Opinion

Op-ed

Fiji: the Lost Decade

Fiji soldiers set up barricades to cut off access to the home of the ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in 2006.

Has Fiji been lost for the past 10 years? After two coups in a decade, there are international concerns over the promise of elections in 2014. Fiji's economy continues to suffer as a result of the global financial crisis and the collapse of Fiji's sugar infrastructure. Foreign investment has dried up and the Fiji National Provident Fund, the largest source of domestic capital, has lost money in a number of projects that lacked due diligence.

Despite these economic problems, Fiji's leaders have made headway in implementing social policy: a new employment service scheme for the unemployed, free bus travel for school students of poor parents, free school textbooks, land reform, electricity and roads for Fijian villages, and various price control to counter inflation. But the success on the social policy side has been overshadowed by public fights with Fiji Water over the resource tax and with supermarket owners over the price of imported lamb.

What was lost?

In the past decade, governance, accountability, institutional stability, group and individual rights, and interethnic tolerance were lost. How these essential pillars of stable society were compromised raises multidimensional ontological questions. Governance and institutional stability were compromised by the failed 1997 Constitution and the coups of 2000 and 2006. Accountability was compromised when the post-2001 election government used taxpayers' money to purchase and deliver farm equipment to indigenous militants, and individual and group rights were fragmented by the Social Justice Act and continued persistence of the SDL government on the paramountcy of indigenous rights, and finally, the coup of 2000 shattered interethnic tolerance in ways unprecedented in modern Fiji history.

Indigenous nationalists form government

When the High Court reinstated the 1997 Constitution, the president and the Peoples' Coalition Government as the Great Council of Chiefs informally gave its blessing for a new political party, the Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL), engineered to unite indigenous Fijian nationalists and in particular supporters of the May 2000 coup who formed their own political party, the Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (CAMV), with objectives to free individuals arrested by the military on coup-related offences. In 2001, the people of Fiji went to the polls and elected the SDL and CAMV Coalition Government.

Keeping with their election promise, the SDL and CAMV Coalition enacted the Social Justice Act and strengthened affirmative action for indigenous Fijians, despite protests from the Indo-Fijian community. Besides, the Coalition Government embarked on a mission to fulfil the promise of the 2000 coup to replace Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who had, much to the disgust of indigenous nationalists, survived a mutiny attempt in November 2000 for not stepping aside as the commander of the Fiji Military Forces at the height of the coup.

Bainimarama strikes back

In 2003, the relationship between the SDL-CAMV Coalition Government and Commodore Bainimarama deteriorated, as sections of the military loyal to the nationalist government went public with allegations that plans were in train at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks for a military coup. In 2004, tensions between the government and the military continued as prominent coup personalities escaped jail terms due to political interference. These tensions reached a boiling point in 2005 with the release of the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill, which was aimed at legitimizing the indigenous nationalist coups of 1987 and 2000 and discrimination against Indo-Fijians.

In November 2006, Bainimarama ordered the government to withdraw the bill, and following a series of failed meetings the SDL Government was ousted from office on December 5. Following the coup, a number of SDL-appointed individuals to various statutory boards were dismissed as the commander set in motion a "clean up" campaign aimed at eliminating rampant corruption in the country. An Anti-Corruption Unit was established to investigate possible fraudulent practices in the Native Land Trust Board and the Fiji National Provident Fund, and an interim government was sworn in after Bainimarama transferred executive power back to the president of Fiji, Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

Following the coup, Bainimarama insisted that the 1997 Constitution was still intact, as the deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase mounted a legal challenge in Fiji's High Court. In 2008, the court adjudicated that the coup was "legal." Immediately after this verdict, Qarase appealed to the High Court, which overturned the 2008 decision, forcing the president to abrogate the 1997 Constitution in April 2009. The Fiji government advised the international community that elections would be held in 2014, with consultations on a new constitution based on common roll to commence in 2012. Bainimarama argued that Fiji's existing politicians will not be eligible to stand in any future election and requested young people to enter politics.

Regional interference

Besides Fiji's domestic politics, relations with New Zealand deteriorated following the deportation by Fiji authorities of New Zealand High Commissioner to Fiji Michael Green and New Zealand journalist Michael Field in June 2007. In 2008, relations with Australia worsened with the deportation of two Australian journalists, Russell Hunter and Evan Hannah. A spate of deportations continued in December 2008 with the removal of acting New Zealand High Commissioner Caroline MacDonald, and following the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution in April 2009, Australian journalist Sean Dorney, New Zealand journalist Barbara Dreaver and ANU academic professor Brij Lal were removed from Fiji. In November 2009, Australian High Commissioner James Batley and the acting Head of Mission Todd Cleaver were expelled, and in July 2010, acting Australian High Commissioner Sarah Roberts was given the marching orders.

Tensions between Fiji and Australia and New Zealand were caused by the failure of Fiji to honor a commitment on general elections by 2009 and the subsequent expulsion of Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum. Australian and New Zealand media were also very critical of the Fiji government, and as a result the News Limited-owned Fiji Times was forced to sell to a local publisher in 2010.

Through the looking glass

At the end of the decade, Fiji remained committed to the Peoples' Charter, published in 2008, which carried hope to move the country towards embracing multicultural policies. A number of indigenous Fijian provinces, initially opposed to the 2006 coup, have accepted the strategic framework for peace and progress under the Peoples' Charter. Governance, accountability and institutional stability are central to Bainimarama's promise of a new Fiji. Reforms to the public sector have already taken place, and a new land bank is in operation as part of the land-reform agenda. According to the Fiji government, money received from leasing indigenous land will be equally distributed among the members of the landowning unit.

Already, the government has decreed "Fijian" a common name for all Fiji citizens, and work is underway to establish a new electoral system that will allow greater ethnic cooperation. While the critics of the government point to the loss of fundamental rights and freedoms, the new constitution is expected to have a bill of rights similar to the 1997 Constitution, which should happen in 2012 when Fiji is expected to build momentum on constitutional reform via a new Constitution Review Commission.

Sanjay Ramesh is an honorary research fellow at the University of Sydney's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

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