Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Fiji Must Embrace Democracy, Not Flirt With It



Dictator Bainimarama
THERE is some, though still not very much, reason for hope in the fact the emergency powers in force in Fiji since April 2009 will be lifted from Saturday. The nation’s military dictator, Frank Bainimarama, declaring the move during his televised new year address, also announced that the creation of a new Fijian constitution would begin within months through public consultation.

All fine so far – but not far enough. Democracy is a fragile and dangerous concept in a country that has had at least five coups since 1987. The present emergency powers – known insidiously as the ”new legal order” – were swiftly imposed in 2009 by Fiji’s then president, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, as a response to a Court of Appeal ruling that the country’s military regime, led by Commodore Bainimarama, was illegally appointed following a coup in December 2006 that dislodged the elected government. The powers almost at once repealed the constitution, sacked the judiciary, censored the press, delayed electionsfor at least five years – and reinstated the Bainimarama regime. It was widely thought that the ailing Ratu Iloilo was used as a puppet by Commodore Bainimarama, anxious to keep the military’s grip on power. 

It is worth remembering that, in Fiji, senior public servants and the heads of the police and prison services are all from the military. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Bainimarama regime is still, at best, an interim government, and, at worst, one with a record of intimidation and violence.

Is there now reason to suppose Commodore Bainimarama’s lifting of emergency powers is a relaxation of that grip, and an indication of further positive developments to come? Is the bellicose commodore perhaps coming to terms with Fiji’s parlous economy and the fact that the volatile nation’s ostracism from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth is cutting deeper than he might have imagined? Or are his intentions purely cosmetic?

The international reaction, especially from Australia and New Zealand, which have pursued a hardline approach to Fiji, including using sanctions, has been understandably cautious. When Australia’s parliamentary secretary for Pacific island affairs, Richard Marles, says, ”There is a long way to go in restoring democracy to Fiji. We are keen to see how these developments play out,” the subtext is all too clear: we don’t yet have sufficient trust in your motives; show us more. The view is similar from New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who called on the Fijian government to improve the lives and freedom of its citizens in the lead up to 2014 elections – assuming they happen.

Problems remain, though, most notably in the government’s muzzling of key information resources. This has included censorship of newspaper and broadcasting outlets and, in 2009, the deportation of the ABC’s Sean Dorney, after the government objected to some of his reports.

Fiji’s media decree, imposed last year and which threatens jail for journalists who promote ”communal discord” or are ”against the national interest”, has not yet been rescinded. A free media is essential to the ebb and flow of any politically democratic society, let alone in the build-up to the country’s first elections for what will be eight years.

How much longer can Fiji endure life under military dictatorship? As this newspaper reported last August in our WikiLeaks series, violence is at the heart of the regime. US embassy cables confirmed numerous reports of human rights abuses, including cases of rape, assault and torture by Fijian military personnel. Of Commodore Bainimarama, one diplomatic report called him ”violent … often defensive and insecure and prone to be ‘wildly excessive’ in his reactions to criticism”. Democracy would be better served with a new leader of a properly elected government.
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