Mosmi Bhim on Grassroots Citizenry, the Media and Democracy

An exceptionally useful paper that traces the course of democratic endeavour in Fiji and the problems it still has to face.  A long read but worth it.  I had to reformat it from a pdf file. You may need to zoom in. My thanks  to Mosmi and PJR for permission to publish this paper.
 
12. A case for Fiji’s grassroots citizenry and media to be better 
informed, engaged for democracy

PACIFIC JOURNALISM REVIEW 16 (2) 2010 

 ABSTRACT
Democracy in Fiji has been top-down where primarily the middle class and
the wealthy elite have understood its true merits and values. Politicians,
professionals, academics and civil society organisations, rather than the
grassroots population, have been at the forefront of advocating against
coups. Democracy was described as a ‘foreign flower’ by ethno-nationalists
for two decades. Some critics see it as having failed to work properly in Fiji
because a lack of infrastructure and development means grassroots people
are not sufficiently informed to make critical decisions and hold leaders
accountable. This, and a lack of unity, led to a failure of widespread protests
against coups. Civil society, political activists and individuals were isolated
in their struggle against coups. The media has been a key player in anti-coup
protests as it relayed information that enabled networking and partnership.
Media censorship since April 2009 has restricted their role and violated
citizens’ Right to Information. This article argues that for democracy to
work, the infrastructure and communications technology needs to reach the
masses so people are adequately informed through an uncensored media.


Keywords: civil society, communications technology, democracy, develop-
ment, grassroots, political activism

MOSMI BHIM
Civil Society Advocate, Fiji



DEMOCRACY in Fiji has been top-down where primarily the middle
class and the rich have understood its true merits and values.
Politicians, professionals, academics and civil society organisations,
rather than the grassroots population, have been at the forefront of
advocating against coups. Democracy was described as a ‘foreign flower’ by
ethnonationalists for two decades. Now many of them believe elections are
the right way to choose Fiji’s leaders. The 5 December 2006 coup has thrown
up a series of complex questions about democracy as some advocates for
equal rights and democracy gave their support to coup-makers, and as ethno-
nationalist politicians turned against an indigenous Fijian coup-maker.

Past elections in Fiji have been won on votes cast in response to emotional
appeals by politicians as opposed to criteria based on better services and accountability
of the government. The lack of widespread protests against coups
is seen in the context of the need for basic services at the grassroots level,
including the lack of infrastructure (roads, water, electricity and telecommunications)
and its contribution to the malfunctioning of democratic processes in
Fiji through a citizenry that is not adequately informed by media or research.
A lack of good leaders has contributed to this problem, as has the discomfort
experienced by ordinary citizens when seeking accountability and transparency
from their leaders. The comprehension of ordinary citizens is essential for
democracy to work, as is a realisation of economic, social and cultural rights.

Civil society, political activists and individuals were isolated in their
struggle against coups. The media has been a key player in anti-coup protests
as it relayed information that enabled networking and partnership. Media
censorship since April 2009 has restricted their role and violated citizens’
Right to Information. This article argues that for democracy to work, the
infrastructure and communications technology needs to reach the masses so
people are adequately informed through an uncensored media. Civil society,
politicians and individuals need to unite to fight for democracy.

Nature of democracy in Fiji

The nature of democracy in Fiji is a system introduced by departing colonisers
after a century of colonisation, and ‘Fijianisation’ of Christianity. Asesela
Ravuvu (Ravuvu, 1991) talks at length of how Fijians were colonised, tamed
and rebellions controlled. After Cession in 1874,

Fijian chiefs were generally unhappy that their once despotic authority
had been curtailed by the presence of the colonial government. Now
and then they would reassert their authority by disobeying certain arbitrary
orders of the colonial administrators’... Chiefs and people who
disobeyed orders by government officials were usually severely dealt
with. They were either put under custody or deported to other remote and foreign areas in Fiji away from sight and support of their kinsmen.
Some were placed in European plantations to work out their penalties,
and some were tried and executed. (Ravuvu, 1991, pp. 18-19)

Fijians were thus subjugated and colonised by the British. Indian indentured
labourers brought to Fiji to work in sugar cane plantations from 1874, were
over-worked and suffered unimaginable abuse and indignities. Descendents
of the Indian indentured labour force began struggling for democracy as
early as the 1920s. Indians went on strike in 1920 and 1921 to demand for
an increase in wages. It is said Indians understood democracy better due to
India’s colonial legacy and the fight for independence going in the motherland.
Indians were keenly aware of being discriminated against and the need
to work to establish themselves in this new land, far away from the country
of their ancestors.

