Fiji’s reputation in United Nations International Peacekeeping simply contrasts its military’s internal role as a cabal of political oppression. In the wake of three coups in 24 years the question of how the Fiji military overthrows democratically elected governments and yet is accepted as an ‘international force for good’ has become trite? As arguably one of the major influences for coups in Fiji is due to the unintended consequences of UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) on the military elite. Since the first UN peacekeeping mission in Kashmir in 1949 there has been a large body of literature that concludes that participation in peace operations is beneficial for military institutions and for civilian control.
There has also however been substantial literature on the unintended consequences of UN Peacekeeping on a nation and its military force. The Fiji military as described by Stephanie Lawson ever since the first Rabuka coup of 1987 has become a ‘homus politicus in its own right’.
Most disconcerting, increased military numbers and a militarisation of society at large have since been justified according to the expanded roles of nation building and peacekeeping, the overt results of military paternalism.
Why? After the coup of 1987, Deryk Scarr aptly concluded of Fiji’s UN peacekeeping contributions that it had considerably raised the country’s international profile but had hardly enhanced the army’s Westminister brand of professionalism.
It is argued that the expansion of the military’s political role since the first coup was underpinned, in several ways, by participation in international peacekeeping missions. And that service with UNIFIL Peacekeeping Operations established the self image of Fiji’s military elite as political mediators.
The Turaga-Bati traditional relationship that originated in Fiji’s pre-colonial society was purposely incorporated in post-colonial orthodoxy by the British through agents such as Ratu Sukuna. The high chief’s philosophy was that Fijian society was built on ‘obedience and respect for authority’.
What was always implied given the old Turaga-Bati relationship, was the corporate interests of the ruling elite and the military were always in convergence, with the military subservient As explained by Robert Norton, “The principle of defending the dignity and authority of chiefs against the political ascendancy of Vulagi (foreigners) was at the heart of the ideological justification of the 1987 coup.”
It is argued that Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka initially was true to the call of the Bati in carrying out the May 1987 coup. Andrew Scobell asserted it was the threat to this intrinsic corporate interest that spurred Rabuka to act. In fact the 1987 Fiji Labour Party election manifesto, ‘deplored the Royal Fiji Military Forces as becoming more of a band of mercenaries for the UN and MFO and its role should be reviewed’.
This articulated FLP policy acted as a ‘red rag to a bull’ for the military elite in 1987.
What were these interlinked corporate interests? The military in post-independent Fiji was always to be the last bastion of Fijian paramountcy and its national value system -the Lotu, (church) Vanua (Chiefly Tradition) and the Matanitu. It was the custodian of the Fijian race’s martial tradition and cultural capital.
Thereby it became the institution that guaranteed the largest body of Fijian men lucrative UN and MFO peacekeeping employment. Given the military’s nation-building and peacekeeping roles, the extension into politics was naturally only a step further.
From a force of 400 at Independence, active duty troop numbers increased to 6000 by December 1987. This is as a result of the expanded roles of national development, peacekeeping and internal security given to the military. Today the Fiji military has a strength of 3200 active or regular soldiers and 6000 reservists, or a total of 9200 troops. (See Graph 1 just below)
DWP 1997 & NSWP 2005
A Comparison of 1000 capita/ troop, numbers for a population of 837,000 (2007 census), Fiji has an index of 10.1. This is consistent with other coup prone countries such as: Myanmar 10.4, Thailand 10.1, and Pakistan 8.1. To compare with countries that have militaries in the region Australia‘s index is 3.9, New Zealand 2 and Papua New Guinea is 0.5. (See Graph 2 just below)
A Case Study of Peacekeeping Perceptions
Around early morning 14th May 1987, news of a military coup in Fiji had been filtering into Fijibatt Headquarter Qana, South Lebanon. As a young Captain the author and several other senior peacekeeping officers including the Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Ratu Epeli Ganilau, Major Matereti Sarasau, Major Savenaca Draunidalo, Major Naulu Mataitini, Major Jone Bolaitamana, Captain Meli Saubulinayau and Captain Tevita Bukarau had gathered at the Officers’ Mess over a tanoa of yaqona quite perplexed at what had unfolded.
Later in the afternoon Colonel Jeremaia Waqanisau came up from UNIFIL Headquarters Naqoura to brief Colonel Ganilau and officers of the Battalion as to the situation regarding the coup. Fijibatt’s continued participation in UNIFIL was also discussed.
