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Lethal Diplomacy in Fiji

Sanjay Ramesh, July 22, 2010

There was expectation in Fiji that the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Plus Meeting in Sigatoka (July 22-23) would have endorsed the strategic roadmap for Fiji elections and confirm Fiji as the new chair of the group. However, the move to invite Melanesian states of Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea by Fiji's leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama was seen by Australia as an attempt to undermine the Pacific Islands Forum.

As a result, Canberra lobbied behind the scenes and persuaded Vanuatu, which is the current MSG chair, against attending the meeting. Worse, the last-minute announcement by Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei against his participation in the MSG Plus meeting infuriated the Fiji leader, who accused Canberra of undermining the reforms in the country through political interference. As a result, the acting Australian high commissioner to Fiji, Sarah Roberts, was declared persona non grata and given 24 hours to leave the country on July 13.

The drama that unfolded in Fiji was reminiscent of a similar event in November 2009 when Australian High Commissioner James Batley was accused of interfering in the country's judiciary after Australian immigration advised Sri Lankan judges of travel transactions if they accepted positions in the post-1997 Constitution Fiji government. Since the November incident, the relationship between Fiji and Australia remained tense as Australia continued with targeted sanctions against all individuals associated with the current Fiji regime. The temperature on the faltering relationship between the two countries was increased following announcement of the new Media Decree 2010, which was criticized by Australia as limiting freedom of expression.

Fiji Media Decree

On June 28, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum announced that all media organizations had three months to ensure that their directors and 90 percent of the beneficial shareholders of the media organization are Fiji citizens permanently residing in Fiji. Any media organization that fails to comply with this requirement shall cease to operate as a media organization, and shall also be liable for an offense under the Decree. At this stage, Fiji Times is the media organization that needs to comply with the ownership requirements, and this represents a major challenge for the country's longest-serving newspaper.

Immediately following the announcement, Australian News Limited chief executive and chairman and the owner of Fiji Times, John Hartigan, stated that the decree further eroded the "basic tenets of democracy" in Fiji and that the illegal government of Fiji had retrospectively withdrawn permission for foreign media investment in Fiji, which is not only grossly unfair but will inevitably be enormously damaging to Fiji's reputation as an attractive investment opportunity." Hartigan further expressed his disappointment at the efforts of the Australian government in pressuring Commodore Bainimarama to hold democratic elections.

New Zealand Media Freedom Committee Secretary Tim Pankhurst opined that the Media Decree was part of a disturbing trend towards dictatorship and another reason New Zealanders should boycott travelling to Fiji. Amnesty International joined in the chorus of protest arguing that under the Decree there will be widespread censorship of newspapers and broadcasters in Fiji. Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith agreed with the assessment of New Limited, adding that the move by Fiji "was another example of the Fiji government impinging on the democratic rights of its people."

However, the permanent secretary for information in Fiji, Sharon Smith Johns, argued that the Media Decree was a "huge step forward for the media industry of the country and that for the first time Fiji had a legislation that was all encompassing and empowered the people of Fiji in ensuring that their views were heard."

A draft Media Decree was circulated for comments by the attorney general of Fiji in April 2010. At various meetings, held under the Public Emergency Regulations, a number of concerns were raised by the Fiji Times. Since the military coup in December 2006, the Fiji Times had been instrumental in highlighting human rights issues in daily columns, and following the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution in April 2009 the Fiji Times ran a series of publications in which it demonstrated the impact of media censor under the Public Emergency Regulation.

In addition, the military rulers of Fiji became very sensitive to any form of public criticism, and media outlets were advised to conduct themselves accordingly. In hindsight, the tensions between Australia and Fiji since the December 2006 coup also played a crucial role in the finalization of the Media Decree. News Limited-owned newspapers in Australia continued to criticize the regime of Commodore Bainimarama much to the displeasure of those in authority in Suva, and as a consequence the Media Decree became the legal instrument used by Fiji authorities to get back at News Limited.

Expulsion of Australia's acting high commissioner

The tensions between the Australian government, News Limited and Fiji authorities should not be seen in isolation. Australia established itself as a regional hegemonic power and directly intervened in the conflict in the Solomon Islands via the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands in 2003 and threatened to intervene in Fiji in 2006. Commodore Frank Bainimarama has on a number of occasions accused Australia of planning an invasion aboard its naval ships in the lead up to the 2006 Fiji coup. In addition, the post-coup Fiji government has accused Australia of funding and encouraging political dissidents.

