Friday, July 16, 2010

Fiji to learn soon who are its 'friends'

The Australian - 16 July 2010

FIJI'S military regime is waiting for replies to the invitations it has sent for its version of a Pacific islands' leaders summit.

It has rebadged the meeting "Friends of Fiji''.

It will thus learn by next week how small its international space has shrunk; how many - or how few - friends it truly has.

Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuobola was to have announced on Wednesday the names of the leaders who would attend the meeting next week. But following a meeting with his top officials to consider the attendees, no statement emerged then, nor had it by last night.

The minister merely said yesterday that "many Pacific leaders have indicated their willingness to support Fiji's progress".

After being suspended a year ago from the Pacific Islands Forum - the supreme body in the region, of which the 14 island countries, Australia and New Zealand are members - Fiji refocused its efforts on the smaller Melanesian Spearhead Group.

But outgoing MSG chairman, Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei, dashed Fiji's hopes by announcing that this group would call off its planned meeting there next week due to concerns about the lack of democracy and good governance under the coup regime.

Although Fiji's ruler, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, said that Mr Natapei's announcement was purely personal, the secretariat of the MSG later confirmed that this was indeed the position of the group.

The Fiji leader blamed Australia for engineering this setback, and expelled its acting high commissioner, Sarah Roberts, who flew home on Wednesday.

Commodore Bainimarama yesterday said he was reluctant to agree to a replacement, for fear of continued Australian meddling. "What is the use of setting guidelines when we all know they will not work under any guidelines we set for them?"

He had sought to turn the MSG meeting - involving Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and the indigenous Kanak party of New Caledonia, as well as Vanuatu - into an "MSG Plus" show of solidarity for himself, by inviting other islands' leaders.

He intended, by doing so, to demonstrate on the eve of the Pacific Islands Forum's annual summit, in Port Vila, Vanuatu, next month, that it is Australia and New Zealand that are isolated in the region, and that the 14 island countries' leaders favour Fiji. When the MSG meeting was scrapped, this solidarity demonstration was renamed "Friends of Fiji", to be held next Thursday and Friday at the Intercontinental Resort in Nadi.

The timing at first seemed ideal. PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare would be in Fiji to participate in the annual Mara Cup golf-diplomacy gathering, as would Solomon Islands Prime Minister Derek Sikua, to open his country's new chancery in Suva.

But the drumbeats towards a parliamentary vote of no confidence are pulling Sir Michael to stay in Port Moresby, while it is hard for Mr Sikua to take two days out of campaigning three weeks out from an election.

Kiribati President Anote Tong visited Suva last week and is considered a chance to return.

Some countries may ask their ambassadors to attend but it is looking as if the table for the "Friends of Fiji" need only be a small one.

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