FIJI BUSINESSES JITTERY OVER ‘UNITY’ STANDOFF

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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, July 14) – Business confidence in Fiji is low, with many entrepreneurs not willing to risk sinking more money into the economy because of uncertainty created by the stand-off between the military and the Government over the Unity Bill.

The comments come as the Fiji government yesterday said it was powerless to reprimand the military commander, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, over a threat to take over if the Bill was passed.

The Fiji Chamber of Commerce and the Fiji Employers Federation said members were concerned about losing economic progress gained since 2000.

The Chamber said a sample survey of members found that many business people and investors were nervous because of heated debate created by the Promotion of Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill.

Home Affairs Minister Josefa Vosanibola yesterday said the Government was powerless to discipline Commodore Bainimarama over a military statement that a coup was an option if the Unity Bill was passed into law.

"Constitutionally we cannot do anything," Vosanibola said.

When asked if he would lobby the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, to express his disappointment over the standoff, Vosanibola did not answer.

Constitutionally, Ratu Josefa is the commander in chief of the military forces, with the right to issue orders to the military.

"I just hope that he will respect the rule of law and parliamentary process," Vosanibola said.

However, Vosanibola did admit that the Government was very concerned over the airing of the Commodore Bainimarama's military assessment of the political situation.

"It's creating a lot of problems and I have called on him on several occasions to put a stop on this," he said.

"He should come and discuss with us his opinions about the Bill."

Chamber president Taito Waradi said the survey saw a majority of investors not willing to risk Fiji because of political instability, while only a few were willing to weather the storm.

The Chamber has a wide range of members from the corporate to the informal sector.

"Right now most of them feel that they cannot predict with certainty on what is happening and this is one thing they consider before risking their money," Waradi said.

"Right now we're keeping our hands on the pulse of our membership since the survey has revealed this as its part of their business indicators."

Fiji Employers Federation chief executive Ken Roberts said uncertainty over the economy was resulting because of heated debate on the Unity Bill.

He said many of the concerns by business people were over the danger of losing economic recovery so far, which had brought the economy back to pre-2000 levels.

Roberts said many were fearful over the possibility that that progress may be lost again.

"We only hope moderation can prevail as we believe the economy will suffer as a consequence of the debate of the Bill," Roberts said.

"Things are a little quieter than what some of our members have expected so far." The debate has not affected the major foreign exchange earner -- the tourism industry -- so far, according to Fiji Visitors Bureau chief executive Viliame Gavoka.

He said Fiji's political instability weighed next to nothing when compared with the London bombings and the global war on terror.

"So far, we have not had anyone come around asking us about the political happenings of our country," he said.

Gavoka said the military statement should be taken in full context.

He said the only hope was following the rule of law and democratic processes.

Fiji Hotel Association president Dixon Seeto confirmed that tourism had not suffered any drawbacks because of the military-government standoff.

"In fact we have recorded the highest number of visitors ever in our country last year and we're targeting 550,000 visitors this year," Seeto said.

He said his Hexagon Group of Hotels did not see anything wrong with the business environment in the country.

He said the company was going ahead with its investments in the tourism industry.

The Prime Minister's Office yesterday did not wish to allay fears of growing tension between the military and the Government.

It referred all queries on the matter to Vosanibola's office.

Attorney-General Qoriniasi Bale, who was mentioned as a threat in the military statement, yesterday said he could not comment.

He said he was yet to substantiate whether the documents really existed and if the commander was serious about his threat.

Vosanibola blamed the media for creating uncertainty in the nation with the recent utterances by the commander.

"You (the media) can play a major role and come to us first instead of coming to us after highlighting what he has said."

July 15, 2005

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