Fiji: Military vs. Government

Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase has refused to resign despite threats from Commodore Frank Bainimarama (above) that the army was prepared to force the government to step down. (Photo: Torsten Blackwood / AFP-Getty Images)

The standoff between the government and the military in Fiji has been going on since the interim government was formed following an attempted coup by the George Speight group in May 2000. In November 2000, members of the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (C.R.W.U.) regrouped and attacked the Fiji Military Forces (F.M.F.) base at Nabua intending to assassinate the commander of the F.M.F., Commodore Frank Bainimarama. After killing seven soldiers, the C.R.W.U., under the command of Capt. Shane Stevens, was subdued by the Third Fiji Infantry Regiment led by Col. Seruvakula, who is currently a colonel in the Royal New Zealand Armed Forces.

In 2001, the High Court declared that the constitution was still valid. Following this decision, the interim government disbanded and launched a political party: Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Leweni Vanua (SDL). In August 2000, Fiji went to the polls amid allegations from the embittered Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.) that the election was a fraud. Before the election, members of the interim government gave $30 million worth of farm equipments to those areas where support for the Speight coup was greatest.

In 2003, the situation between the government and Commander Bainimarama started to deteriorate after rumors that a foreign national was earmarked to take over as chief of the F.M.F. Hardliners and supporters of the Speight coup in the SDL government started encouraging senior army officers to rebel against Bainimarama. In one such incident in December 2003, some senior officers of the army accused Bainimarama of plotting to overthrow the government. Bainimarama and his loyal officers responded that the allegation was an attempt by the SDL to replace him.

After a brief public altercation between the army and the government, the Ministry of Home Affairs renewed Bainimarama's appointment. But the army and the government clashed again shortly afterward when one of the major supporters of SDL, Naitasiri chief Ratu Inoke Takeiveikata, was convicted of inciting mutiny in the Fiji army and imprisoned. During his trial, the names of a number of instigators in the government were revealed.

Next on the list was Bauan chief Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli. He was convicted of providing support to the Speight government at the height of the crisis in 2000. The government intervened and had him released on a compulsory supervision order (C.S.O.). The military, furious at his release, accused the government of undermining the judiciary and the rule of law. Attorney General Qoriniasi Bale justified the release on medical grounds.

Two other high chiefs were convicted in 2005: Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, the minister for lands and the minister for mineral resources, and Ratu Josefa Dimuri, a government-appointed Senator. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase visited Lalabalavu in prison shortly after his conviction, justifying his visit to the media as fulfilling his "traditional" obligation, as Lalabalavu was his chief. Soon after the prime minister's visit, both convicts were released on a C.S.O. Non-governmental organizations (N.G.O.'s) questioned why the same provision was not extended to other indigenous Fijians in prison for petty offences.

The army accused the government of supporting coup conspirators and warned that it was closely watching political interventions in support of coup convicts. In June 2005, the Government made public the Racial Tolerance and Unity (R.T.U.) bill, which among other things provided immunity to the perpetrators of the May 2000 coup. The military criticized the government for legalizing the release of the coup ringleaders. N.G.O.'s, Indo-Fijian organizations, and segments of the indigenous community criticized the R.T.U. bill as well.

Those opposed to the bill argued that it did not have a provision for "truth telling," an essential component in starting the healing process. The Fiji Law Society condemned the bill outright suggesting that the legislation would "legalize" a coup culture. The army in its submission to the committee on the R.T.U. bill argued that coup leaders released on amnesty could regroup and stage an even more spectacular coup. The government, meanwhile, strenuously defended the bill emphasizing that it was based on the traditional Fijian concept of forgiveness, called "matanigasau."

Due to both domestic and international outcry, the government set aside the bill. Meanwhile, another government senator was charged and convicted on coup-related offences. Apisai Tora, the nationalist politician, involved in both a 1987 and the 2000 coup, was convicted by the Lautoka High Court for setting up a roadblock in Sabeto Nadi, after the Speight takeover.

By the end of 2005, the government decided that it would not renew the contract of star coup prosecutor, Peter Ridgeway. This was seen by the army as an attempt by the government to scuttle coup prosecutions. Soon after the government's decision, another government member of parliament also convicted on coup-related charges, Simione Kaitani, was discharged by the courts.

In January 2006, Lt. Col. Jone Baledrokadroka requested that Bainimarama stand down due to his continued public attack against the government. Baledrokadroka was subsequently detained and evicted from the armed forces. A court martial against Baledrokadroka for insubordination is still pending.

