By Michael Field

SUVA, Fiji (AFP, Dec. 24) - A potentially dangerous drama is emerging in Fiji over the fate of Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) head Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, 49.

The quiet spoken navy man, who as martial law administrator almost single-handedly saved Fiji during the 2000 coup crisis, is due to retire in February but says he will not go.

He says there is unfinished business from the coup and the November 2000 mutiny and makes it clear he wants key members of the current government to face justice before he goes.

This could almost be tolerable were it not for the fact that a number of the people in his sights fill important roles in the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. The drama is also revealing the worsening split between the RFMF and the government. The government budget this year, for example, effectively cut the RFMF’s budget over Bainimarama’s loud objection while the military has now effectively confirmed the commander forcefully cut off any political plans that would have seen coup linked criminals freed earlier.

Bainimarama took over the RFMF in February 1999, ahead of the May 1999 election of the first ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. A year later, on May 19, 2000, bankrupt George Speight, accompanied by a gang of special forces soldiers, seized Parliament and for 56 days held Chaudhry and his government hostage.

On May 29 Bainimarama seized power, declaring martial law, and opened negotiations with Speight. Early in the process it became clear that no matter what happened, Bainimarama was not going to let Chaudhry back into office. An interim government was created with Qarase at its head.

Eventually Chaudhry was freed and Speight and his supporters arrested, although not the key people said to be behind the coup.

Then on November 2, 2000, a group of soldiers staged a mutiny at the RFMF headquarters with the objective to remove Bainimarama -- dead or alive.

Bainimarama had a very narrow escape but the scale of the savagery, both by loyal and rebel soldiers, must have left him deeply shocked.

In the three years since the events the various testimonies in courts and comments from participants suggest that significant players in the coup and mutiny and got away with it. This appears to rile Bainimarama who is determined to get them.

In December Bainimarama told the Fiji Sun they were aware of moves by government officials and politicians linked to the Speight camp, for his removal.

"The military understands that these individuals have been fishing in the hope that their ideas would be endorsed by the public," he said.

"The military has been through a lot of pain and sacrifices during the 2000 crisis and these efforts will all come to naught by manipulating the democratic process to achieve their personal agendas.

"It should be made known to the public that the Government’s intention to pass the responsibility of selecting a new military commander to His Excellency, the President, is the same ploy used in trying to reduce sentences for perpetrators of the 2000 crisis.

"The ploy by these security advisers almost brought a constitutional crisis earlier this year."

RFMF spokesman Neumi Leweni says it was common knowledge that threats to weaken the military came from Speight supporters who were now in leadership positions.

"The RFMF would like to remind these elements that this was the same military that brought stability back to this country and enabled us to have a safe and normal election process.

"The issue emanating from government officials about professionalism is the gist of this debate, and the Government continues to stress that anyone who does not follow its directives is not a professional, even if these directives are morally incorrect.

"Some have quite easily forgotten that the military brought the country from the brink of disaster using the same moral and professional qualities."

Former Prime Minister and Army Commander, Sitiveni Rabuka, has come out in support of Bainimarama.

He said that he was one of those who had been blamed for his involvement in the mutiny and he wanted his name cleared.

Rabuka said his record had been tarnished by this allegation, and he wanted his name cleared.

He said the Commander was not on contract but on a five-year appointment.

The re-appointment of the Commander is just between the Minister for Home Affairs, Joketani Cokanasiga, and the President, and no one else.

The former Commander said that the army should be praised for what they did when the country was in turmoil.

"They had to sacrifice their lives to bring back stability and peace," Rabuka said.

Criminal Investigations Department (CID) head Emosi Vunisa says all those responsible for the killing of soldiers during the political turmoil have yet to be brought to justice.

"We have yet to question those who are on peacekeeping duties overseas, so right now investigations are still open," he said.

Speight’s Matanitu Vanua Party member Samisoni Tikoinasau claimed Bainimarama had failed to resolve the long outstanding murder cases committed by his own men.

"These brutal murders should have been given the highest priority and even though the perpetrators of these killings have been identified by police, Bainimarama has seen fit to send them overseas for peacekeeping duties."

Bainimarama was born April 27, 1954, on Bau island. He joined the Fiji Navy on July 26, 1975. He went through the ranks from Able Seaman in August 1976 to Midshipman in December of the same year. He was commissioned Sub-Lieutenant in 1978 and Lieutenant six years later. He took his first command appointment in February 1985 when he assumed the command of the HMFS Kikau. He was promoted temporary Lieutenant Commander in early 1986, and later that year served a tour with the Multi-National Forces and Observers in the Sinai.

From 1988 to 1997 he held the post of Commander Fiji Naval Division and was promoted Commander and in 1995 Captain, which is equivalent to the military rank of a full Colonel. He was appointed acting Chief of Staff in November 1997 and confirmed in April 1998. He was named Commander of the Army on February 25, 1999, to replace Brigadier General Ratu Epeli Ganilau, who resigned to enter politics.

In 2002 Bainimarama assumed the temporary rank of Rear Admiral in a bid by the Government to win him a United Nations post in Kuwait.

January 1, 2004

Michael Field:


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