Watering the tree of military dictatorship in Fiji: It's not paradise anymore
By Margaret Smith
(Buzz Flash Blog/Pacific Media Watch): Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself in a tropical paradise. You're in the middle of the rainforest and everything is the perfect shade of green, the kind of color that you can't find in a crayon box.
Ferns plants and leaves completely surround you, dotted with the occasional bright pinks and purples of exotic flowers. And through the forest bubbles a clear blue river, weaving itself in and out of the trees.
Fiji Water Now take that image, put it in a rectangular bottle and think again. What do you get?
For the past 14 years Fiji Water has been banking off the image that their product is the cleanest and healthiest water you can find, made in the middle of paradise.
"Far from pollution. Far from acid rain. Far from industrial waste. There's no question about it: Fiji is far away," their website boasts.
As of late, however, this same image seems to be falling down all around them. Earlier this month, Fiji's military-led government was suspended from the Commonwealth, an intergovernmental organization made up of fifty-three independent member-states, most of them former colonies of the British Empire. The organisation said it was forced to act after Fiji continually refused to meet their demands to restore democracy within the country and resume dialogue with opposition groups.
"This is an announcement I make with deep regret -- it is a step the Commonwealth is now obliged to take, and one that it takes in sorrow," Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said in a statement.
Their move gets to the heart of the country's current governmental crisis, one that has been grossly under-reported by the American media and easily obscured by branding from companies such as Fiji Water.
Fiji has been on a downward spiral for a while, now. The country has been under military rule since December of 2006, when Fiji's armed forces chief Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, also known as Frank Bainimarama, seized power in a military coup and placed former President Ratu Josefa Iloilovatu Uluivudu, also known as Josefa Iloilo, in power.
Shortly afterwards, President Iloilo named Bainimarama the Prime Minister of Fiji. Early this April however, Fiji's Court of Appeals declared Bainimarama's takeover -- as well as the current interim government -- illegal, and asked the government to appoint a "distinguished person" to act as caretaker prime minister and help with the country's parliamentary elections. They also stated that this person should not be Bainimarama.
The response? President Iloilo suspended the country's constitution, abolished all constitutional positions and dismissed all of the judges on the Court of Appeals. He also reinstated Bainimarama as Fiji's Prime Minister and effectively delayed democratic elections until 2014 in order to give the country enough time to put in place the necessary reforms. Bainimarama has said he hopes to have a new constitution by 2013.
"I have decided that we must once and for all and in a decisive manner, map out a smooth path to hold parliamentary elections based on the electoral reforms as set out under the Charter," Iloilo said in a presidential address on April 10.
"You will agree that this is the best way forward for our beloved Fiji. It not only gives certainty but provides stability and the opportunity to carry out reforms that are crucial before true democratic elections can be held."
Iloilo stepped down from office in late July, and his Vice President, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, is now acting president of Fiji.
Fiji's recent suspension from the Commonwealth, as well as being expelled from the Pacific Islands Forum in July, has once again brought these issues back into the public eye.
For some, at least.
The American media, by contrast, isn't anywhere to be found. No significant reporting has been done on Fiji on any of the major news outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or The New York Times, even as cries of human rights violations are heard around the globe.
An Amnesty International report recently chronicled the country's human rights record since Fiji abrogated their constitution in April. The report, titled Fiji: Paradise Lost, found that so far the government has arrested 40 people, including lawyers, opposition politicians, Methodist Church leaders and 20 journalists. While all of them have been subsequently released, these short-term arrests are seen as intimidation tactics used to suppress freedom of speech within the country.
"Security forces in Fiji have become increasingly menacing towards people who oppose the regime, including journalists and human rights defenders," said Apolosi Bose, Amnesty International's Pacific researcher and the report's author and main researcher.
"Fiji is now caught in a downward spiral of human rights violations and repression. Only concerted international pressure can break this cycle."
The government doesn't seem to have any intention of backing down anytime soon, however.
"These [international responses] are sacrifices that have to be faced, in order to achieve what we've set out to do," Defense Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau told Radio New Zealand International about two weeks ago, when he was acting as Prime Minister while Commodore Bainimarama was on a state visit abroad.
The government has received some support within the country, as well. Some Fiji-born bloggers say that these steps are necessary in order to get the country to stand on its own, while others say the situation needs to be put in historical context, and that the Amnesty International report does not offer a fair and balanced viewpoint.
Fiji and its fragile government are falling apart, while in the meantime most Americans remain out of the loop, sipping the water of paradise.