Indians continued struggling for equal rights and in 1929 moved a motion
for common roll. The colonial government reacted to this by granting the
franchise to Indians, but the Fijians remained without franchise. While Indians
elected their leaders, the Fijian leaders were selected by the Great Council
of Chiefs. However, ordinary Fijians did not fight for their right to vote, they
were granted the right to vote in the 1960s.

Fijians did not struggle for independence and equal rights after colonisation.
This means Fijians have yet to undergo the civil and political revolution
often necessary to establish democracy. The coups in Fiji could symbolise the
anti-colonial struggle for democracy by Fijians as it has been directed against
the perceived ruling class. Each country goes through its own cycles of peace
and revolutions to achieve democracy. The 2006 coup is seen as a struggle
against the chiefs and Fijian elites who established a stronghold since the 1987
coup. This view is echoed by Dr Satish Chand in a paper where he argues
that Fiji is on a ‘rocky road of coups to democracy’ (Chand, 2009, p. 1). The
paper was withdrawn by Chand after it received widespread criticism from
fellow academics. Chand argues that Fiji never was a real democracy, that
each of the coups has moved Fiji closer towards a representative democracy,
and that Fiji is as close as ever to bringing about democratic reforms (ibid.).
If this interpretation of modernisation theory is correct, then true sustainable
democracy may be achieved in Fiji after ordinary Fijians make a revolution
to realise their rights.

Grassroots remain voiceless

The elections in Fiji are fought on the grounds on ethnicity, values and fears
of the ordinary people. The parties who win are those that show that they
indentify with the common people—to do this, they must not only show
a ready understanding of their basic needs of low cost food items, water,
health, education and infrastructure facilities, but also of culture, traditions
and economic safeguards. An analysis of the 2001 elections results reveal
that political parties exploited to the full the different customs and traditions
of the races and cultures in Fiji.

The winners were the political parties that most successfully exploited
and manipulated traditional, ethnic, cultural and religious influences.
Overall, these influences compartmentalised the voters making them
less free to express their will. (Yabaki, 2009, p. 401)

The 2006 election results were found to have the same trend as the 2001.
Fiji’s elections have been unkind to reformed politicians who publicly acknowledge
wrongs. Those who once supported ethno-nationalist policies but
came to embrace multiracialism have been treated poorly at the polls by their
people. For example, Sitiveni Rabuka, Ratu Meli Vesikula, and Ratu Epeli
Ganilau have all suffered electoral defeat after embracing multiculturalism.
Jai Ram Reddy was voted out after the National Federation Party (NFP)
formed a coalition with coup-maker Rabuka’s party Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa
ni Taukei. Fiji’s society is not providing space for politicians to hold
different views, as should be the case in a democracy.

Elections are not providing leaders who are truly responsive to the needs
of the people. Elections are also not providing leaders with vision and integrity.
This means that democracy in Fiji has not worked because it has not
reached the grassroots. The growing educated middle-class of all races enjoy
democracy as they are privy to the knowledge base which, with an informed
society, is a prerequisite for proper functioning of a democracy. It was largely
the middle class, or those with the capability of climbing up the social ladder,
that participated in elections and were candidates, and who represent the
professions of accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, small-business owners,
academics, and communications workers. It is mainly from this class that the
human rights activists’ and democracy defenders also tend to come from.

The grassroots seem unable to put themselves forward as candidates who
have integrity and vision. They are dependent on civil society organisations
(CSOs) articulating their needs. This is a common problem in Third World
countries. Some CSOs are introducing initiatives to teach how citizenship
can be claimed and rights realised through the actions and agencies of people
themselves (Kabeer, 2005) in countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Britain,
Nigeria, Peru, Rajasthan, South Africa and the United States. It is hoped that
such education will make ‘institutions more responsive to the needs and voices
of poor people’.

A lack of critical citizens can result in elections being won by mediocre
candidates put forward by political parties, as has been the case in Fiji and
other South Pacific countries. The democracy defenders and politicians are
from the middle class, which means poor leadership is located in this class.
The question many ask is how do leaders benefit if the grassroots population
remain underdeveloped and uninformed?

Failure of widespread protest against coups

After the 1987 coup, a group of democracy advocates emerged, steadfast in
their protest, comprising of academics such as Vijay Naidu, Wadan Narsey,
Claire Slatter, Sitiveni Ratuva, women’s rights activists such as Peni Moore,
Shamima Ali, Imrana Jalal, and also the late Amelia Rokotuivuna and lawyer
Richard Naidu. Many others, such as Dr Anirudh Singh who was abducted
and tortured by the military, resulting in hospitalisation after the 1987 coup,
have also been involved, but the names mentioned above were more widely
known. Their struggle was based on standing up for what they felt was morally
right. The rights-based non-government organisations (NGOs) had been
vocal opponents of the 1987 and 2000 coups, many putting their activists’
safety at risk by voicing concern against human rights abuses.

