Why Australia Should Discontinue Sanctions Against the Military Regime in Fiji
By Rodney V. Cole
Rodney Cole has a life-long association with Fiji and the Pacific Islands. He was born in Suva, educated at Suva Boys' Grammar School and was later District Officer in Lau, Lomaiviti, Navua and Suva, and Secretary for Finance in the colonial government.He was from time to time a member of the Legislative and Executive Councils and Council of Ministers, Financial Adviser to the Fijian Affairs Board, member of numerous boards and committees including Chairman of the Fiji National Provident Fund and Alternate Governor for Fiji of the Asian Development Bank, and he held a Commission in the Fiji Military Forces.
Since leaving Fiji in the 5314s nineteen seventies he has been Deputy then Managing Director of the PNG Development Bank, Administrative Secretary of the Research School of Pacific Studies, Development Studies Centre at ANU. In 5328 he led a team which led to the introduction of changes in the structure of the Fijian Administration. He has served as a consultant involving work or visits to all Pacific Island states except Tokelau.
Rodney's article traces Fiji's coup history, its colonial legacy, its long association with Australia, and Australia's current policy on Fiji. The article concludes with reasons why Australia should reconsider its stance on Fiji, and with three "ifs " addressed to the Bainimarama Government.
The author makes no pretension that what has been written has moral authority. It is based on his abiding affection for his birth country and reflects 20 years as a servant of the people of Fiji during which time he served in both the district and the central administrations.
‘Fiji, the way the world should be!” This is how the country’s tourism industry would like the world to regard this Pacific island state. It is certainly not the way Fiji’s metropolitan neighbours regard this would be paradise. Rather it may be considered a ‘rogue state’, once again governed by an illegal military regime. A country which must be forced to return to the fold of islands performing in a democratic manner
under the benign influence of Australia and New Zealand. Fiji holds a unique place in Australasia, it is the only state that has been subjected to a series of coups involving the military. Coups which hitherto resulted in a return to ballot box politics.
It is difficult to find justification for a military take-over of government even if the form of constitutional democracy which allowed its election could be considered as flawed.
This paper does not in any way condone the action Fiji’s armed services in usurping the right of the people to be governed by an elected government. It will argue however that there are grounds for the lifting of sanctions, and other punitive measures, imposed in an effort to force early elections. It will also be argued that a better understanding of socio/economic and political events in Fiji since cession of the country to Queen Victoria in 1874 could militate against the dogmatic approach adopted by metropolitan countries in their actions against the present military regime.
The Independence Inheritance
Fiji became independent in 1970 after nearly a century of colonial rule. Unlike many African colonies there was no ‘struggle’ for freedom from the colonial yoke. The role of government passed peacefully to an elected government that was dominated by the interests of the indigenous inhabitants, known now as iTaukei.
Following independence there was a gradual shift in political alliances. The Fijian chiefly system, encouraged by the colonial government, had continued to maintain authority, seemingly, as of right. However undercurrents of dissatisfaction grew among commoners. The Indian community, descendants of migrant labour introduced originally to protect the traditional Fijian way of life, was growing numerically and seen by some as a threat to the traditional interests of the indigenous population.
Then in 1987 the unexpected happened, an Indian-dominated political coalition with a Fijian commoner designated as the future prime minister, won an electoral victory. The die was cast – Fiji was on the way to unprecedented political change.
On four occasions the Royal (now Republic) Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) has demonstrated the reality of the aphorism ‘that political power grows from the barrel of a gun.’ It is important to appreciate the circumstances surrounding each time there was military intervention in the political life of Fiji.
