On the island of Vanua Levu, droves of expectant fishermen were at sea long before arrows of gold signalled the special dawn that marks a magical feat of nature - the rising of the balolo.

It was two weeks ago. An engorged full moon hung over the villages that face south over the Koro Sea - Naidi, Vivili, Waivunia and Nacekoro. The lunar light and a high tide would trigger the biannual emergence from coral reefs of the red and green balolo worm for brief but frenzied spawning on the mirrored surface of the sea.

Their orgy done, the writhing mass would disappear before sunrise - save for what fishermen crazily scooped into canoes and what was devoured by the ogo and damu, the village fish staple.

Billed as the caviar of the Pacific, balolo is delicious fried or as a soup. But it must be handled carefully - left in the sun, it melts. And villagers must forgo ogo and damu for a time after the rising because, they say, these species become poisonous after feeding on balolo.

As balolo goes, so goes democracy in today's Fiji. Extolled as the caviar of good governance, it emerges briefly, evaporates when exposed to sunshine and leaves poisonous the uniformed and pin-striped sharks that devour it.

There is a beguiling air of island calm in Suva's tatty streets, even in the city-fringe squatter camps where tens of thousands inhabit a marginalised twilight and warmly greet strangers with the customary ''Bula''. Beneath the surface, however, is palpable fear. Few talk openly about their oppressive regime - of dozens interviewed by the Herald, just four allowed publication of their names.

Next Saturday marks the third anniversary of the bloodless coup that installed Voreqe Bainimarama - Frank to the islanders - as a Pacific dictator. His government is a militarised, politics-free zone. Under tight censorship, so is the media. Rupert Murdoch'sFiji Times and the locally owned Fiji Sun slobber over the regime. Government ministers are military stooges, kept on a tight leash by an all-powerful Military Council. Pliant elites have been cowed to silence.

Government is by decree - usually read first on the regime website. A respected local analyst said: "Three or four guys run the whole country, making decisions left, right and centre. No one is allowed to question them." A prominent human rights activist said: "It's surreal - I live here and sometimes I ask, 'Did that just happen?' "

Religious figures argue some control tactics were learnt by Fijian soldiers on United Nations peace-keeping missions. Journalists say some tactics used against them are taken from the media-control manual of the Chinese. Beijing is the regime's most generous foreign donor.

Rumour and conspiracy theories abound, stoked as they are by a raft of blogs. Amid claims the Government taps phones, hacks local email traffic and runs an electronic witch-hunt to identify contributors to aggressively anti-regime blogs, a senior journalist said: "It's a sophisticated operation - the expertise required to run it is not available locally."

Arson and ''targeted robberies'' drive non-government organisations from Suva's higher-rise buildings. "We don't feel safe," one NGO official said.

The Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, denied claims that the fine print of a media decree released last week in effect empowered him to shut down TV stations.

Earlier this month the outspoken Fiji-born Brij Lal, of the Australian National University, was hauled in for questioning before being deported. "We thought illegal detention was over," an alarmed NGO official said.

Already brittle relations between Suva and the regional powers - Australia and New Zealand - chilled in April when Bainimarama abrogated the constitution, sacked the judiciary and introduced harsh censorship rules and laws of assembly. They went into the deep-freeze early this month over Fiji expelling Australian and New Zealand high commissioners for allegedly interfering in the appointment of Sri Lankan judges to Fiji courts.

Bainimarama had grandly promised the political re-engineering of Fiji so that it would be rid of the race-driven politics that entrenched a couple of decades of stalemated-democracy and military coups. But mounting a coup to prevent future coups? That is not altruistic; it is absurd.

Most Indo-Fijians (37 per cent of the population) are said to back Bainimarama; most indigenous Fijians (57 per cent) oppose him. Indo-Fijians made up 51 per cent of the population in 1966 - four years before independence from Britain. Their forebears had been transported as indentured labour to cut the sugar cane but they came to occupy most of the senior posts in commerce and the professions. Denied equality with Melanesians, and suppressed by the coup leaders of the past, they migrated in search of better lives. The next release of immigration data is expected to tell a different story. "There's a new trend of higher-level, professional indigenous Fijians leaving now," we were told.

Despite all Bainimarama's claimed ambition for an inclusive society, some observers say military power will not allow that. "Like the three previous coups, this one is about serving the interests of the indigenous Fijians, too - it's the old elite reasserting its power," a local analyst observed. This was the coup of old Fijian establishment military figures - ''It got rid of all the upstarts."

Bainimarama, who ran the military before the 2006 coup, initially staked his credibility on an early return to democracy, promising elections this year. Now it's put back to the dreamtime year of 2014. And Bainimarama rules through Hugo Chavez-like decrees that serve the regime and populist decision-making.

Rules for a February 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.

The Methodist Church, a guiding influence of modern Fiji, has been neutered; political parties are excluded. A tinpot democracy is now a tinpot dictatorship.

But more than the regime makes a visitor feel they have stepped into the pages of John Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama.

Suva elites need prompting to respond to the emasculation of their rights, their government and institutional pillars since the ructions three years ago. There was quiet embarrassment in March as they watched reports of thousands of black-suited Islamabad lawyers win reinstatement of Pakistan's chief justice - also the victim of a dictator. When Fiji's judiciary was sacked a month later, 10 lawyers turned up to protest but melted away quietly.

In June they watched as tens of thousands of defenceless Iranians confronted thuggish security forces to protest at rigged elections. No one took to the Suva streets.

And in August they saw millions of Afghan voters defy murderous Taliban threats. There was not a Fijian mutter when Bainimarama decreed Fijians too dumb to elect the right government but they would get a chance in five years if they behaved themselves.

