SUVA, Fiji (Aug. 18, 2008) - The decision by interim prime minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama not to attend this week’s Pacific Forum leaders’ meeting is regrettable.

It sends a wrong message to our friends and neighbors in the region. It also encourages Fiji’s critics within the region to argue that Bainimarama simply didn’t want to face the inevitable criticism that would have come his way over his unequivocal promise to last year’s forum meeting that Fiji would go to the polls in March next year, that the election would be held under the 1997 constitution - still the supreme law - and that the military would respect the decision of the electorate and return to barracks.

As everyone now knows, that promise will not be kept. And it is not helpful for Bainimarama to now say nearly a year later that the promise was made under duress. If that were so, surely he could have made that clear at the time. He did not do so. His decision not to go to Niue will not go down well with the forum leaders. For Fiji will without doubt top the forum agenda.

The report of the ministerial contact group will be discussed and, presumably, adopted without Fiji’s voice being heard. Granted, it would have been a difficult meeting for Bainimarama. The forum leaders will take a dim view of being told one thing only to discover that quite the opposite has taken place.

Nevertheless, Bainimarama’s presence would have been an opportunity for the interim government to state its case for a delayed election under the provisions of its People’s Charter. The leaders may not have liked it, but at least he would have been given a hearing. That will not now happen.

The forum might also have presented an opportunity for Fiji to quietly begin to mend fences with the forum members, in particular the developed powers - Australia and New Zealand. And Fiji’s relations with those two in particular are in desperate need of repair.

The megaphone diplomacy now being practiced by all three will achieve little and the forum could have presented an opportunity for progress on that front. Instead, the commodore has told Fiji to expect more pain if the forum persists in its policy of calling for elections under the timetable and conditions promised in Tonga. But Fiji is not in a position to issue warnings or ultimatums to the forum nations and their leaders. By isolating ourselves in this way we risk being reduced to pariah state status in the wider world.

Fiji, despite all its problems, does not deserve that. For Fiji, then, the forum is a missed opportunity.

And by the way

Has anyone noticed the change the Fiji Labour Party’s approach to the draft People’s Charter? Just a matter of weeks after declaring its support for the interim government and all its doings, the party now feels a need to consult its members on the document. And a top party official at the weekend used the "I" word when talking about the government. If a week is a long time in politics, a fortnight is an eternity.

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