Monday, June 27, 2011

Paradise Fades as Samoa Upsets the Neighbours

by Graham Davis From: The Australian - 27 June, 2011 

THE principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is a cornerstone of international law, yet that principle is being flagrantly breached by Samoa in its dealings with Fiji.

In a remarkable development, the Samoan government has publicly endorsed a campaign spearheaded by renegade Fijian military officer Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara to overthrow the government of Fijian dictator Frank Bainimarama. In doing so, it has set the scene for an even bigger rift between the two countries with potentially serious consequences for the entire region. Bainimarama is not only Fiji's Prime Minister, but also chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which links Fiji with Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the Kanaks of New Caledonia. 

There's already a clear faultline between the Melanesians and their Polynesian neighbours in regional forums. But now a longstanding sense of unease has turned to anger that one of the biggest and most influential Polynesian nations has seen fit to jettison traditional notions of sovereignty and become a partisan player in Fiji's domestic affairs. In Canberra earlier this month, Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi gave his personal blessing to a concerted effort by Tevita Mara - the son of modern Fiji's founder, the late Ratu Kamisese Mara - to remove Bainimarama and return Fiji to democracy in advance of the regime's current timetable of 2014. 

Mara - who made a dramatic escape to Tonga last month after he fell out with Bainimarama and was charged with sedition - is trying to drum up support for a 10-point plan that would also revive Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs, marginalised since Bainimarama's coup of 2006. Tevita Mara said the Samoan leader had assured him of his backing and had invited him to visit Apia next month for further consultations. "I welcome his support, and this meeting was part of the process of isolating the Bainimarama regime internationally, regionally and locally within Fiji", Mara said. 

Tuilaepa confirmed that endorsement in an interview with Radio Australia: "I tend to look at the defection and the proactive role he (Mara) is playing now as part of the process of a solution initiated by the Fijians themselves." In comments that have caused widespread consternation in regional capitals, the Samoan leader called for tougher sanctions against Fiji aimed at provoking a popular uprising. " There should be additional sanctions. Once the people realise that the sanctions are making their lives difficult, then it will motivate them to take the necessary action," he said. Tuilaepa went on to criticise the Lowy Institute for suggesting Canberra modify its hardline stance and re-engage with Fiji. And he launched an extraordinary attack on Bainimarama's domestic policies, saying Fiji's coffers were empty and the regime was illegally raiding the superannuation savings of ordinary Fijians. 

All this puts Fiji on a collision course with its two closest Polynesian neighbours. Already furious with Tonga for sending one of its patrol boats to rescue Mara from within Fiji waters, the Bainimarama regime is now being provoked by Samoa. Tuilaepa's decision to meet Mara in Canberra has also fuelled suspicions in Fiji that Australia is the hand in the glove of this new alliance. It lifted its ban on Mara entering the country to enable him to address pro-democracy rallies in spite of accusations that he had abused pro-democracy activists in the wake of the 2006 coup, in which he played a role. 

Are Australia and New Zealand using Samoa as a stalking horse to try to bring about regime change in Fiji? Is Mara being groomed as an alternative Fijian leader in waiting? The coconut radio is abuzz with speculation about what it all might mean. For the moment, Bainimarama is striking a nonchalant pose about the threat Mara presents, thumbing his nose at the chief recently by visiting his home village in the Lau group and securing an apology from Mara's clan for his errant behaviour. 

Until now, he's also dismissed Tuilaepa as "an Aussie and Kiwi stooge" whose sole achievement has been "to force Samoan motorists to drive on the other side of the road". But with the Samoan leader openly encouraging rebellion in Fiji, that nonchalance is being tested. The intervention is seen as "irresponsible and potentially dangerous" by Australian academic Richard Herr, author of a landmark report on Fiji 18 months ago for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. "When Toke Talagi, the Prime Minister of Niue, urged Fijians to rise up and overthrow the regime during the Cairns Pacific Forum in 2009, it was regarded as embarrassing and inflammatory and the then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd sought to tone it down", Herr said. "This is potentially just as inflammatory and dangerous and yet there's been no public response thus far from Australia that might help defuse what is certainly an irresponsible intervention by the Samoan leader." 

Already, Fijian and Tongan naval vessels have been engaged in a tense stand-off over the ownership of Minerva Reef, a coral outcrop with rich fishing grounds claimed by both countries. That dispute has been exacerbated by Tonga's action in sending one of its patrol boats to pluck Tevita Mara from the clutches of Fijian justice. 

Now that he's also being feted by the Samoans, Fiji's relations with its near neighbours are under even more strain. All of a sudden, the Pacific of legend is looking anything but. 

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