By Brij V Lal

The recent announcement by Fiji’s interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama that the Public Emergency Regulations will be lifted from 7 January was welcomed cautiously by people in Fiji and by the international community as the first step in what will inevitably be a long and difficult road back to parliamentary democracy in that ill-fated Pacific Island nation. The wariness was a response to what the lifting might actually mean in practice, and how serious the military regime was in preparing the space for free speech. The answer came soon enough. On the eve of the lifting, Commodore Bainimarama announced the imposition of a revamped Public Order (Amendment) Decree whose overall effect on the conduct of public discourse would be no less chilling. ‘We will not tolerate an iota of disruption to the peace, safety, stability and common and equal citizenship we now enjoy,’ the Commodore thundered. There was good reason for the initial scepticism.

The Emergency Decree, promulgated soon after the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution in April 2009, was initially intended as a short-term security measure but was extended month after month by the military regime uncertain of the extent of the support it enjoyed in the country and unsure of its hold on power. But it proved brutally effective in silencing dissent. The media was completely muzzled, military censors were placed in all the newsrooms, and any semblance of editorial independence vanished overnight. Fiji truly became an area of darkness for news and free flow of information. In the absence of a free and vibrant media, blogsites mushroomed, spreading suppressed and uncomfortable information about what was happening in the country and, sometimes, deliberate, opportunistic misinformation too.

Potential sources of opposition, such as the once-active trade union movement, were effectively disabled, their powers curtailed to the point of impotence. The decrees passed by the regime could not be challenged in the courts. The independence and impartiality of the judiciary was called into question amidst swirling accusations of political interference. There was no accounting for the way in which the public purse was disbursed. Astonishingly, ministerial salaries are still not public knowledge in Fiji, and, despite repeated requests, the Auditor General’s reports have not been published for several years. The regime’s favourite consultants secured lucrative government deals for large undisclosed sums of money, and former Fiji citizens returned to offer a helping hand, some on unconscionably exorbitant packages. Those who dared to question the narrative weaved by the regime’s spin doctors often found themselves ‘interrogated’ at the military barracks, their houses and cars stoned in the middle of the night. No one was ever arrested for these ‘incidents’ while former evangelizing Police Commissioner Esala Teleni proudly pronounced one town after another completely ‘crime free.’

Fiji found itself to be a pariah in the region where it had once been an acknowledged and respected leader, a principal founder of the Pacific Islands Forum, for example, and excluded from the councils of the Commonwealth. China became an opportunistic (and resource hungry) friend. The regime was not backward in playing the ‘China Card’ to put pressure on Australia and New Zealand, in particular, to retract their opposition. Its supporters overseas agitated for immediate engagement, but on what terms and conditions and for what purpose remained unsaid. The regime’s modus operandi was monologue rather than dialogue, and so it remains.

The relaxation of the Emergency Regulations will not change things overnight in Fiji or even in the medium term. The culture of silence and self-censorship, the climate of fear and intimidation, of the last three years have inflicted deep wounds on the country’s psyche that will take a very long time, perhaps a generation or more, to heal. All the freedom-restricting decrees are still intact, and there is no sign yet of the soldiers voluntarily heading back to the barracks any time soon.

On the contrary, Bainimarama’s military is effectively in control of the country. Strategic positions in the public service and in district administration are staffed by military personnel and other loyalists riding a gravy train from which they are in no mood to dismount any time soon. Others are busy making hay while the sun shines, advancing their personal and financial agendas, securing lucrative contracts, settling old scores. Still, the military knows where power resides in the country, where all the guns are. Its senior officers accordingly regard the emergency regulations not only as unnecessary but actually counterproductive, something which earns them and the country a bad reputation without any tangible reward. They are therefore happy to see it go because they know they can return any time they want to.

