Military rulers, by definition, are a law unto themselves. Some political nuances may, however, come into play in some cases and on some occasions. Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, Fiji’s coup master of several years’ standing, sought to prove this in early September when his country was “fully suspended” from the Commonwealth.
The severe action, announced on September 1, followed his refusal to heed the multilateral forum’s ultimatum for democracy-restoring general elections. Within days of the Commonwealth slamming the door on Bainimarama’s face, he played host to a special envoy from the very same organisation. Not only that. On September 10, the two sides even agreed to keep a dialogue going.
The political nuances of a coup master’s wilful governance cannot be missed in this high drama. Yet, the possibility of a continued engagement between him and the Commonwealth does not cast the organisation in some negative light. The bottom line is that Fiji remains on the Commonwealth’s roll, however estranged as of now.
Commodore Bainimarama seized power in December 2006. Reinforcing the international condemnation of his coup, the Commonwealth and the United Nations facilitated a process of “political dialogue” inside Fiji for elections there by October 2010 to restore civilian rule.
However, the denouement of Fiji ’s “full suspension” from just the Commonwealth, not to be confused with an earlier form of suspension, occurred as Bainimarama would have nothing to do with such a timeline for restoring democracy in his country. His current political tune is a stated intention to restore parliamentary democracy by and not before 2014.
Announcing the “full suspension”, Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, emphasised the need for “credible elections” in Fiji by October 2010. For that to happen, he said, the Commonwealth had already sought to facilitate a process within Fiji “in a manner that was independent, inclusive, time-bound and without any predetermined outcome”. Although unstated, the Commonwealth’s objective ab initio was Fiji ’s return to democracy without any predetermined outcome as to who the new civilian leader should be.
Bainimarama hosted the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s Special Representative for talks even after Fiji ’s “full suspension”. As this is written, the visit of Sir Paul Reeves, the Special Representative, to the Fijian capital, Suva , on September 10 and 11, did not alter the fundamental ground realities. Nonetheless, both sides agreed to “remain in discussions” on the path towards restoration of democracy in the South Pacific state.
Such political nuances may, on occasions, seem like the silver lining of self-willed military rule. On a different plane, juntas are also known to try and sustain themselves in power through a “strategic” engagement with external powers. International critics of the Myanmar junta have often accused it of capitalising on the individual “strategic” interests of China and India . This does not, of course, imply a coordinated or competitive agenda on the part of India and China to sustain the Myanmar junta in power. The relevant issue is one of the junta itself seeking to “exploit” the regional interests of these two external powers.
Unlike in the case of Myanmar , ethnic Indians remain a critical factor in the politics and economy in Fiji . As a result, a military ruler of the native Fijian stock, as Bainimarama is, cannot easily play the so-called India card of “exploiting” such “strategic” or other interests as New Delhi might have in the South Pacific region. Unsurprisingly, therefore, China is on his radar screen as a friend of Fiji .
Bainimarama’s critics, including some international human rights groups, have already sought to blame Beijing for extending to him a lifeline, as it were. Such criticism became particularly shrill after the Commonwealth announced Fiji ’s “full suspension”. Some other observers, however, see China as doing no more than keeping its presence felt as a “rising economic and political power” in its extended neighbourhood – the South Pacific region.
Welcoming a Chinese business delegation in August, Bainimarama said: “ Fiji was the first Pacific island country to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China , in 1975. Since then our relationship has been nurtured not only through diplomacy but also through our growing ties in the areas of military training, trade, finance, infrastructure development and [other] economic initiatives.”
Bainimarama’s moves to play the China and Commonwealth cards of different complexions on two different fronts do not alter the basics in Fiji ’s politics. Fiji is no stranger to “governments” by coup masters; and the country’s ethnic divide, itself a cause of some military interventions, remains unbridged.
After toppling the elected government of Laisenia Qarase in December 2006, Bainimarama declared that the primary purpose of his coup d’etat was to bridge Fiji ’s ethnic divide. The country was promptly suspended from the “Councils of the Commonwealth”. It was not a “full suspension” as now imposed; but the 2006 move was no less linked to the Commonwealth’s general principle of civilian rule in member-states.
However, Bainimarama’s defence of his 2006 coup, in reality his second decisive intervention as a military leader, was seen by Fiji ’s ethnic Indian leaders in a somewhat different light. Mahendra Chaudhry , Fiji ’s first-ever elected Prime Minister from the ethnic Indian stream, decided to cast his political lot with Bainimarama and assumed office as Interim Finance Minister in January 2007.
Chaudhry stayed in that position until August 2008, when he resigned on the stated grounds of preparing himself for the democracy-restoring elections that the commodore had promised.
As widely seen within and outside Fiji , Chaudhry was guided by some realpolitik considerations when he sided with Bainimarama following his 2006 coup.
For the Fijian Indian leader, the coup master’s promise of a fair deal for ethnic Indians was something that could not just be trashed as an altogether vacuous pledge. The relevant reasoning was complex. Chaudhry knew that his own election as Prime Minister in 1999 produced a virulent backlash. Hardly a year later, George Speight took Chaudhry hostage in a move that came to be seen as a civilian coup of sorts in the name of “protecting the interests of the native Fijian majority”. The hostage drama ended only after Bainimarama flexed his military muscle in a manner that stopped Speight in his tracks as a political adventurist.
Against that background, Chaudhry chose Bainimarama for company in 2006. There was another reason too. Qarase, who came on the scene as the civilian ruler after the Speight-Bainimarama interlude at the turn of the 21st century, was reckoned to have left the ethnic divide largely unbridged. Finally, when Chaudhry parted ways with Bainimarama in August 2008, their versions about the cause varied. But, their competing political ambitions could hardly guarantee a long-term handshake across the civilian-military divide.
The politics of personality apart, Bainimarama is widely seen to have played a classical coup master in April this year by abrogating the Constitution, as it existed. Now, with Fiji ’s civilian leaders having failed to unseat the military ruler, by political or legal means, the focus has shifted to the role of external powers, in particular Australia , as a big neighbour, and the wider Commonwealth.
And the mounting allegations of human rights abuses in Fiji , not just its lack of democratic governance, are coming increasingly into focus - P.S. SURYANARAYANA Frontline magazine India