Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Runaway Colonel Puts Fiji in Focus

By Kevin Childs
Online - 25 May 2011

At opposite ends of the globe two island nations, Greece and Fiji, are now bizarrely parallel. From 1967 to 1974 Greece was under the boot of Army colonels after a coup. The British were then asked to boycott Greek products and not to holiday in Greece.

There is a strong argument that the same should now be done for Fiji, with sporting ties cut as well. Once Rugby players and basketballers can't travel, the regime could start to wobble.

And it does take a low sense of morality to opt for a cheap-o break on a Fiji island, while ignoring what's happening there.
Now the former commander of Fiji's infantry regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Ratu Tevita Mara, after escaping by sea, has added his voice to those who say not to holiday in the unhappy isles.

He also says he wants to expose what Fiji's media is banned from reporting.

"What the majority of people in Fiji don't know is that poverty has increased in Fiji by over 50 percent in the last five years. Everyone is having trouble feeding their families and sending their children to school, but what they do not know is that unemployment is increasing, except for the many people who have lost their jobs, and they don't know that the national public debt is rising faster than ever."

Adding to the farce, Mara taunted Fiji's military strongman Frank Bainimarama, who said Mara's boat did not, as Mara said, send a distress signal and that the Tongan boat intruded into Fiji waters to pick up Mara.

"The commodore has never qualified as a naval officer from any naval academy so his confusion of two points on the charts which are 100 miles apart, though understandable, bodes ill for the Fijian Navy," said Mara.

"Does the dictator now suggest that, having found shipwrecked victims in future they should now be interrogated by the crew of the rescue craft and put back in the water if they were found to have been critical of the military regime?

Mara has been making use of YouTube to repeat his distress story.

"The brotherhood of the sea, in an emergency demands that the saving of life temporarily supersedes bureaucratic considerations of sovereignty," he says.

"Does the dictator now suggest that, having found shipwrecked victims in future they should now be interrogated by the crew of the rescue craft and put back in the water if they were found to have been critical of the military regime?"

New Zealand is considering dropping a travel ban on Mara, who faces an extradition hearing after fleeing to Tonga. Fiji yesterday lodged an application to extradite him on a charge of making seditious comments. He and another high-ranking official, Brigadier General Pita Driti, are accused of inciting rebellion.

Mara was on bail when picked up by a Tongan Navy vessel and taken to Tonga where he is being housed by the King under guard. Tonga does not allow extradition for offences relating to sedition, so the stand-off could continue.

What is intriguing is that, although a key figure in the 2006 coup, Mara is now a critic of the "brutal leadership" of the Bainimarama regime and wants Australia and New Zealand to "use more force to bring this regime down".

The brother-in-law of Fiji's President and the son of Fiji's first prime minister Mara is also related to Tongan royalty.

Mara says Fiji's dictator is a "coward" and a "puppet" of the whims of his attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Mara said he could "not understand why Australia doesn't do more to stop them".

It looks as though promised elections for September 2014 are yet another bluff, for Mara says the "real talk" within the ranks is that they will not happen.

"Khaiyum certainly doesn't want them, and he makes all the decisions." Bainimarama initially promised elections by May 2009, but then publicly repudiated that assurance in mid-2008, clearly aware his regime lacked popular support. He abrogated Fiji's constitution in April 2009, and soon afterwards said elections would not be held until 2014, while saying that he will not allow any of Fiji's major political parties to contest the elections.

Mara wants Australia to cut aid to Fiji and to seriously consider telling tourists not to holiday there.

Australia and New Zealand had not done enough with sanctions, he said. "They need to show themselves to be regional powers and use more force to bring this regime down."

He called on Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to cut all aid to Fiji and "seriously consider" telling Australians not to holiday at the popular resort destination as "tourists just keep feeding the regime".

A row between Fiji and Tonga over ownership of a mineral-rich reef has now deepened because of Mara's decision to flee to Tonga.

Bainimarama, who clearly has no sense of irony, called Mara's move "an act of a despicable nature" and talked of Tonga's "illegal extraction". Fiji's coup leader now doubles as military supremo and Prime Minister, while senior officers are positioned across the top echelons of the civil service. Parliament, the Great Council of Chiefs and the elected municipal councils have all been dissolved.

The economy has been in the doldrums for nearly five years. The sugar industry - once Fiji's staple exporter - is near collapse and relies on annual bailouts from an increasingly debt-saddled government
__________________________________________________________ Writing in The Australian, Jon Fraenkel a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian National University, says that while a proposal to break the deadlock by embracing the September 2014 election date is depicted as an innovative foreign policy stance it is merely a rehash of the failed approach - inspired by the Commonwealth's Millbrook Declaration - tried immediately after Fiji's 2006 coup. In early 2007, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and the Pacific Islands Forum urged Fiji to accept a two-year "road map" towards elections by early 2009.

That allowed the aid money to keep flowing, and a joint working group was established to focus on the technical electoral issues, ignoring the politics.

Frankel says many of those who sympathise with Bainimarama like to depict the policy debate as being about whether Canberra should engage with Bainimarama. "Of course there needs to be dialogue, but negotiations need to encourage the removal of draconian public emergency regulations and intense media censorship, the normalisation of diplomatic relationships, getting the soldier-civil servants back to barracks and - above all - kick-starting talks involving Fiji's civilian political leaders".

Meanwhile in Fiji, the junta has reportedly frozen the assets of the Mara family and "interviewed" his wife and several others.

One member of his family, Adi Ateca Mara-Ganilau, was reportedly taken for questioning by six soldiers. The troops demanded her mobile phone, but she refused saying that the she would only give it to the coup leader, Bainimarama, or the police chief.

Mara's wife, Dolores, was also held after being arrested for trying to send her husband a bag of clothes on a Tonga-bound Air Pacific flight. .

Seems the Greek idea of taking a holiday anywhere but in a dictator's fiefdom would be worth backing.


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