The 19 May 2000 coup saw a more organised response from activists.
By then there was an NGO Coalition on Human Rights (NGOCHR) comprising
of Aids Taskforce, Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF), Ecumenical
Centre for Research Education and Advocacy (ECREA), fem’link Pacific,
Fiji Disabled People’s Association (FDPA), Fiji Human Rights Commission
(FHRC), Fiji I Care, Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC), Fiji Women’s Crisis
Centre (FWCC), Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (FWRM), Fiji Young Lawyers
Association (FYLA), Greenpeace Pacific, National Council for Women in Fiji
(NCWF), Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO), Regional Rights
Resource Team (RRRT), Women’s Action for Change (WAC), Equal Ground
Pasifik, and the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre (PCRC).

The NGOCHR has been administered by a rotating secretariat. The first
secretariat in 1997 was the FWCC. In June 1999, the Secretariat moved to
CCF with director Reverend Akuila Yabaki as chairperson. In June 2006, the
Secretariat moved to FWRM. Only rights-based NGOs, including CCF, FWCC,
WAC, Fem’link, ECREA, and FWRM, participated in anti-coup protests.

The CSOs with a large membership of ordinary citizens tend to refrain
from making anti-coup statements. These include workers and teachers’ unions
which have large memberships and tend to align at strategic times with political
parties. These CSOs have done their share of protesting, but stop when their
members’ livelihoods, or their own jobs, are put at high risk.

Perceived discord within the NGOCHR

In the aftermath of the 5 December 2006 coup, there was a perceived
discord within the NGOCHR, which was evident in the lack of a media
release. Instead, there was a news release on 7 December 2006 from the
newly created Coalition for Democracy and Peace. The chair of the
NGOCHR, Virisila Buadromo, explains:

There was no issue about getting the NGOCHR together to put out a
statement following the coup. The issue was that there were concerned
citizens and organisations [which] were against the coup; they joined
the NGOCHR meetings in support of democracy and the rule of law
and the overthrow of the elected government. (V. Buadromo, interview
with author, 12 December 2007)

The coalition was strongly supported by FWCC, FWRM, Pacific Centre for
Public Integrity (PCPI), and Fem’Link Pacific and held regular meetings in
December 2006, through which an action plan was prepared. The Coalition
prepared a ‘Call for a Presidential Commission of Truth, Justice and Resolution’
which would have established an inquiry going back to the events of
2000, to ‘clarify the truth regarding the events of 2000 attempted coups and
mutiny; clarify the constitutional issues raised by the post-2000 events leading
to the current impasse’, make fair judgement holding national interest
paramount, make recommendations on demands presented by Republic of
Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), ‘make any other recommendations as it sees fit
to ensure that there is Sustainable and Just Resolution of the current crisis;
end this abhorrent cycle of coups’.

The Coalition fully supported the deposed Prime Minister Laisenia
Qarase and did not accept that the RFMF had ‘any authority from the people
of Fiji for their current actions in forcing the removal of a constitutionally
elected government’. The Coalition proposed 14 members for the Presidential
Commission.

The Coalition lasted three weeks and no communication was received after
Christmas 2006. Buadromo explains that, ‘initially, there was a lot of support,
unfortunately since the coup occurred in December and it was the holiday
season and maybe people either went away for holidays or offices closed for
the festive season… As such, it ended up being very few organisations and
individuals who continued to pressure the regime.’ (Buadromo, 2007).

The lack of coverage by the media on NGO statements created a feeling
of a lack of reaction from NGOs on the coup and that discord existed. The
real rift occurred after the abduction and torture of a group of young activists
on Christmas Eve in 2006, including Virisila Buadromo. The appearance of
a lack of swift reaction from NGOs creates a sense of betrayal, compounded
by selective media reporting. The impact on Buadromo was traumatic, and
the NGOCHR was not reconvened until months afterwards.

Salt was added to wounds by FHRC Director Shaista Shameem who had
played a leading role in protests against human rights abuses during the 56-day
hostage crisis of the 2000 coup. Dr Shameem’s paper released on 4 January
2007 justified Frank Bainimarama’s military takeover on the grounds of the
doctrine of necessity’ (Shameem, 2007). The paper argued that as the lawful
government deposed in the 2000 coup was not returned to power, all subsequent
governments were ‘unconstitutional’. The paper highlighted policies
of the Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) government from 2001
to 2006 which it rationalised as unconstitutional because of breach of various
human rights. The alleged improper conduct of the 2006 elections, comprising
various irregularities and voter registration discrepancies, is cited as the
2006 government was not legitimately elected (Shameem, 2007). The paper
outraged NGOs and increased the rift within the NGOCHR.

