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Brij Lal: lift a positive step, other decrees remain in effect

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Jan. 2, 2012) – An avid Fiji watcher is the Professor of Pacific & Asian History at the Australian National University, Brij Lal.

He was the co-writer of the Fiji Constitution scrapped in 2009.

Presenter: Brian Abbott

Speaker: Brij Lal, Professor of Pacific & Asian History, Australian National University

LAL: Well essentially there was one Public Emergency Regulation that severely curtailed freedom of speech, freedom of association, gave enormous powers to the security forces to apprehend people and to hold them for lengths of time without trial and so on. And this is what's being lifted on the 7th of January. I think that on the face of it this is a very welcome development because any development that even hints at or nods at slightly more free press, freedom of speech and so on is to be welcomed, because over the last three years Fiji has been a terrible place for free speech. And so I think from that point of view if this is carried out in the spirit that people hope it will be, I think this is a positive development. Positive too because as the Commodore has said he's going to start a nationwide consultation process to draft a new constitution, and for that process to have any legitimacy in the eyes of the people in the country and in the region and internationally, the citizens must be free and able to express their views openly. And I think it's important also to bear in mind that the military's firmly in control. They have placed their men and women in strategic positions in the civil service and civilian administration, and they feel that they have the country under control and they don't need a piece of legislation, regulation that is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive.

ABBOTT: But aren't the Emergency Regulations in this PER in Fiji covered by decrees that the government has issued anyway, so basically the announcement of this being scrapped is just window dressing?

LAL: Well this is the conundrum isn't it? I mean they will for example at the moment under the Public Emergency Regulations any meeting of more than three people requires a permit from the powers that be. These sorts of things will be lifted, but on the other hand you have a whole slew of decrees; one decree after another issued since the coup in December 2006, which infringe on all kinds of rights, for example of trade unions and so on and so forth. So I think that one just has to wait and see what the effect of what is being promised will be.

ABBOTT: What of his claim that public order is most important and we have to protect the vulnerable and safeguard the economy of Fiji? He calls those issues paramount, doesn't this mean that they're watching very closely and they'd be ready to step in again if things got out of hand?

LAL: Absolutely, I think this is what people have to realize. They shouldn't really start jumping up and down in the hope that things will change overnight. The last three years have been very, very traumatic for Fiji, there has been cultural silence, self-censorship, a climate of fear and intimidation, and the military will not relinquish power unless it is absolutely convinced that it has the country in complete control. Anyway he talks about law and order and he says that certain aspects of the new constitution will not be negotiable. One simply wonders what aspects those might be, and in any future order what role will the military have in the governance of the country? So I think yes he's confident that he has the country under complete control, there is no overt resistance in the country, people are skeptical, tired, exhausted, and so we'll just have to wait and see what is given when the regulations are abolished or lifted on the 7th of January.

ABBOTT: From his track record is Commodore Bainimarama a man of his word? Can he be trusted?

LAL: Well we all know what the record is. A number of times undertakings were given not only to the people of Fiji, but to the international community as well. But I think that in this particular instance probably the regime in Fiji ought to be given the benefit of the doubt because they really have too much to lose and nothing to gain if they renege on yet another commitment. I don't think they will because too many promises have been broken in the past and I think that now with what has happened in the country over the last three years particularly, but since 2006 more generally, I think that he realizes that what is happening in the country is not good, the economy is down, people are losing confidence in the promises the government made about creating a corruption free society and so on. And I think it's out of self interest more than anything else that they're trying to reengage with the community at large by lifting the Public Emergency Regulations.

ABBOTT: What about his promise of consultations ahead of the forming of the constitution? We know very little about it but what little we know are you satisfied that it will be a fair process in drawing up the constitution?

LAL: But you see that's right, in the past in 2009 there was a president's dialogue forum which was very quickly aborted, and so we don't know precisely what the nature of this consultation might be, whether political parties will be free to make submissions and participate in the process. He has said that the consultation process will go beyond the traditional stakeholders, the political parties and so on, he wants to bring in NGOs and so on and so forth. All that sounds good on paper, but we'll just to wait and see what the nature of this is, how transparent, how accountable, how free and whether politicians from before 2006 for example will be allowed to stand for elections and so on. In the past he has said those tainted with what he calls "corrupt practices" will not be allowed to participate. So I think one has to be cautiously optimistic, to use that cliche, but not ecstatic about the prospect just yet.

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