Where Is Fiji's Regional Support?

Fiji Military Commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.

In February a new commanding officer of the Fiji Third Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Jone Kalouniwai, was appointed by the military. The appointment came following speculation that former commanding officer Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara was under investigation, together with another senior military officer, Land Forces Commander Brigadier General Pita Driti, for plotting the removal of Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama in 2010. 

The news that senior members of the Fiji military who had earlier supported the coup had a fallout with Bainimarama brought back memories of the mutiny in November 2000. In 2000, the rebel soldiers with the support of the Naitasiri high chief, Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, wanted to replace Bainimarama with either Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini or Rusiate Koroivusere—the two names put forward by Captain Shane Stevens to replace Commodore Bainimarama if they successfully took over Queen Elizabeth Barracks in 2000. During the trial of Takiveikata, state witness Maciu Turagacati stated that in August 2000 "at Ratu Inoke Takiveikata's office at the Naitasiri Provincial Council, Captain Stevens, the rebel leader, informed the meeting that they would take over the military camp but needed some assistance like arms and handcuffs to be provided by the Qaranivalu and his group."

Unlike the events of November 2000, members of the Fiji Military Forces notified Bainimarama that senior members of the military were conspiring to oust him from power, and as a result both officers were sent on an indefinite leave. Following an investigation on May 4, Driti was charged with two counts of uttering seditious comments and one count of inciting mutiny. Mara faced one count of uttering seditious comments under Section 67 of the Fiji Crimes Decree. Both former senior military officers were released on $F2,000 ($1,135) bail. Mara was ordered to surrender his passport to the police on May 5, report on his whereabouts by May 15 and attend the court hearing on May 30 and June 1.

On May 9, Mara was extracted by the Tongan Royal Navy Patrol Boat, Savea, from within Fiji's territorial waters after he was taken to the extraction point by Risto Harmat, an Estonian national who was charged and later bailed over his part in assisting Mara. On May 23, New Zealand Herald reported that two New Zealand nationals and Mara's friends, Anthony Fullman and Tim McBride, were questioned by Fiji Police, and a TV New Zealand crew was also questioned after attempting to interview Mara's wife in Suva.

The regional leaders remained tight-lipped but were privately supporting what had transpired in Fiji. Australian Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles opined that tensions between Fiji and Tonga were a "bilateral issue," and the New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully advised U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the "situation in Fiji was becoming more challenging for the Fiji's military leader."

In Tonga, the Forum Trade Ministers had gathered for a meeting on Forum trade, but high on the agenda for discussion was not trade but how Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga could leverage Mara's defection. Tonga's Chief Secretary Busby Kautoke told PACNEWS that Mara was a "man rescued at sea." However, under the Tongan Extradition Act 1988, Fiji is one of the designated countries to which an individual can be extradited back, but Tonga had no such intention and instead issued a Tongan passport to Mara as both Australia and New Zealand debated relaxing their travel ban on Mara.

A Kiwi writer summed up his frustration with his government's approach in a letter:

"How cynical is our government? While our government has expelled law-abiding Martin Payne, who brought his life savings here from Britain and set up a successful family business in Northland, Prime Minister Key is now offering or considering offering political asylum to a Fijian bail absconder.

"The Fijian, Ratu Tevita Mara, has connections to the Tongan royal family, and is under the protection of the king of Tonga. He does not need asylum; he has it already.

"The Key Government is heartless towards a law-abiding person, but bending over backwards for a bail-jumper because Mara can help 'rub Fiji's nose in it.' How cynical is that?"

On June 10, Mara was successful in securing a visa to Australia, despite being on a travel blacklist by Canberra and much to the surprise of many indigenous Fijians who were refused political asylum, and also despite a sanctions regime in place on Fiji since December 2006.

Are Australia or New Zealand serious about democracy in Fiji? Tonga can be excused because it is hardly a model for democratic change in the region, and Samoa has been engaged in hurling abuse at Baininarama since the December 2006 coup. Is the strategy for democratic change in Fiji focused too much on one person (Bainimarama) rather than working collaboratively towards a constitutional, institutional and electoral system that will enable greater cross-cultural discourse and political inclusion in Fiji?

Mara has claimed on YouTube and on TV New Zealand that Bainimarama is a "puppet" of Attorney General Saiyed Khaiyum. A similar call was made by the Taukei Movement in April 1987, which accused late Dr. Timoci Bavadra of being a puppet of Jai Ram Reddy. Bainimarama and Professor Crosbie Walsh have highlighted that the comments of Mara against Khaiyum were racist and possibly aimed at consolidating the support of the indigenous nationalists overseas.

The defection of Mara has underscored the lack of direction in the region in dealing with Fiji. Exceptions are made to policy positions based on political expediency rather than a determination to improve the social and economic conditions of the people of Fiji.

Dr. Sanjay Ramesh is an associate fellow at the Centre for Peace and Conflict at University of Sydney.

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