Michael Field’s “Swimming with Sharks” -- Thakur Ranjit Singh
Engaging, witty but fails to tell how Fiji democracy
betrayed its citizens
betrayed its citizens
It is packed with anecdotes, displays an engaging sense of humour, and – like James Bond and Clint Eastwood movies – is spiced with witty one-liners. Indeed, the book being published last Monday (Aug 2) is bound to cause quite a few ripples – but most of them are focused on Fiji. Causing ripples is a Field speciality, as he has been banned in Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru and Tonga – perhaps he is an endangered Pacific species with such a distinction.
At a glance, the Pacific region is well covered in the book. The assassination of Samoan Minister of Works Luagalau Levaula Kamu, sinking of the Princess Ashika in Tonga, the tsunami in Samoa, political scandals in Tonga, war tales across the Pacific, the plunder of phosphate mining in Nauru, the violent Melanesian wars of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, and the sweeping corruption and other issues troubling the region that we seldom get to read about.
The personal danger that Field has endured in the line of duty in covering news stories of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands is highly commendable. Those tales leave one shaken by the wanton violence and killings among the Melanesians, perhaps, among others, because of failed or faltering system of government in place.
My review is focused on my known area – Fiji, and especially the two chapters “cause” coup and “fourth” coup.With Fiji being so much in the news, and Field expelled by the military-backed regime, I am treating these sections with extra diligence.
The book is supposed to be an investigation of Pacific’s recent political history. But what is largely missing is a timeline covering the three decades Field has covered.Some anecdotes assume that readers are aware of the period and dates, which may not be the case. If a reprint is contemplated, perhaps inserting the missing dates would be a useful.
The book is also marketed as “a collection of disarmingly frank [pun intended], pieced-together memories, and a window into the Pacific’s illusory, often indescribable way of life”. This perhaps inversely sums up the sections on Fiji. While not being entirely frank about dictator Commodore Frank Bainimarama, Field is also equally lacking on deposed prime minister Laisenia Qarase and many other things.
Sleeping with journalists
Media ethics – or the lack of them – in Fiji has been in the news since allegations surfaced in 1999 of improper dealings by media in general and Australian-owned Fiji Times in particular, the newspaper recently given three months by the regime to sell off 90 percent of its shareholding to local interests. Since then debates have been rife about the balance and “agenda” of The Fiji Times, particularly raised by former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry when in office between 1999 and when he was deposed in a the George Speight attempted coup in May 2000.
I expected Field to be more critical about media ethics and “skirt journalism” by female journalists who obtained stories by sleeping with a former prime minister. Field named two journalists, Wainikiti Waqa and Margaret Wise, who had affairs with SVT prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, who staged Fiji’s first two coups in 1987. On this issue, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, then cabinet minister and now Bainimarama’s Foreign Affairs Minister, called for Rabuka to resign. Field writes: “Rabuka replied that he would go, provided whoever succeeded him could prove that he had not also committed adultery.”
Field also reports that: “Rabuka fathered a boy with Wise and then denied it was his.” A DNA paternity test indeed found Rabuka was the father of Margaret Wise’s child: “The court found he was the father and he was ordered to pay F$30 a week.”
As a veteran journalist on whom some developing world journalists in the Pacific, especially my former Daily Post ones, have looked for guidance, Field remained silent on the morality and propriety of the leading multinational media company in Fiji allowing such a conflict of interest – not only to exist, but flourish.
Field did not say anything about The Fiji Times allowing the same Margaret Wise play such a key role in penning articles, opinions and stories on Chaudhry’s People’s Coalition government, the accuracy and balance of which had been questioned and challenged by Chaudhry and his government on many occasions.
Would that have been tolerated in other democracies, including Field’s New Zealand? Would Fairfax allow such a journalistic sin to flourish?
On former police commissioner Isikia Savua
Isikia Savua, Police Commissioner at the time of the George Speight attempted coup, whose warnings about pending troubles by the nationalist Taukei movement was dismissed by Chaudhry, did not heed his own warnings. On the day of the protest march, which he had warned Chaudhry about, he was missing in action. He had no Operation Plan to cover for the crucial and potentially explosive march.
Police on that fateful day were left leaderless through Savua’s failure to act. In fact some expected him to be the “Big Man” whom Speight was expecting in Parliament to take over as the new Prime Minister.
Field’s witty one liner on Savua aptly describes the man: “He possessed intellectual sterility that helped doom Fiji.”