• May 14 1987, the third ranking officer of the RFMF, Sitiveni Rabuka, led aIt would seem that in Fiji there is a propensity to conduct military coups when the interests of the indigenous community appear to be under threat. However in the case of the Bainimarama-led coups different circumstances were advanced in justification of their actions. Prime Minister Qarase seemed concerned to ensure iTaukei hegemony, trusting in the racially biased 1997 constitution as the vehicle to
body of armed men into the Parliament, then sitting, and ordered Members to
vacate the Chamber. He subsequently issued Operations Order 1/1987 which
stated Our mission is to overthrow the government and install a new regime that
will ensure that the RFMF and national interest are protected. It is reasonable to
assume, in the light of subsequent events that by national he was referring solely
to the iTaukei. Protection from whom? In his biography Rabuka claimed ‘the coup
was to save bloodshed among my own people’ as coalition government policies¹
were causing such dissent as to pit some Fijians against their own race as well as
the Indian community.
• September 25 1987, after efforts on the part of parliamentarians to form a
‘government of national unity’ failed, Rabuka staged a second coup. This was
ostensibly to protect the interests of the iTaukei which he feared could be eroded
under compromise arrangements. The result was abrogation of the Constitution,
expulsion from the Commonwealth of Nations and expressions of grave
displeasure by Australia and New Zealand. Rabuka proclaimed himself Head of
State. A new constitution which enhanced the rights of the iTaukei was adopted in
1990. The elections which followed resulted in a Fijian dominated parliament with
Rabuka as prime minister.
• May 19 2000, a revision of the constitution in 1997 which led to the formation
of an Indian led parliament, saw an attempted putsch by armed nationalist
iTaukei. This action was justified on the grounds of alleged threats of erosion of
iTaukei rights and interests.
• May 29 2000, after a stalemate in of some 8 days the President, Ratu KKT
Mara, whose life had been threatened, resigned. He had earlier, prorogued
parliament, dismissed the elected government and assumed executive authority.
• May 30 2000, following the Presidents’ resignation the Commander, RFMF,
Voreqe Bainimarama declared martial law, abrogated the 1997 constitution and
on July 4 appointed commoner Laisenia Qarase as interim prime minister.
• September 2001, a general election under the reinstated 1997 constitution
resulted in the Qarase headed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) Party
confirmed as government
• May 2006, the SDL Party returned to government after a narrow electoral
victory over an Indian dominated Fiji Labour Party.
• December 3 2006 Bainimarama carries out a military led coup and declares
himself Acting President. He reappointed the former president as Head of State
who in turn formally appointed Bainimarama as prime minister.
• April 2006 the Court of Appeal declares the coup to have been illegal with the
result the constitution was again abrogated and Bainimarama again appointed as
carry through his ambitions. These included policies specifically designed to benefit the iTaukei, including forgiveness of those who had acted treasonably in the earlier putsch and reservation of traditional iTaukei fishing grounds. These allegedly overt racist policies led to a decision by the army to act in what was suggested to be the common good, action directed not only against policies they regarded as divisive but
also against allegations of corruption and nepotism in the public service . Ultimately however the consequences are similar : social and economic disruption and a further erosion of chiefly authority.
The Australian Response
The response to the action of Fijiʼs military, led by Australia, was immediate and
aggressive with the Foreign Minister advocating civil disobedience. Subsequently the
then Prime Minister urged international action to avoid the possibility of the ʻspread of
a coup cultureʼ throughout the island states of the Pacific. Selective sanctions were
introduced directed at travel by all those associated with the military led government.
Co-operation between the armed services of the two states was discontinued. To
Australiaʼs credit development assistance was maintained towards health, education
and humanitarian needs. New Zealand followed suit. In the field of international
politics pressure from Australia resulted in the suspension of Fiji from both the
Commonwealth and Pacific Island Forum: a number of major bilateral aid donors
reviewed their traditional support. All this represented an attempt to force the army to
hold fresh elections, under the 1997 constitution, in the interests of ʻrestoring
It is perhaps understandable that Australia should be in the forefront of those
countries seeking to have Fiji revert to a form of government lead by a democratically
elected parliament. Apart from seeking to confirm its position as a major force in the
South Pacific region Australia has long and strong links with the island state. While
Fiji was very much a British colony on the basis of its administration it was Australia
that, before cession in 1874, and until quite recently, dominated the national
economy in both rural and commercial sectors. Australians would argue that it was
benign economic exploitation which perhaps benefited Fiji rather more than its
investors. Be this as it may it was Australian investment early in the life of the young
colony that prompted the first governor, Sir Arthur Gordon to take measures which
today dominate the present economic and political scene and will continue to do so
for the foreseeable future. Gordon had encouraged the Colonial Sugar Refining
Company to expand the sugar industry and while the Company responded
enthusiastically there would ultimately be a price. To protect his beloved Fijians and
avoid the break up of traditional village life Gordon introduced indentured labour from
India to meet the needs of sugar plantations. With commitment to economic wellbeing
migrant races in Fiji thrived with their very success allegedly being the root
cause of xenophobia on the part of some Fijians resulting in the initiation of coups to
safeguard indigenous rights.
