Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fiji 10 Years after George Speight in Cloud Coup-Coup Land

by Michael Field


Sunday Star Times -  16 May 2010


Fiji Cloud-coup-coup-land




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Photos: Reuters
Fiji coup leader George Speight in a prison van in Suva in September 2001.

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Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama speaks during a May 31 media conference in 2000 after Speight's coup.
This week marks 10 years since George Speight's coup in Fiji. Pacific correspondent Michael Field looks back at the dramatic events that have shaped the country ever since.
NOW IT looks comic. A man with a waxed, bald head, wearing an impeccable sulu suit, half-tripped as he strode onto the floor of Fiji's parliament.
"This is a civil coup," George Speight called out. "Hold tight, nobody move."
It was 10.40am on Friday, May 19, 2000. Speight dominated headlines for 56 days as he held Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his MPs hostage. Twenty people died in the violence.
In the broader sweep, the decade since belonged to Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) head Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who was not there that day.
When Bainimarama returned to Fiji, he staged the first of his coups on May 29, 2000, by removing President Kamisese Mara, abrogating the constitution and declaring martial law.
As Speight's gang held parliament, Bainimarama had 37 days of absolute power. "He discovered the trappings of absolute political power in 2000," cashiered RFMF Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka told the Sunday Star-Times. "He was seduced through unbridled military power after ousting of Mara as president and the `abrogating' of constitution."
Speight nominally led Fiji's 2000 coup, but another who sees a military decade is academic Brij Lal, exiled from the land of his birth. "The coup also brought to the fore Commodore Bainimarama," he said.
FIJI COULD have been the paradise it used to believe it was. When I first sailed into Suva in 1974, it had been independent just three years and the numbers of Indians and Fijians was about equal. After grey Wellington, it was captivating with colour, smells, gossip and dynamism.
Even when Pope John Paul II called by in 1986 and coined the slogan "Fiji – the way the world should be", it all seemed possible that with its wealth of land, minerals, fisheries and talent, the nation could lead Pacific development.
Its poison, which I got to know all too well, was its politicians who gave the nation its other slogan: "Coup coup land."
Holding Fiji together from independence in 1970 was Mara, prime minister until 1987 when he lost elections to the Indian-dominated Fiji Labour Party (FLP). A month later Rabuka staged his coup. In 1999 he called an election. Then RFMF head Brigadier Epeli Ganilau formed a political party, consolidating the military's politicisation.
"It started with Ganilau using his position as commander to launch his political career in 1999 and Bainimarama to support his political agenda," he says.
"They both are guilty with Rabuka of politicising the military outside the normal apolitical liberal democratic professional officer code."
With Ganilau out, the role went to a sailor, Bainimarama. With no peacekeeping or combat experience, he was a controversial choice. Bainimarama took up the post two months before the May 19, 1999, elections which Rabuka lost in a Chaudhry landslide.
CHAUDHRY WAS convinced the media were out to get him; in some respects they were, especially Rupert Murdoch's Fiji Times.
In his year in office, I was in Suva a number of times. The place was changing. It had upmarket coffee joints and out west, around Nadi, expensive and somewhat tacky tourist resorts were booming.
Indians, robbed of democracy and heavily taxed during Rabuka's rule, had a triumphant air about them.
Suva was, before Bainimarama's military regime, a place of speculation and gossip. Throughout 1999 everybody was talking about a new coup to come.
I spoke with Chaudhry a couple of times, but his hatred of reporters prevented any intelligent discussion. Coup rumours were persistent, but Chaudhry denied anything was happening, and even abolished the Fiji Intelligence Service who might have been able to alert him to what was coming. Quite a few media would try to pin down the coup plotters; but it was a crowded field.
None, other than a columnist in the Daily News, had a clue about what would happen. On May 15 he wrote "there was talk of bloodshed" that coming Friday.
Chaudhry survived exactly a year, until that Friday morning when his staff made a birthday cake.
As they blew out the single candle, some MPs were unpacking military weapons they'd sneaked into the parliamentary complex in sports bags.
As news of the coup reached here, dozens of New Zealand reporters hit Suva, many of them having never been there.
Some were to shamelessly claim "first" and "exclusive" interviews with Speight. The honour, on both counts, went to brave Fiji reporters – many of whom are now living under tight military censorship.
Controversially, many of the journalists actually moved into the seized parliament, sharing facilities with Speight and his terrorists who were holding and assaulting captured MPs.
Speight's assault was backed by the RFMF's Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRW). Its leader was Ilisoni Ligairi, ex-British SAS and known as "Invisible Man" for his mythical feats of daring.
Hundreds of indigenous Fijians flooded into the parliamentary complex. Local and international journalists set up camp, right by the armed men holding the government hostage. Police and RFMF were powerless.
Bainimarama responded when Speight's gang attacked other parts of Suva.
AS THE Speight crisis dragged on, Bainimarama appointed an interim prime minister, banker Laisenia Qarase.
After weeks of inaction, the end came when Speight signed a deal on July 9 and then released Chaudhry and the last of the hostages on July 13. Two weeks later, Speight and the gang were arrested.
A senior Fiji government official who was socially close to the commodore, speaking on conditions of anonymity, rejected the idea that Bainimarama wanted to be a dictator.
"He declared martial law and ran the country; if he was power crazed he could have kept it going. Instead he handed back power."
But before this happened, the CRW soldiers linked to Speight launched a mutiny on November 2, 2000. 
Bainimarama ran away.
Eight soldiers died, most of them tortured to death after capture.
Baledrokadroka was RFMF Land Force Commander during the mutiny.
"[Bainimarama] was never the same after the mutiny ... I devised a hasty plan to put down the mutiny and saved the RFMF on that day," said Baledrokadroka, who was land force commander.
Democracy was restored in 2001, but to Bainimarama's irritation, it was in the form of Qarase's nationalist Fijian party, the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL).
In a coalition with a party linked to Speight, SDL were sympathetic to the 2000 coup plotters. Many of them won quick release from jail terms, infuriating Bainimarama – one in particular.