"There's something wrong with us,'' said a former key political figure. ''There was talk about protest marches but that fizzled out."

A lawyer says things are not bad enough to spark an uprising. And a human rights activist says: "The military and the police can act with impunity - people don't want to get killed."

"Don't be fooled by the air of calm," the Herald was told. "There's a lot of resistance - but it's underground. There are a lot of very unhappy people just waiting to have a go.''

Fijians are a treacherous mob, according to this observer. Some bide their time for revenge; others go along with incumbents, making odd alliances from old rivalries and disputes.

"But most just wait for a sign of weakness. Around the grog [kava] bowl the venom wells up but in public everything is beautiful. Frank knows how this works."

Insisting the disquiet was widespread, a senior journalist admitted his own puzzlement. "I can't figure out why it hasn't translated into massive civil disobedience. People don't seem to care. There's a sense of apathy and the priorities seem to be getting food on the table and getting the kids to school."

The 2006 coup was bloodless - by some accounts, soldiers were ordered to remove bullets from their guns. But the menace of abuses, hostage-taking and violence in previous coups hung in the air as Bainimarama took over - and is still there.

Peni Moore, of Women's Action for Change, says women knew they might be raped or murdered in the first coup in 1987. In 2006 the big shock ''was that people were traumatised just by the threat of violence".

A Fiji journalist says that memories of brutal rampages in support of George Speight's 2000 coup, and Bainimarama's role then as chief of the military, along with 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 a protest, including former powerbrokers 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. Back out on the street, however, these brave men bite their lip and go home.

Says Netani Rika, the Fiji Times editor-in-chief: "Yes, you do get the government you deserve."

Apart from the shut-down of parliament and the military takeover of the public service, 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 sketched a Pacific Armageddon. "He's an absolute dictator. They're in for the long haul and they're trying to destroy everything."

Was there anything he or his organisation would do to protect everything? "Well …" and he paused. "There's a great sense of impotence." He deferred to a powerbase claimed by all Fiji factions. "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 demand a more earthly response. Excoriating in his critique of the Suva establishment, a prominent analyst exploded during an interview with the Herald: "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."

Is anger welling explosively? Might poverty trigger an uprising? It's speculated about but there have been so many potential triggers that a Western diplomat observes dryly: "Something deeply rooted in the people stops them."

Heading the list of those branded as traitors for supporting the regime is Archbishop Petero Mataca, whose Catholic Church was oddly silent as his Methodist brothers found themselves wedged beneath the regime's boot. And the Methodists - like others - were aghast when Mataca joined Bainimarama as co-chairman of the committee the dictator appointed to draft a blueprint for future governance. Mataca declared the post non-political.

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

In particular, Barr defends the regime against loud complaints of a public service takeover by the military. "They've taken about one-third of the key jobs. But I have to tell you, the people Frank has put in are outstanding." Military officers run home affairs, prisons, justice, immigration and other departments. "Immigration was a mess,'' says Barr. ''It's been cleaned up. At the airport the other day 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 kava on the job. The new head of housing doesn't mess around - he gets out on the ground and he gets things done."

Barr took strong exception to calls by Australia, New Zealand and the Commonwealth for speedy elections. "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. 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."

Regime rhetoric about a non-racial, more just Fiji impresses. But one critic asks: ''Is he genuine or is this a popularity contest? Because he has reduced the economy to tatters and in that he's doing greater harm than good for the poor."

The Fiji Times's Rika says Bainimarama does not differ much from previous governments in policy. ''But it is worse than the others because it has total power. It can do anything it likes but in the last three years it has realised none of the objectives it set for itself. They said they wanted an inclusive, multiracial, corruption-free Fiji - a nation in which all would be one.'' The problem is not aspiration but unachievement.

Despite allegations of corruption, cronyism and shady financial management by the Bainimarama regime, a senior Western diplomat says there is no evidence of rampant corruption.

But there was disquiet over 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 police also were released from jail just weeks into their sentences over two deaths in custody in the aftermath of the 2006 coup.

Likewise, the diplomat said, at a time of job cuts and tightening government spending, paying Bainimarama as much as $F180, 000 ($105,000) for "30 years of accumulated leave" did not go down well publicly. Nor did a $F10 million pay deal for the military when others were having their belts tightened.

Questions also have been raised over the Government's $F190 million offer 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 - into which a local analyst claimed "every senior officer is dipping his hand". "They release no data," he complained.

Father Kevin Barr holds several public posts, including seats on the boards that manage wages and housing. The previous Qarase government, he says, was tinpot but drew no condemnation from abroad. However, Bainimarama was better. "Many would say there's never been a true democracy in Fiji," he says. The urban population equals the rural population, yet the latter got 17 parliamentary seats and urban areas just six. And in rural areas, people voted for the candidate nominated by their tribal chief, their church minister or the provincial council.

Asked who advanced under the regime, Barr said: "The poor are still pretty poor but 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."

Peni Moore says the coup has been ''wonderful'' for tens of thousands of squatters around Suva, for sex workers, drug addicts and released prisoners.

"Frank put a stay on eviction orders issued 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.''

There was direct interaction with government where there'd been none before. "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 conceded the regime's decrees "could be deemed to be good". She insists Fijians can govern themselves but 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."

The Fiji Times's Rika makes a similar concession. "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 the ease with which Fiji's crisis is sometimes so difficult to notice, despite more than 20 years of coups and struggle. "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."

Next year, the sun will still shine and the balolo will rise again. It will be devoured in village celebrations and fish will be poisoned.