Pacific spat

Print edition : December 18, 2009

JOSAIA VOREQE BAINIMARAMA, Fiji's interim Prime Minister, at the World Summit on Food Security in Rome on November 17.-FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP

FIJIs relations with its two large neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, hit a new low with a diplomatic spat that led to both sides expelling each others envoys in early November. Fiji stands suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth and the regional body Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) for not adhering to a time frame of holding general elections and restoring democracy. But the diplomatic spat in the placid waters of the Pacific, which is indicative of the increasing acrimony in the relations of the three countries, has left little leeway for forward movement in the region.

Australia and New Zealand have been the main forces behind the international isolation of Fiji after the island nation witnessed its third armed ouster of an elected government in December 2006. Two earlier governments were overthrown by violent action in 1987 and 2000, but democratic rule was restored after some time.

In 2006, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, the military commander, overthrew the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, with whom he had a long, fraught relationship over the question of amnesty to those involved in the coup and mutiny in 2000. Bainimarama had tackled the 2000 coup by arresting the armed gang, releasing the hostages and installing an interim government headed by Qarase. The latter was elected Prime Minister in the general elections held later but fell out with Bainimarama, who charged him with corruption and misgovernance.

Australia and New Zealand were the first countries to cut off economic aid and to impose sanctions against the military regime that took over after the Qarase government was deposed. These sanctions, especially the travel restrictions imposed on members of the Fiji regime and those appointed by the interim regime and their family members, have added to the acrimony between them.

Last April, Bainimarama abrogated the countrys constitution, sacked the judiciary and curbed the press after the Court of Appeal overturned an earlier Supreme Court judgment holding the military coup and the appointment of an interim administration headed by Bainimarama illegal. The judiciary was subsequently restored sans the expatriate members of the Court of Appeal. The interim administration claimed that the judiciary had to be reappointed as it had lost its authority once the constitution under which the judges were appointed had been abrogated. Australia and New Zealand then extended their travel bans to cover members of Fijis judiciary.

The flashpoint in Fijis dispute with Australia and New Zealand came when the two countries refused travel visas to seven judges who were recruited by the Fiji government from Sri Lanka to fill vacancies in the judiciary. When the seven Sri Lankans applied for visas to transit through Australia on the way to Fiji, they were informed of the travel bans on people associated with the Fiji government.

Fijis Chief Justice Robert Gates took umbrage at the Australian action and told Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama that Australia and New Zealands interference in the judiciary served to undermine the countrys judiciary. He said it was the governments duty to ensure that no foreign government interfered with Fijis judicial independence and integrity.

The relations soured to the extent that Bainimarama gave directions for designating the Australian High Commissioner persona non grata and giving him 24 hours to leave Fiji. The Australian High Commission in Suva issued a statement stating that a decision had been taken to issue visas to the seven Sri Lankan judges to transit through Australia but they had withdrawn their applications and made arrangements to travel to Fiji via South Korea.

Although the Australian government denied that visas had been refused, Bainimarama told the media that one of the Sri Lankan judges had taped the conversation with the Australian official in Colombo where she was told that travel sanctions would apply because she had accepted a position in the Fiji judiciary. The judicial officer was told that accepting a judicial appointment in Fiji would be perceived as condoning and supporting the military regimes action. The Fiji government was particularly upset at what it saw as attempts to dissuade the Sri Lankan appointees from taking up their positions.

The dispute with New Zealand arose after the New Zealand Immigration Department sent a letter to Fiji Family Court judge Anjala Wati initially denying her a visa to go to New Zealand to seek medical treatment for her sick child. The matter raised a furore in Fiji. The New Zealand authorities later made an exception on compassionate grounds for Anjala Wati and she travelled to Auckland, New Zealand, with her son. According to the Fiji administration, what was objectionable in the letter to Anjala Wati was the statement spelling out the New Zealand governments policy with respect to members of the judiciary whom it considered to be part of the military regime and were, therefore, covered by the travel ban.

According to New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, the ban was imposed when the interim government sacked the judiciary and reappointed only those who it thought were friendly. Fijis interim Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khayum questioned the New Zealand governments premise, saying that Fijis judiciary was independent and functioned without government interference of any sort. There was not a single shred of evidence to show that there was any executive or political interference with the judiciary, he said.

Meanwhile, Kamlesh Arya, Fijis High Commissioner in Australia, and Kuliniasi Seru Savou, Fijis Acting High Commissioner in New Zealand, were recalled.

Fiji was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth in September for its failure to adhere to certain conditions. The Commonwealth had set a September 1 deadline for the Fiji government to resume negotiations with the opposition and a timetable for holding credible elections by October 2010. Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama, however, stuck to his proposed Strategic Framework for Change under which he had announced plans to implement various socio-economic, political and legal reforms before the general elections, planned to be held by September 2014.

Fiji had been suspended from Commonwealth meetings on two earlier occasions, after democratically elected governments were overthrown in 1987 and 2000. Both times Fiji was readmitted into the Commonwealth as it restored democratic functioning. But this time, taking the disapproval a step further, Fiji has been suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth. This action bans Fiji from all contact with the Commonwealth, which means Fiji will be cut off from all aid and assistance programmes of the group.

