Thursday, January 29, 2009

Last Chance for Bainimarama

The Dominion Post Thursday, 29 January 2009 -
Editorial: Last chance for Bainimarama
South Pacific leaders have done the only thing they could in delivering an ultimatum to Fiji's military regime, The Dominion Post writes.
Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama needs to be stripped of any illusion that he can continue business as usual instead of doing what he has previously promised and set Fiji firmly on the road back to democracy.
Telling him he must name an election date by May 1, and hold those elections before the end of the year or face suspension from the forum and losing aid funding that goes with membership, is the only way to deal with a man who still does not understand that governments should get their power from the ballot box, not the bayonet.
Apologists for Commodore Bainimarama say he is an honourable man who stepped in to save Fiji from corruption. They say he must be given more time, that he inherited a difficult situation and it is naive to expect him to meet the Pacific Islands Forum deadline.
They miss the point. He deposed a legitimately elected government, and his behaviour since has been far from honourable. His regime gave assurances in 2007 that there would be elections by March this year.
That was an unconditional undertaking, accepted in good faith. By last year, Commodore Bainimarama was claiming that commitment had been given under pressure, and that he had wanted an in-principle understanding that allowed for flexibility. But even then there were assurances a detailed election timetable was being worked on.
Now he talks of the need for legal changes before any election, and is unconcerned if that takes five to 10 years.
Against that background it is unsurprising Commodore Bainimarama stayed home from the forum. He would have faced too many embarrassing questions, not only about his failure to keep his word, but also about the bully-boy tactics his regime has employed. There have been beatings, intimidation of the regime's critics and attempts to interfere with the judiciary.
His latest move has been to expel Fiji Times publisher Rex Gardner, five days after the paper was fined for publishing a reader's letter criticising a court decision that legitimised the Bainimarama government. The editor, Netani Reka, was sentenced to three months in jail, suspended for two years. Another paper, the Daily Post, is facing a similar prosecution. The regime has also adopted a law aimed at curbing leaks to the media by making it an offence for civil servants to provide information to anyone outside the government. Mr Gardner is the third publisher that Commodore Bainimarama's regime has felt compelled to get rid of. His predecessor, Evan Hannah, was sent packing last year, as was the publisher of the Fiji Sun, Russell Hunter.
None of those are the actions of a regime anxious to restore democracy. Instead they show a regime that does not want its actions scrutinised in case it is held to account for them.
The plain fact is that Commodore Bainimarama cannot be allowed to believe there are no consequences in turning Fiji into a military dictatorship.
He should treat the Pacific Islands Forum decision since endorsed by the United States as a last chance to do the right thing.

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