Saturday, December 19, 2009


Australian Associated Press News - 18 December 2009

These days Frank Bainimarama walks with a swagger in his step. Three years after he stormed parliament and overthrew Fiji's democratically elected government, the army chief is at his most confident ever.

The reason, say his critics, is the "dark year" that was 2009, a year in which the coup leader managed to tighten his hold on power internally and push away his biggest critics, Australia and New Zealand. According to these opponents, Bainimarama now talks less about reforming the country's electoral system and holding fairer elections - both key platforms for staging the 2006 coup - and more about his military government's ongoing rule.

"We have seen a huge shift this year, unfortunately in very much the wrong direction," says Fiji specialist Brij Lal, of the Australian National University in Canberra. "At the end of 2009, we have the feeling that the military is here to stay, a feeling that the goalposts have moved further away, and there's very little the people of Fiji or the international community can do about it."

When Bainimarama seized power from Laisenia Qarase's government on December 5, 2006, he said this fourth coup would be the one to end them all. He argued the decades-long instability was fuelled by the country's unfair race-based electoral system that handed most of the voting power to narrowly-dominant indigenous Fijians, while leaving the significant Fiji Indian population without a voice. His plan was to reform it, a plan generally accepted as a good one, even if many academics thought an unelected government was not the one to implement such a change.

But the world grew impatient when 2007 and 2008 failed bring an election, and a March 2009 deadline set by Bainimarama himself also passed.

And then came April. Over the Easter long weekend, the government, responding to a court decision that found it was ruling illegally, shocked regional and world powers by abrogating the country's constitution. With the country's law books gone, the junta was able to sack and replace government officials, push back elections to September 2014 and burden the media and the public with heavy censorship rules designed to block any "negative" reporting of government affairs. In the absence of a constitution, the government now ruled by decree. Bainimarama, who did not respond to interview requests, justified the crackdown by saying they were "cleaning up" the mess of past governments. The censorship helped them to get on with this job without interference, he said.

In November, he went further and ousted Australia and New Zealand's top diplomats on the grounds that there was too much meddling in his government's affairs. Hugh Laracy, an Auckland University academic who is sympathetic to Bainimarama, says the commodore was well within his rights to assert his political muscle. "Frankly, there's a lot of heavy-handed treatment of Bainimarama when he should be trusted that he's doing the best for his country and left alone to get on with the job," Laracy said.

But Pacific specialists at the ANU say their concern is justified. Jon Fraenkel says April marked a dramatic departure from past rhetoric, calling it a "lurch into the abyss" that would hurt Fijians and worry the world. "Since the absolute disaster that was April, they no longer offer any coherent justification for their own presence other than power," Fraenkel says. "There are no reasons now. Bainimarama has basically said he doesn't want an election soon because Qarase would be re-elected and he doesn't want that." Jone Baledrokadroka, a former army commander who rejected the regime, told a rally in Sydney recently that the so-called interim government was now referring to a 10-point reform plan to be achieved by 2020. And with this new order comes a new confidence.

Lal, who saw the authoritarian mood first-hand when he was arrested and intimidated for his anti-government views during a recent Suva visit, says it's clear Bainimarama is enjoying more support in the ranks. "If you listen to the language, watch the way he travels the world with a new confident swagger, it's clear the commodore is feeling secure," he says. "That is total entrenchment of the military and it makes me fear it could never end."

Fraenkel, however, is less pessimistic. He says there are key signs that all is not cohesive behind the scenes. Many of the government policies have been contradictory, with some, like free bus fares, serving the socialist left while others, like the business-friendly budget, catering to the right wing. The junta sacked officials associated with the old government, but it also sacked many of those it appointed itself, Fraenkel says. "This indicates that there are, probably, squabbles going on behind the scenes. "No stable equilibrium has been reached and they haven't been able to establish a dependable command structure, and in that sense Bainimarama's position may be not as solid as it appears."

As to whether the government has support on the streets, the specialists say censorship makes it impossible to tell. They think it's most likely the commander still enjoys considerable support among Fiji Indians, while facing 90 per cent opposition from indigenous Fijians. But they warn that the ethnic divisions are not clear cut, with many basing their support or opposition on other grounds.

Scanning the country's major online media sites, there are no clues as to the national mood, but Lal warns it's important that this silence is not construed as consent. "There is no people's voice right now, but that doesn't mean they're okay with all of this. I can tell you there are a great many who aren't," Lal says.

Outside Fiji, opposition is much more vocal as leaders stamp their feet about the election delays, but the specialists warn the solution can only come from within. "There's been a lot of talk about enacting change from the outside, about tightening policies here and loosening policies there to try to affect some movement in Fiji," says Fraenkel. "But I think we need to remember that it doesn't really matter what Australia does, what the UN, the EU, does. "External policies are designed to leverage change within, but unless there's something going on inside Fiji to help this along, which there clearly isn't right now, it won't change a thing."

AAP News per Tamara McLean 12-18-09

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