After taking over parliament, Speight sidekick Jo Nata organised a strange ceremony in which a 61-year-old small-time ratu or chief, Jope Seniloli, was named president.
He was convicted in 2004 and sent to jail for four years. Six months later, Qarase's government freed him.
The close source said that when news came through, Bainimarama was in Wellington. It outraged the commodore, who announced then that he was now prepared to overthrow the Qarase government. "That was when he put Qarase on notice."
He believed SDL was a racist government, aiming to drive out Indians. Baledrokadroka thinks Bainimarama's purported concern over racial rule is an invention.
"Bainimarama, once seen as the `saviour' of the nation in 2000, manipulated his way by creating an ethno-nationalist threat that was never out of control, as time has proven, and began forming a military interventionist coalition with opportunists such as Chaudhry," he said.
Professor Lal, co-author of Fiji's third and now suspended constitution, sees Speight's coup as exposing intra-Fijian rivalries and competition for power.
Not only was Mara challenged by his own people for the first time, it also marked the arrival of Bainimarama.
"It was a significant event in Fijian political development."
Military power replaced that of the chiefs.
"Now, Bainimarama had no counter-veiling force to reckon with," Lal says.
"Bainimarama is, in effect, the head of a new vanua: the military," he said and solutions will come only in military terms.
"The military is convinced that only it and it alone, can sort out the country's problems."
THE RFMF is taking an increasing share of Fiji's budget.
One of the few remaining independent critics, Professor Wadan Narsey, an economist with the University of the South Pacific, noted that this year they gave themselves a 40% funding increase, to $68.8m.
"Most of the increase to the military has been to the salaries of military personnel, thereby hoping to buy their allegiance for this illegal military government," Narsey says.
The military plan to spend an extra $199m in the next decade.
"Are the Tongan invaders still coming?" Narsey asks.
Fiji's fatal coup culture not only destroys lives and drives people into exile, for the nation of 844,000 it has a severe economic cost.
Speight's coup saw gross domestic product plunge immediately by 7.7%, and over two years wiped out $766m.
Bainimarama's effort sent GDP down 6.6% and is yet to go into growth with around $640m.
It's little wonder that, when a cyclone hit north eastern Fiji, it was the New Zealand Defence Forces that got to devastated areas well before the cash-starved military regime could scratch up enough resources of its own.
Fiji's glamorous bottled water makes it into the White House while its people cannot get reliable water and face typhoid.
The Asian Development Bank, in a report on the decade, says the number of people living in basic poverty has soared – in rural areas around 43% and in the towns 36%.
In last year's budget, the biggest percentage rise was to the military, which Baledrokadroka sees as part of turning Fiji into a militarised society with the RFMF seeing its role as "human security", albeit vaguely defined. "This leaves the door open for future coups and further military misadventure by gung ho-type officers already embedded in the RFMF," he said.
In January 2006, Baledrokadroka was accused of plotting mutiny and was forced out along with other officers who question the way the commodore behaves.
On December 5, 2006, Bainimarama staged his own direct coup.
"It is now clear," Baledrokadroka says, Bainimarama and the military intend to run the political affairs of the state at least now till 2014,".
1987 STRONGMAN RECANTS: 'WHAT I DID WAS WRONG'
Fiji coup strongman Sitiveni Rabuka has faced the people he overthrew to tell them "what I did was wrong".
Contrition came to him as the military regime of Voreqe Bainimarama stripped him of his pension and his car earlier this year.
"I felt justice had finally caught up with me," he told the Sunday Star-Times.
His Road to Damascus – or Nakobo in his case – experience comes on the 10th anniversary of George Speight's May 19, 2000, coup and the 23rd anniversary of Rabuka's May 14, 1987, coup.
Rabuka, as a lieutenant colonel in the Royal (now Republic) of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), ended the Indian-dominated Fiji Labour Party (FLP) government of Dr Timoci Bavadra a month after it was elected. He staged a second coup later in the year, angry at the way the interim government had fudged his demands.
Rabuka later won two democratic elections, but now he says he had an unfair advantage over his rivals because of the popularity of his first two coups.
Rabuka lost office to FLP's Mahendra Chaudhry in 1999, who in turn was overthrown by Speight's coup exactly a year later. In November 2000, RFMF elements mutinied against Bainimarama. Rabuka was accused of conspiring in that mutiny, but was found not guilty in December 2006 – just as Bainimarama seized power.
Rabuka said he was not trying to score points any more.
"I don't want anybody to do anything, this is just me," he said. "Basically, my life is village life, my political life is over. I know my brand of politics is not right for this generation, not these people, not future generations."
Earlier this year, Bainimarama ordered the cancellation of pensions paid to retired politicians and, in the case of Rabuka, had his car seized.
Walking back to Nakobo after this event, Rabuka felt angry. "I started reflecting on what happened and this justice thing came up. It was the road to the village and the lights came."
On Wednesday Rabuka met up with the paramount chief of Vuda, Bavadra's vanua or tribe.
He did not offer a formal apology, but stressed it was traditional, saying that, "On reflection, what I did against the doctor was wrong, and I want to tell them that."
Tevita Momoedonu, head of the vanua o Vuda, said he admired the "courage and humility" Rabuka had shown and had forgiven him. "That is now water under the bridge, we must move on."
In 1987, Rabuka was RFMF's third in command.
He says he had now made peace with retired Lt-Colonel Jim Sanday, his immediate superior, and he has met the then RFMF head, Brigadier-General Epeli Nailatikau, now the military-appointed president.
Rabuka has returned a tabua or whale's tooth given to him by Nailatikau when Rabuka became RFMF commander. Rabuka says now that his installation as commander was illegal.
He wants to meet Bainimarama and his military council.
"They probably still distrust me. I want to go to them and say `look, you were all my subordinates at the time'. I want to tell them I led them astray."
Rabuka says that, in 1987, he was young and "very traditionally trained in mostly traditional Fijian institutions".
Now he knows that leadership is different – "where you are responsible for every citizen, irrespective of race".
He says he has no political message about the current regime or other coup plots.
"If people have been using my coup and saying `that went OK, maybe it is OK to do another one', I don't want anybody thinking like that.
"I want them to know that I know that what I did was wrong."
He faces poverty in his senior years but is content to have settled his past.
"You never know when you will get called," he says.
Where are they now?

