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HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (March 20, 2000 - PIDP/CPIS)---Considered the Father of Fiji Independence, Sir Ratu Kamisese Mara has a lot to reflect on since being elected Fiji’s first prime minister in 1970.

Mara expressed his thoughts to reporters following the two-day Special Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders. The meeting was held at the East-West Center on March 16-17.

Mara not only reflected on the accomplishments made by organized regional meetings during the last 20 years, but he also had some thoughts on what the future holds for the new leaders in the region.

Here are excerpts from the news conference he gave following the meeting:

What would you say have been the Conference of Leaders’ most significant achievements over the past 20 years?

"The most significant achievement is the awareness of the leaders of the Pacific that here is an institution that could help analyze our problems. Most of us when we started were leaders for the first time. Practically all of us were first prime ministers. We had no track to follow. We were clearing our way and we needed help. And here was a sophisticated institution that was prepared to help us."

Sometimes people say there are too many regional organizations, and that they are fighting each other or duplicating each other. Is there a need for this one, or a need for all of them?

"You can point the finger at me for that because I’m involved with the South Pacific Commission, Forum and (Conference of Leaders). The South Pacific Commission was helpful, but unfortunately we were prevented from discussing politics. That was the rule. As a result, those of us who became independent moved out and wanted to talk politics formed the Forum. And then there was a difficulty in the Forum because we became independent. You can’t bring in dependent territories, which we think ought to be included in our group, hence the PIDP (and the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders). And we readily agreed on the PIDP because the East-West Center was willing to provide the . . . Pacific Islands Development Program. So we have dependent and independent countries. I remember reading a book on my uncle. . . and he was talking about gathering around a kava bowl in the village. If you want complete information on what’s going on you go to two or three kava bowls and by the time you finish you’ll have a full stomach of yaqona and a head full of information."

We understand that you have agreed to work with PIDP to plan the next Conference of Leaders meeting in August. It’s vague on how you will participate in the selection of the next chairman. Could you shed some light on the process you will go through?

"I have agreed and the meeting has agreed that I work with the PIDP in preparation for the next meeting in August. There are certain things from this meeting that we have to clarify like the agenda and the theme. And they also suggested that I should sit as the chairman in the next meeting. But at the end there is that item of choosing the next conference. I will pretend I’ve been chairman of the last three years so they will select another chairman for the next three years."

What would be your suggestion to these new leaders who are faced with balancing economic development with maintaining the "Village Way of Life" that was discussed earlier?

"When I first started in government and climbed step by step in leadership position, there were few of us. There were about four or five Fijians who had university degrees. Therefore we were together talking more or less about the same theme and message of achieving the objective of raising the standard of living for our people. But now there are so many graduates and they are leaders not in the social structure, but leaders in business, leaders in various walks of life, new types. And I don’t think there is really cause for despair that there are no leaders. There are leaders. But we were always talking about traditional customary leaders. But there are people who are good leaders in their line of employment. So I think that we have not fully realized the role that this newly-educated people are playing and leading our people and showing us by being a role model that we can move up the business ladder as they have done. And we have leaders who will be in the position to cope with the changes."

How will changes in the World Trade Organization affect the Pacific?

"I was telling in the meeting that I participated in what we now know as the Lomé Convention countries, the ACP, and European Union. And the basic principle was for Europe to help us develop the production of our resources so we would be able to buy European goods. Hence, the raising of sugar, banana, and fish that give us good prices, subsidized of course. And now the World Trade Organization is turning that upside; there shouldn’t be any help. Now, our prime minister (Mahendra Chaudhry) who was elected last May wanted to revitalize the local production of rice. He wanted to put the level of rice that would encourage the local producers. And Australia is writing to the World Trade Organization saying that this is not right. We’ve been buying their rice and we shouldn’t stop it."

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