The division grew stronger after the swearing in of Bainimarama as interim
PM on 5 January 2007. NGOs such as ECREA, working with marginalised
and poor communities ‘who suffered under the SDL government’ were not
forthcoming in criticising the coup. New activists were accused of being
political party supporters. A regional NGO, PCRC, which had left the coalition
after the 2000 coup, rejoined in 2007 to protest against the 2006 coup.
WAC resigned from the coalition on what it terms as ‘personal and political’
agendas dominating the coalition.

A few NGOs took a hardline stance of non-engagement and outright
condemnation of the new interim regime (FWRM, FWCC, PCPI and Femlink’).
NGOCHR, however, agreed that they were united on two issues:

1. They opposed the illegal overthrow of the government

2. They opposed all human rights violations.1

The NGOCHR succeeded in its functions as a human rights coalition as they
were united in opposing all human rights violations. The events of 2007
however, revealed that the human rights NGOs in Fiji are small entities,
vulnerable in times of conflict. They do not enjoy special privileges or
protections that diplomatic and international organisations enjoy. Their size
and specific organisational purpose means that human rights NGOs cannot
spearhead a movement for return to democracy in Fiji as they would not have
sufficient resources for this cause, and the activity would fall outside their
core objectives.

Who protested?

The 2006 coup found NGOs feeling isolated and fighting for ideals of
democracy without the backing of grassroots. PER prevented publishing
of some statements and also any public support. Ordinary citizens failed to
protest against the military takeover. The 1987 and 2000 coup failed to trigger
mass protests because it was felt those coups were in favour of indigenous
Fijians. However, Prime Minister Qarase, ousted in the 2006 coup, had won
the elections through over 80 percent Fijian votes. Qarase was kept under
house arrest for two days after the coup before departing for Mavana. His
supporters failed to protest, and were confused by his departure. People may
have protested if Qarase had decided to continue being held in captivity. But
people continued living their daily lives, prioritising economic needs over
civil and political ideals.

NGOs have found themselves isolated fighting for an ideal that few want
to fight for, but majority would like to enjoy—as is the case for most civil
and political rights. They also felt isolated among themselves as some took a
strategy of non-engagement whereas others decided to engage to find solutions.

The 2006 coup was different because it was ‘…in the name of “good
governance”, anti-corruption and anti-racism, and appealed to the rather severe
moral values of Fiji’s urban elites (Firth & Fraenkel, 2009, p. 7)’. Those that
advocated against the 2006 coup found themselves without former allies and
without the moral public support of the grassroots. The grassroots, on their
part, could be easily swayed by provision of essential services in their area
by the coup-installed government—services that elected governments had
neglected to provide for decades.

Disunity destroys opportunities

To take a middle ground is as difficult a task for NGOs as it is difficult for
donors to understand. An opportunity to take the middle ground was presented
by a proposal by John Samy for a Charter process in Fiji. NGOs were
approached through CCF, as this process had a potential of delivering the
best outcome to Fiji if it was driven by CSOs. CCF’s own attempts to engage
in dialogue with the interim regime to find a way back to democracy, was
regarded with suspicion by other NGOs. NGOs were reluctant to respond to
Samy’s proposal for a Charter process to find a way forward for Fiji. Time
was ticking by… CSOs failed to take up the Charter initiative. Instead, the
Interim Government (IG) finally agreed over the concept and decided to provide
space for it.

CCF, ECREA, WAC and Fem’Link were four NGOs that participated in
the Charter process while other NGOs criticised and derided them. Numerous
donor applications by Samy proved futile. These donor funds would have
enabled the Charter process to operate independently. The Charter team disbanded
in 2008. Samy could be credited for preventing a further deterioration
in the Fiji situation for two years2 while the Charter process was underway,
the IG strived for good governance. After disbanding of the Charter team,
authoritarianism by the IG increased. Soon afterwards, the IG abrogated the
1997 Constitution—a day after the 9 April 2009 Court of Appeal judgment
against its legality, and imposed Public Emergency Regulations (PER) under
which human rights were severely constrained. The question remains whether
the Charter process would have provided solutions to Fiji, if CSO’s and political
parties had embraced it and contributed to its development and if it was
funded by independent donors.

The collapse of the Coalition for Democracy and Peace three weeks
after its inception in December 2006 also provides food for thought as it was
widely regarded as a good concept that recognised a variety of concerned
individuals and organisations needed to join and have a united voice for a return
to democracy. A lack of a long-term plan or vision and a lack of leadership
caused the demise of the coalition.

