Friday, June 12, 2009

Michael Field on NZ Fiji Business Council

Michael Field

Speech to the NZ Fiji Business Council, Auckland

June 11, 2009

Somewhat reluctantly, a large part of my life has been spent covering turmoil in Fiji. I would be the first to accept that this kind of life, that of the foreign correspondent, does give one what might seem a jaundiced view of a place like Fiji. But oddly enough, this kind of tension and drama, also underscores a kind of strength of character that will, in time, come to the fore. After the turmoil and the tension, a suspect we are going to see a rather dynamic Fiji. It is building itself in a way no other Pacific state is.

Fiji has had five coups in twenty-two years.

Dictatorship and arbitrariness has replaced the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

In Fiji authority is based on force rather than the consent of the people.

That is a quote from a speech that will not be given tomorrow but Fiji lawyer Graham Leung. He was to have spoken at the Fiji Institute of Accountants Congress… Referring to Rabuka’s first coups, he says the the world has changed since 1987.

“Human rights concerns do matter. And in the world of real politick, we are vulnerable and small enough to be held accountable. Call it double standards, call it what you will. That is how international relations work. The regime may well think it can defy external pressures. But it will come at the expense of further decline in social services, our standard of living, decay in infrastructure, increased poverty, crime and other social ills.”

One of the unfortunate side effects though of all this has been a kind of bitter current rhetoric in which people are maligned in all kind of unpleasant ways. To avoid this, at least at this occasion, I thought I would simply offer you a viewpoint of the players and the situations ahead.

One of the publications I write for is Janes Defence Weekly and its various security publications. It is quite a rigorous form of writing, requiring a precise view of the tactical and strategic situations – and not a lot of political ideology. One of the things that comes from Janes is the notion that they want to provide data to companies and, yes, regional militaries, on the basis that they can use it to make decisions ahead.

The fact that a publication like Janes is taking serious notice of Fiji is indicative of how serious the situation has become. So I thought I would use this kind of material to run through the actors and players in Fiji, and give you a sense of what each might do and where they might take Fiji. Of course, even ranking the players is a subjective judgment – and I run the risk of being seen to be biased here. So forgive me please – I offer this list as the basis of discussion. I do this conscious that you people make significant decisions around this, and the situations – you, your employees and your investors have much at stake, and I offer this view only in the hope that it helps.

Some of you will immediately see that I have missed some people, and overstated the importance of others.

The major players as I see them are

- the Fiji military.

- The very character and nature of Voreqe Bainimarama

- Australia/New Zealand.

- The deposed SDL

- Laisenia Qarase

- The Methodist Church

- Other kind of churches

Let me talk briefly to headings, starting with the key players. Plainly the Fiji Military deserve their position at the top of the table – they were the key players in Sitiveni Rabaku’s two 1987s coups, and while the 2000 George Speight coup was described by him as a civilian coup – it would not have happened without dissident members of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces involvement – most notably its Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit.

While it has retained its size – around 3300 fulltime soldiers – I would argue that it is now less functional as an armed force than before. It is much less engaged now in the global situation, having only a minimal peacekeeping role through the United Nations. While Bainimarama has significantly increased its share of he government budget the results are not terribly obvious. It is ill equipped and a somewhat disgruntled force. Many of its best soldiers have left and are serving as mercenaries, while its recruiting poll in Fiji has been plundered by the British Army.

Time will tell but its discipline, I believe, is suspect. The November 2000 mutiny strongly pointed to divisions, and while Bainimarama now has a strong personal following – I am not at all sure that when push comes to shove, this army will hold together. Its officer corps – which I have listed second – consists of a variety of shadowy figures in what is called the Military Council. They apparently advise Bainimarama – although one suspects they simply receive orders from him. These include characters of very doubtful democratic inclinations – Colonels Aziz and Driti and with Police Commission Commodore Teleni. Societies ruled by colonels have had an unfortunate track record – Greece and Chile come to mind. Worse still are those who were ruled by NCOs…. And various studies of Commonwealth jurisdictions suggest it is the NCOs who more often that not stage coups.

I mention this tendency to stage coups because, not matter what Bainimarama says about ending the coup culture, I put to you that the only way in which power is now able to be passed on in Fiji is by coup. My experience of the Fiji military’s NCO culture is one of a group with no vanua, village or federation loyalty – but who are totally dedicated to the military. It is a scary prospect. As for the bulk of the soldiers, the evidence suggests that until now they have followed who ever has led them. Bainimarama gives the orders and they follow. I have no evidence that this is changing in any way; but when looking at Fiji today, and the way in which power is vested with those with the guns – then we the country is very dependent on who those men will, at the end of the day, take their orders from. Will they shoot civilians, if you like, when civilians come calling for their rights and political powers taken from them.

All this rests on the character of Voreqe Bainimarama. One thing that can be said of is this – he has never won anything, much less a democratic election. He is not a politician. In the eyes of some this may be a good thing, but in a complex multi-racial society, it seems to be that it is a problem to have a mind sex that says command, obey, make no compromises…. It is obvious too that he is somewhat fixated and obsessive – he can insist that all senior civil servants retire at the age of 55, but blatantly exclude himself from that fatwah.

Don’t do as I do, do as I say.

I will quickly group some of the other players together – the deposed SDL party, Laisenia Qarase and the Methodist Church. They are, of course, all different, but they are part of the central problem; the rise of the Taukei movement from the Rabuka era to the fall now… Their problem is that they have nothing to offer. One can only wonder at the extraordinary corruption of the Methodist Church and wonder at what John Wesley and co would make of this modern Methodist Church. For all that, it has to be said it remains the strong voice of the indigenous people – and Baimarama’s move to ban its annual conference is dangerous – just as his banning of the Great Council of Chiefs was.

Bainimarama’s biggest problem is that he is systematically silencing the various voices of the mainly indigenous people. He has removed their chiefs He has removed their pastors And he has removed their votes. It is almost as if he is inviting violence as the only other way in which people can express their voice, their concerns and their frustrations.

Indians vs Indigenous

It is important to remember that changing the electoral system will not necessarily change ethnic politics. Cultural identity is a strong motivating factor and communities and individuals will still seek ways to express these sentiments. I raise this merely to address the belief that somehow altering our electoral system will remove ethnic issues from people’s consciousness. It won’t.

Business and the economy:

In April the well respected governor of the Reserve Bank was simply swept out of office by the military. No one stood up to his removal. Graham Leung in his speech that will not be given says:

“Investors will get no relief from doing business in Fiji without the safeguards of an independent and competent judiciary to adjudicate over commercial disputes, including where government is a party. The level of distrust within and between communities is unprecedented in our history. The rivers of political enmity and suspicion between our leaders run deeper than ever before.”

There are also a couple of rhetorical questions to consider:

- Will restoration of democracy improve Fiji?

- Will an implemented People’s Charter make a difference?

- Will the coup culture end in Fiji?

And perhaps the really big single question:

- What lies ahead for Fiji? In Fiji supporters of the coup often say, accuse, Australia and New Zealand, of not understanding Fiji. My response to that is simply; Fiji does not understand New Zealand – and our commitment to democratic principles.

In saying this I am not particularly defending the current New Zealand diplomatic position and the sanctions. But ‘Back channels’ do exist – you are sitting right in one now. This is an area where the business council can move forward I for one have always been prepared to take part in any enterprise that will move Fiji forward, and out of its crisis…. And Fiji might well need to think well and truly outside the circle on this one. And who knows, I might have something to offer.

But simply lifting the sanctions will not cut it – something radical is needed. Finding out what that is is something your organisation is ideally placed to explore.

Thank you

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