Regional Hegemonic Powers Trounce Fiji

Fiji's coup leader Frank Bainimarama (left) is greeted by Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele at the opening session of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders' summit in the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa on Oct. 16. (Photo: David Brooks / AFP-Getty Images)

The 38th Pacific Islands Forum was held in Tonga from Oct. 16-17, 2007, and was attended by heads of state and government of the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Fiji, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu, and representatives of Australia, Kiribati, Palau, Marshall Islands, and Solomon Islands. New Caledonia and French Polynesia also attended the formal session as associate members and East Timor, Tokelau, and Wallis and Futuna as observers. A representative of Venezuela also attended as a special guest of the government of Tonga (Forum communiqué, Oct. 17, 2007).

The forum meeting was boycotted by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who sent Foreign Minister Patterson Otti in his stead in a bid to protest the Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Islands (RAMSI). There was also a new emerging player in the region, Venezuela, which hoped to influence the Pacific islands by promising cheap fuel and in doing so challenge Australia's influence in the region (The Sydney Morning Herald, Oct. 16, 2007; The Australian, Oct. 20, 2007).

Australia has aggressively extended its influence via aid, trade, police, and military intervention post- Sept. 11 in the South Pacific region and in particular in the island nations of the Solomon Islands via RAMSI, Fiji, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea. However, the Fiji military became skeptical of the "colonial" designs of Canberra and like the Solomon Islands dismissed Fiji's commissioner of police at the height of the tensions between the Fiji military and the deposed government of Laisenia Qarase, which was accused of perpetuating ethnic divisions with the help of Australia, where the controversial and racially divisive Racial Tolerance and Unity bill (Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity bill; R.T.U.) was initially drafted.

Allegations of Australian Invasion

In November 2006, Fiji's military forces lashed out at Australia for getting involved in Fijian affairs after the Australian Defense Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, called on Commodore Frank Bainimarama not to carry out his threat to force the resignation of Prime Minister Qarase's government. (Fijilive, Nov. 5, 2006). In addition, the Fiji military alleged that Australia had covertly sent a Special Air Services team on Nov. 3, 2006, to Fiji to carry out reconnaissance for a possible "invasion" (The Fiji Times, Nov. 8, 2006). These allegations were strenuously denied by the Australian High Commission's media liaison officer, Matt Anderson, Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer and Prime Minister John Howard; but despite the denials, off the coast of Fiji, Australian H.M.A.S. Kanimbla, an amphibious transport and command ship, remained ready to intervene as part of a navy task force group along with the supply ship H.M.A.S. Success and the frigate H.M.A.S. Newcastle (Courier Mail, Nov. 30, 2006). However, during an alleged military exercise, an Australian Blackhawk helicopter crashed, killing a service member, and forcing the Australian government to refute allegations of Australian armed intervention in Fiji (The Fiji Times, Nov. 29, 2006).

On Dec. 5, 2006, Prime Minister Howard told ABC's "Lateline" that the prime minister of Fiji had rang him and asked for Australian military intervention in response to the coup ("Lateline," Dec. 5, 2006). The request was declined because Prime Minister Howard did not want Australian soldiers fighting their Fijian counter parts in the streets of Suva. Nevertheless, the actions of the Australian Defense Force and the Australian High Commissioner in November 2006 indicated otherwise. It was alleged that the Australian High Commissioner had approached senior Fiji military officers at the height of the crisis in a bid to influence the ouster of the military commander Bainimarama (The Fiji Times, Nov. 29, 2006).

The issue of a possible Australian invasion has caused relations between the two countries to suffer since the coup of December 2006. Australia and New Zealand imposed smart sanctions against Fiji as both countries campaigned hard for a speedy return to democratic rule. In response, Fiji monitored closely the activities of both the Australian and New Zealand High Commissions in Suva and expelled New Zealand High Commissioner Michael Green on June 14, 2007 (BBC News, June 14, 2007). The sanctions imposed by the two countries and repeated travel warnings led to a severe downturn in Fiji's economy and as a result of this pressure, Bainimarama agreed at the South Pacific Forum to the year in which Fiji is expected to return to democratic rule: 2009.

