"Calls for Fiji to be Restored to Pacific Forum" — by Michael Field
The call, made in Nadi yesterday, comes ahead of this week's Pacific Forum summit in Auckland where New Zealand and Australia face diplomatic embarrassment, with the Forum set to give Fiji military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama a ringing endorsement - even without him being here.
Fiji has been suspended from the forum following Bainimarama's failure to restore democracy in the wake of the 2006 coup.
Prime Minister John Key, who will chair the 40th edition of the Pacific Forum, faces a Melanesian and Micronesian rebellion over his hard-line on Bainimarama, who seized power in a military coup in 2006.
Fiji hosted a shadow summit this week and in a communiqué the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu endorsed Bainimarama's plan to hold off having elections until 2014.
PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill endorsed the communiqué. As the country is the second largest nation in the forum - and the leading island nation - it is a victory for Bainimarama.
However it is not clear whether O'Neill will be in Auckland as PNG's founding prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, is due back in Port Moresby today and he claims he is the prime minister. He has spent months in a Singapore hospital for heart by-pass surgery.
It was believed he had retired, but he said on Thursday he had not, and he wants his job back.
In the shadow forum in Fiji, the nations attending said they endorsed Bainimarama's change plan "as a credible home grown process for positioning Fiji as a modern nation state and to hold parliamentary elections."
The grouping does not specially ask for Fiji to be returned to the forum fold, but in diplomatic language they recall "the importance of Fiji's continuous engagement with the region and its full participation in regional development initiatives and programmes."
In an unusual statement the Pacific leaders also endorsed Fiji's view that the international media do not report Bainimarama's achievements.
They said they "supported the need to publicise and disseminate more and accurate information on the Fiji government's progress..."
Pacific leaders will be handed evidence of overwhelming multi-racial public support in Fiji for Bainimarama and his martial law decrees which are seen as keeping order in the coup-prone nation.
The data comes on top of a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable revealing a top Australian politician telling the United States that "Bainimarama will either be shot or we'll have to do business with him".
The forum, in its 40th year, was intended to be a celebration for the organisation which first met in Wellington in 1971. From then until 1996 it was united in condemning French nuclear testing, but since then Fiji's woes have been the central focus. When Bainimarama failed to keep a promise to hold elections by April 2009, the country's membership in the forum was suspended. Bainimarama has said elections would be held in 2014.
Wellington and Canberra have maintained "smart" sanctions since 2006, hoping to force elections, believing it is the will of the majority of Fiji's 837,000 people (57% Fijian and 37% Indian).
However, remarkable data to be released to the forum, seen by the Sunday Star-Times, reveals strong support for Bainimarama and mounting public anger in Fiji toward New Zealand. Over two-thirds of both races support him, according to the data. There is even overwhelming support for his moves against the indigenous dominated Methodist Church.
A senior political figure admitted there was no surprise in the information. "We have expected it, but it does make it hard to decide what to do next."
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is due at the forum, although Australian media say she is facing a leadership spill as Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is tipped to return.