By Russell Hunter in the Samoa Observer
The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), comprising Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the FLNKS of New Caledonia drew back yesterday from the brink of folly and hypocrisy.
By originally agreeing to have military dictator Commodore Frank Bainimarama as chair of its meeting in Fiji next week, the MSG risked tarnishing its reputation, compromising its ideals and eroding its credibility.
Fortunately, common sense has prevailed and the meeting has been “deferred” which is very likely diplomat-speak for cancelled after member countries said they could not agree on Bainimarama as chair. Like the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth, the MSG has a set of standards and rules.
It strongly affirms the universal nature of democratic principles. These, says the MSG, underpin the organisation of a state and ensure the legitimacy of its authority and the legality of its actions. The regional body espouses a firm commitment to fundamental freedoms, human rights and political engagement based on inclusive dialogue. The MSG stands by the rule of law, judicial independence, transparency and accountability.
It was therefore quite bizarre that the leaders attending the Fiji meeting would have been willingly guided in their deliberations by the South Pacific’s first enduring military dictator who has comprehensively rejected the values the MSG purports to embrace. It’s significant that Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Maleilegaoi bluntly refused Bainimarama’s invitation to attend.
Commodore Bainimarama took over an elected government at gun-point in 2006 and has ruled by force ever since. His philosophy of governance is driven by a belief that the military is “all powerful”.
The Commodore has thrown out the country’s Constitution, abolished Fiji’s democratic institutions and taken basic rights and freedoms from its people. He rules with the support of a Cabinet and Military Council. But his word is law and he demands obedience. Dissent is forbidden. Those who hold views on critical national issues that differ from those of Commodore Bainimarama are advised to keep their own counsel or suffer the consequences.
Last year, after he abrogated the Constitution, Commodore Bainimarama enacted emergency rule that imposed censorship of the media and gave the security forces sweeping authority. He promised to lift the emergency regulations, including censorship, when a new media law was introduced.
The media controls, which impose severe penalties on journalists who infringe them, are now in place. But the Commodore has broken his promise to end emergency rule, just as he broke a pledge to the Forum to hold elections in 2009.
Fiji’s judiciary was sacked with the trashing of the constitution. New appointees hold office with the approval of the military. Questions naturally arise about their independence. The rule of law, as understood by most members of the international community is, therefore, undermined. A host of “decrees”, issued with little public debate, substitute for acts of Parliament approved by MPs representing the popular will.
The Bainimarama regime is accountable only to itself. It does not practise transparency. Instead the people of Fiji are engulfed in a constant stream of propaganda portraying Commodore Bainimarama as the great saviour and problem solver. He is said to be transforming Fiji for the better, and to have the backing of the people.
The only way for Commodore Bainimarama to prove he has the public with him is to surrender to the ballot box. It is only through a free and fair election, without military intimidation, that the Commodore can establish the legitimacy of his authority. Until that happens he is just one of history’s tyrants governing through fear, lies and suppression.
So much for the Pacific Way.
Commodore Bainimarama does not believe in inclusive dialogue. He has excluded political leaders who won the last elections from discussions on Fiji’s political future. These discussions, which became largely meaningless, are now stalled. There is a widespread suspicion that the Commodore will not abide by his new promise of elections by 2014.
The MSG, fortunately for the region, has drawn back from endorsement as its chair of someone who came to power through an act of treason and rejects all the precepts and beliefs that define the organisation.
It is not enough to talk about a unique way of resolving differences by consensus among Melanesian brothers bound together by goodwill, shared thinking, traditions and customs.
Such warm and fuzzy talk will be seen by Bainimarama as a propaganda opportunity to be seized and exploited. He might go through the motions of identifying with the Melanesian ethos. In the end however he will be motivated by what he considers is in his own best interests and survival.
He would certainly have used the MSG meeting and his role in it as a tool to push his desire for validation. Like all illegal dictators, he craves legitimacy above all things and, again, like all illegal dictators, he fears the truth above all else.
The MSG will not now allow itself to be used by the Commodore as a wedge to weaken the Forum and to isolate his enemies, the governments of Australia and New Zealand. By turning away from the dictator the MSG has struck a blow for the human rights and freedoms that are at the very heart of its charter and constitution.