The Forum Meeting

At the forum meeting in Tonga on Oct. 18, Bainimarama promised forum leaders that he would hold free and fair elections in less than 18 months and he further clarified that he would not stand for elections himself. In return, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union would assist Fiji to draw up new electoral rolls (The Sydney Morning Herald, Oct. 18, 2007). Despite this understanding, Bainimarama insisted on implementing the Peoples' Charter for Change, which argues that "Fiji has been suffering from deep-rooted structural problems, a governance environment severely warped by the dominance of parochial ethnic politics, and an increasing incidence of corruption and lawlessness" ("Building a Better Fiji for All," Ministry of Information, Suva, April 2007). The Charter recommends that "Fiji needs to become a more progressive and a truly democratic nation; a country in which its leaders, at all levels, emphasize national unity, racial harmony, and the social and economic advancement of all communities regardless of race or ethnic origin" and as such commits unequivocally to "bringing together all key stakeholders in the public realm with a view to ensuring and enhancing the capacity for the national interest to be paramount, that is, one that supersedes communal divisions and ethnic and sectional interests." According to Bainimarama, the Peoples' Charter for Change will become part of Fiji's constitution and will remove any new government from power if they adopt racial policies (The Fiji Times, Oct. 20, 2007).

Australia and New Zealand remained uncommitted to removing sanctions against Fiji. Speaking at a press conference on Oct. 18, Downer welcomed the commitment made by Fiji. However, Downer made it clear that this undertaking did not guarantee the lifting of sanctions imposed since the takeover last December. According to Downer:

Australia's position is that as the roadmap unfolds, and assuming it's consistent with the objectives of the forum, then we can consider winding back some of the measures that we've taken against Fiji, he said. To use a famous phrase, our lifting of sanctions will be conditions-based not time-based. And I don't know what the conditions will be by the end of January [2008] when the foreign ministers meet. Indeed, I hope to be at the meeting myself. (PACNEWS, Oct. 18, 2007)

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke stated that the lifting of sanctions would depend on Fiji's honesty and its commitment to the 2009 deadline. The United States meanwhile reiterated that suspension of certain aid programs would continue until an elected government took office in Fiji.

Unlike, Australia and New Zealand, Fiji's problems are complex due to its colonial past and runaway indigenous nationalism, which was responsible for Fiji's three race-based coups. Despite a forward-looking 1997 constitution based on Australia's Alternative Vote, racial problems continued as the pro-indigenous government of Qarase implemented race-based policies from 2001 to 2006. Fiji's military forces, which in the past supported indigenous nationalism, found the command style ethnically weighted policies of the deposed government repugnant and detrimental to both national interest and national security, and following racially charged 2006 general elections, intervened in December 2006. Regional hegemonic powers such as Australia and New Zealand have failed to provide any meaningful political framework or leadership on consensus democracy or inter-ethnic cooperation in Fiji. Instead, both countries have at one time or another attempted with devastating effect to promote divisive ideas without fully appreciating the cultural context.

Holding elections will not magically resolve Fiji's deep-rooted problems and both Australia and New Zealand know that. There is a need to reanalyze Fiji's existing constitution, including the electoral system, and arrive at a political-constitutional framework that would in the future encourage inter-ethnic cooperation at all levels of government. The urgency to hold elections quickly may cause more harm than good because there are entrenched racial biases and prejudices at the grassroots level in Fiji and these are exploited by Fiji's communal leaders for their own political gain. A democratic system requires democratic structures, and in deeply divided societies, majority rule may not be sufficient to correct inter-ethnic competitions for power.

Sanjay Ramesh is a political scientist based in Sydney. He is an Adjunct Fellow in Pacific Studies at the University of Fiji.