As the main regional powers, Australia and New Zealand used their clout among the Pacific island nations to suspend Fiji from the PIF even though the forum secretariat is located in Suva. This was despite Fijis smaller neighbours such as Cook Islands and the Melanesian groups advice that it would be of greater benefit to remain engaged with Fiji to persuade the interim government to begin a dialogue with the opposition parties and to move towards restoring democracy.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd responded by warning that Australia would maintain its tough stance against Fiji in order to prevent its coup culture from spreading across the Pacific. The acrimony between the three countries has continued with Bainimarama accusing the two governments of ignoring his efforts at reforming his country and preparing it for democracy. Bainimarama says, They fail to understand that we are creating a country based on equal and common citizenry, a country of modern laws, a country which will have true democracy.

Of all the actions taken against Fiji since the 2006 coup, it is the travel ban imposed by Australia and New Zealand that has had the maximum impact on the country, since in normal times there is a great deal of movement between Fiji and its two larger neighbours. Australia and New Zealand have sizable populations of people of Fiji origin. There is frequent travel both ways for family reunions and for vacations. Students from Fiji go to the two countries for higher studies, and patients requiring specialised medical care are referred to hospitals in Australia or New Zealand. With this level of travel and interaction, any travel restriction can have a negative impact. The refusal of a visa to a well-known football player to play in a tournament because his fiances father was in the Fiji army raised hackles in Fiji, even among those inimical to the military regime. The initial refusal of a visa to a woman and her 20-month-old baby for an emergency surgical procedure drew wide criticism in Fiji. Australia and New Zealand would not like to evoke such a reaction in Fiji since the anger is directed at their governments instead of the interim regime.

The military regime, on its part, is highly sensitive to criticism and does not hesitate to crack down on critics. Fiji-born Australian academic Dr Brij Lal was asked to leave the country, and it was ensured that no reports appeared about his departure in the Fiji media. Brij Lal was one of the writers of the 1997 constitution and had been critical of the government for abrogating the constitution. The Fiji Immigration Department claimed that Brij Lal, an Australian national, was on a visitors visa and was not deported, but Brij Lal revealed that he had been given 24 hours to leave the country.

The European Union, which had cut off economic assistance to Fiji, has once again begun looking at ways to renew contact with the government. At a recent meeting in Brussels, Bainimarama told E.U. officials that sections of the abrogated 1997 constitution dealing with the rule of law, the judiciary, human rights and democratic principles would be revived through an ordinance. The meeting was held to discuss ways to resume formal consultations with the E.U. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank sent teams to Fiji in recent weeks to look at the interim regimes plans for land reforms.

Land reform is one of the proposals of the Bainimarama regime to revive Fijis ailing sugar industry. The land issue has been a sensitive one since about 80 per cent of the land in the country is owned communally by the indigenous Fijian tribes and cannot be sold by law. The land had been leased to ethnic Indian sugarcane farmers. However, when the 30-year leases expired many Indian farmers were displaced by Fijian owners who tried to grow cane for a couple of seasons before giving it up. Different sections of the indigenous Fijian society were aggrieved over the returns from leased land, even land leased by ethnic Fijians or the government. This has resulted in irate owners holding agitations and taking over tourist resorts and even government buildings. There is a need for a better land use system under which the lessees have security of tenure while the land owners get adequate return for the use of their land.

Fiji has a substantial population of people of Indian origin (about 34 per cent), who are descendants of Indian indentured workers who were brought to work in the sugarcane plantations when Fiji was a British colony. It has been the usual pattern to cast Fijis problems as essentially a conflict between the aspirations of the two main ethnic groups, the indigenous Fijians and the ethnic Indians. The coups in 1987 and 2000 had targeted Indian-dominated governments, but Bainimaramas coup does not fit into such simplistic theories. The military chiefs battle was with Qarase personally over issues of governance and not taking action against the perpetrators of the 2000 mutiny. Bainimarama has proposed a charter of reforms, many of them on issues such as land reforms that have been pending for years. The governments reformist agenda has found support among some sections of civil society in Fiji, and several groups are willing to discuss it.

But there is a strong section among the indigenous Fijians who are fiercely opposed to Bainimarama and the steps he has taken to suspend the Great Council of Chiefs, the chief body of ethnic Fijians.

The charter includes reforming the electoral system a Constituency Boundaries Commission and Supervisor of Elections have been appointed. The electoral reforms involve doing away with the race-based voting system, which has divided the two major races, and introducing an equitable system giving equal weightage to all. Meanwhile, the bitterly divided opposition has been making moves to come together. The two main groups, the former ruling party led by Qarase and the Indian-dominated Fiji Labour Party led by former Prime Minister and one-time Finance Minister in the interim government Mahendra Chaudhry, have come together to press for early elections. The various political parties have differing views on the proposed reforms and the discussions have faltered over trivial conditions.

Australia, New Zealand and Fiji have minimal diplomatic representation between them. Such a situation would cause greater hardship to Fijians, while the acrimonious diplomatic spat would deter tourists from travelling to Fiji, dealing a blow to the tourism industry.

Military dictators are usually undeterred by loud threats or even by difficulties faced by their people; they need to be persuaded through a variety of means. In these circumstances, it would be countries and institutions that have maintained some contact with the Fiji government that would be in a position to persuade the military regime to begin talking to the opposition parties and other influential groups in the country.

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