Fiji Determined to Chart Its Own Political Destiny

Commodore Frank Bainimarama, head of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces and the appointed prime minister, presents his vision for Fiji in an address to the nation one year ago.

While the world remains skeptical about Commodore Bainimarama's commitment to the 2014 election, Fiji is bustling with tourists, and the performance of the interim government ministers has far exceeded expectation of the locals.

Some of the achievements of the government include free school bussing for students of poor parents, free textbooks, better roads and infrastructure despite recent spates of natural disasters, disappearing crime, a comprehensive child protection law, success on the anti-corruption front, better interethnic relations, and a more optimistic citizenry.

These achievements following the abrogation of the 2007 Constitution in April 2009 have challenged those who are campaigning with the assistance of overseas governments for a return to the system of democratic governance that had continually failed the people of Fiji. This in no way is an endorsement of military coups but it raises an important issue whether overseas government, blinded by majority rule, has in the past promoted communalism and ethnic conflict in Fiji.

Australia and New Zealand are two regional powers that want a return to an elected government under the 1997-type Constitution that promoted communal and ethnic compartmentalization, despite claims that it was multiracial. While Australia and New Zealand continue with targeted sanctions against the Fiji Government, there are growing signs that the military in the country has been successful in implementing transparency and accountability.

Crime prevention

Under the leadership of Police Commissioner Commodore Esala Teleni, there has been a significant improvement in the performance of the Fiji Police Force. There are fewer drunks on the streets in the urban Fiji because the police have allowed nightclubs to operate until the early hours of the morning. As a result, there is a significant decrease in drunken brawls, which was a common feature of Fiji previously.

Commodore Teleni has initiated "crime-free" events throughout Fiji, aimed at building relationships between community and the police. A number of schools and community groups have participated in the events, and a Nadi Chamber of Commerce member commented that the Fiji Police Force had become instrumental not only in changing attitudes and behavior towards crime prevention but also in making communities valuable stakeholders in crime-prevention strategies. Such views were simply unheard of during the rule of previous elected governments.

MSG and the Pacific Island Forum

Fiji's Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has invited his Pacific Island neighbors to join in the debate and the dialogue on the pressing issues facing the fragile Pacific region. The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Plus meeting will be held in Fiji in July following the country's suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009. Since the suspension, Australia and New Zealand have continued to police travel restrictions imposed on Fiji officials and used strong-arm tactics to isolate the country.

While Australia and New Zealand remain steadfast on Fiji, the Melanesian countries, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Vanuatu have given support to Bainimarama on his crusade for a non-racial polity. During a visit to New Zealand in April, PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare maintained that the Melanesian Spearhead Group presented an opportunity to try and bring Fiji back to the Forum. Moreover, Somare would also like skilled labor to migrate easily between the borders of MSG countries including Solomons, Vanuatu and Fiji as part of the arrangements under the MSG trade agreement. However, some of Fiji's Polynesian neighbors, Samoa and Niue, share the Australian and New Zealand position on Fiji and have reiterated opposition to the Fiji Government.

The lack of understanding on the part of the Pacific Island Forum has prompted Commodore Bainimarama to ban the Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group (MCG) from visiting Fiji. On May 31, Fiji's representative to the MCG meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, was provided with negative assessment on the Fiji situation by Australia and New Zealand. This infuriated Prime Minister Bainimarama who argued that these countries "invited Ratu Inoke to condemn and belittle him as a way of persuading other Pacific island countries not to come to Fiji for the MSG Plus meeting."

Fiji-born academic professor Brij Lal of Australian National University (ANU) argued that Bainimarama was trying to garner support from smaller countries in an attempt to hijack the MSG agenda, but Fiji has maintained that the Pacific Island countries' sovereignty has been hijacked by Australia and New Zealand, who continues to "bully" its island neighbors with the "carrot and stick" approach so that these vulnerable Pacific states align their foreign policy with that of Canberra and Wellington.

