Thursday, November 05, 2009

Dr Brij Lal Expelled from Home of Birth - 5 November 2009

THE row between Australia and New Zealand and Fiji intensified rapidly yesterday, with tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and Fiji's military-installed Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, warning all other foreign representatives in Suva: "You work with me or leave."

Today, the besieged Fiji regime will close ranks as one of Commodore Bainimarama's predecessors as military commander, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau - also a senior Fijian chief - is sworn in as the new president.The deteriorating relationship appears to have contributed to Fiji's arrest and expulsion yesterday of one of Australia's leading experts on the nation, the Australian National University professor Brij Lal, hours after he gave interviews about the dispute.

The underlying cause of the current diplomatic flurry appears to be that travel bans applied by Australia and New Zealand to senior officials working for the military regime, as well as to their spouses and children, are beginning to bite.

But the Rudd government's attempt to pressure the UN into withdrawing Fiji from peacekeeping missions - a crucial morale and income booster for the army, Commodore Bainimarama's core source of support - has failed so far, with fresh troops still being assigned, including to Iraq.

Following the expulsion with 24 hours' notice of Australian high commissioner to Fiji James Batley - the country's leading diplomatic expert on the Pacific islands - and of the acting New Zealand high commissioner, Kevin Rudd yesterday warned: "We're not about to simply allow a coup culture to spread (in the South Pacific).

"We'll maintain a hard line in relation to this regime."

Commodore Bainimarama seized power three years ago, and in April this year his government abrogated the country's constitution. Defying international pressure, it insists elections will not be held for another five years.

Commodore Bainimarama, who accuses Australia and New Zealand of meddling in his country's affairs, has now expelled from Suva three successive heads of New Zealand's mission, its trade commissioner, and its police attache.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said yesterday: "The level of assistance the high commission can provide to New Zealand citizens may be affected due to the depleted staff numbers." The office has been closed until further notice.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith yesterday announced the expulsion of Fiji's acting high commissioner, Kamlesh Kumar Arya - a former Fiji Labour Party politician, appointed to Canberra 15 months ago - just as he was planning to upgrade his status.

He had been declared persona non grata, and as a consequence was required to leave within 24 hours, Mr Smith said. "This is deeply regrettable, and Australia is deeply disappointed at Fiji's conduct in this matter."

Suva had pre-empted Australian and New Zealand moves by recalling its representatives to Canberra and Wellington a day earlier. The government-friendly Fiji Sun yesterday led its front page with a warning issued to all remaining foreign diplomats from Commodore Bainimarama via the newspaper that they too would be expelled if they "work against the state".

The latest downwards spiral of the fraught relationship with Fiji follows a remarkable press conference conducted at the weekend by the chief justice appointed by Commodore Bainimarama, Anthony Gates, a citizen of Britain and Australia who began working in Fiji 32 years ago.

Justice Gates said Fiji had to "stand up against interference" by Australia and New Zealand in the appointment of judges: "One thing is clear, the judiciary in Fiji will not be cowed."

However, Commodore Bainimarama admitted the tactics by Canberra and Wellington had succeeded in "stopping him from nominating credible, well-qualified individuals to serve on the bench".

The state-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation said Justice Gates toured Sri Lanka in August seeking to recruit judges following a succession of judicial resignations and sackings since the military coup of December 2006.

Justice Gates expressed outrage that the six new judges he had hired from Sri Lanka were warned by Australian diplomats of the implications for their access to Australia.

Commodore Bainimarama said yesterday he had no regrets about triggering the latest downturn in relations in the region.

"We are suspended from the Commonwealth, Australia and New Zealand suspended us from the (Pacific Islands) Forum, so really it doesn't make any difference," he said.

Further likely to damage relations is the arrest in Suva yesterday of the Fiji-born Australian academic Professor Lal, a critic of the military regime who had hours earlier given interviews to Australian media.

Professor Lal, an Australian citizen, was taken from his home in Suva and later given 24 hours to leave Fiji, the ABC reported.

ANU colleague and Fiji expert Jon Fraenkel said: "The arrest is outrageous, but typical of this regime. The minute a diplomatic spat happens, they up the repression."

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