Two years after the coup, on 5 December 2008, a new Movement for
Democracy in Fiji was launched by eight NGOs and political parties, namely
PCRC, FWRM, National Council of Women Fiji (NCWF), Fiji Islands Council
of Trade Unions (FICTU), Fijian Teachers Association (FTA), United People’s
Party (UPP), NFP, and SDL (Fiji Times, 5 December 2008). A statement
from the movement said they had ‘… banded together to spearhead a joint
campaign plan to return Fiji to parliamentary rule and persuading the interim
regime to put in place a clear and credible process and time table for elections’
(Fiji Times, 5 December 2008). The movement also established a fund for
the Restoration of Democracy. NFP’s Attar Singh, who is also the general
secretary for FICTU was named the chairperson of the movement and PCRC
the secretariat (Fijilive, 2 January 2009).

The movement did not gain widespread support as it had restricted
its membership to a select group of NGOs, unions and political parties. A
bias towards the deposed government and animosity to those with different
ideologies prevented membership from a wide group of people and caused
further division within civil society.

Thus a major reason that protests against the 2006 coup did not succeed
was due to the lack of unity between NGOs, CSOs, unions, political parties,
and the wide variety of organisations and people who make up civil society.
NGOs tend to be isolated in their fight for democracy. But the failure of
ordinary citizens to protest made NGOs lose hope as did the failure of Qarase’s
supporters to protest. Ordinary citizens prioritised their economic needs over
civil and political ideals. While most were afraid of protesting, some wanted to
see if the Bainimarama interim government would deliver better basic services.

Restrictions on the media

The restriction on the media in Fiji after the abrogation of Fiji’s 1997

Constitution on 10 April 2009 eroded the progress Fiji had made on Freedom
of Opinion and Expression in the public and the media. After the 1987 coup,
Fiji underwent a period of repression where democracy and equal rights
were harder to talk about. However, censorship of the media only happened
for a short while after the 1987 coup. The media was again targeted straight
after the military takeover in 2006. Military personnel moved into the newsrooms
of media outlets late afternoon on December 5 and issued a directive
that all news items would be screened by the military and demanded that
nothing negative be aired or published against the commander, Commodore
Frank Bainimarama, or his takeover (IFJ News Release, 6 December 2006).
Local journalists were warned not to publish any condemnation by local and
international NGOs. In response, Fiji TV did not run its 10pm bulletin on
December 5, and no issue of The Fiji Times was published (IFJ News Release,
6 December 2006). The next day, after a meeting with senior executives of
four media companies and Chairman of the Fiji Media Council Daryl Tarte,
Acting Commander Esala Teleni gave an undertaking that there would be no
censorship and no further interference by the military in the role of the nation’s
media (Democracy for Fiji campaign launched, Fiji Times,7 December
2006). Fiji still enjoyed relatively free media under a tense political situation.

On 10 April 2009, the reinstated Bainimarama government promulgated
the Public Emergency Regulations 2009 (PER) which severely restricted assembly,
meetings, public gatherings and discussions in Fiji. The eight-page
decree was the fifth one promulgated by the President that day, after the abrogation
of Fiji’s 1997 Constitution. The education, health and private sector
appeared to have suffered little impact. However, NGOs, CSOs, trade unions,
political parties and other bodies and individuals critical of the government
now found their activities were more severely scrutinised. NGOs, CSOs,
churches, unions and even private bodies now had to apply for a permit to
hold a meeting or assembly. If the agenda of the meeting suggested that any
political’ issue may be discussed, then the permit would not get approved.
Even CCF, a human rights NGO, is required to apply for permits to conduct
educational workshops and public lectures.

Government ‘censors’ are sent to newsrooms to check stories published
by daily media outlets. All stories critical of the government, military or
the current status quo are ordered to be removed. Edwin Nand, a Fiji One
News television reporter was arrested and detained by police for 48 hours for
preparing a news story that the government did not like. On the weekend of
9/10 May 2009, Fijilive reporters Dionesia Turagabeci and Shelvin Chand
were arrested (RNZI, 10 May 2009) and detained for a news item about the
CCF (CCF, 7 May 2009) criticising the government for releasing eight soldiers
and a policeman on Compulsory Supervision Orders. The men, convicted of
manslaughter, were released two months after being sentenced to serve four
years and four months. A Fiji Times article on the same issue managed to get
printed at a later date. However, censors had the article removed from the Fiji
Times website later that day. Ironically, a statement by government spokesman
Lieutenant-Colonel Neumi Leweni, justifying that their release under a CSO
‘… is provided for by law … and …done in accordance with the Prisons Act’
(Fijilive, 13 May 2009) was allowed to be published.

