BAINIMARAMA LEADING FIJI DOWN DANGEROUS PATH

Commentary

By Narendra P Singh

SYDNEY, Australia (Feb. 27, 2007) - It seems that Frank Bainimarama’s coup was initially welcomed by a substantial number of the people of Fiji. The Qarase government, with its faint whiff of corruption, it’s empathy with the Speight coup makers and its proposal to extend native land rights to the sea was taking Fiji down a dangerous, undemocratic and potentially racist path. The coup was quick, clean and bloodless. It stopped the Qarase government in its tracks and offered Fiji a chance to get back on the rails. In the beginning, the coup seemed to suffer only from a lack of public relations acumen, resulting in a bit of saber rattling by Australia and dummy spitting by New Zealand.

If Bainimarama had, at the outset, set a timetable for fresh elections and held a light hand on the tiller he could have gone down in Fiji history as a great man; a man who only acted when his patience was exhausted by the woolly headed policies of the Qarase government and the corrupt practices of his cronies.

Instead he has led Fiji down a murky and dangerous path. The bloodless coup has turned bloody. Bashings and bullying in the Queen Elizabeth Barracks have led to at least one death and another being investigated. The installation of former disgruntled ministers in Bainimarama’s government has made a mockery of the democratic process, and the army’s flirtation with the convicted conman Peter Foster has made Fiji the laughing stock of the Western World.

For Fiji, once again, to move forward there is no other way but to a have free and fair elections as soon as possible. If the current trend continues, the power of the army will get more entrenched and more people will begin to show their dislike of the current restrictions on free speech and blatant actions taken on those who venture criticisms on the brutal actions of the army. It should be remembered that Fiji has always been a democratic country since its independence even though its constitution cannot be termed a full fledged liberal democratic one like that of Australia, New Zealand, India or Indonesia. Nevertheless it has all the attributes of a free society.

Freedom of speech has never been suppressed or curtailed in Fiji. Rabuka tried but was not successful. Perhaps it was due to the vigorous airing of public opinion that he soon realized his blunder and allowed the nation quickly to move back to democratic rule. But with the current coup there is perception that the country is moving towards a harsher military dictatorship as the army is becoming more and more forceful in its approaches as it faces people ready to stand up against the restrictions they have imposed.

People of Fiji have never lived under such unsympathetic and restrictive practices anytime during its independent life and it is unlikely that they will tolerate such a practice in the long run. The current situation where, the former Prime Minister has been exiled to his island, scores cannot travel freely because the army has decided their fate, workers are terminated at will and investors are turning away in droves, does not augur well for the nation. A society living in fear is a sure panacea for disaster.

The Fiji army is one of the best trained and it has served in many theaters of war with valour and dignity. Over the past decades it has served as United Nations peacekeepers in many quarters of turmoil. In the process of their service to the UN they have learnt very many ways of controlling and suppressing violence and disruptions among warring or feuding factions. That they are using some of these brutal methods to their own peace loving people is most appalling.

It is becoming obvious that the real power of the nation now rests with the army and the appointed Cabinet members are just a show piece and must adhere to the dictates of the army lest they too are taken to the barracks and given a "work out." Many citizens are "worked out" daily. Some are hospitalized, others have a break down in the process of interrogation and have heart attacks and seizures, while others are hiding with family or friends. No one is sure who will be called upon next for a "treatment". The members of the Bainimarama cabinet should not fool themselves either that they have some special mission. They are there to do the biddings of the military. There is a feeling that some may be even be enjoying sitting in such power and glory which they could not attain through free and fair elections. But as history has shown power gained without the public support or blessing is often short-lived.

Those that are engaged in the current administration of Fiji may be feeling that they are doing a wonderful job from what little feed back they receive from a frightened society. It is difficult to gauge their performance because majority of the people feel threatened and thus not feel free to voice their opinions, particularly, against the policies or programmes of the interim government. While those that are in the interim Cabinet or the army itself may feel elated, for whatever they have chosen to do, for the ordinary people what they need immediately is their jobs retained and that they do not become redundant due the enterprises being closed down because of the current turmoil in the country. They're concerned about their day-to-day living and not the grandiose promises of the interim government to prove that they are far more effective than the elected government they have just overthrown.

