The Fiji Military's 'Clean Up'

Commander Frank Bainimarama (center). (Photo: Torsten Blackwood / AFP-Getty Images)

Fiji's fourth coup may have come as a blessing for the people of Fiji. In the last 36 years, indigenous leaders and their militant nationalist allies put in place race-based clientele friendly development policies that plundered indigenous resources, divided the community, engineered a cadre of indigenous elite, cemented inequality and poverty, and above all encouraged unprecedented levels of corruption and financial mismanagement. But the interim government lineup announced on Jan. 8 and Jan. 9 has placed a big question mark on the army's "clean up" agenda. Placing people with vested political interests in the interim government has raised questions about the military's "moral" authority on issues such as corruption and good governance.

In 1987, a third ranking colonel in the Royal Fiji Military Forces ousted the democratically elected multiracial government of Timoci Bavadra. Within months, Col. Sitiveni Rabuka was promoted to commander of the Fiji military by the late Gov. Gen. Ratu Penaia Ganilau. A military council was established with the participation of defeated politicians from the Alliance Government (1970–87). The Great Council of Chiefs (G.C.C.), the Methodist Church, and the indigenous nationalist Taukei Movement became the "traditional" voice in support of the takeover. Moderate indigenous views in support of multiracial democracy were quickly expunged and prisoners were released to protest in Suva against a writ filed in the Fiji High Court by Bavadra, which challenged the dissolution of parliament by the governor general. Moreover, Indo-Fijians were attacked and harassed by Taukei Movement members who became increasingly violent after a political solution, in the form of a Government of National Unity, was reached at Deuba in September 1987. Coup leader Colonel Rabuka remained unhappy with the turn of events and after stating publicly that "the objectives of the coup had not been met" executed a second coup on Sept. 25. At the end of 1987, the reputation of Fiji's leaders lay in tatters and worse perhaps the Methodist fundamentalists, with the assistance of the army, imposed a ban on all commercial activities on Sunday.

From 1987 to 1992, Fiji was ruled by a military backed interim government. The discrimination, detention, and harassment of Indo-Fijians continued as many left Fiji for a better future overseas. Through attrition, the Indo-Fijian population dwindled and a new racially weighted constitution was promulgated by the coup makers in July 1990. Coup leader Colonel Rabuka went on to become the leader of the G.C.C.-sponsored party: Soqosoqo ni Vakevulewa ni Taukei (S.V.T.). Indo-Fijians fought the interim regime on the sugar front as the National Farmer's Union led by Fiji Labor Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry extracted concessions on the Sugar Master's Award. By 1992, Indo-Fijians were divided between the National Federation Party (N.F.P.) and the Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.) with the F.L.P. refusing to contest the 1992 elections. Indigenous Fijian members of the F.L.P. split from the party and formed the New Labor Party but failed to win any indigenous communal seat. The N.F.P. argued that by not contesting the elections, Indo-Fijians would be further alienated from the political process. Led by Jai Ram Reddy, the N.F.P. made a come back from the political wilderness of the late 1980's in the 1992 general elections.

From 1992 to 1999, Fiji went through a series of political transformations. The S.V.T. split in 1993 after members of the party defeated the 1994 Budget. No longer with the S.V.T., rebel members formed the Fijian Association Party under the leadership of Josevata Kamikamica. Fiji went to the polls in 1994 and the S.V.T. was once again returned to office. Despite the win, divisions within the indigenous Fijians became apparent as Prime Minister Rabuka sought to improve his failing political fortunes by seeking assistance for constitutional reforms from N.F.P. leader Jai Ram Reddy. In 1995, a Constitution Review Commission was established to review the 1990 constitution. The commission recommended drastic changes to Fiji's constitutional make up. Some of the changes were so far reaching that the indigenous Fijian leadership used the Joint Parliamentary Select Committee to "soften" the impact of the commission's report.

In the end, indigenous Fijians were unhappy with the new constitutional arrangement whereas Indo-Fijians saw constitutional reforms as the only way of safeguarding minority rights in the country. The consequence of Rabuka's constitutional reforms was two-fold. Firstly, a number of Fijian provinces withdrew support for the G.C.C.-backed S.V.T. party and secondly, there was an upsurge in indigenous nationalism, which led to the formation of the Christian Democratic Alliance party or Veitokani ni Lewenivanua Vakarisito (V.L.V.). Both these developments spelled disaster for Rabuka and the S.V.T. in the 1999 elections as the party was abandoned by a majority of indigenous Fijians. On the Indo-Fijian front, Reddy's cordial relationship with Rabuka ended the political hopes of the N.F.P. Many Indo-Fijians saw the N.F.P. as a "weak" party unable to champion the rights of Indo-Fijians. As a result, the N.F.P. was wiped out of the Fiji's political landscape as Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, formed the Peoples' Coalition Government with the indigenous Fijian Association Party, V.L.V., and the Party of National Unity.

