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Unpacking strategic re–engagement with Bainimarama

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18 November 2010 12:06

Jon Fraenkel is a Senior Reserach Fellow at the Australian National University. An abridged version of this piece was published in The Australian yesterday.

Four years have passed since Bainimarama seized power in Fiji, with few signs that the coup leader is willing to bring forward scheduled elections in 2014. Frustrated at the impasse, Australian think–tanks have called for some 'new thinking', claiming that established foreign policy stances have failed. Former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs Duncan Kerr, speaking at the Lowy Institute last week, urged a 'strategic re–engagement' with Bainimarama. Similarly, officials accompanying Hillary Clinton on her visit to Australia called for fresh talks with Fiji's government. No one would reject such approaches, if they might speed up an end to military rule in Fiji. The trouble is that they are to be accompanied by a series of unilateral concessions to Bainimarama — such as endorsing his 2014 election–date, land leasing proposals or intended electoral reforms — aimed at enticing Fiji's coup leader to reciprocate. The usual response from the heavily censored media within the country has been simply to parade such endorsements as indicative of warm foreign support for Fiji's interim government.

Nor is there much that is genuinely 'new' about this approach.

The strategy of seeking areas of agreement with Fiji's coup–makers is precisely the same as that pursued by many civil society activists within Fiji during the deliberations around the People's Charter in 2008. Bainimarama used those negotiations to build up the legitimacy of his government. It was a flawed electoral system, so the People's Charter proposed, which had generated racial polarisation in Fiji. Fresh elections were unwise, it was said, unless Fiji's constitution was first amended. Dialogue was needed to achieve such an outcome, but then, just as preparations were under way to commence that dialogue, Bainimarama dumped the scheduled talks and abrogated the 1997 constitution, pulling the rug from under those who had sought, from the inside, to coax him back to democracy.

The calls for 'strategic re–engagement' with Bainimarama imply that there was a previous phase of disengagement. In fact, efforts to initiate dialogue with Bainimarama have been ongoing since the coup of December 2006; initially under the auspices of the Pacific Islands Forum–Fiji Government working group on the roadmap towards elections, and then by Commonwealth envoy Sir Paul Reeves and the United Nations Office of Political Affairs, among others (including New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully earlier this year). In July 2009, Bainimarama's new strategic policy document not only put off elections until September 2014 but also explicitly rejected any discussion towards a new constitution until 2012. Most of those working on the inside who have urged compromise have since been sacked or sidelined.

From the outside, Bainimarama's government appears well–entrenched, having seen off challenges from the Great Council of Chiefs, the Methodist Church and the public sector unions. Yet it remains in continual flux, both on personnel and policy orientation. Cabinet now features a group of old hands from the 1987 coup era. Military officers occupy several senior portfolios and permanent secretary positions, and parts of the state — like customs and the ports authority — have been absorbed directly under military jurisdiction. In the process, tensions have emerged, with a succession of strategically–placed military officers falling foul of their superiors. In June, Chief Registrar Major Ana Rokomokoti was recalled to barracks, and Esala Teleni, formerly a close ally of Bainimarama and fellow naval officer, was pressed to resign in August after a troubled spell as police commissioner. In late October, the two most senior officers in the military, Land Forces Commander Brigadier General Pita Driti and Commander of the Third Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Roko Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, were sent on 'extended leave', and then replaced.

Policies too have changed. The talk of multi–racialism and a 'clean up' campaign against corruption, which featured strongly in the early months after the coup, has diminished. Official speeches still proclaim 'multi–racial' objectives, entailing greater opportunities for the 37 per cent Fiji Indian minority, but Bainimarama's off–the–cuff comments in the vernacular convey a more strongly pro–indigenous message. His new village bylaws play to conservative Fijian opinion, and the decision to drop charges against leading Methodists indicates a calming of the tensions that flared when the church's annual conference in August 2009 was banned. The 2006 coup is, increasingly, depicted as promising success where previous coups failed.

Through early 2010, Bainimarama toured Fiji's provinces and far–flung islands, soliciting indigenous support with promises of roads, piped water and rural electrification projects. The standard response in ethnic Fijian villages became to apologise for past hostility and embrace the 'People’s Charter', which few have read but which many regard as symbolic of acquiescence under the new order. Bainimarama has been welcomed as the conquering warrior chief, to be granted ceremonial recognition by the 'people of the land' (now officially called the i–Taukei). Without elections, the genuineness of that support is difficult to gauge: Bainimarama still has more enemies at home than abroad. As often occurs in the traditional order, even those who nurse deep–seated grievances will engage in public displays of warm support.

Claims that policy towards Fiji has 'failed' rely on an exaggerated view of Australia's influence in the region, and imply that 'success' be measured by greater obedience on the part of island leaders. Yet Fiji politics has long followed its own dynamics, rather than some agenda set in Canberra, Wellington or Washington.

Photo by Flickr user Jachin Sheehy, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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