The PER is extended every 30 days and was extended again for the 17th
time in August 2010 (PER extended, Fiji Times, 21 August 2010). The new
extension came into effect on August 24. The Media Industry Development
Decree 2010, promulgated by the Fiji government on 25 June 2010, entrenches
censorship as journalists and media organisation heads can be fined or jailed
for publishing certain types of news. The ordinary citizens living in rural areas
of Fiji, who were already disadvantaged in receiving news and information
because of a lack of infrastructure and access to communications technologies,
now face a further disadvantage in Fiji because the censorship means
they can only hear what the government approves of or wants them to hear or
see in the newspapers, radio or television. In fact, everyone in Fiji now can
only hear or see news that is approved by the government. By restricting the
Right to Information through censorship, the Fiji government is effectively
preventing any meetings or information dissemination that could assist in
forging alliances to fight for a return to democracy. Without a free media, it is
very difficult for Fiji to return to democracy. If ordinary citizens do not fight,
then free media also may not return for a long time.

Infrastructure and democracy

Looking at theories of modernism, post-modernism and neo-colonialism,
Fiji is still in a development stage. While flourishing democracies in the
world are in an era of post-modernism—whereby they have achieved modernity
through the phase of industrial revolution, technological development,
and advanced infrastructure and communication facilities that makes travel
and communication a readily available activity, Fiji has not yet completed this phase of development. Fiji is in a phase of modernity where the
infrastructure is still being built. One only has to drive less than two hours
away from the capital, Suva, and they are transported to a rural area such as
Viria, Vunidawa and Naluwai in Naitasiri, and Naisausau and other villages
in Tailevu, off the Korolevu highway. Here, people still live semi-subsistence,
modest lives. There is no tarsealed roads in the interior and only scarce
bus services. There are problems of water and electricity supply. There are
no supermarkets and availability of goods for purchase is only through small
shops with limited supplies. Some villages located two hours from Suva city
have never had electricity.

Visits to the Namosi provincial highlands, the interior of Sigatoka, Nagado
and other villages located less than an hour’s drive from the jet-set Nadi tourist
town, reveal a similar scenario.3 The story is the same for the second largest
island, Vanua Levu whether one travels to Seaqaqa, Batanikama and other
villages in Labasa, or to Viani and other coral coast villages in Savusavu, or
to the other islands Ovalau and Taveuni.

A Community Submission to the 2010 Budget, made by CCF in July 2009
(CCF, 2009) highlighted that people in very different localities in Fiji identified
needs that were similar, and which had been in existence for many decades.
CCF has conducted grassroots education workshops on the National Budget
since 2006 in Suva, Lautoka, Labasa, Savusavu, Levuka, Korovou, Navua,
Sigatoka and Taveuni. These needs include: roads, regular transportation,
health centre with qualified staff and equipment, water supply that is also
clean, farming and agricultural assistance, vocational training schools, and
stable electricity supply. Roads were identified as a common concern as it was
a root cause of their problems. Without roads, they have difficulty accessing
services such as health care, schools, jobs, and market for farm produce. Many
of the problems highlighted are synonymous with similar problems in rural
areas around Fiji.

Fiji’s situation is similar to many other Pacific Island countries which are
undergoing a process of modernisation. Historians have also described this
as neo-colonialism, whereby institutional structures of bureaucratic systems,
parliamentary methods, Christianity, and village organisation structures left
behind by colonisers are still operational. Apart from the French territories,
most Pacific Islanders have not fought for independence and democracy.
Fijians did not struggle for democracy.

During the phase of modernisation, countries go through an industrial
revolution which involves rapid development and growth. Most importantly,
they also go through a phase of civil and political awakening, the end result
of which is normally a political situation whereby the ordinary citizens have
more say in the affairs of their country. In the European countries of Britain,
France and Ireland, this is evident. In fact, the modernisation phase in Europe
was accompanied by colonisation and resettlement of other parts of the world
and the spread of Christianity. In big developing countries of the world, such
as India and China, while there are segments of urban parts of the country
that are flourishing in ‘post-modernity’, the bulk of their rural areas are still
undergoing modernisation. This has resulted in democracy not being able to
function properly in these technologically advanced developing countries.

According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), four
common problems impede development and democracy in the Commonwealth:
the inequality of power between government and the citizen; the consequent
lack of accountability and near impunity of politicians and public officials; corruption;
and exclusion of the public from participating in decisions that affect
their lives (CHRI, 2003, p. 75). CHRI recommends that open governance and
assured access to information offer the key to address these complex issues.

Information must be harnessed to create short cuts to development
and democracy. It must be shared equitably and managed to the best
advantage of all members of society. The means are available but sadly
the will is often not. It is an indictment of the Commonwealth that so
many member states continue to fail to live up to the democratic ideals
that are reflected in the commitment to the right to information (ibid.).

