Costs of a coup

Print edition : January 18, 2008

Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. A file photograph.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

The country has crossed the period of uncertainty after the 2006 coup but is yet to regain economic stability.

Interim Prime Minister

ONE year after the military coup and unrest, Fiji bears the appearance of peace and stability. The initial uncertainty settled down as an interim government took charge and soldiers were replaced by policemen on the streets of Suva.

Military commander Commodore Josaia Voreqe Frank Bainimarama overthrew the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in a bloodless coup on December 5, 2006, accusing it of corruption and of pursuing racist policies. It was the third time that an elected government was deposed in Fiji. On the two earlier occasions, in 1987 and 2000, the respective governments were ousted by nationalist indigenous Fijians seeking to reverse the loss of political power suffered by the traditional indigenous political elite. Fiji has a majority indigenous population and a substantial minority of Indo-Fijians, or people of Indian descent. The perpetrators of the coup portrayed themselves as protecting the rights of indigenous Fijians and maintaining the supremacy of the ethnic community, which was threatened by governments dominated by Indo-Fijians.

During the armed takeover in 2000, when Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet were taken hostage, Bainimarama negotiated the release of the hostages and installed an interim government headed by former banker Laisenia Qarase. Later, the military came to believe that the Qarase government had taken up the cause of the coup plotters by pandering to radical Fijians and implementing their racist policies. According to the military commander, the general elections held in 2006 were not credible for they were characterised by massive rigging by the incumbent government, which used state resources to buy support. An audit of Fijis Election Office for the 2006 elections showed serious discrepancies. Ballot papers were printed in excess: there were over 60,000 unused or missing ballot papers.

Unlike in 1987 and 2000, when the underlying motive of the coups was to wrest power from what was perceived as governments dominated by Indians, in 2006 it was differences between Bainimarama and the Prime Minister that was the cause. Qarase said in a recent interview to Fiji Television that what happened in December 2006 was a combination of a number of events that were happening from as far back as the 2000 coup and was a result of personal differences and deteriorating relationship between the Army and his government.

The opposition to the interim government headed by coup leader Bainimarama has remained muted; even when the government suspended the Great Council of Chiefs, the highly respected body of tribal chiefs that nominates the President and the VicePresident, there were no protests. But Qarase and leaders of his SDL (United Fiji Party, better known by its acronym), as also some Opposition leaders, have been freely voicing their criticism of the interim administration.

Within six months of the December coup, the interim government lifted the emergency regulations it had imposed. The state of emergency was, however, reimposed for a short period in September after Qarase returned to Suva from exile in his remote village in the Lau islands. The interim administration considered some of Qarases comments made on his return as likely to incite violence. The former Prime Minister later went to court challenging the legality of the administration.

In October, the police arrested 11 persons on charges of conspiring to assassinate the interim Prime Minister, Bainimarama. Intelligence reports suggested that a set of prominent businessmen and former politicians, a couple of tribal chiefs and some former members of the elite Counter Revolutionary Warfare group were involved in the conspiracy to cause instability. In November, prominent New Zealand businessman Ballu Khan was arrested for alleged involvement in a plot to kill Bainimarama and beaten up by soldiers. His arrest increased tensions between Fiji and New Zealand.

The ordinary people are feeling the economic effects of the coup. In the past few months, the economic decline it caused has been stemmed, but the economy has contracted by 3.9 per cent. Tourism, one of the main foreign exchange earners, is still down, though it has risen from the low levels it had plunged into in the immediate post-coup period. Tourism is a high-employment sector and falling tourist arrivals have added to the rate of unemployment. Remittances have gone down by almost 30 per cent, Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry said while presenting the annual budget for 2008. In 2006, Fiji received $350 million in the form of remittances, which Chaudhry said was a major source of support for the countrys balance of payments. Many families in Fiji depend on remittances from relatives working abroad to meet domestic expenses.

Among the promises made at the time of the military takeover was the pledge to cleanse the system of corruption. Bainimarama said at that time that groups of persons had begun to use our tradition and culture as an excuse for what was simply corruption. The interim government set up an anti-corruption unit but it is still to file any criminal charges.

