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Fiji: Engagement is not appeasement

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COMMENTS

16 May 2011 15:52

Some of the reactions to the publication of my Policy Brief on Australian policy towards Fiji have confirmed my thinking that debate on the situation is Fiji is so polarised that rational discussion is almost impossible. 

I don't expect everyone involved in this debate to read my Policy Brief before commenting on my arguments, so this post presents a briefer version of the paper, for the purposes of clarification. I also take the opportunity to disclose my own bias, which reflects only my personal opinions and not those of the Lowy Institute.

Events of the last few days in Fiji, however, could change everything. Commodore Bainimarama has announced that former 3FIR Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Ului Mara, who is facing charges of sedition (for an attempted move against Bainimarama) is now a fugitive, after he was assisted by the Tongan Navy to flee the country a few days ago. 

Fiji's chiefly ranks have long been reticent to oppose Bainimarama openly. The flight of Ului Mara, a member of Fiji's most prominent chiefly families to Tonga, which shares ancestral links with many of Fiji's chiefs, is the most significant sign yet that the tacit support Bainimarama has relied on from Fiji's once powerful chiefs may be coming to an end.

I wrote in my Policy Brief that Bainimarama sought to eliminate or marginalise all potential sources of opposition (including the chiefly system) to secure his own future. His latest attempt to eliminate that opposition by charging Ului Mara with sedition may just have been a bridge too far for Fiji's traditional leadership. But, as Sam often reminds me, predicting the future is a very unsafe task for researchers.

So, regarding my Policy Brief: for the record, I am not, nor have I ever been, a supporter of the Bainimarama regime or his roadmap for Fiji. My main concern, in my writings on The Interpreter and in a number of events the Lowy Institute has convened on Fiji, has been for the prosecution of effective Australian policy which supports the restoration of Fiji's democracy, sustains Australia's reputation for leadership in the Pacific, and maintains long-term people-to-people and economic relationships between Australia and Fiji.

In my Policy Brief, I argue that:

  • Australian policy has failed to achieve its own goal in Fiji: to encourage a restoration to democracy.
  • Bainimarama's regime has formed other international partnerships which undermine the effectiveness of Australia's approach.
  • Australia's regional leadership and international reputation is threatened by the entrenchment of the Bainimarama regime.
  • Australia should develop a more effective policy that protects its long-term interests in Fiji and advocates democracy.
  • Consistent with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd's statement that creative middle powers like Australia should work in coalitions with non-traditional partners to tackle old problems in new ways, I suggest that Australia should form a coalition with key allies and new partners such as Indonesia, India, Malaysia, South Korea and PNG and offer a package of assistance for constitutional and electoral reform in Fiji — as a means of putting pressure on Bainimarama to prove that he is committed to free and fair elections in 2014.
  • To allow space for this new approach to work, Australia needs to break an impasse, and I suggest this could be done through increased dialogue between officials (which does not equate to appeasement) and through winding back sanctions to only apply to key members of the regime so that friends of Australia and supporters of democracy are not caught up in them.
  • I don't think my proposal is a guaranteed way to persuade Bainimarama to hold elections. While he may think twice before rejecting a multi-partner offer of assistance from Asian democracies he is keen to impress, the most likely outcome, supported by this poorly conceived comment from the Fiji Foreign Minister about Mr Rudd, is that he will reject it.
  • I argue that this outcome will assist Australia to highlight Bainimarama's intransigence and solidify crumbling international opinion against him. Countries which have wavered in their conviction that the Fiji regime is illegitimate, guilty of banning freedom of speech and perpetrating human rights abuses will be reminded by Bainimarama's rejection of this offer that Bainimarama is not serious about democracy and intends to remain in power beyond 2014. A more united international approach that puts more pressure on Fiji might then have a more realistic chance of having an effect on Bainimarama.  
  • If, on the other hand, Bainimarama accepts the offer, I suggest Australia should offer Fiji some other measures which help future potential leaders of Fiji (outside the military) benefit from access to Australian and other leadership examples. None of these measures are designed to reward Bainimarama personally but would allow Australia to have some influence in a transition to democracy in Fiji and cultivate other leaders who have been marginalised by Bainimarama.

The people of Fiji are just as deserving of freedom as the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Australia's current approach does little to help them achieve it and may even make it less likely by serving to entrench the Bainimarama regime. 

A different approach from Canberra might help at least to expose the plight of the Fiji people to a wider international audience. It would also help to restore Australia's reputation as a creative middle power.

Photo by Flickr user JSA_NZ.

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