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VIEWPOINT Suva, Fiji Islands February 1, 2000

By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

The news of strong economic growth in 1999 could not have come at a better time for a government, which continues to be criticized for overzealously pursuing an untenable social agenda at a time when global trade barriers are crumbling across nation states.

In an address to the business community, the Prime Minister promised that more resources will be allocated to assist the poor and the needy. Also on the special assistance list is Rewa Rice which, like Rewa Dairy, will now be subsidized by the government through import duties. Rice importers argue that such a measure is self-defeating, since consumers will end up paying high prices to sustain an inefficient sector. This and other bold gestures have come at a time when Reserve Bank disclosed an impressive 7.8% growth in 1999, while predictions are that growth for 2000 and beyond will be steady at 3%.

While the government embarks on bold ventures, it continues to be troubled by the problems within the coalition. The leader of the Fijian Association Party, Adi Kuini Speed, is in bad health and has been on an extended treatment in Australia. Meanwhile, the acting leader of the Party, Ratu Tuakitau, has expressed disappointment with Chaudhry’s insensitive style of government. Ratu Tuakitau has accused Chaudhry of treating his party like a "water boy."

After a series of meetings, the party has decided to reconsider its relationship with the Fiji Labour Party. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has denied the allegation that the PM is deliberately trying to avoid Ratu Tuakitau. While a vicious war of words has ensued between the government and one of its major coalition partners, all does not seem well.

One of the major contentious issues is the appointment by the Prime Minister of Ratu Isireli Vuibau as the Assistant Minister for Fijian Affairs. This appointment is seen by the FAP as an attempt by the Prime Minister to stack important ministries with FLP members.

Since winning the election, the FAP has protested over the Prime Minister’s Senate nominees; members challenged its own leader, Adi Kuini, over her support for the PM; party officials held private discussions with the SVT over a grand Fijian coalition; and most recently the Deputy Prime Minister Tupeni Baba criticized Chaudhry for failing mostly Fijians.

A national executive council meeting was held on January 29 and attended by seven of the 11 members of Parliament, despite Adi Kuini’s directive that no such meeting take place in her absence. Those who are unhappy with the government are Ratu Tuakitau, Leone Tuisowaqa, Ratu Esira Rabuno, Ratu Timoci Silatolu, Ratu Peceli Rinakama, Ratu Viliame Volavola and Atonio Tanaburenisau.

All this comes at a time when the Party of National Unity, another coalition member, lost one of its most prominent activists, Apisai Tora, who resigned from the party this month. PANU MPs acknowledged that there are differences within the party rank and file over the state of the coalition, but shrugged those off as mere murmurs.

One major issue is ALTA and the promises made by the Prime Minister to tenants that suitable land will be made available for resettlement. This has inevitably led to a confrontation with the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) which argues that land ear marked by the government is for indigenous Fijians only, since it is categorized as native reserve.

Meanwhile the cabinet has given its stamp of approval to the F$28,000 (US$13,790) compensation scheme mooted by the PM some months earlier. Farmers in particular are not thrilled with the predicament they find themselves in. On one hand, resettlement means starting all over again and accepting cash compensation means internal problems, due to the extended family situation.

Some farmers have successfully negotiated the extension of their leases, while others feel that government needs to use cash compensation to pay good will money to landowners willing to extend leases. Besides that, there are claims of landowner intimidation and inefficacy of NLTB in expediting an amicable settlement. The resentment is growing on both sides.

Landowners believe that they have been short changed by the government and the NLTB and suggest non-renewal of leases. While the European Union has extended preferential sugar prices for the next 10 years, land issue and its resolution will determine whether the government can fulfill its obligation.

To combat inefficiency in the sugar sector, the government has undertaken bold policy initiatives that will see an improvement in milling and cane transportation. The Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC), too, will witness restructuring in the months to come. While sugar remains an important foreign exchange earner, moves to assist Fijians in obtaining credit was given currency with the announcement of a Fijian bank.

However, the viability of such an undertaking remains a mystery, following an anticipated defeat of the National Bank of Fiji. However, on a positive note, the Fiji Military Forces and the Prime Minister held a moving conciliation ceremony at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva.

While this enlightening process has affirmed that the military is firmly under the direction of its elected leaders, there still remains serious concerns in the Fijian camp that may result in ethnic tension. In a recent remark by the leader of opposition, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola stated that the government has wrongfully withheld millions of dollars allocated to Fijian Affairs. This and other remarks by Fijian MPs have cast suspicion in the credulous minds of indigenous Fijians, who feel that their "way of life" will be threatened if the Government continues to ignore them.

Not only the Fijians, but international media houses are equally ambivalent about the motives of the current government. On 30 December 1999, the Government of Fiji gave Fiji Times editor Russell Hunter twenty-eight days notice to leave the country. The Fiji Times took the matter to the High Court where on January 12 Justice Daniel Fataki allowed an application for a judicial review, despite strong protests from the government solicitor.

On January 27, it was reported that the government is planning to appeal the High Court decision. All this comes at a time when government and media relations continue to deteriorate. Since taking office, the government and The Fiji Times have been involved in a bitter war of words. Regional media groups view this development with alarm and consider the government’s actions as an affront to a free press.

Prepared by Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

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