In order to survive financially the interim government has no other choice but to cut down expenses and costs as no new money is coming in because of rapidly declining export income due mainly to the fact that the international community is gradually closing its door to Fiji. Fiji being an open economy, depending largely on trade, the local industries are not thriving either. The method the interim government has adopted to achieve cost cutting measures is by reducing the retiring age from 60 to 55 years, which will lead to almost 1000 workers out of work When people's livelihood is snatched away by such atrocious method it is considered immoral by any standard. But then again dictatorship has no standard. While the rest of the world is trying to increase the retiring age of its workers to see the retention of as many workers as long as possible and to derive the maximum benefit from the wealth of experience and skills they possess Fiji's doing the opposite. These workers would have no alternative but to seek work overseas and most possibly Australia and New Zealand, and, if nothing comes about, will become idle and part of the unemployed cadre to the cost of the nation.

The theme of Frank Bainimarama, the current coup is maker, is the alleged corruption by the former government as though it is a new phenomenon and that the rest of the world is devoid of it. Unfortunately, it will take a lifetime for him to define corruption in a public service. Most people feel that government members and officials are generally corrupt. Ask them to prove it and they will shy away from the question. No one in a society feels that he or she is free from guilt. That is why Jesus was unequivocal on the issue -- let no one cast the first stone. Perhaps Frank and his cohorts have overestimated their sense of worth.

So what is the way out for a nation which has built its wealth and self-respect under democracy for decades and through hard work since its independence in 1970? Fiji has progressed steadily under democracy since independence most of which has been under the guidance of its first Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The coups previously did disrupt this progress, but, as mentioned, within no time the nation moved back to democracy. However the current coup and the actions of its leaders make it look a far more formidable and precarious one. There seems to be a state of confusion and no one knows where the nation is heading and where it will all end. It is doubtful even Frank is cognizant of this.

But a general consensus is building that there is a way out despite the current confusion and, that is, as soon as possible an election should be held for people to decide a government of their choice. If Frank Bainimarama feels that he has the confidence of the people of the nation that he so vehemently claims, than he too should include himself in the election process as Rabuka did five years after his two coups. Frank has to realize that if he proceeds with the current line of action he has chosen both he and the nation will become very vulnerable. He has created many enemies and soon he'll find himself that he may not be able move as freely as he chooses. He may find himself very much like the Prime Minister he has deposed and will have to live in particular confines for security. Mr Bainimarama, because of his uncompromising and insensitive attitude, could also become a targeted person. These are not healthy signs but could be avoided if common sense is allowed to prevail.

As for the country it is losing friends which have supported it in thick and thin. Australia, New Zealand and the European Community poured millions of dollars in Fiji which has to be respected and acknowledged. This assistance has enabled Fiji to grow economically and socially, create income and employment for its citizens and build necessary infrastructural facilities, particularly in the rural communities. Rewa Bridge is just one recent shining example. Fiji garment industry, Fiji’ sawn timber when available for export and not to mention Fiji’s fruits and vegetables are becoming household names in our two developed neighbors. Perhaps this trend has been enhanced partly due to a large number of Fiji citizens residing in these countries as victims of the previous coups.

Fiji cannot forget that these markets have been developed over many years through hard work and perseverance by those that believed that one day they might make it. The persistence to remain in power by the current coup makers and its supporters could destroy this hard earned benefit overnight. There are many more sorry states of affairs the nation could face if it continues with the futile path it has chosen.

However, this is the time to find a solution, as difficulties are many, and there is no better way out than to listen to the call of the nation, the call of the silent majority and the call of the international community and return to democracy. The people of the Fiji desire and indeed implore Mr Bainimarama that the power is given back to them lest one day they penalize him, his army, the interim cabinet and take back the power themselves for the good of the nation. People power is a phenomenon very much prevalent in Fiji, as much as it has been in other suppressed nations of the world, and the Fiji army with its vast international experience should not be oblivious of this fact.

Narendra P. Singh is a former Fiji diplomat and former director of the Fiji Trade and Investment Board. He is author of the book "With the Gods and the Sea – The True Story of a Family’s Survival in the Pacific."

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