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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 18:30 | SYDNEY

The Fiji dilemma (part 1)

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7 June 2011 09:04

Fiji's Supremo has to worry about his health and the continuing support of the military he commands. Not much else threatens Frank Bainimarama's hold on power.

Bainimarama's one clear achievement over the last decade has been to place the military at the centre of Fiji's society, administration and politics. The Supremo's effort is to entrench himself and the absolute rights and special prerogatives of Fiji's military. It will take many years to undo that harm, whenever Bainimarama departs.

The Supremo is more a man of action than ideas (or perhaps he's just not that bright) so his grand design must be drawn from his ad hoc actions rather than his advocacy. Judge Bainimarama on what he has done, not what he promises.

To conceptualise the decade-long effort, consider Bainimarama as trying to turn the military into Fiji's Fourth Confederacy or building a New Order regime. The military as the Fourth Confederacy would stand beside — or above — the three Chiefly Confederacies of the nation's traditional power structure. The New Order model is a direct lift from Suharto's Indonesia.

The point of such analogies is to emphasise how Bainimarama has elevated the military while attacking the old centres of authority — the constitution, the courts, the chiefs, and the church.

In pursuit of the Military Confederacy, Bainimarama has clashed with other military leaders who bear the great names of the traditional Confederacies, such as Mara and Ganilau. The New Order model is useful because it points to the reality that Bainimarama's effort to remake Fiji is actually in its second decade. The Fiji New Order regime is founded on the Supremo's seizure of power in two successful coups in 2000 and 2006.

Using either the Confederacy or New Order framework, the logical eventual step for Bainimarama is to create a new political party enshrining the military's unique dual function (both protect and guide the state). The dual function language the Supremo now uses is straight out of the New Order handbook, with the military looking after Fiji's 'values' along with everything else.

Look at his depiction of the military's role for 2011 and beyond on the Republic of Fiji Military Forces website. Bainimarama tells his troops that they have initiated the process of changing Fiji and must sustain the necessary transformation to protect the nation's interests and the well-being of the people:

We took the first step to making the many changes occurring in the governance of our nation today, and we exist to guarantee that those changes come to fruition...The RFMF is the last bastion of law and order, and defence of the sovereignty of Fiji...We exist not only to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity but our values and interests...It’s been four years since we took over the leadership of our nation. The takeover was provoked by the rot in the governance of our nation. The sense of optimism, confidence and a bright future for a united Fiji that was echoed during our independence 40 years was shattered after years of disunity and corruption. We decided in 2006 that compliance of our stipulated role in the defence of Fiji, we assume the helm of the leadership and attempted to transform Fiji...Getting this vision achieved is not easy and needs a huge transformation in the attitude, culture, relationship and dynamics of our nation. It also requires a transformation within the RFMF because in our new focus our attitude, culture and capabilities have to be transformed to sustain our commitment to 2014 and beyond.

If the Supremo does hold elections in 2014 (a big if), the military must conjure up some new political parties. One of Bainimarama's thought bubbles has been that he doesn't want to allow Fiji's major existing political parties to run in any election he might organise. Those parties received 90% of the vote in the 2006 election but will be ruled ineligible to stand candidates.

In such a vacant space, a Fijian military Golkar Party would flourish. Suharto created Golkar as the regime's parliamentary vehicle. Golkar (from golongan karya, or 'functional groups') drew together hundreds of groups in society: rural workers, labour unions and businesses. Golkar enabled the army to create a party while claiming it was a new form of movement, not tainted by old party politics.

Bainimarama could seek election at the head of his version of Golkar. Or he could reach for the presidency so that he could continue in his self-appointed role as the ultimate umpire, standing above grubby politics.

All this, though, assumes two continuities — the Supremo's health and the obedience of the military. It is a central piece of New Order methodology that everything hinges on the strength of the strong man and his hold over the Army. The Fiji rumour mill constantly speculates on Bainimarama's health. His public appearances are closely watched for his physical performance as much as what he says. One-man rule seems to be speeding up the aging process.

A key measure of the longevity of the New Order will be the quality of the medical care the Supremo can find from China.

Photo by Flickr user jaredw_1986.

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