Sunday December 5 marks the third anniversary of the coup that installed the curious figure of military chief Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama as a Pacific dictator. That is his full name - to the islanders, he is known simply as Frank.

Bainimarama couched his bloodless ascension - by some accounts, soldiers were ordered to remove the bullets from their guns to guard against the blood-letting of previous overthrows - in the rhetoric of progress. He was going to create a racially inclusive state, free from the taint of corruption.

Today, however - while he has support from some unlikely sources, including the Catholic Church - his Government is a militarised, politics-free zone. Under tight censorship, the media is either devoid of political discourse, like the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times, or it slobbers over the regime, as does the locally ownedFiji Sun. Key government ministers are military stooges, kept on a tight leash by an all-powerful Military Council. Religious figures, particularly Methodists, say they are subject to sometimes stifling controls. And some non-government organisations say they are being driven from free-standing offices into Suva's higher-rise buildings by arson attacks and targeted robberies.

"Three or four guys run the whole country,'' a respected local analyst told The Age, ''making decisions left, right and centre. No one is allowed to question them."

Relations between Suva and regional powers Australia and New Zealand - already cool - chilled further in April when Bainimarama abrogated the constitution, sacked the judiciary and introduced harsh censorship rules and laws of assembly. Early this month, they went into the deep-freeze, in a row over what Fiji saw as foreign interference in its bid to appoint Sri Lankan judges to the local courts. It culminated in Fiji's expulsion of the Australian and New Zealand high commissioners, followed by the tit-for-tat expulsions of its own representatives.

"It's surreal,'' observes a prominent human rights activist. ''I live here and sometimes I ask, 'Did that just happen?'"

Bainimarama made his 2006 lunge for power in what he said was a bid to overcome the race-driven politics that has led to cycles of stalemated democracy and disruptive coups since the 1980s. Notwithstanding the absurdist logic of mounting a coup to prevent any future coups, he made a grandiose promise to politically re-engineer Fijian society.

At first he staked his credibility on an early return to democracy, promising new elections this year. Instead, he is now offering a new poll in the dreamtime year of 2014. In the meantime, he rules through a mix of decrees that serve the regime and populist decision-making.

The rules announced last week for a national dialogue on Fiji's future read like a festival for the single-minded - contributions must not be inconsistent with Bainimarama's charter; anyone facing charges may not attend - there goes the Methodist Church leadership - and political parties will not be represented. Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum denied claims that a new media decree released last week effectively empowered him to arbitrarily take TV stations off air.

But it is not just the regime that makes a visitor feel they have stepped into the pages of John le Carre's The Tailor of Panama. On the threshold of the fourth year of the dictatorship, most among Suva elites seem loath to discuss the emasculation of their rights, their government and all institutional pillars of society since the ructions of December 2006.

There was embarrassment in March, as they watched exhilarating media reports of thousands of Islamabad's black-suited lawyers leading a successful national protest to win reinstatement for Pakistan's chief justice - also the victim of a dictator. In Fiji, 10 lawyers turned up to protest, before melting away quietly.

The 2006 coup may have been bloodless, but the menace of abuses, hostage-taking and violence in previous coups hung in the air as Bainimarama took over - and it is still there. Recalling the brutal rampages of the 2000 coup by George Speight - and Bainimarama's role at the time as military chief - a Fijian journalist told The Age: "Memories of those days and the failure of key institutions to speak out mean that ordinary people do not have the courage to protest now. In 2000 they were taught a very good lesson."

In Suva today, meetings with those who might lead any protest, including those who were power-brokers and other respected members of the pre-coup establishment, are akin to being hustled into the fitting-room in Le Carre's tailor's salon. There is strident condemnation and articulate analysis of all that is democratically repugnant in the regime - but back out in the street, these brave men bite their lips and go home.

Apart from the parliamentary shutdown and a takeover of the public service by the military, the two institutions most oppressed by the regime are the Great Council of Chiefs, the hereditary clan leaders of the islands, and the Methodist Church.

Describing the chiefs, the Methodists and an elected government as the ''three-legged stool of Fijian society'', a prominent journalist explained: "It's revolutionary to have all three shut down and it is amazing that the people have accepted it all so passively."

A former senior political figure who describes Bainimarama as ''an absolute dictator'', gives one possible clue as to why. Asked if there was anything he or his organisation could do to change the situation, he pauses. "There's a great sense of impotence," he says, then adds, "All is not lost. I have great faith in God. It might look as though Bainimarama will go on running the country, and if you talk to people you will find no proof for what I'm about to say - but divine intervention will see that we have an election next year."

OTHERS are demanding a more earthly response. One prominent analyst exploded during an interview with The Age: "What has happened to ethics and morality - our society has gone bonkers. They think themselves decent, but why do so many people turn a blind eye to such corruption and illegality? They address Frank as 'Honourable sir …'; they call his ministers 'Honourable minister …' and they crowd to the golf course to hobnob with these guys."

But despite the broad condemnation, the regime is not without vocal support and seeming endorsement. Heading the list of prominent supporters is Archbishop Petero Mataca, whose Catholic Church was oddly silent as his Methodist brothers found themselves wedged beneath the regime's boot. The Methodists, like others, were aghast when Mataca joined Bainimarama as a co-chairman of the committee appointed to draft Bainimarama's blueprint for future governance. Mataca - branded a traitor by some - declared it to be ''non-political''.

