Thursday, January 19, 2006

Fiji: the military wins

Fiji's controversial Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill - a political stich-up to grant amnesty to the plotters of the 2000 coup - has been delayed, and may not be passed before this year's election. While I loathe the bill, the way in which it has been delayed - repeated threats of a military coup from Fijian Military Forces commander Voreqe Bainimarama - is absolutely unconscionable in a democracy. A bedrock principle of democratic government is that those trusted with guns - the military and the police - are subserviant to the civil power, and do not interfere in politics. Commodore Bainimarama did not like the idea of letting those guilty of treason, assault, arson and murder walk free - but the proper thing to do in that case is to resign his commission and stand for election, not threaten to topple a democratically elected government by military force.

Unfortunately, the military seem to have won this round - and this may in turn encourage them towards further intervention in politics. The future of democracy in Fiji does not look good...


I generally, agree with you, but conversely Bainimarama's sabre rattling may make Fiji less prone to future coups if, via stopping the bill's progression, it sends a strong message to potential coup leaders that they won't get away with it in the future.

As for Fiji being a democracy, such a claim is a little premature as a Fijian Labour government with an indo-Fijian leader or even a majority of indo-Fijians in its cabinet has never been allowed to complete an electoral term without being evicted via a coup.

There's an election scheduled for September and it will be very interesting to see what happens. Hopefully, Labour win and hopefully they get to see out a whole term. That would be promising for Fiji's prospects as a democracy.

As a trivial aside, I was in Fiji recently and a person who I was working with told me that Fiji's current ruling party (rightwing, Fijian nationalist) gets a considerable amount of support from wealthy Indo-Fijian business men, who don't seem to mind the fact that it uses anti Indian rhetoric and benefit from its pro-business attitudes.

An Indo-Fijian colleague once told me that in Fiji race is used to cover over the issues of class. And I'd say he's pretty much correct.

Posted by Terence : 1/19/2006 03:04:00 PM

I think Bainimarama’s heart was in the right place but he lost his head. The end – a just democracy – cannot be attained by authoritarian means. He should become a politician through the ballot box, not follow Rabuka’s example by threatening with a bullet. Or, if not a politician, a civilian lobbyist. One of the positive things about Fiji is that there is media freedom.

I wince every time I see the lazy “parachute” media from outside Fiji describe the country’s problems solely in racial terms. The picture is more complex. Most of the trouble in recent years has been the result of power struggles within the ethnic Fijian elite, who have used race as a smokescreen. After the 2000 coup, Teresia Teaiwa, who is now Programme Director of Pacific Studies at Victoria University, wrote a very interesting analysis of the situation, which is still available on this site (the site owner was sympathetic to the coup, but posted a wide range of news and commentary and this, IMO, is one of the better pieces):

One of the problems in Fiji is the electoral system: there is still a communal roll and this encourages race-based parties. The history of the long battle for a common roll is described in this excellent paper by Ralph Premdas: Ethnicity and Development: The Case of Fiji (see section titled: Representation: Fear of Indian Domination and the Demand for Fijian Political Paramountcy).

Bula, Terence, I was also in Fiji recently and was tempted to spend a fortune on books at Nadi airport on my way home, “Speight of Violence”, for example (but it was too pricey - blurb at this link: ).

One that I did buy is Daryl Tarte’s novel, “Fiji”, which covers a period from the late 19th century to the late 1980s and the 1987 coups. It's set mainly in Taveuni, where his family were copra plantation owners for generations. A great read, if a little lurid in parts! The author is Chairman of Fiji’s Media Council.

Happy reading!

Posted by Anonymous : 1/19/2006 10:54:00 PM

Thank you Terence, and anon, for the excellent links.

Things are never simple, once you dig into it, are they.

Fiji's an odd place: they seem to make a lot of money out of doing UN peacekeeping work too. Which would appear to make their armed forces a major export-earner.

Posted by Icehawk : 1/20/2006 08:56:00 AM

This guy seems to be onto it:

What's Really Going on in Fiji
by Dr Mark Hayes

Specialist in Pacific media and journalism and their contexts, Dr Mark Hayes, is a very close Region and Fiji watcher, as well as traveller Out There, attempts to make sense of what's going on in Fiji, one of the three Pacific Forum countries (the others are the Solomon Islands and Samoa) scheduled to hold elections during 2006.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/29/2006 04:48:00 PM