Fiji And its 'Dictator': Another View -- Christopher Griffin*
A riposte to two articles by Pacific Correspondent Rowan Callick submitted to, but not acknowledged or published by, the Weekend Australian, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd.
Reading your Pacific Correspondent, Rowan Callick’s, two articles on Fiji (Weekend Australian 24/5 July), one readily understands why Frank Bainimarama has run out of patience with the Australian media and Murdoch press in particular. I confine myself mainly to Callick’s piece in ‘The Nation’ section just as the Pacific Islands’ Forum convenes in Vanuatu without Fiji.
First: the fact three former Fiji PMs have “been penalised” since Bainimarama took control in 2006 is not evidence of itself of judicial malpractice. In his other article, in the ‘Focus’ section, Callick refers to a general history of poor leadership in the Pacific. In which case, is it not at least possible that three former PM’s of Fiji do have valid allegations to answer for?
Second: Callick says Chaudhry’s recent court appearance got “saturation coverage from the regime’s propaganda outlets”. Really? For most here, including myself, it came somewhat unexpectedly. For though it was the front-page story in the pro-Bainimara Sun newspaper, it was reported without frills.
Third: Callick quotes Foreign Affairs Minister Steven Smith’s spokesperson as saying Chaudhry’s arrest was “of concern”. That it had “obvious political implications”. That Foreign Affairs would “be watching this case closely”. News? More to the point there’s no allowance here for the possibility that Chaudhry might just have something criminal to for. Nothing but the bleeding obvious, either, in Foreign Affairs saying the case held out “political implications”. No allowing for the fact, perhaps, just perhaps, however remote, that these very serious allegations may have already had “political implications” for governance and the rule- of-law in Fiji.
Fourth: Callick cites Amnesty International for the military government’s dismissal of judges and magistrates. Fair enough. Such removal is of the gravest concern. But so too is how sections of the judiciary during former P.M. Qarase’s tenure succumbed to political pressure. Most notably, by releasing early from gaol men sentenced for conspiring with George Speight (and others unnamed or involved in politics)in the 2000 coup. No mention either of those in the police in 2000, along with mutinous army units, who made the coup possible. Nor any reference to those others in the military who later almost succeeded in assassinating Bainimarama for what his clean up might reveal.
One must acknowledge Bainimarama breached the rule of law in December 2006. To hold, however, as Callick does, that Bainimarama’s “authorities have no respect for the rule of law” today is, to say the least, simplistic. It overlooks the Qarase government’s own disregard for the rule of law and the threat to social order certain of his policies favouring indigenes presented.
The military takeover of any elected government always falls somewhere between ‘unfortunate’ and ‘disastrous’. But when elections are based not on the principle of one-person-one-vote, but on communal grounds, and one of those communities –itaukei or ethnic Fijian – has superior numbers who are then promised favoured treatment, and are incited to bully, burn, and expel Indians and their property then, I suggest, the usurpation of ‘democracy’ ranks at the ‘unfortunate’ end of the spectrum.
Fifth: Callick says the Fiji government has stopped Rabuka’s pension – to shut him up. He doesn’t mention that it revoked that decision several weeks ago and that Rabuka has been publicly contrite and supportive of Bainimarama.
Sixth: We are told Chaudhry describes Bainimarama as “autocratic and dictatorial”. There’s no mention of the fact that countless Indians and not just Fijians (rightly or wrongly) condemn Chaudhry for his own arrogant and insensitive, many would say self-serving, leadership. First as a unionist parliamentarian and then as PM: the kind of behaviour unhelpful to the creation of civil society.
Callick also forgets that Fiji’s universally esteemed first PM, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, sometimes spoke of the need for “benign dictatorship” in Fiji in the post- Independence years. It was deemed compatible with traditional authority and useful to the creation of his own brand of multiculturalism. I don’t recall any foreign powers objecting then. As best I can judge, and it is impossible to be sure, right now most Fijians (the government, by the way, recently declared an end to ethnic labels: all its citizens are ‘Fijians’) regard Bainimarama not as a malign dictator, the kind Canberra and Wellington would have us see. Rather they see him as the right man in the right place, a very ‘human’ human-being, strong, testy at times, and flawed, to be sure (like some of his decisions) but nevertheless a harbinger of hope.
