Sunday 25 Feb 2018 | 03:29 | SYDNEY
Sunday 25 Feb 2018 | 03:29 | SYDNEY

Fiji's nine-year crisis



1 May 2009 15:41

Fiji is walking out of the Pacific Forum in a huff as much as it is being ejected today from the regional grouping. The South Pacific has reached this wrenching moment because the coup crisis afflicting Fiji is nine years old. Conceptualising the crisis across the length of this decade gives a clearer view of the depth of the problem.

The Forum will do itself huge damage by casting out one of its founding states. With Papua New Guinea, Fiji is at the heart of the ‘region’ that is conceptualised and represented by the Forum. This is not an argument for the Forum to hold back on expulsion, but an acknowledgement of what Bainimarama is doing to the region as well as his own state.

As noted here previously, expulsion cuts across the original conception of the ‘Pacific Way’. Expulsion will set back — and perhaps fatally wound — newer ideas about the Forum taking a great role in running and coordinating Pacific governance.

The Forum takes this huge step because after nine years it has come to a view about whether it can trust anything said by interim Prime Minister and military commander Frank Bainimarama. Bainimarama seized power first in 2000 and eventually ‘returned’ power to a civilian. From the Commodore’s perspective, that return to a civilian leader failed miserably. The military leader may be repeating a lot of mistakes, but he doesn’t want to repeat the Qarase experience again.

Consider what the Supremo has learnt across the nine-year timeline. He staged his first coup in 2000, installing a military regime to confront the siege of Parliament. Inside the Parliamentary compound, Fiji’s Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, his Cabinet Ministers and MPs were held hostage by rogue soldiers who used George Speight as their spokesman.
Speight’s coup failed. Bainimarama’s coup succeeded. It was the Commodore who deposed the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and imposed military rule. It was the Commodore who refused to reinstate Chaudhry. Instead, the military picked its own civilian champion, Laisenia Qarase, and imposed him as the new civillian leader.

The Commodore acted in 2000 because he distrusted many politicians and didn’t even have much faith in the founding leader, Ratu Mara. He chose Qarase as a relative cleanskin who would break the mould (and protect Frank’s position as the military king-maker).

Then the military man fell out with the civilian he installed. By staging his second successful coup in December, 2006, Bainimarama sought to tear down the civilian leader he had created.

The Commodore does not want to do anything to let Qarase back into power. The poisonous relationship between Bainimarama and Qarase goes way beyond distrust. The military man proclaims his adversary extinct: ‘Qarase is finished. He will return over my dead body.’

Beyond all Bainimarama’s talk of high principles and democratic aims, he is pursuing some deeply personal agendas. From 2006, Bainimarama kept talking to Australia and the region about his intention to return to civilian rule. But the moment the Fiji courts moved to make that a legal reality he abrogated the constitution and announced he’d hold power until 2014.

The fine Australian journalist (and Fiji citizen) Graham Davis has put the best possible gloss on the Commodore’s actions. Graham does an excellent job of presenting Bainimarama’s argument and has returned to the case with another presentation today on Frank's defiance.

There will be no elections until 2014, says the Supremo, but he’s still happy to have a summit meeting with Australia and New Zealand. Bainimarama is trying to run the line that it is Canberra and Wellington that are bullying the rest of the Forum to eject Fiji.

To accept that the dictator is the real crusader for a democratic future, you have to take Bainimarama at his word. The record gives little reason for confidence. A good response to the Bainimarama talk of heading back to democracy is offered by Jon Fraenkel’s analysis that the decision to put off elections until 2014 is a true ‘indication of the regime’s own perception of its likely electoral fortunes.’ Or consider one of Australia’s top Pacific specialists, Professor Stewart Firth, who spent years in Fiji at the University of the South Pacific:

What evidence is there that Bainimarama has any democratic instincts at all? He has systematically purged the Fiji Military Forces of constitutionalist officers, demanding they pledge an oath of personal loyalty to him and dismissing those who refuse. He never accepted the authority of the democratically elected government when there was one, and overthrew it by force in the end. He has comprehensively militarised the governing of Fiji, sacking civilians in favour of military officers in most key positions of the Fiji public service.

Using the nine-year timeline brings into stark focus one big reality that Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Forum have been struggling with: the region cannot ‘solve’ Fiji because Bainimarama won’t or can’t deliver real solutions. That Forum realisation means the region will have to find ways to manage its relationship with Fiji. It is Bainimarama's focus on his own fate and interests that make a resolution so difficult.

Photo by Flickr user wish I had an SLR, used under a Creative Commons license.

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