These allegations of interference have been denied by the Australian authorities, and following the expulsion of Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum in May 2009, relations between these two countries have been permanently damaged. On one hand, Commodore Bainimarama remained steadfast on his strategic direction for elections in 2014, and on the other, Australia, along with New Zealand, lobbied for a return to an elected government. However, there is little detail as to what kind of democracy both Australia and New Zealand would like to see in Fiji, especially considering the country's unresolved ethnic tensions, history of military coups and untamed indigenous nationalism.

As mentioned earlier, following the suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, the Fiji authorities had support from their Melanesian counterparts on the country's political reforms. This was in sharp contrast to the position taken by the Pacific Islands Forum that wanted Fiji to demonstrate concrete steps towards democracy. However, continued criticism from Australia and New Zealand prompted Commodore Bainimarama to suspend all contact with the Forum. Instead, Fiji started its own initiative of MSG Plus and, in doing so, challenged the Pacific Islands Forum and its main financial contributor, Australia.

In a classic case of checkbook diplomacy, Australia outmaneuvered Fiji. It will be interesting to see whether Canberra goes a step further and persuades Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to formally suspend Fiji from the Melanesian Spearhead Group and thereby destroy the organization. Already Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele has called on Australia to ramp up its sanctions against the country, and similar calls have been made by John Hartigan of News Limited; Usaia Waqatairewa, the Sydney-based president of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement; and Michael O'Keefe of Latrobe University.

On July 13 Ms. Roberts, was accused by the Fiji government of conducting "unfriendly acts," and Fiji Village established that Roberts was contacted by the Fiji government on a few occasions and requested to stop approaching regional high commissioners and regional government representatives on the planned MSG Plus meeting in Fiji. Bainimarama believes that Vanuatu's prime minister had succumbed to pressure from Australia in the form of $66.4 million in aid. Fiji's Minister for Foreign Affairs Ratu Inoke Kubuabola noted that Australia and its diplomatic mission in Suva were engaged in strategies to undermine Fiji's sovereignty and weaken the economy, and in supporting Fiji's action the president of the Fiji Trade Union, Daniel Urai, argued that "Australia and New Zealand should not be using checkbook and bullying tactics to push Pacific Island countries to do what they want."

Mr. Smith called the expulsion "unjustified, unjustifiable and deeply disappointing," but Fiji's response to Australia's move against Fiji could hardly have come as a surprise since both countries went down the path before in November 2009. Moreover, Smith admitted that Australia had approached Melanesian countries, advising them against attending the MSG Plus in Fiji. Australia's new Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the expulsion "completely inappropriate."

But as Australia went on a maximum overdrive in its condemnation, Bainimarama pulled out another surprise by suggesting that the actions of Australia could delay the promised 2014 elections. In response, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said that "any attempt by Frank Bainimarama to step away from that commitment would be not only unhelpful but would be something that New Zealand would protest very strongly about."

Policy rethink

Despite Canberra's efforts against Fiji, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Dr. Dereki Sikua are expected to attend the "Engaging Fiji" meeting in Sigatoka along with other eight Pacific island states, including Tuvalu and Kiribati. The re-badged meeting has been labeled as a further snub of the scheduled 41st Pacific Island Forum Meeting in Port Vila, Vanuatu in August, as Australia and New Zealand will once again criticize Fiji for failing to implement democratic governance and acting in a way prejudicial to the interest of its neighbors.

However, the "Engaging Fiji" meeting should force a policy rethink in Canberra and Wellington, and Fiji should be allowed back into the Pacific Islands Forum as an interim member until general elections in 2014. Already New Zealand and Australian governments have stated publicly that there is nothing more they can do about Fiji, and trade sanctions have been repeatedly ruled out. The Vanuatu meeting could break the ice on the practice of lethal diplomacy in the region.

Sanjay Ramesh is an adjunct research fellow at the University of Technology in Sydney and a researcher in intergroup conflict at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. He can be reached at sanjay.ramesh@uts.edu.au.

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