Fiji is one of the most developed Pacific Island Countries (PICs). However,
major parts of the country has limited or no access to electricity, tap water,
roads and reliable transport. In urban and peri-urban areas, television, newspapers,
magazines, internet, and other sources of information are available.
Radio in the vernacular language, remains the most effective means of communication
as newspapers and magazines rarely reach remote areas, and lack
of electricity and economic means rules out internet.

The developed world is at an advanced stage with democracy where
the population can choose to be fully informed to take part in democratic
decision-making. The lack of a similar choice to be informed in Fiji means
leaders have more opportunity to make decisions which may not be in the
best interests of citizens. Ordinary citizens end up being bystanders, at the
receiving end of policies they had little input in, grappling to understand the
bad consequences of failed government activities. Where the decisions are
made by coup-makers, citizen apathy is greater.

Not knowing better, citizens decide to stand by and not take any action
thinking, ‘What would I do with democracy if there is no food on the table?’

The question of rights

The preamble to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states ‘…. Recognising that, in accordance with
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings
enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions
are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural
rights, as well as his civil and political rights’.

The 1945 Charter of the United Nations, the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as other major international law
documents, recognise the importance of the realisation of economic, social
and cultural rights in order for civil and political rights to be enjoyed. These
two categories of rights are interdependent.

Inherent to the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights are the
right to work freely, fair wages, decent living, safe and healthy working conditions,
rest and leisure, the right to join unions and strike, the right to social
security, protection and care for the family including education of children
and protection of mother. The ICESCR, most importantly also provides under
Article 11 ‘the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself
and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous
improvement of living conditions’. Article 13 provides for the right
to education which ‘shall be directed to the full development of the human
personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect of
human rights and fundamental freedoms’. Further, education is expected to
‘…enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society…’

The realisation of economic rights are recognised as essential to the
development of a person to enjoy their civil and political rights, as vice versa.
Over 40 percent of Fiji’s population live in poverty. Those slightly above
the poverty line, and those living in semi-subsistence situation in rural and
peri-urban areas may be able to meet basic needs but not much more. Those
living in rural and interior areas, where roads are bad and transport irregular,
find it difficult to access basic services such as health care and government
facilities. A single errand to main government centres can take a day, or more
to achieve. They cannot be expected to be readily available to participate in
democratic processes. In fact, most people living away from the urban centres
feel disconnected to what is happening in the government and in the capital
Suva.

There needs to be more education on the true spirit of democracy, which
provides for everyone’s rights, needs, and identities to be respected. This
will enable better understanding by voters of the process of governance and
how voting fits into the control over state power. People will then understand
why their civil and political rights are important and how it can be utilised
to make democracy work through articulation of their demands for resources
and development for their communities. More education on governance,
citizenship, human rights and democratic processes are also necessary for
creation of a common sense of identity in the diverse ethnic groups in Fiji.
Here again, a lack of unity among Fiji’s leaders has contributed to stronger
identity with one’s ethnicity, rather than the nation. When people understand
their democratic power, coups will be virtually impossible to be carried out.

Inadequate funds for infrastructure needs

The development of infrastructure and communications is essential to the
realisation of economic as well as civil and political rights. ‘Fiji–.The State
of the Nation and the Economy Report’ (NCBBF, August 2008, p. 9) reveals
that increasing government debt with higher payments for interest has pre-
empted funds for vitally needed infrastructure such as water, roads, sewerage,
electricity and housing. The report reveals Fiji’s Economic Growth has
been on a slow downward curve since 1970. It emphasises that the ‘government’s
involvement in the economy should focus first on the provision of
public goods, which by their nature cannot be supplied by anyone else. It is
clear that at present, the demand for basic utilities such as water, sewerage,
electricity, telecommunications and other infrastructure (such as roads, ports
and airports) is not being satisfactorily met’ (p. 27). The report highlights
the weak service delivery in the public sector as a ‘serious constraint on
national development and that is adversely affecting the lives of many of Fiji’s
people, particularly the poor and the vulnerable’ (p. 33).

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) notes (ADB, 2010) ‘only about
50 percent of the population has access to safe water and proper sanitation.
Access to sanitation is 75 percent for urban areas, and only 12 percent for rural
areas’. ADB states that, ‘most of the country’s public external debt ... comprised
official multilateral loans from ADB, European Investment Bank, and International
Bank for Reconstruction and Development. ADB contributed about
73 percent of these loans.’ The major project of the Rewa Bridge (Qarase, 26
February 2004) construction was made possible through $24 million aid from
the European Union (EU). In 2005, under Fiji’s road upgrading programme
(Chand & Cula, 10 August 2005), the ADB, World Bank and the Exim Bank
of Japan co-funded projects up to $118 million in Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

