Thursday, June 14, 2007

War of words ends in coup Brij Lal

War of words ends in coup

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fiji experienced a range of emotions over the course of a fateful 2006, with the year ending on the unsettled note on which it had begun, says academic and co-architect of the 1997 Constitution, Dr Brij Lal.

In a London journal called The Round Table and obtained by The Fiji Times, Dr Lal said Fiji was caught in a dilemma of its own making, hobbled by tensions, refusing to heed the lessons of its recent past, and reeling from the effects of the December 5 coup.

"A Fijian army confronted a Fijian government, fuelling the indigenous community's worst fears about spilling Fijian blood on Fijian soil," he said.

Dr Lal said this fourth coup sidelined institutions of the indigenous community, the Methodist Church and the Great Council of Chiefs, severing the overarching influence they had exercised on national life.

He said politicians who supported past coups transformed themselves into fearless defenders of democracy because this time they found themselves on the other side of the barrel of a gun.

On the other hand, victims of previous coups like Labour leader Mahendra Chaudhry, accepted ministerial portfolios in a military-appointed interim administration "in the national interest.

Dr Lal said Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who initially disclaimed a political role, accepted appointment as interim prime minister while remaining military commander, with the full support of a visibly ailing and curiously ineffectual President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

He said in between talks of coup and confrontation, Fiji had its share of drama caused by an intense election campaign in May and the multi-party power-sharing cabinet that promised to take the country towards a new era of multi-ethnic co-operation.

He said the flashpoint between the military and the Government in January 2006 came at the end of a long and troubled relationship.

"A cold' war between the two had begun as early as 2003 when it became clear that Commodore Bainimarama was a no-nonsense personality' who would not toe the Government line.

"An early indication came in 2004 when Commodore Bainimarama single-handedly took on both the President and the Prime Minister and reversed a government order to reduce the sentence for soldiers involved in a mutiny in November 2000," he said.

In May that year, five senior military officers alleged that Bainimarama was plotting to overthrow the Government. In retaliation, the Government quietly and unsuccessfully initiated moves to have Commodore Bainimarama replaced. Dr Lal said the military objected to people close to the Government, some even part of it, variously implicated in the attempted coup of 2000 being released from jail after a brief period under the Compulsory Supervision Order, and others on "dubious" medical grounds.

These included former Vice President, Ratu Jope Seniloli, and ousted Fijian Affairs Minister Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu. The military insisted that the real' players in the 2000 crisis were walking free while the small fry' were being caught in the net.

"Others implicated were safely out of the country on plum diplomatic postings. These included Ratu Inoke Kubuabola posted to Malaysia and later Japan as Fiji's High Commissioner, Isikia Savua, the controversial Police Commissioner in 2000, cleared of misconduct and dereliction of duty in a closed trial headed by the former Chief Justice Sir Timoci Tuivaga was sent to the UN.

Dr Lal said having installed Qarase as the interim Prime Minister after the Speight crisis of 2000, Commodore Bainimarama hoped he would form a lean and corruption-free government but it was not the case.

Dr Lal said revelations of massive scams in the Ministry of Agriculture involving millions of dollars to buy votes in the 2001 general election under the guise of pro-Fijian affirmative action policies, hardened Commodore Bainimarama's opposition against the Government.

"Bainimarama fingered Attorney-General Qoriniasi Bale and raised questions on his competence and integrity."

Mr Qarase defended his government from the "untruthful allegations".

Dr Lal said the military's condemnation of the government crystallised around two controversial bills including the Promotion of Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill.

"The provision that inflamed not only the military's but civil society's vehement opposition to the Bill concerned the granting of amnesty to persons who made full disclosures of all facts relevant to acts associated with a political, as opposed to purely criminal, objective during the crisis. Rightly or wrongly, the amnesty provision came to be viewed as a device to pardon coup perpetrators.

"The hasty release from jail of those convicted of coup-related crimes increased the public's suspicion about the Government's real, unstated, intentions.

"It was argued that the Bill's amnesty provision was in fact intended to circumvent the country's generally robust judiciary, whose proper role it was to adjudicate matters of such importance.

"How could there be reconciliation without justice, many asked?"

Dr Lal said faced with sustained vocal pressure from a wide cross-section of the community, the Government withdrew the Bill, promising to take account of the concerns that had been raised.

Ultimately the Government decided to drop the amnesty provision. By dropping the provision after months of insisting that it would not be removed or amended under any circumstances, Qarase caught the nation by surprise and briefly reclaimed some of the ground he had lost to Commodore Bainimarama.

"Expedient or genuine, the concession came too late. By then, the military had already decided to overthrow the Government," said Dr Lal.

But the question was asked: "If the much-criticised amnesty provision was dropped, what remained of Bainimarama's objection?

"Self-preservation was said to be the answer. If the Reconciliation Commission, which the Bill proposed to set up, was established, the Commodore's violent suppression of an army mutiny in November 2000, which nearly claimed his life and resulted in the brutal death of rebel soldiers would be scrutinised. Many in Fiji believe that Bainimarama is haunted' by the mutiny — indiscipline and insubordination in the ranks of the military, its violent quelling, attempt on the Commodore's life and read his subsequent behaviour in the light of that fact.

"Questions would be asked about the commodore's role as then head of the Military Government, in the dismissal of the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara in 2000," said Dr Lal.

The other piece of legislation that the military opposed was the Qoliqoli Bill (2005) designed to transfer all proprietary rights to and interests in qoliqoli areas within Fiji fisheries waters to owners.

"Many qoliqoli boundaries are uncharted or unregistered and the critics, including the military, felt that the Bill would accentuate conflict among Fijians when registration started."

Dr Lal said the Government, which went to the elections promising to introduce the Bill in parliament if it was returned to power, claimed that it had majority Fijian support for the Bill. The upshot of the public debate on these two controversial bills was to secure wide opposition support for Commodore Bainimarama."

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