By Jone Baledrokadroka
As we approach the fourth anniversary of the 2006 coup, why are Fijians quietly acquiescing to the illegal military regime? Have we sheepishly gotten used to the curtailment of our rights and freedom by the monthly extensions of the Public Emergency Regulations? Or has the regime really delivered to warrant widespread local acceptance?
Professor Waden Narsey’s revealing Diwali article has put paid to the latter sentiment which is beyond doubt except for regime apologists. Backing Fiji’s outspoken academic are the United Nations, European Union, Commonwealth of Nations, United States of America, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands Forum in their call for a return to democracy given the socially and economically tattered state of the nation.
Much as we try to understand the complexities of Fiji’s coups by comparative studies of other coup prone states, the answer to disengaging the Fiji military from politics may well literally be, in the minds of the Fijian indigenous people.
There is a deeper pre-colonial traditional role that the military in Fijian society plays that appeal to ordinary and, indeed, village bound Fijians that need to be understood.
The guardian role of the Fiji military regime being mandated upon the nation by the President strikes a close resemblance to the benevolent dictatorship exercised by chiefs of old.
In addition, underpinning this autocratic guardian role seems to be the subtle exploitation of the old chiefly diarchic relationship symbolized by the mutually exclusive role of the war lord (Vunivalu) to the ancient Fijian ritual king (Tui) as articulated by anthropologist Arthur Hocart. This chiefly dualism was widely accepted in balancing Fijian hierarchy and traditional society. The Fijian traditional idiom of “me veitabani de kata na qio” translated as, “all things go in pairs or the shark will bite” conveys this thinking and is often still used today.
In 1972, prior to Fiji’s first elections, Ratu David Toganivalu, the deputy speaker of the house in a speech at the 18th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference in Malawi, said that a benevolent dictator could be appropriate for Fiji. He meant the paternalistic chiefdoms of traditional Fiji. This Fijian traditional yearning occurs time and again in modern Fijian political thought and action.
In the 1977 elections crisis, reinstated Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara humbly offered that it was his duty to controversially accept the wish of his high chief and Governor General, the Vunivalu of Bau Ratu Sir George Cakobau, to form a minority government. President Ratu Iloilo’s January 7th 2007 acceptance speech of Bainimarama and his illegal December 2006 coup is quite similar. The modern dualism at play.
In 1987, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, in traditional fashion, offered Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau to be first President of the Republic after deposing his high chief as Governor General. The illegality of it all did not matter to Fijians and their elite, so long as the chiefly status quo was in office.
The close relationship and reverence that Bainimarama held with the office of the President, formerly Ratu Josefa Iloilo the Tui Vuda and now Ratu Epeli Nailatikau a chief of Bau, reinforces this traditional exclusive relationship.
An investigation by Commissioner Andrew Hughes (pictured above) into the manipulation of the President’s office by the military was snuffed out by the 2006 coup and would have substantiated this idea of mutual and exclusive political manipulation.
This traditional exclusive autocratic psyche is engrained into the older Fijians’ mindset. Bainimarama and Nailatikau as they illegally play the modern leadership role of Prime Minister and President pander to such subtle traditional connections.
Another past traditional Fijian idiom of “keda nai i Taukei e rauti keda ga na veiliutaki kaukauwa kei na kana kuita”- “we Fijians respond to authotarian rule and the fear of punishment”, currently the rallying lore of the military elite, strikes a chord with a people whose elite often reminisce of the ordered colonial Fijian society.
The late Ratu mai Verata and disciplinarian Ratu Ilisoni Qio Ravoka, a known mentor of Bainimarama, in a speech at the Great Council of Chiefs in 2000, championed such a strict stance to keep erring chiefs and rebels in check. Bainimarama and his regime cleverly exploits this native mindset in the campaign against ethno-nationalists, prior to and after the coup of 2006.
The subtle connection being, that it is only through the military and chiefly benevolent dictatorship that true democracy and development can be achieved for Fiji. One without the other will fail. Previous governments including high chiefs, Bainimarama argues, have failed in this respect.
Christina Torens, in attempting to explain this modern enigma of Fijian culture, one of hierarchy and equality, states, “Equality and hierarchy are the warp and woof of traditional Fijian village life. There is an attempt to make hierarchy contain relations of equality and a simultaneous recognition that this hierarchy itself depends for its very continuity on the dynamics of relations of equality which cannot in their nature be ultimately contained by chiefly ritual but only by raw power”.
Again, as the following news piece of one of Commodore Bainimarama’s rural visits shows, “He[ Bainimarama] told the people of Koro this is one of the reasons why they took control of the government in 2006 because politicians were lying again. Commodore Bainimarama reiterated that only the military can change the political leadership. He said his government is not in place to please anyone in particular but to carry out the development work which past governments have failed to deliver.”
Jon Fraenkel succinctly explains the phenomenon thus, “Through early 2010, Bainimarama toured Fiji’s provinces and far flung islands, soliciting indigenous support with promised roads, piped water and rural electrification projects. What became the standard response in ethnic Fijian villages was to apologise for past hostility and embrace the ‘Peoples’s Charter’ which few have read but which many regard as symbolic of acquiescence under the new order. Bainimarama has been welcomed as the conquering warrior chief, to be granted ceremonial recognition by the people of the land (now officially called itaukei).”
This subliminal message plays on Fijian cultural sensitivities and the use of authoritarian power backed by an all Fijian military. This lends credibility to the regimes shrouded efforts in trying to bequeath to the nation ‘true democracy’.
This flawed thinking has been debunked with the onset of the third wave of democracy into the 21st century. Fijians must learn to accept that liberal democracy and freedom does not entail a relapse to our traditional authoritarian past what so ever. This has been the case the last four years as the regime continues to exploit Fijian traditional thinking. We can never mature as a free society by backing a dictatorship.
As famous political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted, “Force does not constitute righ t... obedience is due only to legitimate powers” through the people’s choice. In essence man is born free. He is born in the image of our Maker and for his highest expression of human organisation - liberal democracy to mature in Fiji then the fallacy of authoritarianism by the manipulation of tradition and custom has no future. Unshackling our minds may be the first step back to democracy.
Jone Baledrokadroka is a former member of the Great Council of Chiefs.