George Speight spends his 57th birthday today locked up in Fiji's tough Naboro Prison, 20km west of Suva. Arrested on July 27, 2000, Speight quickly pleaded guilty to treason, knowing the mandatory death sentence was going to be commuted to life. For six years and five months he served the sentence on pleasant Suva Bay's Nukulau Island. When Bainimarama seized power, he closed Nukulau camp and moved Speight and the gang into Naboro. Few people visit Speight or fellow traitor Jo Nata. Speight looks after the prison library and lends his business degree to the prison farm. Thirteen cartons of books were given to the library by a charity; Speight was allowed a brief public appearance to accept them. He said it was like starting all over again from primary education. "The group's donation and presence here tells us you care about us despite your busy schedule and commitment." Nata, an arrogant journalist who was the coup's spokesman and ceremony organiser, told a prison fellowship that he had found joy in planting vegetables and root crops. "Jo testified that he really enjoys planting root crops and vegetables and has seen the glory of God in the harvest of his crops and vegetables. "Jo shared that when he harvested the vegetables, they were amazed by their size." On Nukulau, he said, he became Christian. "Jo testified that, prior to his conversion, he was so far from the Lord that when his colleagues questioned him as to why he was not praying when they were captured by the army, he had to admit that it simply had not crossed his mind to do so."
Michael Field is a reporter in Fairfax Media's Auckland bureau; in August, Penguin will release his Swimming with Sharks: Tales from the South Pacific frontline.

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