The lifting of the Emergency Regulations also coincides with the promise by the military regime to hold widespread consultations about a new constitution expected to be in place by the end of this year (2012). We know little beyond generalities about what the consultation process will entail, who will be tasked to carry it out, how open and transparent it will be. Will it simply be a rubber-stamping exercise (as was the case in 1990), or will the new constitution be the outcome of a genuine process of dialogue and discussion among the citizens of Fiji, including political parties presently out of favour with the regime in power, and whom the military would actually like to exclude from the political process altogether?

‘The new Constitution must establish a government that is founded on an electoral system that guarantees equal suffrage – a truly democratic system based on the principle of one person, one vote, one value. We will not have a system that will classify Fijians based on ethnicity,’ Bainimarama said in his New Year’s address. This is an important commitment to be welcomed because an obsession with the politics of ethnicity has been a serious obstacle to Fiji’s progress as a multiethnic nation in the past. The sooner it is done away with the better. For far too long, every aspect of public life in Fiji was seen and assessed through the prism of race.

The ironic thing about this is that it was the Fijian leaders themselves who adamantly opposed the introduction of even a limited non-racial system of voting in the past. In the 1990s, one of the fiercest advocates of complete racial representation in parliament was Ratu Inoke Kubuabola. In 1987, he was a self-confessed architect of the military coup of that year, and a founding member of the nationalist, violence-threatening Taukei Movement. He is now Commodore Bainimarama’s Foreign Minister. Sitiveni Rabuka has apologized often enough for his past misdeeds, apparently to little effect, but Kubuabola is in a special category of his own, unapologetic, unremorseful, infinitely malleable. The presence in the present regime of people like him detracts from its claim as the champion of the multiracial cause.

Bainimarama himself is a rather late convert to the idea of non-racial voting, no doubt influenced in this thinking by the stark demographic fact that indigenous Fijians are now nearing about 60 per cent of the population and Indo-Fijians around 34 per cent. The 2006 coup was supposedly a ‘Clean Up Campaign,’ (about which for good reason not much is heard these days), and not about a fair electoral system. Nonetheless, this is good thinking in the right direction and he should be encouraged to pursue this non-racial path. Whether he will be allowed to by those around him with interests of their own to protect is another matter.

But an electoral system, while obviously important, is one among many important issues that the new constitution will have to consider. Will it provide for a free and unfettered parliament and not a pliant one? Will it provide for a nominal head of state (as in the Westminster system) or an executive head with extensive powers? What about the independence of the judiciary, the protection of human rights, observance of international conventions to which the country is a signatory?

Perhaps the most important question before the drafters of the new constitution will be role of the military in the new governance structure. The brutal truth must be faced: that the principal cause of Fiji’s political problem in the past two decades (admittedly with the nod and wink of important civilian players behind the scenes) has been the military. As long as there is a large standing army – some three thousand strong at the moment – in an unstable environment repeatedly scarred by military coups, the thought of another military intervention will inevitably loom large in the public mind. There will always be a wayward colonel or a deluded commodore who might see himself as the saviour of the nation from the clutches of corrupt politicians, someone indispensible to its destiny, an instrument of divine intervention. Fiji has seen all this drama before.

In the past, when the demographics were different, the military was seen as the ultimate bastion of indigenous Fijian power, the fighting arm of the Fijian establishment. The 1987 partly manifested this thinking. Bainimarama’s 2006 coup pitted a Fijian army against an indigenous Fijian-led government. The military has come to fill the vacuum left by the departure of paramount chiefs (such as Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau or Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara) who once commanded respect and carried influence among their people. With the experience of peace keeping in the Middle East behind them, Fijian soldiers fancy themselves as better managers of the state’s affairs than politicians. Restoring a proper balance in civilian-military relations in Fiji will be no small challenge for the country’s future rulers.

