Bringing Fiji Back from the Cold
By Vidya S Sharma
India must impress on New Zealand and Australia the need to engage with Fiji and persuade them to help Fiji implement a racially neutral polity.
MELBOURNE (Business Standard/Pacific Media Watch): India must impress on New Zealand and Australia the need to engage with Fiji and persuade them to help Fiji implement a racially neutral polity.
Reluctance to supply uranium is most often mentioned by analysts and politicians as impeding closer relations between India and Australia. Yet there is another issue that in the long term might turn out to be more harmful to India’s security than uranium. The issue, not on anyone’s radar, is Fiji. Fiji is presently ruled by Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, who assumed power after removing the Qarase government in a bloodless coup d’etat.
In responding to Fiji’s political crisis in forums like the Commonwealth of Nations, India has mostly deferred to Australia. The rationale behind this has been Fiji’s distance from India and Australia’s proximity to it.
The approach of Australian governments - both Coalition and Labor - has been to publicly bully Fiji and demand the restoration of the old race-based constitution, yet not engage with Bainimarama because this would legitimise his regime. Australia has imposed harsh economic sanctions and travel bans that apply to all public servants. It has tried to isolate Fiji diplomatically by having it suspended from the Commonwealth. Australia has played divisive politics in forums like the Pacific Islands Forum and Melanesian Spearhead Group to undermine Fiji.
Bainimarama came to power by overthrowing an elected government. He envisions a Fiji where everybody will be a Fijian irrespective of race and religion, and where elections will be based on a one-man-one-vote system. He has promised to promulgate such a constitution by 2013 and organise a parliamentary election by September 2014.
For the last 25 years, Fiji has been plagued by political instability that can be directly traced to the 1970 constitution, which legitimised a race-based voting system and empowered the Great Council of Chiefs to veto any legislation that in its view harmed indigenous Fijian interests. Under that system, Ratu Mara ruled Fiji until 1987 when he was defeated by Fiji Labour Party leader Dr Timoci Bavandra, an indigenous Fijian, in coalition with a party of Fiji-Indians.
Within weeks, the Bavandra government was deposed by Lt Col Sitiveni Rabuka. He handed over power to the then Governor-General, Ratu Ganilau. When Ganilau tried to reinstate the old constitution, Rabuka mounted another coup. In 1990, Rabuka promulgated a new constitution that guaranteed a parliamentary majority to ethnic Fijians. Due to divisions among various Fijian groups, the 1990 constitution was revised and a new constitution was promulgated in 1997.
The 1999 election saw Rabuka defeated and Mahendra Chaudhry become prime minister. In 2000 George Speight mounted a civilian putsch resulting in Qarase being installed as an interim prime minister. Qarase won the 2001 and 2006 elections narrowly. He openly implemented Speight’s policies. When Qarase wanted to pardon Speight in 2006, Bainimarama deposed him.
These events have led Fiji to increasingly look towards China. The latter has been hyperactive in the entire South-West Pacific (SWP) region since the mid-1990s. It has the biggest number of diplomats of any country in SWP and is the second biggest aid-provider (about $200 million) after Australia ($450 million). It provides aid without any strings attached and sometimes in the form of cash grants.
With this aid have come Chinese immigrants. Fiji-Indians have been leaving the country since the ultra-nationalists first assumed power in 1987. New Chinese immigrants are replacing them as Fiji’s commercial class. Tonga and the Solomon Islands witnessed anti-Chinese riots in 2006. Most analysts believe that such riots could occur in Fiji also.
It is widely accepted that China’s long-term goal in the Pacific is to challenge US dominance. It is deepening its military ties with Tonga. Beijing hopes to weaken the US’s Pacific security fence by providing aid to and building military ties with SWP countries.
Travel restrictions have meant that many more young professionals are leaving Fiji instead of entering public service. Similarly, banking, construction and holiday resorts sectors (all dominated by Australian entities) are also hurting. Australian sanctions and the nature of Chinese aid are further weakening the already-weak civic institutions in Fiji.
Australian policies towards Fiji are hurting the long-term interests of both India and Australia. This does not mean that Bainimarama’s decision to impose media censorship and overturn the judiciary’s verdicts must be condoned. Fiji’s problems are complex and rooted in history: rivalry between Melanesian and Polynesian Fijians, tensions between Fijians and Fiji-Indians, a Methodist-Catholic divide among Fijians, new Chinese immigrants and a race-based constitution and electoral system.
Thus, it is difficult to fault Bainimarama’s analysis and vision. Merely insisting on the restoration of democracy or bullying Fiji is not the answer. He may be pursuing the wrong tactics, but his motives are worthy of support. India must impress upon Australia and New Zealand the need to engage with Fiji and persuade them to assist Fiji in its goal of implementing a racially-blind constitution and electoral system. Australia has a great deal of experience in fighting endemic racism.
If Australia were to persist with its present adversarial stance, Fiji’s economy will weaken further and poverty levels will rise. This could cause Fijian society to implode along one of its fault lines. It could create a split within the armed forces, making an already unstable region far more volatile. It is not difficult to buy a passport or launder money in SWP countries. India, being a long-standing victim of terrorism, needs to watch this geographical region closely.
* Vidya S Sharma is based in Melbourne and advises on country risk management, inter-country joint ventures and market penetration strategies. firstname.lastname@example.org
My source: Pacific Media Watch, a media and educational resource compiled by the AUT Pacific Media Centre for the Pacific region. www.pacmediawatch.aut.ac.nz