It is refreshing to see that Field and I have mutual thoughts in this regard. In fact, it was my Daily Post article “Savua enquiry a fraud on the nation” (6 May, 2001) that irked then Chief Justice Timoci Tuivaga (who headed this enquiry that cleared Savua) and the Lauan connection with Qarase that ultimately resulted in my untimely and unwarranted removal as the publisher of the Daily Post.
The bias and prejudice of some media is glaring here: when an Indo-Fijian publisher gets removed, it is no news, but when Australian media bosses get the boot, it creates media hysteria. Field appears to have missed this controversy. And he fails to mention that Savua was rewarded by Qarase by being appointed head of the Fiji Mission in New York.
Bainimarama and the mutiny
Field’s bias against Bainimarama – he calls him “a narcissist, living a predatory lifestyle” – sticks out like a sore thumb in the book.
While there are gory details of the killings during the post-coup mutiny at the military camp in November 2000 – some of them by the rebel soldiers on loyal ones – there is little, if any, sympathy for the military commander who the rebel soldiers tried to murder in cold blood. Some political analysts have attributed Bainimarama’s ruthlessness towards any opposition and opponents on the failed mutiny where he nearly got assassinated by his own soldiers. Perhaps this sums up Field’s views: “At no point, then or since, has Bainimarama expressed any sorrow, remorse or condemnation of the savagery. He endorses it... Savagery was common...The problem is switching it off ...The Special Forces soldiers were alive when captured.”
Rabuka, who coincidently was seen at the military camp, all ready with his military uniform during the mutiny, was suspected of being a key link in the mutiny and who was ready to take over the newfound leadership after the planned assassination of Bainimarama. Like many others, Field is also correct in his assessment of Rabuka. “Six years later Rabuka was found not guilty of being part of the mutiny. I suspect he was.”
As somebody whowas unceremoniously banned from Fiji, Field was not expected to show any love for Bainimarama. This hostility has been continually reflected in Field’s opinions, blog site, commentaries and reports on Fiji.
Polynesian v. Melanesian
Many commentators will question Field’s attempted explanation of Fiji’s political mess as being a tribal fight between Polynesian (Qarase) v. Melanesian (Bainimarama) as naive at best and analysis-paralysis at worst.
Field does not have much to say on Qarase, and when he does he hardly finds any fault with him. He recalls the day in 2000 when Bainimarama appointed Qarase as caretaker prime minister and Field had a “struggle” to write about him. Field should probed into the allegations of underhand dealings at the Fiji Development Bank, in particular about the secretive acquisition of preference A shares in Fijian Holdings Limited by the well connected Fijian elites associated with Qarase and easy access to raise loans. In May 1993, a special Senate motion was brought on a point of principle to reveal the less than honest dealings of people in positions of power, knowledge and trust. And this group was headed by Qarase, a matter which is under investigation now.
Flawed Qoliqoli Bill
While Field does recognise Qarase’s mistakes in introducing the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill and the Qoliqoli Bill, his grasp of the implications of the Qoliqoli Bill is flawed.
New Zealand’s then Labour government, headed by Helen Clark, threw out a similar Seabed and Foreshore Bill in 2004 for the same reason Bainimarama and many Fijians opposed Qarase’s ill-conceived Qoliqoli Bill. Many submissions against the bill both in New Zealand and Fiji had similar sentiments. Such as, the sea is a national resource belonging to all the citizens of a nation, and thus no individual or group should have commercial rights over it. These resources should benefit all citizens. Bainimarama had stated that if this law came into force then the tribal wars between the Fijians would be rekindled by preventing all citizens the free use of seashore resources.
Field’s revelation and anecdotes on the National Bank collapse, on Chaudhry, on the coup sharks of Fiji, and on the mutiny at the military camp make interesting reading.
A pleasant surprise for Indo-Fijians would be to read something flattering and praiseworthy about the people who tend to be most blamed for Fiji’s problems.
But ultimately in Swimming With Sharks, Field will be known more for what the author has failed to tell about Fiji, especially issues leading to the 2006 coup, deficiencies of the Qarase “democratic” government, and the failure of Fiji’s democracy to deliver social justice to all its citizens.
Swimming With Sharks: Tales from the South Pacific Frontline, by Michael Field, $40. Auckland: Penguin.
Thakur Ranjit Singh is a political commentator on Fiji and a former publisher of the Fiji Daily Post.