The military regime has promised to hold national elections in 2014. There are some who doubt this commitment, unwittingly encouraged by contradictory pronouncements from Fiji itself. In July last year, Commodore Bainimarama said: ‘If we move to 2014 and we are not ready because of constant interfering, we are not going to give up government to a political party that is not prepared.’ And the blame predictably was laid at the door of Fiji’s neighbours. ‘I’m thinking we might not be really ready come 2014 for elections if we don’t get any assistance from Australia and New Zealand.’

But Fiji cannot afford to renege on its promises – not yet again. It has everything to lose and nothing to gain by delaying elections indefinitely. The regime should be taken at its word, be given the benefit of the doubt. Elections don’t solve problems, regime supporters say. That is common sense. Elections provide the legitimacy, rooted in popular will, for tackling problems. The real issue is not whether elections will be held in 2014, but what kind of elections will be allowed. Commodore Bainimarama says ‘I want to rid politics from decision making that has an impact on our economy, our future.’ And he is adamant that deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase will return to parliament ‘over my dead body.’ So will there be a screening process for candidates wanting to contest the elections? What kind of people would want to put their hand up for politics or public service in this kind of environment anyway? Who will do the vetting? And a question prompted by Fiji’s recent troubled history will have to be asked: will the verdict of the ballot box be respected if it goes against the wishes of the military?

A large part of Fiji’s problems over the last half century has been caused by a deep unwillingness among its people to confront the truths of its history and, conversely, to trumpet mindless feel-good slogans from rooftops about ‘Fiji: The Way The World Should Be.’ The reality on the ground was different: a deep and persistent division among its various ethnic groups about virtually all matters of public policy, indeed, about the nature of the polity itself which empowered some and disempowered others, founded as it was on assumptions and understandings which actually subverted the democratic values it purported to uphold. Issues surrounding the causes of the first coup in 1987 were swept under the carpet in the name of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘nation building,’ doing things the ‘Pacific Way’ of avoiding confrontation and sharp debate, of losing face. There was no enquiry of any sort into why that fateful event had occurred, who had instigated it, who benefitted from it, what damage it had done.

Unsurprisingly, other coups followed, and more will assuredly follow the latest one unless its causes and consequences are investigated openly and impartially to promote healing and national reconciliation. A thorough soul-searching exercise is absolutely necessary for Fiji to break the shackles of its past. An immediate start should be made with the investigation of abuses of human rights under the Public Emergency Regulations and the perpetrators brought to account by a judicial system free of political interference, its independence and integrity fully restored. The regime owes at least that much to the hapless citizens of Fiji who have suffered much over the years through no fault of their own. Poverty rates have risen sharply and the future looks bleak in an economy registering negative growth for most years since 2006, for example minus 0.4 percent in 2010.

The response of the international community to the latest announcement from Fiji has been cautiously welcoming, and understandably so: Fiji’s recent past is littered with broken promises and dashed hopes. Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma welcomed the lifting of the Emergency Regulations as a ‘positive step that was long overdue,’ hoping that the promised consultation process ‘will be fully inclusive and time bound and that they will lead to a genuine national consensus on the constitution, clearing the way for credible elections and the return of a democratically elected government without further delay.’ Tough ask, but sound advice from a concerned friend.

Australia would do well to heed this wise advice. Its aid budget to Fiji this year will be doubled from around $18 million to $36 million, which is very welcome news. The message there is that Australia does not have a problem with the ordinary Fiji citizens who have suffered enough already. It has issues with the regime in power founded in illegality and ruling without proper constitutional or any other authority except the force of arms and the quiet acquiescence of a cowering populace. It should welcome all genuine offers of engagement from Fiji provided they are backed by evidence of tangible move towards greater openness and transparency. Perhaps the place for Commodore Bainimarama to start might be to re-open full diplomatic relations with Australia, without preconditions. After all, it was the regime which summarily expelled the Australian High Commissioner in 2009 in the first place. That would be a good start to 2012.

Brij V Lal is Professor of Pacific and Asian History in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University, and the author of many works on the history and politics of Fiji, from which he was expelled by the military in November 2009 for his opposition to the military coup there.

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