In 2004 (MoF, 2003, p. 89), the government allocated more than $31
million for infrastructure projects. In 2009 (PWC, 2008, p. 26), the Interim
Government allocated $38.30 million for infrastructure and works. The
2004 elected government received large donor funds enabling it to spend
a further $19 million on the EU funded Rewa Bridge and Kinoya Outfall
Project, and the Chinese-funded Navuso Linking Bridge (MoF, 2003,
p. 108). While the Interim Government allocated more for infrastructure in
2009, it lost out on donor-funded major infrastructure projects, which is revealed
through the allocation of only $4.3 million for the Navuso Bridge and
the Somosomo Mini Hydro Scheme (MoF, 2008, p. 56). These infrastructure
projects are in addition to the normal roads and infrastructure maintenance
work carried out by the government each year. The high reliability of new
infrastructure development projects on foreign aid means that the normal
government budget allocation each year is sufficient to maintain infrastructure
only—it is not sufficient to create major new infrastructure development. It
may be many more decades before basic services, infrastructure and know-
ledge technology, essential to democracy become available throughout Fiji.

Conclusion

Democracy has failed to work properly in Fiji because parts of the country
are still undergoing a process of modernisation. The struggle for democracy
has yet to occur in Fiji. Protests against coups has largely been by the
educated middle class where the CSOs activists and politicians tend to come
from. Bad leadership has contributed to a lack of development in Fiji and to
the coup culture, as has the gap between the middle class and ordinary citizens.
For true democracy to be achievable in Fiji, infrastructure and communications
technology needs to reach the masses. This will enable creation of
a knowledgeable society. There needs to be adequate realisation of economic
rights of people, as this is essential to the realisation of civil and political
rights. There needs to be a free media for ordinary people to know what is
happening and for dissemination of information for creation of alliances and
holding the government accountable.

Alison Lazarus, former director of the Peace Building and Development
Institute at the UNDP Pacific Centre, once said: ‘For the people to govern,
the people need to remain engaged. The citizen has to stay vigilant to her
own needs and hold government accountable for delivery’ (Lazarus, 2007).
Lazarus argues that the

strategy of cooperation and non-cooperation too has its time and its
limits. There was only so long that people will boycott and disengage
the state. For always people just want to live and learn and get on with
their lives ... if the root causes of conflict are not addressed … times
of withdrawal are often the time for rearming and reconstituting one’s
forces to live to struggle and fight another day.

A new movement is needed in Fiji with a visionary, inspirational leadership
and a simple objective, inclusive and open to people from any political,
social, economic, religious or ethnic background to join freely. Such a
movement would transcend the CSOs, ethnic, political or other ideological
divides. José Ramos-Horta and Mahatma Gandhi’s example reveal it is important
to be open to talk to everyone with different beliefs for democracy
to be achieved. When the time is right and an opportunity is presented, the
citizens must not remain a bystander but engage. For after all, a country is
only as good as its citizens and a democracy can only work if all people in
the country take the responsibility to make it happen.

Notes

1. Human rights has formed the basis of most media statements from the NGOCHR
in the aftermath of the 5 December 2006 coup.

2. Author’s viewpoint as an internal observer of the process.

3. These areas have been visited by the author while conducting education workshops
for Citizens’ Constitutional Forum CCF, where she is employed.

References

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Chand, S., (2009). On a rocky road of coups to democracy in Fiji. Unpublished paper,
School of Business, University of New South Wales @ the Australian Defence
Force Academy, June 1.

Chand, V., Cula, F., (2005, August 10), North geared up for economic activities,
Feature on Fiji Government Online.

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Mosmi Bhim is an advocate for the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF)
in Suva, Fiji. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not
reflect the views of CCF.
The author acknowledges the support and encouragement
from Dr Jon Fraenkel and Dr Stewart Firth at the Australian National
University. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Australian
Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies conference in Melbourne,
8-11 April 2010.

mosmi_bhim@hotmail.com

Comments

Thakur Ranjit Singh said…
A very commendable and enlightening piece of writing, Mosmi. But a fundamental error I see in academic writings on coup and political instability in Fiji is the role that media plays in this. While Fiji is identified as a developing country, has anybody ever had a look at its mainstream newspapers, especially The Fiji Times of pre-Motibhai era? Lack of research in this area makes us assume that media is the savour of democracy. My research shows that it is otherwise, where a partisan press can be a source that shakes democracies in developing countries. Lack of media education in Fiji journalists and the tendency of them being ‘copy journalists,' mouthing what politicians want hurt democracy. Coupled with the lack of analytical articles to articulate on important features of the Constitution and democratic processes and government policies see ethno nationalists sway people with racially divisive policies. One of the major causes of political instability in Fiji is a lackadaisical Fiji media, some bordering on being partisan,

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