Of course Bainimarama will not see it that way. He sees the heavy hand of Australia and New Zealand intervening to deprive him of a propaganda coup and out goes yet another Australian head of mission.
What does he hope to achieve by this? Does he really think he can bully the whole Pacific Forum into submission to his will? Amazing as it may seem, all the evidence points in that direction.
Meanwhile, the people of Fiji continue to suffer under his rule. The overwhelming majority of local opinion feels relief at the decision by the MSG to pull back from the brink as any other course of action would have been seen as providing aid and comfort to their oppressor and assisting him to entrench his rule - without taking their views into account.
For the people of Fiji are without a voice. Nobody dares to speak out for fear of severe physical punishment. Even the suspicion of criticism of the junta is enough to bring soldiers to the door after dark. Their media is heavily censored to the point that the people of Fiji increasingly turn to your newspaper’s website to seek knowledge of what is going on at home and in the region.
Bainimarama argues that things in Fiji are normal and the country is on the move. This is falsehood. What is happening in Fiji is an aberration, a stain on the region, that is quite rightly condemned by right-thinking members of the international community.
The Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth suspended Fiji on the basis of principle.
In its dealings with Fiji the MSG has yesterday, let’s hope, done the same by honouring its own founding principles.
And now read the pro-Bainimarama Fiji SUN editorial:
The pressure was obviously too much. Or was it an inducement offered to Vanuatu?
Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei 's highly suspect decision yesterday to postpone next week's Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) summit follows weeks of intense behind-the-scenes pressure by the Australian and New Zealand governments.
Canberra and Wellington flexed all their considerable aid and diplomatic muscle to prevent the MSG Plus Summit going ahead at Natadola next week.
Mr Natapei, claiming to be the MSG chair, has now shown that it has worked. He caved in and called off the meeting at what is near the last minute. He did so despite the earlier willingness of MSG members Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands and six other countries to attend.
The politicians and bureaucrats in Canberra and Wellington will see this as a triumph for their continuing efforts to isolate Fiji. Their anti-Fiji news media, such as Fiji Times owners News Limited in Australia and so-called Pacific Islands experts like Michael Field in New Zealand, will trumpet the Fiji isolated line.
But what it really shows yet again is how much control Canberra and Wellington exert over the South Pacific islands, and how they are willing to use it to bully island nations to get their way.
Canberra and Wellington obviously saw the MSG Plus summit in Fiji to be chaired by our Prime Minister, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, as a direct challenge to their influence and hold in the region.
For not only would it have seen Commodore Bainimarama take over as the chairperson of the potentially powerful MSG regional bloc of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Commodore Bainimarama had also invited other island nations to take part at the same time in what was known as MSG Plus. Six had already confirmed their attendance. They were notably led by the Micronesian countries of the North Pacific where Canberra and Wellington have much less influence.
The politicians and bureaucrats in Canberra and Wellington could never accept Fiji hosting MSG Plus because of what it would have meant to them.
It would have signalled a collapse of their efforts to isolate Fiji. It would signal a weakening of the regional domination by the Pacific Islands Forum, over which Canberra and Wellington now hold strong sway.
It would have undermined Canberra and Wellington's efforts to dominate regional trade and business through pushing through their so-called PACER Plus agreement.
What yesterday's decision shows is how vulnerable many countries in the South Pacific are when it comes to pressure from Canberra and Wellington. And perhaps how easily some of them can be bought.
It shows how much Vanuatu, once proudly one of the most independent of the island nations, has come under Australian influence under Mr Natapei's leadership.
Only Fiji and Papua New Guinea are economically powerful and developed enough to easily withstand the pressures from Canberra and Wellington.
It is why Fiji must continue to build and develop alliances and trade and political ties in Asia, with Russia and Cuba, and throughout the Non Aligned Movement. The Government has already made good progress in this.
We should also continue to work with any of our Pacific Islands neighbours who are willing to stand up to the pressure from Canberra and Wellington.
But the capitulation by Mr Natapei marks the end of Melanesian Solidarity.
It signals the decline and maybe even collapse of the one regional body which was till now independent of Canberra and Wellington influence, the MSG. In offices in Canberra and Wellington the politicians and bureaucrats of those capitals must be rejoicing.