Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sense of Duty Drove Brij Lal to Speak Out

posted by Rawfijinews

Expelled historian laments subverted rule of law

November 18, 2009

  • Jill Rowbotham
  • From: The Australian
  • November 18, 2009

ACADEMIC duty and a sense of outrage drove Brij Lal to speak out against Fiji’s military-installed prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, for expelling Australian and New Zealand diplomats over alleged judiciary interference two weeks ago.

Retribution was swift. The Indo-Fijian Australian citizen was soon detained. His three-hour interrogation included an hour of haranguing by a lieutenant-colonel, after which Lal agreed to leave Fiji within 24 hours.

“I take the view that if we don’t speak up for certain fundamental values of civilised society, then who will?” the Australian National University history professor says. “I think it’s the role intellectuals, academics, responsible citizens everywhere have.

“There is something fundamentally wrong when a military overturns the verdict of the ballot box and if we keep quiet in those circumstances then we have failed our duty.”

Lal was born in Fiji and has made its study his life’s work. He was on a four-person panel convened in 1995 to make recommendations for a new, non-racial constitution .

“We toured around the country and took 800 oral and written submissions from people, so we conducted a kind of national dialogue about what kind of political arrangement was right for Fiji.”

The 1997 constitution that resulted was not reframed exactly as Lal and his colleagues recommended. In it, 46 of 71 seats were reserved on the basis of ethnicity and 25 were open, the reverse of their suggestion. But it was still an important step from what had gone before, giving formal recognition and independence to the Great Council of Chiefs (and thus depoliticising it) and mandating that any party that won more than 10 per cent of the vote would be represented in government.

That was the momentwhen Fiji had a chance of becoming a liberal parliamentary democracy, Lal says. “There was a real possibility for an element of power-sharing, but the constitution was not given long enough to prove its worth,” he adds.

Within three years George Speight had attempted to seize power, triggering a decade of instability. Fiji had become independent in 1970, but tensions between the native and Indian Fijians and others simmered until 1987, when the first coup occurred.

Bainimarama became the latest to grab power, in 2006, at which point Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth. This year he announced that elections promised for next year would be postponed until 2014 and repealed the constitution.

Now Lal thinks the democratic opportunity has been lost for a generation. “I don’t think I will see a liberal parliamentary democracy in my lifetime because the military has decided it will be the arbiter of what’s good for the country. People say an election will not solve the problem, but elections provide the basis of legitimacy for solving the problems.

“Why has democracy gone sour? I’m not blaming Bainimarama for this. This has been there for a long time, partly because the political leaders saw everything in terms of race . . . Race came to dominate public discourse.”

Lal came to Australia after independence and completed his doctorate in history in 1980 at ANU, then worked at the University of Hawaii for seven years to 1990 before returning to ANU.

He and his Fiji-based wife, Padma, who works for non-government organisation the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, bought a house in Suva a few years ago with eventual retirement in mind.

He was in Fiji to begin research for a book about the growing squatter settlements in the Suva-Nausori corridor, a population he estimates at 130,000 to 150,000 of Fiji’s 800,000 people.

Once most squatters were Indo-Fijian and the government was not worried about them, but now the number of native Fijians there is mounting, so it will be harder for them to ignore.

It is an economy in trouble, he says, with a sugar industry dying and its other mainstay, tourism, in a volatile state. “It’s volatile because of the coups and the travel advisories from Australia and NZ. There is a sense of anxiety when rule is by decree and not by law.”

He hopes to be able to return to Fiji next year, “when things have settled down”.

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