FIJI: LIKE A DUCK TREADING WATER

Commentary

By Brij V. Lal

"Fiji today is like a duck treading water," a Fijian political operative told me the other day. "All calm on the surface, but unknown currents churning beneath." As a description of the current state of affairs in Fiji, the imagery is pretty apt.

From various government quarters, the talk of change and improvement is optimistic. The so-called "clean up campaign" is proceeding apace, we are told, the economy is on the mend, the country is at peace, and the people are "moving on." That is the official line: non-chalance in some circles, assertive self-confidence, arrogance even, in others.

It is true that the country has not descended into the kind of civil strife some feared when the coup took place, and people in all walks of life are muddling along, coping as best they can with what they have. But there is a palpable sense of fragility in the air, the sense that things could go wrong at anytime.

Mr Taniela Tabu’s experience is a case in point. With the Public Emergency Regulations suspended, Mr Tabu thought he was entitled to his freedom of speech guaranteed under the constitution. He believed that the Interim Administration was in charge of the country. But arrested and taken to the barracks, he was, he has told the country and the international community, physically humiliated and his life threatened if he continued to speak up. The Military Council was apparently still in place and in control, very much so.

There were the predictable denials from the QEB, but Mr Tabu’s account was credible, his injured outrage believable. The extreme touchiness of the Interim Administration and the military to any criticism of its action is evident. It instills fear and fosters self-censorship in the populace. To be issued death threats for calling for the resignation of a minister from government says a great deal about the state of affairs in Fiji today.

The revocation of the suspension of the Great Council of Chiefs by the Interim Minister for Fijian Affairs is widely welcomed, encouraging the hope that it may be a harbinger of things to come. The dropping of the cases against Superintendent Rasiga and Mr Ali is also noteworthy, suggesting perhaps that the state’s case against them lacked credible evidence. Is this too a harbinger of things to come? The legal fraternity’s mettle will be sorely tested in the months ahead as other notable cases come up before the courts.

The Interim Administration’s optimistic claims about the economy go against the assessments of virtually all the leading businessmen with whom I have spoken. Contraction is the order of the day, they tell me, in some sectors by as much as 30-40 percent. There is no new investment, and many projects with huge investment and employment potential have been frozen. They are not likely to re-activated any time soon. ‘We are in a shock,’ a leading businessman tells me, after attending a board meeting of his company.

What, I ask, will it take to kick-start the economy? Firm commitment to returning the country to parliamentary democracy, the businessmen tell me. They place much hope on the Interim Administration’s undertaking given to the European Union that the next general elections will be held by March 2009. Without that, the country is looking down at the barrel of the gun, so to speak.

The question is: will general elections be held within the time frame stipulated by the EU? There are those who are optimistic, but I have deep doubts. The Fiji Labour Party has stated that holding general elections should not be the country’s priority; getting the essential electoral infrastructure right should be: conducting a census, drawing up electoral boundaries, educating the voters. Accomplishing these before 2009 may not be feasible.

The Interim Prime Minister has said on various occasions that the timing of the next general elections is a matter for Fiji to decide, not for the international community to dictate. The ‘clean-up campaign’ should be seen through to completion. Then there is the so-called ‘President’s Mandate’ whose fulfillment forms a critical justification of the Interim Administration’s existence. The deeply fraught proposed charter to build a better Fiji with the assistance of the civil society is another story, possibly another delaying tactic.

But there is a deeper fear that drives the Interim Administration. That is that if elections were held today, or in 2009, the SDL will be returned to power with a thumping Fijian majority. In this assessment, they are correct. Fijian support for the SDL has strengthened, not lessened, in the last six months. And it will not diminish anytime soon. The more the Fijians feel marginalized and excluded, the greater the support for the SDL will be.

‘Qarase is not coming back,’ Commodore Bainimarama and others in the military have said over and over again. Delaying the elections would hopefully achieve that goal, given the former prime minister’s advancing years. The SDL’s party infrastructure too could be weakened, if not dismantled in the intervening period, paving the way for a political party, so it is hoped, more acceptable to the military and more understanding of its plans for Fiji.

But this thinking is myopic and victory, if there is one, will be pyrrhic. If the Fijian community continues to feel marginalized and excluded from power, its cherished institutions symbolically humiliated and sidelined, there will be Qarases galore in the future. And they could well be less mindful of multi-ethnic sensitivities and the need for multi-ethnic accommodation than Mr Qarase and other politicians of his vintage.

Talking to Fijians on the streets in Suva, admittedly a small sample, I get the definite sense of frustrated silence in the Fijian community. They feel helpless, hobbled and humiliated. ‘What can we do,’ a man says to me. ‘The guns are there.’ There is a silent but definite hardening of race relations. The signs are everywhere.

Every issue, every challenge, is viewed through the prism of race. Predominantly Indo-Fijian trade unions struck an early deal with the Interim Administration while predominantly Fijian ones struck, I am told. It is not as simple as that, for support for or against the Interim Administration is divided across the communities. Not all Indo-Fijians support the coup, nor all Fijians oppose it. But perceptions, right or wrong, do matter. And the omens don’t look good.

The government’s handling of the strike has left a bitter taste in many mouths. Its rigid and even vindictive approach to industrial relations, its unwillingness to go to arbitration, its determination to frustrate and break up the trade union movement not willing to succumb to its pressure, all done ironically with the support of some compliant trade union leaders, leaves a sad legacy. The government says its coffers are empty, but then spends funds on purchasing vehicles and paying private attorneys to fight its cases. Somewhere, the priorities have gone wrong.

Repairing or in some instances rebuilding bridges of understanding and tolerance between the two main communities is an urgent challenge for the Interim Administration. Preoccupied with its own survival amidst unrelenting international pressure unlikely to end anytime soon, it has adopted an ad-hoc, fire-containing, approach to the challenges facing it: an enquiry here, a raid there, a plea for aid and assistance and skilled personnel from this country or that.

All this points to one inescapable truth: Fiji is a part of the international community; it is an island, yes, but an island in the physical sense alone. We cannot afford to thumb our noses at the international community and then expect to escape retribution.

Sooner rather than later, the larger challenges of the proper way to build a multi-ethnic nation will return to haunt the nation. The revocation of the suspension of the GCC augurs well for the future of the country. One hopes that the currents underneath are as calm as the surface upon which the duck treads water. Any other scenario is simply too terrible to contemplate.

Brij V Lal is a historian and writer based at The Australian National University. Views expressed here are his own, not his employer’s.

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