Seventh: Callick is right to say Bainimarama’s recent ‘Engaging Fiji’ meeting, in Fiji, with the Melanesian Spear Head Group –Plus, was a “public relations coup”. But it wasn’t seen as “tumultuous” here. Furthermore, it was arguably a victory not just for Bainimarama personally, or even the MSG but also for that rather-forgotten concept – ‘the Pacific Way’, minus of course Western Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands who are desperately dependent on New Zealand. Like Bainimarama’s Fiji, the ‘Pacific Way’ is imperfect but until politicos, foreign affairs journalists, diplomats, and policy advisors get their heads into the history and lived-reality of culture in the South Pacific, folk in Australia and NZ will go on being subject to the myopia and entrenched views their professions seem to involve.
Lastly, Australia and NZ’s call for quick elections is dangerous folly. They would bring a return of the political and economic opportunists, impelled to stir up ethnic fears via the bogey and lies of problematic ‘race’. The result would be social mayhem on a greater scale than has yet been seen. Exodus and claims to asylum would follow. It is a scenario that the two Tasman neighbour seems intent on ignoring. Exactly why is another matter.
The duty of any state, Michael White wrote recently in The Guardian Weekly (18 June 2010), is first to protect its people from hostile foreign powers, and second to ensure internal social order: the sort of stability, harmony, and peace-of-mind most in Fiji are presently grateful for.
August 4, 2010
* Student of Fiji society for 35 yrs. Originally taught sociology at U.S.P, Suva, and later (till recently) social anthropology at Edith Cowan University where he is today an Honorary Senior Fellow.
When the above was not published by the Australian, Dr Griffin had another attempt by writing this shorter letter questioning Callick's rhetoric:
I've written a longer piece [see above] in response to Rowan Callick's two articles in The Weekend Australian (24/25 July), here I question his rhetoric.Language that so distorts that it almost disqualifies him as someone worthy of the title 'Pacific Correspondent'. Small wonder Bainimarama is sick of the Murdoch press.
Take his use of the following: 'regime', 'Hurricane Frank an Ill Wind', 'vanity exercise', 'talkfest', 'tumultuous week'. All carry a moral load; some is just hyperbole; each obscure rather than enlighten; the cumulative end result is a lack of finesse. And this follows upon Graham Davis' (The Australian, 22 July) surprisingly heavy-handed long article on two Australian supporters of the "dictator Frank Bainimarama" whom he describes as "increasingly friendless". Not exactly nuanced. Not what I see from here either.
But back to two more of Callick's descriptors: 'autocratic and dictatorial" and 'propaganda'. Here either he's forgotten his Freud or he hopes his readers have. Projections both: they aptly describe his and Canberra's position. But let me be even-handed.
Callick is right to point out Fiji's northwards shift to join the Non-Aligned Movement and Arab states. It's even courting Russia. This follows on its ever increasing success in winning valuable economic and political support from China as well as from South-East Asia. Linked to this, Callick also does well to remind Australians of the lessons in humility taught to it by Singapore some years ago. Apart from anything else Singapore is a country this Fiji government admires.
Callick is close to the mark too (but not spot-on) to speak of the Australian need for real diplomatic skills (when dealing with island leaders who "may be inconsistent and exasperating"). He was also right to point to Australia's faltering steps -led by Rudd- towards the idea of an Asia-Pacific Community. For this idea, I suggest, may help explain explain Australia's deeply entrenched attitude towards Fiji, which some of us have found strange.
If Australia (and neighboring New Zealand ) is to come to its political senses and not let slip for ever the chance for good regional influence that is wanted, the sort Fiji has long been asking Australia for, then it should learn three things .
1. Honed diplomatic skills must involve sound knowledge of Pacific histories and contemporary cultures. Get these subjects back into the Academy. Australian leaders, diplomats, and policy advisers badly need them, and not just a legal training. They also need to be street-wise if they're not to be urbane metrocentrics.
2. While we do not deny Pacific Island leaders are at times "inconsistent and exasperating" (e.g. Vanuatu's PM Natapei -though in that case because of Australia's own hand), not to say self-serving and corrupt, outsiders should understand that sometimes what appears inconsistent may be consistent within Island cultures themselves where 'inconsistency' is an acknowledged part of the complex social tapestry of culture, and thus something to be negotiated.
3. From many Islander perspectives, and certainly from Bainimarama's, it is Australia's media and politicians that are exasperating. But why so? If it is because of Canberra's wider international and regional ambitions (e.g. as in the mooted Asia-Pacific Community or at the UN) wherein Fiji is seen to provide a useful kicking-boy for to showcase its commitment to universal principles of democracy (as if that were so singular and easy to put-together), not to say 'policing', then it should think again very quickly. The region is in this together for better or worse, and it could be much better.