Government, Army on Collision Course in Fiji

Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase holds a press conference after being officially sworn in for another term earlier this year. (Photo: Bruce Southwick / AFP-Getty Images)

Tensions between the government of Fiji and the Fiji Military Forces (F.M.F.) flared up again when the commander of the F.M.F., Frank Bainimarama, criticized the prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, over the introduction of the Qoliqoli bill and the reworked Racial Tolerance and Unity (R.T.U.) bill, and for supporting senior government ministers involved in a $30 million agricultural scam in 2001.

During Fiji independence day celebrations on Oct. 9:

Bainimarama expressed his frustration at the government and said that he would do all in his means to ensure that his voice is heard in government. "Someone has to stand up to tell the government not to take us in that direction." The commander admitted his outbursts against the government is "because of the standard of leadership in the country and on their corrupt policies." (The Fiji Sun, Oct. 10, 2006)

The relationship between the government and the army further deteriorated after the government appointed former Lt. Commander Baledrokadroka to the post of the commissioner of prisons. Baledrokadroka is facing a military tribunal over his alleged attempt to depose Bainimarama in January 2006.

On 12 January, Acting Land Forces Commander, Colonel Baledrokadroka confronted the army commander at the Nabua barracks over threats to depose the government. Rumors quickly spread that the dissenters within the army were under arrest. Colonel Baledrokadroka was cited for insubordination and resigned from the armed forces. According to Baledrokadroka, a "treasonous" directive from the military commander caused him to confront Bainimarama. A National Security Council meeting was quickly organized by Prime Minister Qarase, who went on national television appealing for calm. (See "Military versus Government in Fiji," Asia Pacific Network)

Since the January 2006 incident, the commander made peace with the Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua (S.D.L.) government, following a racially charged general election in May 2006. Just before the election, the military was engaged in a "truth" campaign, where army chaplains and officials were sent to Fijian villages to educate the people on some government ministers who were involved in the overthrow of the Mahendra Chaudhry government in 2000.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the military commander, was visible and active before and during the campaign period, to the discomfort of many others. The army was initially opposed to the date set for the elections, citing the poor status of the electoral registers and the need for a national census prior to the General Election. (Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group, May 16, 2006)

The F.M.F. has also done the groundwork for charges against former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka.

Rabuka has been charged with two counts of inciting mutiny; first count on July 4, 2000 and second count on November 2, 2000 where he was alleged to have incited Lieutenant Colonel Viliame Seruvakula to overthrow army commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. (The Fiji Times, Sept. 7, 2006)

In 2005, Rabuka was nominated by the government to take up a position as Fiji's representative to the United States. However, due to international protests by Indo-Fijians, the government withdrew only to nominate another coup sympathizer, Ratu Epeli Kanimawi, to the post.

Not only has the F.M.F. challenged the government over poor policy choices, it claimed that the administration is corrupt.

Corruption within government, including the civil service, was a problem. The media continued to raise numerous allegations of non-accountability, bribery, abuse of office, fraud, misuse of public property, financial mismanagement, failure to complete statutory audits, and conflicts of interest regarding officials and ministries. In some ministries, transparency was virtually nonexistent. The constitution gives the auditor general the right to audit all national and local government bodies. In its annual report to parliament, the auditor general's office highlighted numerous instances of corrupt practices in government offices and ministries.

During the year several individuals imprisoned for their participation in the 2000 coup were released from prison, ostensibly on medical grounds or to serve their sentences extramurally. The releases were widely seen as politically motivated. A former cabinet minister granted early release in April returned to the cabinet in September at the conclusion of his extramural sentence. In June the government refused to approve a contract extension for the deputy director of public prosecutions, a foreign national assisting in the prosecution of persons implicated in the 2000 coup, and ordered him to leave the country. Local press reports criticized the government's actions as politically motivated. (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2005: Fiji, U.S. Dept. of State, March 2006)

The government is now seeking the assistance of the Supreme Court on defining the role of the army in the political affairs of the nation, but the war of words between the government and the army continues. On Oct. 16, the acting commander of the F.M.F., Capt. Esala Teleni, hit out at the government claiming non-consultation from the prime minister's office on issues raised by the armed forces (Fijilive, Oct. 16, 2006). By Oct. 17, it was revealed that the military had given the government three weeks notice to withdraw controversial bills. Fijilive reported that some military officers did not agree with the commander's directive.

