The Canberra Column
Printed on The Interpreter, The Lowy Institute for International Politics
After a decade of effort, Fiji's New Order regime is settling in place, with the colonels, cronies and carpetbaggers thriving. The reality of the way Bainimarama's regime is evolving tracks key elements of Indonesia's New Order under Suharto, even if Suva doesn't use the term.
The rhetoric of Fiji's New Order is different to that used by Suharto. As a modern military man, Bainimarama is happy to promise 'a system of governance that is characterised by stability, transparency and accountability', and pledge 'adherence to the principles of the rule of law...sustainable institutions and laws that will create accountability, transparency, justice, fair play and modernity.' In his interviews, the Supremo constantly speaks of the need for 'reform' (count the references in this ABC interview).
The talk sounds wonderful. The walk leads in a different direction completely. Look at what the Supremo does, rather than what he says, and the New Order echoes keep getting louder.
Bainimarama does not have the bloody hands of Suharto. He may not be as smart as Suharto, either, and his New Order may not be as stable because it does not deliver the economic goods. But the New Order analogy reflects the trajectory of a decade and the options facing Suva's regime. The New Order expresses what Fiji's military has done, is doing, and is likely to do next.
The central role of the military is the starting point for the New Order comparison. The military is Fiji's supreme institution, standing above the president, the courts and eventually the reconstituted parliament.
One reason Bainimarama is so slow to start his national conversation on reviving the political system is the tricky issue of how to enshrine the reserve powers of the military. Having mounted two successful coups, in 2000 and 2006, Fiji's Supremo does not want to have to bother to do it again.
Bainimarama wants to change the system so the military doesn't have to resort to martial law or coups. Much better to change the Order, or even the law, to enshrine the military as the final umpire. Institutionalising the ultimate military veto will be a vital element in embedding the New Order. Bainimarama is wrestling with the issue, searching for his version of Suharto's 'dual function': the army as both a military force and a socio-political force.
The Suharto model has other attractions (and temptations): the military creating its own political party plus reserving seats in Parliament for military officers. Buying the continuing loyalty of the officer corps is crucial. Bainimarama has already put more than three dozen officers in government jobs and strategic posts across Fiji.
The Indonesian and Fijian New Orders have similar beginnings. One influential interpretation of Suharto's seizure of power in 1965 is that he didn't really face a coup attempt, but a schism within the military, with younger Javanese officers attempting to overthrow the corrupt general in Jakarta. The generals won. Likewise in 2000, Bainimarama's first need was to stop the Army going to war with itself.
The schism in Fiji's military was expressed by the disaffected troops who stormed Parliament. The military muscle in seizing Parliament and holding MPs hostage for 56 days came from the Army's specialist force, the Counter Revolutionary Warfare unit. George Speight was the smooth-talking figurehead. The Fiji Times eventually referred to Speight as a spokesman, not as a leader.
When shots were fired during the siege, Fiji soldiers were shooting at Fiji soldiers. The siege threatened Fiji's political system; just as importantly for Bainimarama, the siege opened a gaping wound in the military that had to be staunched. At the foundational moment for both Suharto and Bainimarama, the key need was to confront opposing forces within the military and restore unified command. After victory, those opposing officers were sidelined and eased into retirement, or written into history as renegades and criminals.
At the birth of their New Orders, Suharto and Bainimarama were playing for their own lives as well as careers. Bainimarama escaped being assassinated by his own troops by seconds.
It is only after the unity of the military is assured that the supremo can start to dismantle or curb the other power centres that might oppose the longevity of the New Order. It took Suharto about five years after the 1965 coup to ensure that his military base was secure. Bainimarama used the time between his first and second coups for the same purpose.