Thursday, February 12, 2009

FIJI: South Pacific's Burma?

FIJI: South Pacific's Burma? By Stephen de Tarczynski
MELBOURNE, Feb 12 2009 (IPS) -
There are concerns that the behaviour of Fiji’s interim government indicates the possibility of a Burma-style dictatorship emerging in the Pacific nation. "Are we seeing the development of a militarised democracy [in Fiji]?" asks Prof. Brij Lal, a Fijian of Indian descent and expert on Fijian affairs at the Australian National University.
"I honestly fear that we may be seeing, in an embryonic form, the ‘Burma of the Pacific,’" says Lal, who was part of the three-member Fiji Constitution Review Commission - the report of which formed the basis of Fiji’s 1997 constitution - appointed by then-president Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara in 1995.
Lal’s fear is embodied in the form of Fiji’s current ruler, Commodore Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, who as head of the nation’s military staged a coup in December 2006 - the fourth since 1987 - to oust then-prime minister Laisenia Qarase.
In 2000, Qarase had actually been appointed to the post by Bainimarama, who headed the interim military government organised to counter the coup led by Fijian nationalist George Speight earlier in the year.
Despite remaining prime minister after the 2001 general election and 2006 parliamentary election, Qarase’s policy of reconciliation towards those involved in the 2000 coup angered Bainimarama and was a major factor in the latter’s overthrow of the elected government.
Sandra Tarte from the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji’s capital, told IPS that the political role arrogated by the military to itself has been a common element in Fiji in recent decades.
"The army, especially its current commander, sees itself as the saviour of the nation," she says.
But it is not necessarily the policies of Bainimarama that alarm the experts.
Among these are plans to overcome the racial divide that separates the two main ethnic groups, indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, most of whom are descendents of indentured labourers brought from India by the British to work in Fiji’s sugar plantations a century ago.
The cornerstone of Bainimarama’s vision of a multi-ethnic yet unified Fiji is the recently-released People’s Charter for Change, Peace and Progress.
"The People’s Charter process, as a national level inclusive and participatory undertaking, represents Fiji’s own way of addressing its deep-rooted, complex and fundamental problems," write Bainimarama and Archbishop Petero Mataca.
The two are co-chairs of the National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF) - the purportedly broad-based organisation behind drafting the charter - in the charter’s foreword.
"The overarching objective of the People’s Charter is to rebuild Fiji into a non-racial, culturally vibrant and united, well-governed, truly democratic nation; a nations that seeks progress and prosperity through merit-based equality of opportunity and peace," they write.
Also in the foreword, the interim government commits to "restore and sustain parliamentary democratic governance, stability, and peace in Fiji."
Tarte argues that major changes in Fijian society need to be accompanied by an acceptance and an understanding of the need for such reform. "The charter process has so far not succeeded in building that necessary consensus," she says.
While Lal supports the position taken by Bainimarama, he opposes the way in which changes are being implemented.
"His vision is one which I applaud…but not the way he is proceeding," he says.
Fiji’s neighbours, particularly Australia and New Zealand, have been highly critical of Bainimarama since the coup in 2006 and continue to call on the interim leader to hold elections.
At the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ retreat in Papua New Guinea in January - the PIF is the region’s leading political and economic policy organisation consisting of 16 full members - forum members unanimously called on Fiji to conduct a general election by the end of the year and to nominate the date for elections by no later then the end of April.
Failure to do so, warned the PIF leaders, will result in "targeted measures" being imposed upon Fiji, in addition to sanctions already in place.
Potential measures include the barring of members of the interim government from all PIF events and meetings as well as Fiji becoming ineligible for any PIF regional cooperation initiatives or further financial and technical assistance.
But with Bainimarama remaining obstinate in the face of international criticism - the PIF’s January meeting was arranged to discuss the failure of Fiji to fulfill its 2007 commitment to hold elections by March this year, yet with the nation’s worst-ever floods occurring just prior to the gathering, Bainimarama sent his attorney-general rather than attending himself - it appears unlikely that such an election will be convened this year.
Besides a lack of election infrastructure, including the need to register voters and demarcate constituency boundaries, a major factor likely to delay elections in Fiji well beyond the 2009 deadline is Bainimarama’s desire to change the electoral system.
The present system, stemming from the 1997 constitution, reflects racial divisions in the country. While the 71 constituencies which make up Fiji elect the 71 members of the House of Representatives, 46 of these seats are allocated along ethnic lines - 23 for indigenous Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians, one for Rotuman Islanders and three for minority groups - meaning that only voters from the allocated ethnicities can vote for their preferred representative.
The other 25 are open seats, for which candidates from any ethnic group can vie for votes.
Additionally, the interim government wants to introduce a less proportional voting system.
Lal remains critical of the "the interim administration’s claim that unless we have a new electoral system then Fiji will continue to have political instability."
"My view is that whatever electoral system you have in place, unless there is a willingness to abide by the rule of law, nothing is going to happen," he says.
For him, the more decisive factor in Fiji’s stability is the role of the roughly 3,000-strong standing army.
"You may have a new government in power tomorrow in Fiji as a result of this new electoral system. What if they propose a course of action that the military opposes? What happens then?" he asks.

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