Fiji High on the Agenda at Pacific Islands Forum Meeting in Auckland

Fiji's coup leader Frank Bainimarama (left) is greeted by Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele at the October 2007 Pacific Islands Forum leaders' summit in the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa. Efforts by the forum to press Fiji for early elections after military commander Bainimarama toppled the elected government in a coup in December 2006 were at the top of that summit's agenda as well. (Photo: David Brooks / AFP-Getty Images)

The foreign affairs ministers of the Pacific Islands Forum met in Auckland on March 26, 2008, and formed a contact group consisting of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu to review progress on restoring democracy in Fiji. According to The Press,

Fiji's military-appointed foreign minister, Epeli Nailatikau, was allowed to enter New Zealand to brief the meeting. He was not allowed to take part in the deliberations, which ended with the setting up of a ministerial contact group to monitor progress. He gave no date but said a detailed timetable for "election preparations" would be considered by the cabinet in the second week of April. (March 27)

In October 2007, military commander Frank Bainimarama promised the Pacific Islands Forum in Tonga that elections would be held in Fiji by March 2009. However, Bainimarama has since changed his position and argued that the implementation of the Peoples' Charter for Change and the reform of Fiji's ethnically-reserved seats were a matter of national priority, ahead of his promise for general elections.

At the Forum meeting, Fiji's interim minister for finance, Mahendra Chaudhry, reiterated the commander's views and urged Australia and New Zealand to understand Fiji's problems. According to the New Zealand Press Association, "Chaudhry said that [elections] should be held only after the People's Charter was formulated and endorsed by the public" (March 27).

According to the Hobart Mercury, Fiji's interim foreign minister, Nailatikau, told the Forum that "Fiji's military government would soon consider a detailed timetable to return the nation to democratic rule." The report also quoted New Zealand's minister for foreign affairs, Winston Peters, who warned Fiji to stick to the timetable as agreed and called for "more international political pressure to get Fiji back on the road to democracy" (March 27).

The Australian minister for foreign affairs, Stephen Smith, has upstaged his New Zealand counterpart in driving the push for a quick return to elected government in Fiji. According to the Australian Associated Press, "Mr. Smith said there had been a 'qualitative change' in Australia's foreign policy since the election of the Rudd government, including improved relations with Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands" (March 27).

Before the 2006 military coup in Fiji, New Zealand had taken a leadership role in resolving the impasse between the government and the military, and it has remained in the forefront in applying pressure to the interim government after the coup.

In 2007, New Zealand's high commissioner to Fiji was expelled from the country for allegedly "interfering" in its political affairs. The Coalition government of Australia, which was defeated at the polls in November 2007, had supported New Zealand but went further in threatening military intervention under the Biketawa Declaration of 2000. In contrast, the new Australian Labor Party government has adopted a policy of "constructive engagement" but remains firm on its resolve to see a speedy return to an elected government.

The Forum meeting was held in an environment of growing Fiji government rhetoric against Fiji and New Zealand media and regional governments. The Fiji Human Rights Commission strongly criticized New Zealand's foreign affairs minister, Winston Peters, for previously holding "racist" views against Asians and migrants.

Furthermore, the New Zealand Dominion Post reported on March 27 that Fiji Solicitor-General Chris Pryde, a Christchurch lawyer appointed by the interim government in Fiji in 2007, made a written complaint to the New Zealand Press Council over a radio interview on March 7 by "Nine to Noon" host Kathryn Ryan with The Dominion Post's Michael Field. According to Pryde, the political update on Fiji provided by Fields "was no more than an uneducated, ill-informed, deeply biased, unbalanced, and false account of events in Fiji."

Moreover, the interim government in Fiji has written a letter to the Chinese government congratulating it for its actions against Tibetan protestors. According to PACNEWS (Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association News Services), "Australia strongly disagrees with Fiji's decision to support China in its vicious crackdown of protestors in Tibet." The report continues that "there are speculations that Commodore Bainimarama was urged to write the letter following China's decision to grant his cash-strapped government a loan" (March 26).

In Fiji, there is growing fear among the people over deteriorating economic conditions and price rises on basic consumer goods. According to The Fiji Times, the price of bread has gone up by 5 cents and the price of sharp and flour went up for the fifth time in less than seven months. The Prices and Incomes Board, which is responsible for controlling prices in the country, stated that "the global shortage of wheat and surging prices were a global concern and Fiji like any other country was facing the impact of such global price changes" (March 27).

However, the impact of the price rises is compounded by the fact that Fiji faced a general economic slowdown as a result of the coup, and the tight fiscal position of the interim government was reflected in the Cabinet's decision on March 25 not to backdate the 4 percent salary restoration for civil servants.

The Forum ministers in New Zealand have unequivocally called on Fiji authorities to come up with a plan for general elections for the country by April 2008. However, there were murmurs in Fiji among the interim government members that the election was not a priority because there were urgent pressing issues, such as implementing the Peoples' Charter and electoral reforms.

Both Australia and New Zealand have reiterated that they are not in a rush to lift travel bans for interim government members and the next couple of months will be crucial for Fiji as it works with the Forum contact group to finalize the roadmap to democracy.

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