The other issue that came to a head in January was the refusal by the Home Ministry to appoint Fiji Law Society chairman Graham Leung as the judge advocate for the court martial of the C.R.W.U. officers involved in the 2000 mutiny. Bainimarama lashed out at the ministry for deliberately delaying the appointment to foment division within the army.

After a number of threats from Bainimarama, SDL asked Vice President Madraiwiwi to mediate. Following a short meeting, it was agreed that the army would not publicly criticize the government.

Before elections in May 2006, SDL absorbed its coalition partner, the Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (C.A.M.V.). The C.A.M.V. had lobbied hard for the release of George Speight. The military saw the merger as evidence of SDL's association with the coup plotters.

Just before the election, Bainimarama ordered the army chaplain to conduct a "truth" campaign in the villages. The objective of the campaign was to inform indigenous Fijians that they had been misled by the SDL party on important national issues. The military argued that the release of the draft Qoliqoli bill by the SDL, which called for the return of indigenous foreshore resources to the rightful owners, was a smokescreen to mystify the gullible. Furthermore, the army argued that the bill would fuel a culture of lawlessness among foreshore owners as they asserted their rights without due consideration for the rule law. According to the army, this would have grave consequences for foreign investment, particularly in the hotel industry.

The SDL government protested to the army against its "truth" campaign as a breach of an earlier understanding and further requested that it stay out of politics.

In the May 2006 elections, SDL won some 85 percent of indigenous Fijian votes to form a government with the help of two independent candidates. F.L.P. members were invited to join a multiparty cabinet. These developments were largely welcomed by the army but soon after this, the cordial relationship soured.

The government brought back the Qoliqoli bill and said that it had revised the R.T.U. bill as well after taking into consideration a number of submissions from civil society and the army. Bainimarama was not convinced and when the Qoliqoli bill in its final form became public, Bainimarama was disappointed and angry.

In October 2006, the frustrated Bainimarama gave SDL three weeks to shelve the bills. Furthermore, Bainimarama requested that coup sympathizers within the government be sacked immediately. After making these statements, he went to Sinai and Iraq to visit Fijian troops. Public relations at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Nabua were left to a military spokesperson.

Some months back, F.M.F. had ordered seven tons of machine guns bullets. In the middle of the row with the government, the bullets arrived at Suva wharf. Andrew Hughes, police commissioner since 2003, refused to authorize release of the ammunition, arguing that it might be used to depose the government. The army, however, went ahead and took custody of the ammunition.

Before the 2006 elections, the army accused the police of acting as an agent for the government when police acquired automatic weapons for its tactical unit.

While Bainimarama was overseas, he continued to attack the government. On Oct. 31, Prime Minister Qarase went to see President Ratu Iloilo and requested that he sack Bainimarama. The president acquiesced but Bainimarama's replacement refused to accept the appointment.

The government was getting nowhere. On Oct. 1, Qarase went on TV at 7 p.m. and advised the nation that he would not resign and that he would start a dialogue with the army. Furthermore, Qarase requested Fiji's hereditary chiefs, the Great Council of Chiefs (G.C.C.), to act as mediators in the standoff between the government and the army.

The army accepted the offer from Qarase to open dialogue on contentious issues. The army wants police to investigate the role of Australian con man Peter Foster in rigging the 2006 elections by printing extra ballots. The army also wants Fiji's ambassador designate to the United Nations, Tupeni Baba, to be investigated for his association with Peter Foster since the 2001 general elections, as well as former SDL party secretary Jale Baba.

From the Middle East, Bainimarama continued to attack the government. He has said that the move to bring in the G.C.C. as mediators will cause further instability. Bainimarama is on record as saying that the G.C.C. has been compromised because it has members who are sympathetic to the George Speight coup.

Foreign governments, including Australia, the United States, and New Zealand, have criticized Bainimarama. The European Union and the Commonwealth have reiterated that military intervention in a democracy is clearly unacceptable. Fijian opposition leader Mick Beddoes has lashed out at the army for creating fear and instability.

On Nov. 4, Prime Minister Qarase revealed that the amnesty provision in the R.T.U. bill had been entirely removed and that the future of the Qoliqoli and the Land Claims Tribunal bills remained uncertain.

The military received the announcement on the R.T.U. bill with cautious optimism and was further buoyed by a $10 million addition to its budget, announced by the minister of finance.

As the dust settles a little on the latest tussle, both the army and the government are claiming victory. With the return of Bainimarama on Nov. 4, there will undoubtedly be further discussions and negotiations. Meanwhile, the threat of an imminent coup in Fiji seems all but over.

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