly fell out, again on issues of race and indigenous power.
In 2004, under Qarase's government, Indian farmers where forced out of their homes. Set adrift without income at a time when the public service was essentially only employing ethnic Fijians.
BAINIMARAMA: What I did in 2000 was exactly what I did in 2006. We took away executive authority in 2000 because of the chaos and I handed executive authority to the politicians, the political masses, in the understanding that politicians were going to take us forward. They did not. Qarase and his crowd did a turnabout, did a turnaround on the military. Everything, or the direction that we wanted them to take the country to, to include all the races, they didn't do that. So I took it back in 2006. I took it back to prepare the politicians to lead this nation and the only way we can prepare the politicians is by getting a new constitution, getting a new electoral system in place.
One man, one vote, and see what happens? If one man, one vote is good for Australia and New Zealand, why isn't it good for Fiji?
REPORTER: Mr Qarase - he's not able to speak out against you or to organise against you. I believe he's not allowed to leave the country. Is that correct?
BAINIMARAMA: That's his bail condition, I think. The rule of law stays. Whatever the judges decide, I can't go and say 'no' to it.
REPORTER: And one of the reasons given to not allow him out of the country is that he will speak to journalists, specifically he'll speak to journalists in Australia.
BAINIMARAMA: Well, not really. He will go out and make destabilising remarks about what's happening in Fiji.
REPORTER: And he should not be allowed to do that?
BAINIMARAMA: What we want right now is opportunity for us to move forward and make these reforms.
REPORTER: Is he able to speak freely?
BAINIMARAMA: Well, he can speak to his wife and his family. He can go to his pub and drink beer. There's nothing to stop him from doing that. Freely in that sense, yes.
REPORTER: Can I speak to him?
BAINIMARAMA: Do you want to speak to him? What do you want to speak to him about?
REPORTER: Ask him his opinion of you, perhaps.
BAINIMARAMA: No, I don't want you to speak to him because he doesn't make sense. I want Qarase and his politics to be irrelevant. I want him out. I want his politics irrelevant from now on, OK? I don't want any race issue brought back again.
Mark Davies: For Bainimarama a constitution ensuring equal rights for all Fijians, electorally and otherwise, will end the race card that is so often played, and played hard, in Fiji.
BAINIMARAMA: This is the action that will stop all coups, that will stop all the destabilising forces from bringing up race issues from now onwards. That's what we are trying to do.
REPORTER: It's a noble aspiration but every politician on earth believes they have the correct vision.
BAINIMARAMA: Isn't equal suffrage good enough for Australia?
REPORTER: Yes, but it's tested.
BAINIMARAMA: So why isn't it good for us?
REPORTER: It's tested electorally.
BAINIMARAMA: So why isn't it good for us? Why isn't the constitution that will get rid of the race issue good for Australia but not good for us? Why is that?
REPORTER: Could you not achieve that through democratic means?
BAINIMARAMA: No. No, I'm just saying over the years.
REPORTER: Because of the way the electoral laws are structured now?
BAINIMARAMA: Exactly. Because of the way the constitution is done, how the electoral system is made up, that can never change. And why? Because the politicians are happy with that - they are comfortable with that. They want the race issue to remain so that they can win.
REPORTER: Enhance the role of the chiefs.
BAINIMARAMA: Exactly. You as an Australian understand this. Wait, wait, wait, before you carry on. Is it good for Australia to have one man, one vote?
REPORTER: Yes, it is good.
BAINIMARAMA: So what I'm doing here is as good as that. If I have to fight anyone, I will fight anyone, OK?
Mark Davies: The road ahead for Bainimarama is littered with international and local roadblocks which he seems determined to scatter, now including the powerful Fijian Methodist Church, which he suspects of organising politically against him.
REPORTER: You've got Australia and New Zealand against you, you're going to have a lot of the chiefs against you. You've now got the Methodist Church against you, and that's the biggest church here. I mean, can you hold this together for five years?
BAINIMARAMA: You must remember I'm a member of the Methodist Church. I'm not against the reforms. There are a hundred thousand more like me. Just because some of the chiefs are against me, it doesn't mean that the rest of the indigenous population are against me. The only reason these people are vocal is because of the stance taken by Australia and New Zealand.
REPORTER: It's encouraged them?
BAINIMARAMA: It's encouraged them. In fact, they are encouraging one another.
REPORTER: But the opposition will come up, though. You've had it fairly quiet…
BAINIMARAMA: The opposition will always be there.
REPORTER: I guess it comes down to how you deal with it.
BAINIMARAMA: Make things exciting for us, huh? It's been dull the last 18 months. We need to talk to these people, we need to get them in and continue the dialogue.
Mark Davies: True to his word, the day after this interview Bainimarama began to bring in a dozen leaders of the church - arrested under the Public Emergency Regulations - presumably to continue dialogue. It seems there'll be no stopping Frank Bainimarama.
REPORTER: You're a military man, a naval man - you're an officer - you're used to orders being obeyed. You're likely to be intolerant of opposition or criticism. Does that make you unsuitable to run a diverse civil society?
BAINIMARAMA: No, what we want right now in Fiji is to bring about radical changes. Strong changes. Make changes to improve the lives of the people of this nation. No-one can bring those changes into being except the military here, now. In Fiji's history, no-one can bring about the changes to the public service. No-one can bring about the changes to the land and bring about land reforms. We can do that. We are not elected. We don't have to please the indigenous community. We don't have to please any chiefs. We don't have to please any members in the Methodist hierarchy. We do what is good for the nation irrespective of your colour, irrespective of your religion, irrespective of your creed.
MARK DAVIS: And it would seem that Frank Bainimarama is not totally without friends in the region - his fellow Melanesian nations of PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomons are now pushing for his re-admission into the forum to be held soon in Cairns. A diplomatic headache could be heading Kevin Rudd's way.
To watch - http://www.sbs.com.au/dateline/story/watch/id/600116/n/Perfectly-Frank