Friday, January 22, 2010

Boosting Fiji engagement a wise move towards democracy

By Scott MacWilliam - 22 January 2010

Crawford School at the Australian National University

Now that New Zealand has started to recognise the need to change its previous hard-line against the military regime in Fiji, a range of suggestions are being made about the most appropriate policy changes. One move, proposed recently by Croz Walsh, is for the removal of travel sanctions which have discouraged some of Fiji’s most talented people from applying for government positions. The reasoning behind this proposal is impeccable, and needs to be taken further with the removal of blanket sanctions on all personnel serving in the current government and administration.

The sanctions only apply to travel to Australia and New Zealand. Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and other senior officers have had no difficulty visiting other countries, including the United States. Sri Lankan legal officers have been able to travel to Fiji via East Asia. In terms of effectiveness as a means of isolating the regime these bans are little more than an inconvenience, but one which marks Australia and New Zealand out as particularly mean-spirited and petty.

Lack of logic

There is also a lack of political logic in the travel bans. As has been frequently pointed out, the Republic of Fiji Military Force (RFMF) is distinct by comparison to other South Pacific countries’ military forces because of its professionalism.

Many members of the RFMF have had international training as well as extensive overseas experience, including in peace-keeping duties. The role of this professionalism in maintaining discipline and preventing major splits within the military has so far been important, if easily underestimated. The RFMF’s senior officers are well aware of international norms regarding the most appropriate role for soldiers in democratic countries. This awareness is evidenced each time PM Bainimarama speaks of the RFMF’s current objective as one of bringing “real democracy” to Fiji. Advocating “one vote one value” as the basis of an electoral system is promoting one such norm, and the regime’s attachment to it is an indicator of their internationalism.

Despite acknowledging the importance of international education and military experience, regime critics have taken the perverse step of urging that travel sanctions be imposed as a punitive measure.

Blocking Fijian soldiers from serving in UN peace-keeping forces is also supposedly desirable, even while acknowledging that it is this experience which has contributed to the RFMF’s professionalism. The RFMF should be wise in the ways of the democratic world – but its members should not have the experience of visiting the nearest liberal democratic countries!

With travel bans removed, or at least only applied in a selective manner where particular soldiers and others have engaged in offensive and vicious behaviour, Australian and New Zealand officials could engage more broadly with the regime’s senior personnel. The next generation of officers could be given the benefits of an international education in countries with stronger democratic traditions. Prime Minister Bainimarama and his closest advisers could be encouraged to visit Australia and New Zealand to engage personally with critics and empathisers alike.

Australian Foreign Minister and former Labor Party operative Stephen Smith could even explain in detail the lengthy and difficult process by which gross malapportionment has been removed from the Australian electoral system. The ever-present danger is that members of the RFMF will get used to being in power and become entrenched in attitudes that are undemocratic.

Typically, the longer militaries are in office, even those which commence with the goal of returning to civilian rule, the more prone these are to considering themselves as a preferable substitute to the seemingly chaotic inefficiencies of elected governments. Actions which isolate the military regime, even ineffective ones, will only encourage anti-democratic behaviour. Further elevating paranoia and increasing the possibility of internal fragmentation with the potential for civil war is in no one’s best interests.

While it is admirable that governments in Australia and New Zealand have continued some of their aid and development activities in Fiji, it is time to take additional steps which encourage further international experience for the Bainimarama government’s most important personnel.

Removing travel sanctions against all government officials would be one such step.

Scott MacWilliam lectures on development policy and poverty reduction in the Crawford School at the Australian National University. He previously taught public administration, governance and comparative politics at the University of the South Pacific, in Fiji, and the University of Papua New Guinea.

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