Engaging with Fiji

Fijian soldiers in Suva.

The Australian government in July flexed its diplomatic muscle and sabotaged the scheduled Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) meeting in Vanuatu, resulting in Fiji's temporary withdrawal from the group in August. The future of the MSG continues to remain uncertain as tensions continue between Port Vila and Suva over democracy and rule of law. Even the scheduled October MSG meeting in Solomon Islands has been postponed indefinitely, with Australia accused of continued interference and pressure on Vanuatu.

It was widely anticipated that, at the Solomon's meet, the leadership of the group would have passed from Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei to the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Danny Philip, and then potentially to Fiji Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Australia and New Zealand are unsettled by this prospect and have reiterated unwavering commitment on its existing position on Fiji, pushing Fiji further to look north for support and assistance.

Inside Australia, there is another social dynamic that mirrors Fiji's ongoing ethnic fault line. Indo-Fijians who had fled Fiji twice due to racial violence and military coups prefer Fiji military to be given the opportunity to implement electoral, constitutional and social reforms under the Peoples' Charter, whereas some indigenous Fijians prefer strengthening of sanctions, including trade embargos to force the Fiji regime to agree to early elections. There have been a growing number of claims by indigenous Fijians for protection visas in Australia, and according to President of the Fiji Freedom and Democracy Movement Usaia Waqatairewa, "people have been systematically beaten or taken … in Fiji and they're trying to leave our shores."

The principal member for the Australian Government Migration Review Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal, Denis O'Brien, revealed that there was an increase in refugee cases from Fiji. Concerns over growing number of indigenous Fijians seeking protection visas from the Australian government came to the forefront after Fijian detainee Josefa Rauluni committed suicide at Sydney's Villawood immigration detention center on September 20.

Considering that some 80 percent of indigenous Fijians voted for the deposed Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua Party in the 2006 elections, it is not unreasonable to assume that many in the indigenous community disagree with the rationale behind the 2006 coup. Besides, the Australian government on a number of occasions has reiterated that the regime in Fiji is undemocratic and continues to suppress freedom of expression and political association. If the current policy position of the Australian government is anything to go by, then protection visas should be available to indigenous Fijians until after the proposed general elections in 2014.

Besides differences in opinion between the two Fijian communities, growing differences are emerging between the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal National Party Coalition over strategies on Fiji. Even the Australian government's coalition partner, the Greens, are concerned that the principled position of Canberra and Wellington has forced Fiji into the arms of China, which has encouraged Fiji to continue its reforms and pledged funding for major infrastructure projects and provisions for equipment and training for the Republic of Fiji Military Forces.

While relations between China and Fiji are expanding, Australia has closed its door for any meaningful engagement with the country, following the deportation of Australian High Commissioner to Fiji Sarah Roberts.

There was intense criticism in Fiji of alleged "arm twisting" by Australia of a number of Pacific Island countries that were warming up to Commodore Bainimarama. At the heart of the contention is the fear in Canberra that an undemocratic Fiji may unleash a coup virus in a region facing acute environmental, social and economic problems. As a consequence, Australia has maintained sanctions against Fiji since December 2006, including restrictions on visas to travel to Australia by high-profile coup supporters, Republic of Fiji Military Forces officers and their families, and a litany of others with ties to government.

Researchers Anthony Bergin and Robin Nair said, "Diplomatic fallout aside, there has been little recognition of the fact that such actions might only serve to humiliate the Fijian people, who appear to be warming to Bainimarama's plan for 'building a better Fiji,' and raise the prospect of Fiji withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum altogether."

After the cancellation of the scheduled MSG meeting in Vanuatu, Commodore Bainimarama invited Pacific Island leaders to the "Engaging with the Pacific" meeting to explain the details on its strategic roadmap for elections in 2014, which states that public consultation on a new constitution would commence by September 2012 and communal voting will be abolished to allow a person to vote with equal value irrespective of their racial background.

Pacific Island leaders came out in support of the Fiji government's Strategic Framework for Change and Roadmap to Democracy after a presentation by the Strategic Framework for Change Coordinating Office. Pacific Island leaders endorsing Fiji's plans included former Solomon Islands Prime Minister Dr Derek Sikua, Kiribati President Anote Tong, Prime Minister for Tuvalu Apisai Ilemia and country representatives from Tonga, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Tokelau, East Timor and Wallis and Futuna.

At the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting in Vanuatu in August, New Zealand and Australia continued to encourage and support Fiji's early return to parliamentary democracy in accordance with the Biketawa Declaration and the PIF decisions at Port Moresby and Cairns in 2009. However, the approach taken by PIF is problematic and politically not feasible. The Fiji government is required to firm up and draw new electoral boundaries based on the open-list proportional system of voting. Proportional voting has its own challenges, and the government has to agree to an electoral divisor rule that provides the greatest measure of proportionality and establish supporting institutions that promote broad-based inclusive democratic government. There are initiatives underway to reform government departments so that there is more focus on service delivery and ethical conduct. Besides these challenges, the Fiji has also implemented Land Use Decree 2010 for better utilization of land and equitable returns to both landowners and tenants.

The government of Fiji must be given the time to develop, implement and evaluate its political, social and economic policies using evidence-based methodologies. However, it should ensure that its strategies and processes are transparent and inclusive and past initiatives are fully audited and outcomes clearly measured against strict performance guidelines. While time and space should be given to the Fiji government to implement its reforms, there has to be evidence that reasonable steps are being taken to return Fiji to civilian rule in the future. The international community should understand that rushing into an election without establishing sound constitutional, institutional and electoral systems can lead to further political breakdown and military coups. Therefore, it is important that Australia work with the Fiji government in ensuring that preconditions for a return to civilian rule are fully embedded, and for this to occur, both sides have to start dialogue, potentially brokered by a third party.

Dr. Sanjay Ramesh is an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. His email is

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