Academic Brij Lal entered the debate arguing that the military's tactics of force and intimidation against the government would cause political instability (Fijilive, Oct. 18, 2006). After all, Fiji had two military coups in 1987 and members of the army's Counter Revolutionary and Warfare Unit (CRWU) were involved in the Speight coup of May 2000. Meanwhile, University of the South Pacific academic, Steven Ratuva, argued that the military should be given a voice in the National Security Council meetings, which is chaired by Prime Minister Qarase from time to time. So far, the government has rejected such suggestions.

According to Suva lawyer, Tevita Fa, the blame for the impasse between the F.M.F. and the government lies with President Ratu Josefa Iloilo (Fiji TV, Oct. 20, 2006). On Oct. 23, the F.M.F. expressed its support for the president but not after it was revealed that a military takeover was one of the options on the table. According to The Fiji Daily Post, Commander Bainimarama gave specific instructions to its senior officers for a possible takeover (Oct. 21, 2006).

Political parties remain divided over the army's recent ultimatum. The leader of the New Alliance Party of Fiji (N.A.P.F.), Ratu Epeli Ganilau, has blamed the government for the impasse, the Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.) leader Mahendra Chaudhry supports the army's position on government policies but will not go so far as to support a coup, remnants of the Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua Party (C.A.M.V.), however, have criticized Bainimarama, along with the leader of opposition, Mick Beddoes.

The military has usurped the right of the people of Fiji when it called for the government to resign. Opposition leader Mick Beddoes said the military exceeded its mandate when it threatened to remove Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and the duly elected government of Fiji. "The military is usurping the authority and the right of the people of Fiji to elect their own government and these actions by the military can never be condoned," he said. (The Fiji Sun, Oct. 23, 2006)

The F.M.F. has a long list of complaint against the government. A war of words became commonplace between the Home Affairs Ministry and the army, following government intervention to release high profile coup convicts. Bainimarama was not impressed with the government's actions and argued that it was responsible for restoring stability after the George Speight group created anarchy during the 56-day siege at the parliament.

In the past, the office of the president mediated the impasse between the army and the government and this time around, the president has given his support for the government to seek judicial opinion on the constitutional role of the army (The Fiji Times, Oct. 20, 2006).

While the government will go and seek advice from the highest court in Fiji, Naitasiri Provincial Council chairman, Senator Ratu Solomone Buaserau, would like the Great Council of Chiefs (G.C.C.) to review the president's tenure.

The Naitasiri province and Naweni district in Cakaudrove province have both condemned by the military for opposing government policies and calling for the Qarase government's resignation over its controversial bills. (Fijilive, Oct. 24, 2006)

On Oct. 26, the army warned the Naitasiri Provincial Council not to blame the president for the impasse between the government and the army. Meanwhile, the police started its investigations into the recent threats by Commander Bainimarama, following complaints from the government.

Overseas government organizations, the European Union and the Commonwealth, have emphasized that the people of Fiji, through the democratic process, can only determine government (The Fiji Times, Oct. 24, 2006). The F.M.F. has been asked to stay out of politics.

As tensions mounted, the rhetoric against the S.D.L. government heated up even further. The army charged that S.D.L. had acquired the services of conman Peter Foster to achieve victory at the May 2006 polls. The army claimed that Fiji's appointee to the United Nations, Tupeni Baba, must be investigated for his dealings with Foster, who has supposedly printed more than 1.9 million ballot papers for the general elections. Three government orders or requisitions authorizing these were signed and approved by the S.D.L. party (Fijilive, Oct. 26, 2006).

The commander of the F.M.F. is away visiting troops in Sinai and more fireworks are expected when he returns. Prime Minister Qarase has expressed his disappointment with the ongoing outburst of the army, which maintains that it is responsible for ensuring good governance and the security of the nation. At a deeper level, tensions are further fueled by the army not getting enough money to create a modern, well-equipped armed force.

Clearly, both the army and the government are heading for a showdown. Either the army backs away and waits for the Supreme Court decision or the government drops its controversial bills and gives the army a seat at the National Security Council.

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