Thursday, March 15, 2007

Coup Culture in Pacific

Aussies, Kiwis a part of international hypocrisy over coups

Wednesday, March 14, 2007 -

Despite the international community's negative view of coups and attempts to promote democratic means of regime change, coups continue to be a favourite means of usurpation and assumption of political power in many post-colonial States.

Since 2000 there have been 24 "successful" and attempted coups in the world.

Apart from the Fiji coups of May 2000 and December 2006, there were coups in Ecuador (January 2000), Solomon Islands (June 2000), Venezuela (April 2002), Central Africa Republic (March 2003), Sao Tome and Principe (July 2003), Guinea-Bissau (September 2003), Haiti (February 2004), Togo (February 2004), Mauritania (August 2005) and Thailand (September 2006). There are a few more I have not listed here because of space limitations.

Some of these coups, especially in small African States like Sao Tome and Principe, Togo and Guinea-Bissau did not attract much world attention compared to the Venezuela and Thailand coups.

The patronising assumption was that these were African "failed States" which did not have much political clout in the region and one would expect them to go through political instability anyway.

On the other hand, the coup in Venezuela in 2002 (although it lasted for only two days) was a very high profile one because of the United State's alleged involvement.

The Thai coup was a high profile one because of Thailand's economic significance in the Asian region, as well as internationally.

**International reaction to the Fiji coup

The 2006 coup in Fiji attracted considerable attention for a number of reasons. Firstly, for Pacific States, including Australia and New Zealand, Fiji was the political centre and Suva the unofficial "capital" of the South Pacific and any political disruption here would impact on regional stability.

Secondly, the fact that four coups had taken place in Fiji did not look good for the region which has been aspiring to create a harmonious and integrated Pacific Union through the Pacific Plan.

Thirdly, especially for Australia, political instability in the Pacific reflects badly on its regional job as America's "sheriff" whose role was to maintain stability and promote democracy in this part of the world. On the basis of these, Australia and New Zealand could not afford to see Fiji go through another coup, no matter what the justifications were. To show their disapproval the two countries poured forth their venomous scorns in the form of direct condemnation in addition to "smart" sanctions and lobbying of international agencies like the World Bank to cut links with Fiji.

The justifications for the coup provided by the military regime were ignored as denunciation by the two countries continued.

The bilateral scenario became sentimentally driven and to some extent became a personalised tit- for-tat war of words between Fiji and Australia and New Zealand, who found it almost entertaining to verbally whip Fiji like a naughty, truant kid.

Apart from the usual "regional responsibility" argument, Australia was very much embarrassed and possibly hurt by some pre-coup and post-coup developments which may have made it very angry.

The first issue was the incident involving the Australian SAS troopers who were sent to Fiji in November.

Despite initial denials, the Australian Government was later forced to reveal their identity after their lives were threatened after the military referred to them as "mercenaries."

Secondly, the warning by the Fiji military for Australia and New Zealand not to carry out any invasion was a big blow to the pride and ego of the two big countries.

It was a "you are big and I'm small but I can fight and defeat you" challenge which no militarily and politically powerful country would want to psychologically endure, especially coming from a small nation like Fiji.

Both New Zealand and Australia realised that any possible invasion needed an internationally legitimate justification and if they invaded Fiji it was going to be utterly disastrous.

The military stand-off (if one may call it that) became a "Cold War" of sorts which went beyond the serene diplomatic relations the two countries had enjoyed for a long time.

The tension was worsened when the Australian military helicopter crashed into the sea, ironically on the same night Fijian soldiers were having an anti-invasion exercise in Suva Harbour.

The Fiji military would have known the location of the Australian Navy ships (South of Viti Levu) and deliberately taunted them with the exercise.

The helicopter crash incident made the Australian military a target of international ridicule and humour and this must have embarrassed Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer. This embarrassment was later transformed into vengeful anger directed at Fiji.

Thirdly, the Fiji coup was a big blow to Australia's intention of expanding and consolidating its anti-terrorism security buffer around the Pacific. Australia has always argued that instability in the Pacific will allow for easy entry of international terrorists into Australia from the Pacific Islands.

However, there is, of course, no evidence of this happening, but there are a lot of evidence that terrorist groups are actually formed, carry out training and aim to blow up targets in Australia.

The Pacific terrorist connection is a myth propagated by Australian government advisors.

For security-minded Pacific Islanders, association with Australia is in fact a security threat because Australia is officially on the Al- Qaeda and other terrorist group hit list.

Fourthly, Fiji's Interim Regime stood up to the verbal and economic threats by throwing back its own counter verbal salvos and threats.

Fifthly, New Zealand may have been infuriated by the failure of the Wellington talks between Bainimarama and Qarase.

