Fiji: Engagement is the only way
The Lowy Institute's work on Fiji has sparked some interesting debates in recent times.
Reactions to the policy brief by Jenny Hayward-Jones have been polarised. The results of Lowy's poll also confounded. Many dismissed its results, arguing that a poll held in a country where there is this much repression could not possibly yield a 66% approval rating for Bainimarama.
Perhaps even more confusing, the poll also showed high support for some of the basic tenets of democracy. How can people support Bainimarama whilst simultaneously supporting democracy?
The polarised view, and the for/against dichotomy it sets up, obscures the complexity of the situation for many Fijians. A more nuanced view can both help explain the poll results, and point to a way forward in engagement with Fiji.
The December 2006 coup presented a complex picture for many Fijians across the different ethnic groups. There was support for the ultimate outcome held out by Bainimarama — introducing the type of changes in Fijian society that many agree are necessary. On the other hand, many rejected the process through which Bainimarama has been trying to bring about these changes — a coup followed by a military regime.
Depending on the weight accorded to either outcome or process, some people support and others reject the regime.
But there are many that find themselves somewhere in the middle. Many people have been willing to temporarily accept a military government because they feel this is the only way real change will take place in Fiji. Of course, to what extent and how long people feel this way can change over time, and will depend on personal circumstances. Viewed in this way, it is perhaps more understandable that people in Fiji can be in support of Bainimarama's performance and at the same time support democracy.
This middle ground can also point to a way forward in engagement with the Fiji regime. Starting from the end goal, there could be some level of agreement on the kinds of changes people in Fiji would like to see for their country. A constructive dialogue process would start by exploring such commonalities to build rapport and some measure of trust, after which the process by which such changes are to be brought about could be discussed.
To be absolutely clear, arguments for re-engagement do not equal agreement with a military dictatorship. But what is more important: holding on to a moral stance which has had no effect, or finding ways to assist the people of Fiji in finding a non-violent way out of this situation? With repression increasing and the economy deteriorating, the stresses can only continue to build. Some measure of dialogue and re-engagement is the only way forward that can be of potential assistance.