While a new era dawned on Fiji's race-based politics, the indigenous nationalists remained unconvinced with the political outcome and privately expressed shock at the election of the first Indo-Fijian prime minister. Chaudhry, a former trade union leader and a minister of finance in the deposed Bavadra government, reintroduced some of the Labor party's policies that had led to the coups of 1987. Within six months in office, the Peoples' Coalition Government was heading for a showdown with the G.C.C. and the Native Land Trust Board over the sugar lease arrangement under the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act. Capitalizing on the sensitivities over land, indigenous nationalists led by George Speight with the support of a section of the Fiji military, deposed the Peoples' Coalition Government on May 19, 2000.

Unlike the 1987 coup, the 2000 takeover saw government ministers incarcerated for 56 days. President Ratu Mara was forced out of office by the Fiji army after the group supporting the 2000 coup refused to recognize his authority. To counter the lawlessness of the Speight group, the Fiji army's Commander Frank Bainimarama abrogated the constitution and established an interim government under the leadership of Suva banker Laisenia Qarase. Before the interim government under Qarase was sworn in, both the army commander and Qarase supported the strengthening of affirmative action programs for indigenous Fijians. The policy of appeasing the Speight camp backfired when supporters of the coup within the army mutinied at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks at Nabua. Bainimarama survived only to have his militarily installed interim government dismissed by the High Court in 2001.

Those in the interim government quickly reinvented themselves and launched the Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua Party (S.D.L.). Seeing opportunity for an indigenous Fijian coalition against Indo-Fijians, supporters of the Speight coup formed the Conservative Alliance Matainitu Vanua Party (C.A.M.V.). Following the August 2001 general elections, S.D.L. and the C.A.M.V. formed a coalition government and ensured that the F.L.P. was not allowed to join the cabinet as stipulated under the 1997 Constitution. As expected, the leader of the F.L.P. challenged his party's exclusion from government and in a landmark judgment in 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the multiparty cabinet provision in the constitution but allowed political parties to resolve differences and agree to multiparty government rules. Unfortunately, S.D.L. refused to cooperate with the F.L.P. and the two parties drifted further apart. By 2003, the Commander Bainimarama had lost all faith in the S.D.L. government. While initially supporting affirmative action for indigenous Fijians, Bainimarama saw S.D.L.'s Social Justice Act and the blueprint on indigenous supremacy as divisive and counterproductive. Moreover, the army was equally concerned about S.D.L.'s support for the individuals implicated in the 2000 coup.

The tensions between the army and the S.D.L. government escalated from June 2005 with the release of the Racial Tolerance and Unity bill, which provided amnesty to the individuals involved in the events of 2000. The government not only proposed the bill but also had plans to enact the Qoliqoli and the Lands Claims Tribunal bills. The bills were seen by Commander Bainimarama as a threat to national security. In January 2006, there was another mutiny at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks as  Bainimarama accused the S.D.L. government of plotting to depose him.

As Fiji headed toward elections in May 2006, S.D.L. absorbed the nationalist C.A.M.V. and went to the polls with an agenda to divide Indo-Fijians along religious lines. A large number of S.D.L.'s Indo-Fijian candidates were Muslims whereas the F.L.P.'s candidates were predominantly Hindu. Such religion-based electioneering backfired when S.D.L. failed to win a single Indo-Fijian communal seat. Seeing the country divided ferociously along racial lines, the triumphant S.D.L. prime minister invited nine F.L.P. members to join his government. While F.L.P. leader Chaudhry throughout the previous S.D.L. term was enthusiastic about multiparty government, after the May 2006 elections his response was lukewarm and at times obscurantist. Despite nominating party members to join the S.D.L. government, Chaudhry wanted to be the leader of the opposition. One cannot be part of the government and be in opposition at the same time. It is contrary to the fundamental principle of parliamentarianism. Just before the Dec. 5 coup, Chaudhry remained committed to derailing the multiparty government after four F.L.P. cabinet ministers voted against the 1997 Budget. Chaudhry warned earlier that all nine F.L.P. cabinet ministers had to vote against the budget. However, five F.L.P. cabinet members were granted leave of absence by deposed Prime Minister Qarase on the day of the budget vote. Chaudhry was unhappy after the 2007 budget passed with 40 votes to 26. In a last bid to save the multiparty government, Qarase on Nov. 24 came up with a compromise. Qarase proposed that he would allow F.L.P. cabinet ministers who voted against the budget to stay in the cabinet provided the F.L.P. did not take any disciplinary action against the other five. This was rejected by Chaudhry who argued that party directives superseded those of the cabinet.