It is suspected that the Australians were secretly hoping that the talks would collapse to deny their trans-Tasman rival, New Zealand, the sought after glory as Pacific peacemaker.

Downer's statement that the talks were not going to work, even before the results of the talks were announced, was self-fulfiling prophesy of sorts.

New Zealand must have been disappointed to lose an opportunity to show the world its peacemaking credentials, as it did with the Bougainville peace agreement. Consequently they would have cursed Bainimarama for denying them that honour.

Sixthly, condemnation of coups is part of the normal international culture of image construction.

To condemn coups, wars or instability in any country is to tell the world that one is a lover of peace, an advocate of human rights, a supporter of democracy and a reliable member of the international community.

It is a form of political self-gratification to convince oneself that one is full of politically righteous values that the "baddie" countries must learn from.

Western countries often do this and use such an opportunity to showcase their ethical principles (such as good governance), however hypocritical they may be.

These factors in combination have been the driving forces behind the Australian and New Zealand fury on Fiji.

What about the United States? Fiji does not really serve any strategic interest in as far as the US is concerned (because we don't have oil fields) but as the only global superpower with global responsibility for "democracy", the US had to make a stand on Fiji. However, Australia and New Zealand, I suspect, have been vigorously lobbying the US to impose sanctions and use its unrivaled power to squeeze Fiji into submission.

Historically the US has been very choosy about which coup to support and which coup to oppose, depending on its strategic interests and which President was in power. In some cases it would deliberately help to stage coups against regimes with left-wing tendencies and oppose coups that would overthrow right-wing regimes.

Consistency and double standards

While the stand of the three nations on the Fiji coup is understandable, the US and Australian foreign policy (which are usually derived from the same template) are often controversial.

Both are prominent members of the "Coalition of the Willing", now caught up in the Iraqi quagmire.

The US, in particular, has supported a number of anti-democratic coups in most parts of the world, the most well known of which was the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 and the most recent being the temporary overthrow of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002 and the removal from power of Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti in 2004.

Moreover, it's interesting to note that although Australia diplomatically denounced the Thailand coup, it did not impose sanctions nor did it send its warships to evacuate its citizens as it did during the Fiji coup.

The question is: Why was Australia bent on punishing Fiji and not Thailand? Was it because Thailand was too big and too significant to Australia? Was it because of the embarrassment Australia went through before and after the Fiji coup?

On the other hand, the US was more consistent in imposing sanctions on both countries by withdrawing military aid from Thailand ($24 million) as well as Fiji.

Of the three countries, New Zealand is probably the most consistent in its foreign policy, especially in relation to human rights, nuclear arms and democracy.

New Zealand refused to be part of the Coalition of the Willing and in the 1980s its anti-nuclear stance led to the near collapse of the ANZUS treaty, a security agreement between the US, Australia and New Zealand to keep Soviet influence out of the Pacific during the Cold War from the 1940s to the early 1990s.

Double standard in policy articulation is, of course, common in international relations.

For powerful countries, often strategic and economic considerations override human principles.

The call for restoration of democracy and observance of human rights can be used as cover for strategic considerations.

This is the reason why small countries are increasingly cynical about big powers telling them what to do and not to do.

Saving the situation

The current sanctions and freeze in bilateral and multi-lateral relations will no doubt impact on Fiji's ability to recover.

The analogy of a drowning person in a pool being pulled down by his "friends" every time the person comes up for air is relevant here.

The aim is to deprive the drowning person of air and eventually let the poor bugger die.

The analogy may be too extreme but the moral of the story is quite clear.

Is this really what Australia and New Zealand want Fiji to go through?

Do they really want to punish Fiji rather than help the country recover?

Is political pride more important than people's welfare and lives?

This analogy has deep humanitarian as well as human rights implications.

Now that the sanctions have had their desired symbolic and practical impacts, it is perhaps timely to review them in the light of the current circumstances before they cause irreparable damage.

Continued sanctions will hurt the nation and even the region and this will make recovery and re-democratisation even more difficult.

This is why cool-headedness must prevail and our neighbours must deflate their vengeful ego and take their cue from the European Union which has opened up doors for talks with Fiji to deal with some issues at stake.

Really, views for or against the coup do not matter anymore because for the sake of our collective future it is now time to initiate dialogue, repair the diplomatic and bilateral damage since December 5, 2006, and move on.

New Zealand and Australia should start engaging Fiji and vice versa on the basis of goodwill for the long-term stability of the region.

For its part, Fiji's Interim Government must draw up a more specific timeline with specific dates for the return to democracy and commit itself to its fulfillment. With these we will no doubt begin to see the thawing of tension and a calmer path towards normality.

Dr Steven Ratuva is a political sociologist at the University of the South Pacific. These views are his own and do not reflect those of the institution.

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