The first message by telephone that afternoon from Colonel Rabuka to Colonel Ratu Epeli was that the Governor General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was safe and well and that no harm would befall him. More so the high chief still remained in office at Government House as talks of forming an interim government continued into the late night. Rabuka also mischievously assured Major Draunidalo through Ratu Epeli that his former wife, Adi Kuini, now wife of the deposed Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra, was well and still occupying the Prime Minister’s government villa at Veiuto.
This recollection firstly accentuates the smallness and close knit society that we were. Secondly it shows our perceptions as peacekeepers on the ground.
That night, talk around the kava bowl in Southern Lebanon was all about the Rabuka-Ganilau-Mara-Bavadra relationships and the political intrigues unfolding. We also started to compare and reinforce the Bati role as the manifest destiny of the military through Rabuka’s political intervention. Akin to our duties in Southern Lebanon as peacekeepers.
It is recalled that night the coup was discussed as an analogy for peacekeeping and not as an act of treason.
To emphasize the point, Coup leader Colonel Rabuka had justified his coup by stating, ‘When a political party loses, and that party is the sole and final guarantor of your values, you would be forced to do something about it’.
The charismatic officer was the embodiment of the Fijian value system, being groomed from the Fijian elite Queen Victoria School-(na Vuli ni Turaga) as head scholar. He was also a lay preacher and national rugby and athletic representative. All these traditional qualities apart from his military professionalism made him fit the role as coup leader. This obviously endeared him to Fijians at large and especially his loyalist soldiers.
Having usurped political power, however there was a change in relationship between the military top command and Fiji’s neo-traditional elite. The military began to articulate a separate corporate interest as a result of the intra- national schisms that was always beneath the surface. And after the commonly perceived inter-ethnic political schism was seemingly neutralized.
Moreover Rabuka and the military’s intentions were clearly signaled in the form of a senior officer’s presentation paper in August of 1989. The two distinguished chiefs in power Ratu Sir Penaia, the President, and Ratu Sir Kamisese, the interim Prime Minister, were briefed in no uncertain terms of the military’s wish to play a political role in the national interest.
Major General Sitiveni Rabuka and his chief of staff Brigadier Joji Konrote presented the paper complete with charts of the military’s future political role and intentions. The paper presented in a military appreciation format where the national political situation, assumptions, threat, an action orientated programme of priorities and recommendations were clearly laid out from the perspective of the two officers.
The crux of the presentation was the military’s Action–Orientated Programme Priorities which was spaced-out in a fifteen year time-line. Scobell made the argument that the anti-military Labour-NFP coalition government was looking to downsize and review the role of the military and that this became the primary trigger for the coup.
With the passage of time and two further coups the Fiji military has no doubt developed a political corporate interest. Initially this interest was always to entrench Fijian political supremacy.
Hence the possible use of lethal force against rioting Fijians by the military which was 99% ethnically indigenous was one of the major reasons according to Rabuka for his intervention. In addition as pointed out by Scobell ‘the RFMF had experienced first hand the realities of chronic ethnic and sectarian divisions and conflict while serving in Lebanon, and the thought of an ethnic insurgency in Fiji constituted a night mare.’
Detractors of this argument such as former RFMF chief of Staff Colonel Jim Sanday, however, suggested the Fiji situation was not similar to Lebanon and was a far stretch of the imagination. The historical fact that there was a marked absence of inter-communal violence shored up this suggestion. In fact during the 1959 union strike in Suva workers of both the major races had teamed up and rioted against capitalist and colonialist authorities.
After the second coup of 25th September 1987 as head of the military government Colonel Rabuka declared the country a republic and abrogated the constitution. The military’s corporate interest had seemingly diverged from the chiefly elite rule of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau and the militant Taukei movement. Their support was crucial to his May coup.
Even though Colonel Rabuka then handed back the reigns of power to the two chiefs by making Ratu Penaia President and Ratu Mara interim Prime Minister it was clear that he had now asserted military interest as indistinguishable to the national interest.
This mantra incidentally was again echoed by Land Force Commander Colonel Naivalurua in backing Bainimarama's controversial 2005 Infantry Day speech, that the military was independent of government, quote, "It's not about anti-Government or anti-Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua, it's about national interest. We are not playing politics."
In retracing the military’s road to politics, in 1989 Ratu Mara’s interim government was given a mandate of two years to come up with a new constitution and electoral reforms to entrench Fijian and military interests.