Deposed Prime Minister Qarase was a poor political strategist because he made futile attempts to make Chaudhry a substantial stakeholder by offering him the position of deputy prime minister in the ill-fated multiparty government, especially after the army wrenched up its anti- government rhetoric with the reintroduction of the controversial Racial Tolerance and Unity, Qoliqoli, and Land Claims bills. Instead of trying to salvage the multiparty government, Qarase should have agreed to the demands of the army.

Commander Bainimarama was on a path of no return and on Dec. 5, 2006, the S.D.L. government was deposed in a bloodless military coup. Soon after the coup, the G.C.C., sections of the Methodist Church, nongovernmental organizations, and the Fiji Law Society condemned the takeover and called for a quick restoration of democracy. Previously, in 1987 and 2000, both the G.C.C. and the Methodist Church supported the armed takeover of government, but this time around, the deposed government was voted into office by more than 80 percent of the total eligible indigenous Fijian communal votes. Deposed Prime Minister Qarase's fight to restore the S.D.L. government became stuck because in 2001 Qarase reiterated that democracy was a "foreign flower" incompatible with indigenous tradition and culture. The army moved quickly against its critics and in less than a month secured its grip on the country. Qarase was banished to his island home of Mavana in Vanuabalavu, parliament was dissolved, all S.D.L.-appointed board members were dismissed, and dissidents were silenced.

On Jan. 4, the Commander Bainimarama handed executive authority to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who in turn appointed Bainimarama the interim prime minister. A new interim government was sworn in on Jan. 8 and Jan. 9 as the 1987 coup was repeated with some slight modifications. While S.D.L. was entirely excluded from the interim line up, the F.L.P. and the National Alliance Party of Fiji (N.A.P.F.) were given substantial portfolios, leading to criticism from the deposed leader of the opposition, Mick Beddoes, and the deposed Prime Minister Qarase. The return of veteran politician and F.L.P. leader Chaudhry to the portfolio of finance was observed with interest in both Fiji and abroad.

Some are questioning why certain political parties like the F.L.P. and the N.A.P.F. are given predominance in interim positions over S.D.L. The F.L.P. polled 44 percent of the total national votes in the May 2006 elections. The N.A.P.F. received a disappointing 6 percent. S.D.L. received 51 percent, the United Peoples' Party 2.5 percent, and the independent candidates 2.5 percent. Why couldn't the president appoint an interim government that did not have any individuals from the existing political parties? Interim ministers Jainend Kumar, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, and Taito Waradi are good choices because they have no vested political interest whereas Commander Bainimarama and Jona Senilagakali are members of the Fiji military and their presence only fuels speculation of continued military influence and intervention in Fijian political affairs. Then there are three F.L.P. members, Chaudhry, Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, and Poseci Bune. While Chaudhry and Vayeshnoi had worked hard to derail the multiparty government and to silence dissent within the party, Poseci Bune is more of an opportunist who changes position to suit his interest. What makes the lineup even more interesting is that Vayeshnoi supported the military's campaign against the S.D.L. government in a speech in parliament just before the coup. Others in the interim lineup include members of the N.A.P.F. party, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, Netani Sukanaivalu, and Manu Korovulavula. There is one S.D.L. interim minister, Ratu Jone Navakamocea, and it looks like he accepted the position for financial reasons more than anything else. To accept the position of interim minister of local government and urban planning, Navakamocea first resigned from S.D.L. United People's Party member and now the interim labor and tourism minister Bernadette Rounds-Ganilau also resigned (from the UPP) after being requested to take the offer in the interim administration by her constituency. However, Chaudhry, Vayeshnoi, Bune, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, Korovulavula, and Sukanaivalu have not done the same, raising suspicion that F.L.P. and N.A.P.F. members in the interim government may use their position to secure their political parties in the next general election, just as the members of S.D.L. had done during their short reign in the interim government after the Speight coup.

Commander Bainimarama cannot perform any meaningful "clean up" with a less than "fully clean" interim administration.

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