There may be valid reasons why Canberra is concerned about Fiji. According to a statement from the Fiji government, Russia, Cuba, India, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan support Fiji. In addition, the Chinese government is partly funding the MSG Plus meeting in Fiji, and Chinese companies are interested in exploring Bauxite on the island. The growing influence of China in Fiji is troubling Canberra, but the Government of Australia has chosen a moral and ethical position towards Fiji and has reiterated that a quick move towards elections is the only initiative they will support. New Zealand, unlike Australia, has held informal discussions with the government of Fiji in breaking the diplomatic impasse caused by the expulsion of its high commissioner from Suva in November of 2009, but progress beyond finalizing representatives to their respective diplomatic missions has stalled.

Momi Bay and the Fiji National Provident Fund

The Fiji government has taken over the Momi Bay Resort project following the financial collapse of the New Zealand-based company Bridgcorp and its subsidiary Matapo Limited, which had 7 percent of its assets tied to the project. There are concerns in Wellington over the intervention of the Bainimarama regime in foreign investments. Fiji, however, has maintained that intervention was urgently required due to the failure of Momi Bay's developer Matapo Limited to pay up its debts to the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF).

The FNPF is expected to seek expression of interest from interested parties to complete the Momi development project where it has already invested $80 million. Bad investment decisions by the FNPF have resulted in a write-down of its assets of $327 million. ANU economist Jon Fraenkel said, "The write-down is a disaster for the people of Fiji" and affects Fiji's international credit rating. Another ANU academic, Dr. Satish Chand, explained that FNPF managers ventured negligently into dark waters and with suitcases full of members' funds that have since been lost. "The 10 percent loss of equity is significant to each member and the worst hit would be those nearing retirement," Dr. Chand said.

Fiji's decree on Momi Bay was to stop any further losses to the FNPF. Fiji Attorney General Aiyaz Khaiyum, said the decree will not affect any proceedings instituted in the courts by trade creditors. FNPF Manager Legal Laurel Vaurasi was sent on leave pending an investigation by the FNPF Board. As recriminations on the FNPF and the Momi Nay project continued, Prime Minister Bainimarama criticized Fiji accountants and auditors while opening the annual meeting of Fiji Accountants Congress at the Shangri-La Fijian Resort and Spa in Sigatoka, Fiji, on June 11. Bainimarama "observed that accountants in public practice, whether calculatingly or otherwise, have escaped the ire of the public despite the failure and collapse of organizations supposedly cleared under the radar of accounting and audit standards of Fiji accountancy firms."

Fiji at the Pacific Island Arab League Summit

As the Fiji government strengthened oversight of FNPF, the Arab League joined China and Russia in embracing Fiji. According to the Euclid Infotech News, Fiji was invited to attend the inaugural Pacific Island Arab League Summit in Abu Dhabi June 22. While attending the Summit, Bainimarama declared that Fiji had joined the Non-Aligned Movement. According to the Fiji Sun, "This decision was made following a meeting with the undersecretary of the Department of Economic Development of the Abu Dhabi Government Mohammed Omar Abdulla in Abu Dhabi."

A communiqué from the Pacific Island Arab League Summit stated that "the two sides have expressed their determination to steadily go forward with communication, dialogue, consultation and coordination with regards to regional and international issues impacting both regions such as shortage in food, water scarcity and climate change. The participants reiterated their adherence to the principles and objectives of the United Nations, their commitment to maintaining international peace and security, equal sovereignty of nations, respect for territorial integrity of countries, non-intervention in the internal affairs of countries, peaceful settlements of dispute, and the non-use or threat of use of force in international relations.

Concluding remarks

In isolating Fiji, Australia and New Zealand have isolated themselves as Fiji abandons long-term regional partners in favor of China, Russia and the Arab League. The MSG Plus meeting will also see greater momentum towards Melanesian nations in recognizing and understanding the difficulties faced by Fiji in implementing reforms that will encourage greater civil society participation in decision making and governance. Already the Fiji government has disbarred ethnic-based political parties from contesting future elections. While there were some misguided concerns over the government's commitment to elections in 2014, these were quickly laid to rest by Commodore Bainimarama. Fiji is not only determined to chart its own political destiny but also to implement oversight of FNPF and foreign investments following the Momi Bay project debacle.

Sanjay Ramesh is an adjunct research associate at the University of Technology in Sydney and a researcher in intergroup studies at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at University of Sydney. He can be reached at

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