While Australiaʼs economic interest has waned since independence the island state,
given its pivotal geo/political position in the South Pacific, remains a focus for
Australia. It seems that Australia views its role in the region as a peace keeper in the
midst of a number of sometimes fractious mini states that must be made to perform
to the political tune it determines as appropriate. In the case of allegedly ʻfailed
statesʼ Australia is prepared to intervene, very much as it did in the case of the
Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands, to sort out any mess and restore
peace, tranquility and the type of democracy it believes best for it neighbors. Fiji
simply doesnʼt yet rate reference as a failed state, but in Australian political eyes but
it might well qualify as a ʻflawed or rogue stateʼ in that it has allowed the military,
albeit by force majeure, to defer elections appropriate to a racially diverse population
until a new constitution is adopted in 2014. In order pressure the military leadership
to hold earlier elections Australia has led in imposing sanctions and encouraging
Isolation Policies Fail But Damage Economy
An obvious question – have these pressure had the desired effect? The response, as
of now, would seem to be clear ʻNoʼ. This is not to say however that Fiji has been
immune from the effects of Australiaʼs actions. Like all small, resource limited island
states Fiji depends very much on exploiting its economic assets in order to progress
beyond a simple subsistence type economy. Disrupt a countryʼs ability to optimize
these assets and it is bound to sue for relief in terms dictated by the aggressor. At
least that is the theory. In the case of Fiji, while those exerting pressure from without
have not taken draconian steps such as trade bans or armed intervention, there is
evidence that sanctions have had some effect. It is impossible to quantify the effect of
travel bans affecting those associated with the military. Certainly disruption in official
travel to meetings, international sporting events and in seeking to attract well
qualified persons to the public service has caused discomfort. Withholding
development assistance that would normally support the modern sector of the
national economy inevitably disrupts the provision of public services, but more
importantly creates uncertainty in the minds of private sector investment so essential
to growth creation. While Australia would emphatically deny that its actions against
the regime are in any way aimed at the ordinary man or woman, citing the
continuation of social sector aid, there is adequate anecdotal evidence to indicate
that poverty is on the increase.
While the Secretary for Financeʼs Supplementary Report on the 2011 Budget can
only be described as up-beat it contains a number of quite clear signs that the
economy is under threat. Sugar earnings, so important in the economy, were well
down in 2010 due partly to drought conditions but more importantly milling capability
has suffered due to delays in essential financial assistance from EEC sources.
Importantly direct foreign investment (FDI), a critical component of economic growth,
has fallen over 50 per cent in the period 2006 – 2010 while employment forecasts for
2010 foreshadow a reduction in job creation by some 3000 positions over the
previous year. Also difficult to quantify is the indirect effect of the general economic
slow down on both the rural and urban population. It must be accepted however that
the militarisation of the government, intruding as it does into every aspect of the
economy, in particular the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) which impinge on
the accountability of the administration, has serious implications for FDI.
A further result of Australian policies, perhaps more important in the long run, is the
response of Fijiʼs current government to the attitudes of its neighbours, good times
friends and wartime allies. This is the ʻlook north policyʼ directed to China and other
non-aligned states. While these new alliances may be regarded in Canberra and
Auckland, possibly even Washington, as ephemeral this seems unlikely. China has
had a substantial embassy in Fiji for many years and its policy of soft loans rather
than grants as long term aid would seem to indicate intended longevity in their
relationship if not an intention to be a major player in the region .
