Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Loud voices must restore democracy in Fiji

Those with loud voices must speak up to restore democracy in Fiji
by Jone Baledrokadroka
April 14, 2009
In 2003 Australian troops landed in the Solomon Islands to rescue what had become a failed state. Six years later, regional stability is again threatened, but this time by the abrogation of the constitution, military dictatorship and economic collapse in Fiji.
Last Friday Fiji's octogenarian President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, was ushered before the cameras by his military minders to announce the end of the old order, and the birth of a new legal set-up in which there are no longer any restraints on the country's military rulers. Coup leader Frank Bainimarama was reappointed as prime minister. The media has since been censored, with goons from the information ministry stationed in all editorial offices. The country's judges have been told they must sign up to the new order or lose their jobs.
Back in December 2006, when Bainimarama initially seized power, he claimed to be embarking on a "clean-up" campaign to stamp out corruption. High-profile political figures and corporate bosses were arrested, and charged by the newly established Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption. Most of the allegations have proved false. They were simply means of removing political opponents. The only conviction has been of a little-known civil servant for misappropriation of government funds.
Over the past year, the rhetoric about corruption has faded. Instead, Bainimarama has claimed to be set on electoral reforms. A National Council for Building a Better Fiji was tasked with putting together a "People's Charter" to heal racial divisions. Yet ethnic differences are as sharp as they have ever been, with indigenous Fijians firmly against the coup. Indo-Fijians are more sympathetic, largely because they were the victims of coups in 1987 and 2000.
In the President's abrogation speech, he claimed 64 per cent of Fiji's citizens support the charter. That figure is a farce. During last year's charter consultation propaganda exercise, civil servants were forced to tour the country soliciting support. Many of the signatories filled in pro-charter forms under duress or did not know what they were signing. With the abrogation of the constitution, Fiji's coup now appears for what it is - a naked power grab. The claims to popular legitimacy have been exposed by the latest draconian clampdown. Fiji is now on a slippery slope towards becoming a failed state. The security situation has sharply deteriorated. Soldiers in disguise have been hurling petrol bombs at the homes of prominent dissidents. Crime has been soaring under the tenure of Esala Teleni, a naval officer and close ally of Bainimarama who was appointed as chief of police after the coup. Expatriate newspaper publishers have been deported without court orders, and uniformed military officers have been turning up at court sittings to intimidate judges.
There has also been a sharp economic deterioration. The Reserve Bank has downgraded its estimate of economic growth during 2009 from 2.4 per cent to -0.3 per cent. Fiji's exports have been spiralling downwards, while imports soar, generating severe balance-of-payments difficulties. Reserves are now equivalent to only 2.7 months of imports. The prime minister's office recently issued a directive to all the ministries insisting on a 50 per cent cut to operating expenditure, an announcement prompted by the collapse in tax revenues. Eventually the Government will not be able to pay its civil servants, and will be in a situation similar to that faced in the Solomon Islands before the arrival of the Australian-led regional assistance mission.
In the Solomon Islands case, Australia waited three years before sending troops to intervene, after having refused entreaties from the then prime minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, who was ousted in a coup in June 2000. Many thought that was too late.
Should Australia now mount a similar type of operation in Fiji? That would be possibly be unwise. Australian troops would face operational problems on the streets of Suva and, as in the Solomon Islands, Canberra would encounter major difficulties in the rebuilding of the state when the crisis has passed.
Even so, the Australian Government needs to carefully weigh up diplomatic and economic sanctions. It cannot remain silent or simply wait the five years before the President's scheduled elections in 2014. There are other options. Toughening up the travel advisories would discourage Australian tourists from visiting Fiji, hitting the country's key foreign exchange earner. Halting Fijian soldiers going to Iraq on United Nations missions and to Sinai as part of the Multinational Force Observers would encourage rank-and-file dissent, although this move has so far been blocked by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Fiji should be suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth.
All these sanctions will help undermine Fiji's military rulers, but the primary force in ending this slide towards a failing state must come from within Fiji.
Jone Baledrokadroka was Bainimarama's Land Forces Commander until he challenged the attacks on Fiji's elected government. He was arrested after the coup for allegedly being involved in a plot to assassinate the commander. He served 40 days' jail until Fiji's courts found him not guilty. He is now a visiting research fellow at the Australian National University.

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