Father Kevin Barr, an avuncular Australian who is an articulate Catholic voice in Suva, is another whose name appears on lists of those who have ''gone over'' to the regime. "No coup is good - but this one was better than most," he says. "The previous coups were race-based - this one is about a just and multicultural society."

In particular, Barr defends the regime against one of the loudest causes for complaint by its opponents - the infiltration by the military of the top ranks of the public service. "Someone did a calculation," he says. "They've taken about one-third of the key jobs. But I have to tell you, the people Frank has put in are outstanding."

Barr took exception to calls by Australia, New Zealand and the Commonwealth for ''speedy'' elections in Fiji. "It won't make Fiji OK and a few years later there'll be another coup because all the underlying problems will still be there,'' he says.

"It all could mean that I'm part of a mad experiment. But in trying to get to the root causes of all the complications we have in Fiji, this regime seems to be a good experiment."

Barr, who has been appointed to several public posts by the regime - including the boards that manage wages and housing - argues that the previous Qarase government qualified as ''tinpot'' - yet it drew no condemnation from abroad.

"Many would say there's never been a true democracy in Fiji," he says. "Half the population is urban, but rural voters get 17 seats in the Parliament and the urban half of the electorate gets just six MPs.

"And voting is not free - especially in rural areas, people vote for the candidate nominated by tribal chief, their church minister or the provincial council."

Barr says past elected prime ministers had acknowledged the need for electoral reform. But because the electoral laws were enshrined in the constitution, it had to be amended before there could be change.

Asked which sections of the population had advanced under the regime, he says: "The poor are still pretty poor, but they see the Government as on their side. The decision to raise the threshold at which tax is paid covered about 70 per cent of the population. Controls on the price of bread, rice and fuel helped them. Same with removing VAT from basic foods - but then they were hit by the 20 per cent devaluation of the currency, which raised prices again."

Defending the role of the military in the public service, Barr says: "Immigration was a mess - it's been cleaned up. At the airport the day other I saw the new head of the department actually out there, inspecting things for himself. Prisons have never been better run - they've even banned officers from drinking [the sedative-like] kava on the job. The new head of housing doesn't mess around - he gets out on the ground and he gets things done."

Another unlikely supporter is Peni Moore of Women's Action for Change, who fights for the rights of squatters in camps around Suva along with those of sex workers, drug addicts and former prisoners.

"The coup has been wonderful for these people. Frank put a stay on evictions orders issues by the last government against five of the squatter camps. I told the police I wasn't going to bother applying for one of their permits for a protest march - so they came by and issued it to me. And when we lobbied the UN to get more funds for women's issues, Frank wrote off in support of our bid.''

Hosing down speculation of a popular uprising, Moore says: "What we're getting is direct interaction with the Government - with past governments there was no communication, no action.

"I believe Frank will stick to his plan for a 2014 election. Go to the polls next year and there'll be another coup - this is a sick society, with historic social ills and leaders who never have been trustworthy."

This critique was reluctantly supported by a human rights activist who, when asked to put aside the manner in which the regime was installed and its rule by decree, conceded that the laws it enacted "could be deemed to be good".

She insists that Fijians are capable of governing themselves, but at the same time she acknowledges Bainimarama's point. "Even when parties have had multi-ethnic platforms, candidates use racism and the idea of 'the other' when campaigning for office."

CORRUPTION, however, remains a running sore, with locals complaining of cronyism and shady financial management. A senior Western diplomat says that while there is no evidence of rampant corruption, there has been disquiet over issues including the early release from prison of Bainimarama's brother-in-law, a convicted killer, who was allowed to resume his post as head of the navy. Ten soldiers and policemen convicted of two deaths in custody in the aftermath of the 2006 coup also were released from prison just weeks into their jail sentences.

Likewise, the diplomat says, at a time of job cuts and tightening government spending, a decision to pay Bainimarama as much as a reported $F180,000 ($A103,500) in what was described as "30 years of accumulated leave" did not go down well publicly. The same applied to a $F10 million pay deal for the military - at a time of belt-tightening for others.

Questions have been raised over the Government's offer of $F190 million for BP South West Pacific, some tourist developments in which it has a stake and the security of the $F2.5 billion national pension fund, and a military welfare fund.

The Fiji Times' Rika makes the point that while Bainimarama's Government was not so different to previous governments - elected or imposed - in terms of policy, it was worse in that "it has total power. It can do anything it likes.''

Despite this, he says, in the past three years it has realised none of the objectives it has set for itself.

''They said they wanted an inclusive, multi-racial, corruption-free Fiji - a nation in which all would be one. The Fiji Times has always said that any government that espoused these ideals would be on the right track, but there is no real movement in that direction."

He concedes, however, that Fiji has long been stuck in political stalemate. "It's true that the pivot points of Fijian politics lock instead of meshing to achieve progress. People come into government talking of change, but in office they revert to their racial groupings.

"We have to break out of this cycle. Bainimarama is right in his complaint that in the past we have failed to get from point A to point B - and that we need to make that leap. But it will happen only when people can see beyond their perceived differences."

Rika laments Fiji's failure to attract the sort of widespread international focus and concern as Burma and the Palestinian occupied territories, despite more than 20 years of coups and struggle.

"It only costs $400 for the return flight from Sydney," he says. "Tourists come in from Sydney and Auckland - they get a 'bula!' welcome at the airport; they disappear off to a resort and back to the airport.

''So Fiji? It's great."