I believe that both Australia and New Zealand are well overdue to take a long hard look at what they would regard as important in their future relationship with Fiji and indeed the South Pacific. It seems clear that the Fiji military will not contemplate yielding to the pressures of the international community to hold immediate elections. There is a growing acceptance of the objectives of the governmentʼs Peopleʼs
Charter for Change, Peace and Progress among the people of Fiji, especially those in rural areas.
On the other hand it is unlikely that there will ever be acceptance of the objectives of the regime on the part of those who would expect to benefit from a return to the 1997 constitution, those who condemn on the grounds of their own self interests, nor the promoters of those blog sites who seek to misconstrue every move by the Bainimarama regime. Public servants serving metropolitan governments may
well be disinclined to vary their advice which presumably underpins political initiatives to date. So it is for the political leadership to take stock of what has been achieved by existing policies and the worth of their continuation.
Foot on Fiji's Neck Strangling Wellbeing
The international community can keep their foot on the political neck of Fiji and quietly strangle the wellbeing and comfort of the bulk of the island population. The army may suffer inconveniences but is very unlikely to be moved from its current and oft stated position of elections in 2014. In the meantime Australia and New Zealand in particular will find that such goodwill that remains toward their governments being eroded while other international interests gain in influence throughout the region.
Surely the time has come to recognise that more can be gained in resolving the present impasse by understanding the motivation behind the 2006 coup. To accept that perhaps the current leadership was indeed driven by the desire to adopt a form of democracy in which all races are treated as equals. Of course there will be skeptics, those who will deny that the army will ever be prepared to relinquish power but in reality this can only be tested in the time frame set down by those now in control. No one, least of all political leaders, like to admit to having to back track on policies conceived as right and just but the real test of greatness is an ability to accept that a policy has failed to achieve its objectives and make a paradigm shift that allows for dialogue within the frame work set by those presently in control of Fijiʼs
destiny. In order to demonstrate a willingness to engage in a dialogue that might expedite a return to a democratic form of government all sanctions and restrictions should be lifted.
To make this shift it is essential that those with the boldness to recognise the need for such a move should be familiar with the manner in which Fijiʼs political scene has evolved. From a traditional system where the word of the chief was sacrosanct, to a Crown Colony ʻof the severe typeʼ where the governor exercised full responsibility.
Then a gradual movement towards a democratic form of government where the rights and privileges of the indigenous race were recognised to their advantage. As the original 1970 constitution allowed there was a shift in the balance of political power in 1987 resulting in a change in government. This shift was seen by some members of the indigenous community as detrimental to their interests and the ʻcoup cultureʼ
emerged. As distasteful as it might be to some sections of the Australian community the coup of 2006 appears to be of a fundamentally different genre.
Fiji's Present Leadership: Three Ifs
If the present leadership in Fiji is really determined to demonstrate that the 2006 coup is of a different genre from those of past years it should willingly pursue opportunities for meaningful dialogue with metropolitan neighbours.
If the leadership is really concerned for the well-being of the people of Fiji, and believe that this can be
achieved by economic growth that underpins social welfare, then it should encourage dialogue that leads to the removal of all barriers imposed by those calling for democratic elections.
If the leadership believes in its own rhetoric set forth in the Peoples Charter ʻto rebuild Fiji into a non-racial, culturally vibrant and united, well governed, truly democratic nation: a nation that seeks progress and prosperity through merit-base equality of opportunity and peaceʼ then it should be concerned
to demonstrate through dialogue that deeds will follow words. As an act of faith the present leadership should feel confident to lift the Public Emergency Regulations thereby regularising the situation in terms of the rule of law, offering greater freedom of movement and debate and providing a basis for initiating normal relations with the international community.
See also Democracy in Fiji : un-ravelling the myth: RV Cole, 2010.