According to the Legal Adviser to the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption, Filimone Lacanivalu, the commission received 1,345 complaints and registered about 236 cases. Among these were an immigration scam and a case of alleged police extortion that was linked to the murder of a Nadi jeweller. However, many of the cases may not be heard for a year because of the backlog in the courts. The commission has been allocated an additional $3 million to hire new staff to take up the cases. Carrying out the military coup was the easier part of the operation; it is the running of the government, especially when faced with economic sanctions by the countrys largest trading partners, that is proving more difficult.

The interim governments task was rendered even more difficult by the smart travel restrictions imposed by Australia and New Zealand on persons associated with the government. It limited the number of people willing to join the administration, as neither they nor their immediate relatives would be allowed to enter these countries, even on transit visas.

It was a hard blow as Australia and New Zealand are the main transit points for overseas travel from Fiji, and many people in Fiji have close family members residing in these countries. As a result, the interim government is still finding it difficult to find personnel for important jobs as Election Commissioner and trained accountants to investigate charges of corruption.

The interim government has launched a Peoples Charter for Change and Progress to debate and discuss critical issues before the country. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Bainimarama unveiled plans for far-reaching electoral reforms. He said that the race-based Constitution had rigidly compartmentalised the communities and that the kind of democracy which came to be practised in Fiji was marked by divisive, adversarial, inward-looking, race-based politics.

He said: Fiji will look at making the necessary legal changes in the area of electoral reform, to ensure true equality at the polls. At present, all citizens have the right to vote for two candidates, one for a national seat of any ethnicity, and another from a communal, race-based seat. This in turn has kept our races apart. This must change, everyone will be given the chance to vote for one candidate, irrespective of race or religion. This will send a message that Fijis leadership no longer tolerates racial divisions and race-based politics.

Anti-coup banners in Suva in December 2006. The ordinary people are feeling the economic effects of the coup.-WILLIAM WEST/AFP

Anti-coup banners

The subject of a race-based electoral system has been a matter of academic debate but was brought out into a wider public discussion by Bainimarama.

The 1997 Constitution provides for a fixed number of seats in the House of Representatives for each ethnic group, for which candidates are elected on a communal vote by their own communities, and a small number of open seats. There is a view in Fiji that communal voting tends to foster politics in which candidates appeal to only their own ethnic communities and not to a larger section of the population.

According to the Fijian academic Steven Ratuva, Fiji has been rushing towards elections since 1987 and, as a consequence, after the elections trouble begins. History has shown that conflicts and tensions emerge after elections because of an electoral system based on ethnicity.

Bainimarama has listed among his governments achievements steady progress, albeit uneven, in restoring law and order and setting up an anti-corruption unit and introducing new laws to adhere to international commitments in respect of corruption. He claimed to have stemmed the decline in the fiscal situation in the country and stalled the value-added tax proposed by the Qarase government.

Qarase, on the other hand, issued a statement on the anniversary of the coup, which said that while the regime believed it had achieved much, he felt the country was moving backwards.

A year on, we are living in the same shadows and the country remains unstable politically, economically and socially, he said. The people continue to experience stress and suffering and much of this relates to loss of employment, reduced wages, uncertain future, bad policies, and lack of openness and accountability by the regime, he said.

Meanwhile, an article in Pacific Islands Report by Gerard Finin gave a clearer picture of the situation. It said, One year into the coup, the verdict is still out. There remains considerable support for the current military leadership, which has brought stability and has led a deliberate attempt to lessen ethnic tensions.

But for all the stability, it said, there were troubling signs that the military leadership had allowed matters to deteriorate. The rule of law was threatened, with the judicial branch in limbo, and human rights abuses remained a concern, it said.

On the international front, Fiji remains suspended from the Commonwealth. But the European Union, Fijis major trading partner, has chosen to remain engaged with the interim regime and uses its influence to edge the government towards restoring freedoms. The E.U. resumed its aid to Fiji after the interim government relaxed the emergency regulations.

Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States had imposed economic, diplomatic and defence sanctions against the Bainimarama regime in 2006. Australia and New Zealand softened their stance, especially after the interim government gave assurances to hold national elections by early 2009. At the Pacific Forum summit held in Tonga Islands in October, Bainimarama made a commitment to hold elections by March 2009 and respect the electoral verdict.

This promise is a step forward in restoring stability as only an elected government can improve the economic and social well-being of Fijian people.

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