Plots from Within and Support from Outside: The Gathering of the Anti-Bainimarama Coalition outside Fiji
By Sanjay Ramesh
In February 2011, a new Commanding Officer of the Fiji Third Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Jone Kalouniwai, was appointed by the military. The appointment came following speculation that the former Commanding Officer, Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara was under investigation together with another senior military officer, Land Forces Commander Brigadier General Pita Driti, for plotting the removal of Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama in 2010 (The Fiji Village News, 4 February, 2011).
The news that senior members of the Fiji military who had earlier supported the coup had a fall out with Bainimarama brought back memories of the mutiny in November 2000. In 2000, the rebel soldiers with the support of the Naitasiri high chief, Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, wanted to replace Bainimarama with either Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini or Rusiate Koroivusere were the two names put forward by Captain Shane Stevens to replace Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama if they successfully took over Queen Elizabeth Barracks in 2000. During the trial of Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, state witness Maciu Turagacati stated that “on of August 2000 at Ratu Inoke Takiveikata's office at the Naitasiri Provincial Council, Captain Stevens, the rebel leader, informed the meeting that they would take over the military camp but needed some assistance like arms and handcuffs to be provided by the Qaranivalu and his group” (Fiji Village News, 18 February 2011).
Unlike the events of November 2000, members of the Fiji Military Forces notified Commander Voreqe Bainimarama that senior members of the military were conspiring to oust him from power and as a result both officers were sent on an indefinite leave. Following an investigation, on 4 May 2011, Pita Driti was charged with two counts of uttering seditious comments and one count of inciting mutiny, and Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara faced one count of uttering seditious comments under Section 67 of the Fiji Crimes Decree. Both former senior military officers were released on $F2,000 bail. Ratu Tevita was ordered to surrender his passport to the police on 5 May and report on his whereabouts by 15 May 2011 and attend the court hearing on 30 May and 1 June 2011.
On 9 May, Ratu Tevita was extracted by the Tongan Royal Navy Patrol Boat, Savea, from within Fiji's territorial waters after he was taken to the extraction point by Risto Harmat, an Estonian national who was charged and later bailed over his part in assisting Ratu Tevita. On 23 May, New Zealand Herald reported that two New Zealand nationals and Ratu Tevita’s friends, Anthony Fullman and Tim McBride, were questioned by Fiji Police and a TV New Zealand crew was also questioned after attempting to interview Ratu Tevita’s wife in Suva (New Zealand Herald, 23 May 2011).
The regional leaders remained tight-lipped but were privately supporting what had transpired in Fiji. The Australian Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles opined that tensions between Fiji and Tonga was a “bilateral issue” and the New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully advised the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that the “situation in Fiji was becoming more challenging for the Fiji’s military leader” (Radio NZ, 18 May 2011).
In Tonga, the Forum Trade Ministers had gathered for a meeting on Forum trade but high on the agenda for discussion was not trade but how Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga could leverage Ratu Tevita’s defection. Tonga’s Chief Secretary Busby Kautoke told PACNEWS that Ratu Tevita was a “man rescued at sea”. However, under the Tongan Extradition Act 1988, Fiji is one of the designated countries where an individual can be extradited back to but Tonga had no such intention and instead issued a Tongan passport to Ratu Tevita as both Australia and New Zealand debated relaxing their travel ban on Ratu Tevita.
A Kiwi letter writer summed up his frustration with his government’s approach:
How cynical is our Government? While our Government has expelled law-abiding Martin Payne who brought his life savings here from Britain and set up a successful family business in Northland, Prime Minister Key is now offering or considering offering political asylum to a Fijian bail absconder.
The Fijian, Ratu Tevita Mara, has connections to the Tongan royal family, and is under the protection of the king of Tonga. He does not need asylum, he has it already.
The Key Government is heartless towards a law-abiding person, but bending over backwards for a bail jumper because Mara can help ``rub Fiji's nose in it''. How cynical is that? (The Press, 2 June 2011)
On 10 June 2011, Ratu Tevita was successful in securing a visa to Australia despite being on a travel blacklist by Canberra and much to the surprise of many indigenous Fijians who were refused political asylum, despite a sanctions regime in place on Fiji since December 2006.
Are Australia or New Zealand serious about democracy in Fiji? Tonga can be excused because it is hardly a model for democratic change in the region and Samoa has been engaged in hurling abuse at Commodore Vorege Baininarama since the December 2006 coup.
Is the strategy for democratic change in Fiji focused too much on one person (Bainimarama) rather than working collaboratively towards a constitutional, institutional and an electoral system that will enable greater cross cultural discourse and political inclusion in Fiji.
Ratu Tevita has claimed on You Tube and on TV New Zealand that Bainimarama is a “puppet” of the Attorney General Saiyed Khaiyum. Isn’t a similar call was made by the Taukei Movement in April 1987 which accused late Dr. Timoci Bavadra of being a puppet of Jai Ram Reddy. Commodore Bainimarama and Professor Crosbie Walsh have highlighted that the comments of Ratu Tevita against Khaiyum were racist and possibly aimed at consolidating the support of the indigenous nationalists overseas.
The defection of Ratu Tevita has highlighted the lack of direction in the region in dealing with Fiji. Exceptions are made to policy positions based on political expediency rather than a determination to improve the social and the economic conditions of the people of Fiji.
Dr. Sanjay Ramesh
Centre for Peace and Conflict
University of Sydney