Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fiji coup leaders in church with ousted PM

11 JAN 2008
Fiji’s interim Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama today came close to meeting with the man he removed from power last December.

Bainimarama and ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase sat in the front seats of the Centenary Methodist Church in the heart of Suva albeit on different ends of the aisle. It was the first time for the two men to be together in the same room since the failed talks in Wellington in November 2006, brokered by the country’s foreign minister Winston Peters.

Also in attendance were 1987 Fiji coup leader and former military leader and Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, members of Qarase and Bainimarama’s Cabinet, former parliamentarians, senior civil servants, members of the military and the public.

They all came together for the memorial and thanksgiving service for the late Ratu Savenaca Draunidalo, a former army colonel and Cabinet minister in the Qarase Government. Draunidalo died last December 22 while on a fishing trip during a holiday with his family at his village on Moala Island.

Unfortunately today, the brief handshake or close encounter that many in the church had quietly anticipated between Qarase and Bainimarama after the service did not eventuate.

Bainimarama walked out of church first, shaking hands along the away, had a chat with some groups of people, including long-time secretary in the PM’s Office, Joji Kotobalavu, whom his regime removed, before leaving with his wife and bodyguards.

Qarase followed soon after and headed for the adjourning Epworth Hall where a light lunch was prepared. An elderly man quipped, “it would have been nice to see them both there”.

Still, considering the gulf between the two foes over the past six years, having them in the same venue for two hours was a significant development. It was also interesting to witness Methodist Church secretary Reverand Tuikilakila Waqairatu deliver the sermon with Bainimarama in attendance.

Bainimarama had often made attacks on the clergy, accusing him of harbouring political agendas in resisting his regime and supporting Qarase instead.

“It is truly a significant day, for amidst all the hardships that we face, this occasion has brought us together,” remarked Roko Jone Waqairatu in his welcome speech.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Rabuka when he spoke of Draunidalo’s distinguished service in the Fiji military.

Qarase said Draunidalo was a warrior for his Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party in the Lower House of Representatives.

“He was bold and did not hesitate to speak his mind.”

“During parliament debates, I marvel at how he artfully tackled supplementary questions that came his way. He was like a Fijian warrior waving off the barrage of questions with his club.”

Qarase also acknowledged Draunidalo’s contribution as Minister for Works.

Another speaker, former Labour Minister Kenneth Zinck, a staunch Catholic, had the hard line Methodists cringing while describing the ‘lovo’ party Draunidalo threw for his friends at the Union Club in Suva before he departed for Christmas in Moala.

“There were beer, whisky and cigars at its best…” he said.

Later, the packed church was in laughter when he told a story of how Draunidalo, while attempting to answer relentless questions from the Opposition in Parliament, rang his Ministry of Works CEO Anasa Vocea in the middle of the debate to ask for assistance.

“He held the world record for using a mobile in Parliament,” said Zinck.

“He had an air of eloquence and command of English that most of us wished we had.

“He was a big man with a big heart.”

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