The role of the military was then established anew in Section 94 (3) of the 1990 Constitution which stated: ‘It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of the Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well being of Fiji and its peoples.’
The interpretation of this clause has been mired in controversy as it has given the military justification to delve into politics in the defence of its corporate interest since.
Another major contention is that the Turaga-Bati political nexus was reinforced with the Military’s expanded role in UN peacekeeping. Fiji’s participation in UNIFIL was through a unilateral foreign policy decision, of the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ratu Mara. This was never debated in Parliament.
Robertson and Tamanisau’s comments on the political stature of Ratu Mara then may be apposite, “To many people Mara was more than the Alliance Party. He was Fiji.’
The low cost opportunity to receive overseas payments and perform a positive military role abroad was all too enticing for international identity and government revenue. This decision fortified the extant patron-client relationship and later proved to have far reaching stability consequences to the nation.
The intended outcome of peacekeeping was quite obvious- to provide jobs for youths and uphold basic principles of international conduct as a newly independent nation. Lebanon with its mosaic of ethnicity and religion somewhat resembles Fiji’s society.
The links to foreign powerful sponsors and interests in the Lebanese crisis such as Syria, Israel and Iran and as a former mandated territory of France has a parallel with Fiji as the hub of the Pacific and our links to Australia, New Zealand, and India and as a former colony of Britain. Furthermore UNIFIL’s mandate as stipulated in UNSC resolution 425 was rather ambiguous and open to interpretation by the belligerent parties.
It called for the protection of the people of Southern Lebanon from the Israeli Defence Force and various armed elements such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Afwaj Al-Mugamah Al-Lubnaniyya (AMAL) and the more radical Hezbollah. Indeed this was a peacekeeping task of biblical proportion.
The mediator role and ‘can do’ attitude forged in Lebanon became engrained in the collective military psyche underpinned by the deaths of thirty seven Fiji soldiers. The ‘man in the middle’ was an often used phrase for UN Peacekeepers and indeed the brave Fijian peacekeeping soldier. More over senior Fijian military officers became attuned to taking on military appointments of UNDPKO importance and making international headlines.
As the tone of a note delivered by Fiji’s permanent representative to the UN Berenado Vunibobo to the Security Council in April 1980 shows, ‘We have long passed the point in which UNIFIL should be allowed to tolerate both the verbal and physical harassment to which they have been subjected especially in recent weeks’.
This was after a Fijian soldier had been killed by gunfire. Indeed Deryck Scarr illustrates how important Fiji had become on the world political stage with regards the mentioned Vunibobo note stating, ‘For its own part, the United Sates Embassy in Suva let Ratu Mara know, America was concentrating more on distancing Syria from the PLO and insisted above all on a solution in Lebanon which does not enable the Soviets or their friends to gain from this crisis.’
Certainly, for a tiny nation as Fiji, UN Peacekeeping had thrust it into the international arena and superpower politics.
Fiji military’s political role was influenced by its initial UNIFIL and subsequent peacekeeping experiences. The insinuation of a ‘Lebanon situation’ was quite obvious in Rabuka’s coup operational orders (OPORD 1/87). In the conclusion to the OPORD Rabuka clearly states, ‘You will see that the sit (sic) Fiji is in, is dangerous and will develop into something much worse and resembling Lebanon and other troubled areas of the world’.
Again in the senior officer’s presentation paper of August 1989, the perceived threats facing Fiji drew a parallel to a Middle Eastern scenario. The deployment of Fijian troops, amongst communal groups in the Middle East with a long history of conflict gave them a sense of self belief in being mediators in complex aged conflicts played out on an international stage.
The 1987 coup for many officers at the time became the domestication of the military’s international role as mediators for peace and stability.
Lt Colonel Rabuka was a product of the Lebanon peacekeeping experience during the PLO armed ascendency era of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Southern Lebanon. All of Rabuka’s senior officers who were willing participants in his regime immediately after the coup such as Colonels Kacisolomone, Konrote, Wong, Biuvakaloloma, Tuivanuavou and many others, had similarly served in Lebanon.
In fact given its 98% Fijian ethnic origins the remainder of the military identified easily with the coup makers through a shared corporateness reinforced by UN peacekeeping and a history of Turaga-bati relationship stretching back a century. What is certain though is that domestically the UN’s peacekeeping code of impartiality and objectivity when dealing with contending parties was totally compromised by the May 1987 coup and subsequent military takeovers thereafter - the unintended consequence of peacekeeping.