General Impressions

Fiji Report #3 by Crosbie Walsh

The PM accepts a bowl of yaqona at Raiwaqa

Where to start? Logically, at the beginning with Air Pacific and arrival. 

 The huge 747 plane from Auckland was full. Mainly tourists but with many others returning home. Service was excellent but I can't say I was impressed with the sausage-in-a-white-bun lunch or the use of Australian sugar. A roti package and local sugar would have been better. 

The TV on the back of the seat in front told me, in picture after picture, that Fiji was a land of many iTaukei but only one Indian, and this impression continued into the arrival hall where five Taukei immigration officers (there was space for eight) processed our plane from New Zealand and a smaller plane, a 737 I think, from Australia. The tourists seemed happy, other than the young children. It took 40 minutes to get through immigration, the duty free shops where tourists might have been surprised to see their first Indo-Fijians, and Customs, again all Taukei. A hangover from the past, perhaps, but not the multi-cultural image that government proclaims.

Queen's Road to Suva was no worse than I remembered it. There were pothole in places and lots of patches but Queen's Road and the other roads I saw were nowhere as bad as the anti-government bloggers make out. And King's Road, on the other side of the island by which we returned to Nadi, was a "dream" compared with the last time I used it. Three hours from Suva to Rakiraki. Unbelievable! I'll write more on this road and its potential in a later article.

My transport memory from when I lived in Fiji was one of old cars travelling far too fast, ramshackle buses and trucks belching diesel smoke, and an almost complete absence of traffic police. That definitely has changed. Traffic officers are far more visible. The average age of cars and buses has dropped. Diesel smoke and fumes are the exception. Very few people risk travelling over the 80kph traffic limit. Seat belts are compulsory for front and back seat passengers, and all taxis have fare meters.

Suva's roads and layout were not built for the volume of today's traffic but railings now separate pedestrians and drivers around the market, and the market itself is cleaner. Indeed, the whole CBD and Queen Elizabeth Drive to Suva Point and beyond are now much cleaner. Gone is the once ubiquitous litter of plastic bags and bottles. Once the historic Grand Pacific Hotel, now under repair thanks to investment money from Papua New Guinea, is restored and refurbished, tourists will have a pleasant walk though Thurston Garden, and along the Drive past the sentry at the gate to the President's palace. Which brings me back to the military presence in Suva.

It can be summed up in one short phrase: there is none. I did not see a single soldier in the West or along the Queen's or King's Road or on the streets of Suva. The anti-Government bloggers have been demanding the military "return to the barracks." They are already there— other than the soldier on guard at the President's Palace. Visitors unaware of the political situation would be surprised to know Fiji is ruled by a military dictatorship. New Zealand TV viewers, brought up a on diet of military in the street pictures, some dating from the Speight Coup of 2000, would not believe they were in Fiji.  

This, of course, does not mean that there is no military. Queen Elizabeth Barracks is not too far away from central Suva and the soldiers could be called upon if civil disturbances occurred that could not be controlled by the police. 

This is perhaps the most surprising feature of the Fiji political situation, if the anti-bloggers description of a nation ruled by the gun is true: there have been no political disturbances. What this means is hard to interpret. A year or so ago, when the Methodist annual conference was banned, anti-government spokesmen called for a protest march. Nothing eventuated. A later call from an Australian-based NGO also called for a protest march but no one turned up. 

More recently, the escape and rampage of five prisoners from Naboro maximum security prison has been  seen by some as an attempt by anti-Government elements to trigger more general disturbances and unrest, but again nothing happened. While this does not mean that Voqere Bainimarama has universal support;  it would seem to  mean his opponents have less support than they have claimed. A vote in 2006 for one of the old political parties does not mean they would win that  vote now, or in 2014.

On Friday, the day after I arrived, the PM was guest speaker at the opening of the Raiwaqa Rugby Club house, close to the site of the now demolished and infamous Housing Authority four-storey flats. New affordable housing is to be built on the site and the club is expected to give local youths a more socially healthy focus than was evident when the name Raiwaqa was synonymous with less savoury activities. 

Bainimarama arrived unguarded with one personal assistant. He spoke freely in English and in Fijian drawing smiles and laughs from the audience, and then received the customary gifts of yaqona, mats and pigs. Those present might not vote for him if he were to stand for election in 2014 but there was no obvious sign of fear or distrust. To all intents and purposes, he seems, for the moment, to be accepted as a benevolent dictator.

The two major papers failed to report the event which was surprising for the Fiji Sun given that most issues carry an item or a photograph of the PM. I understand it was reported later, on page 18 of the Fiji Times.

We have been told the media is limited in what it can report and that freedom of assembly is restricted. I'm sure this is so, up to a point, but during my stay there was a church rally at the National Stadium and the media reported several items critical of government, including Fr Barr's critique of the new wage increases (see also Weekend Readings), both sides of the dispute concerning Ratu Joni's appointment as a consultant to the Constitution Commission, and a public meeting co-sponsored by the Constitution Commission and the USP  on the "non-negotiable" tabu question of Fiji as a Christian state.

I'm told the Muslim cleric speaker at the meeting brought the house down with this joke: He said someone from Fiji went to Auckland to see a dentist.  The dentist fixed up his teeth but then asked: "Why did you come all the way to NZ to get your teeth attended to?  A dentist in Fiji could have fixed you up."  The man replied: "But you see, in Fiji we are not allowed to open our mouths."

Clever, but the fact that he told the joke and that a hundred or so people laughed showed that things have eased up considerably since the Public Emergency Regulations were lifted.  

In fact, all the people my wife and I spoke with were quite open in expressing their opinions. Some liked what Government was doing and some even questioned the need for an election. One young man from a squatter area said the PM had trudged though mud to inspect conditions in his settlement and ordered the immediate reconnection of its water supply. No PM under a  democracy had ever visited the settlement, and under a democracy fixing the water problem  could have taken weeks. Others were critical, most especially of the cost of living.

The cost of imported food is high, largely because of the 20% devaluation of the Fiji dollar, but locally produced foodstuff did not appear much more expensive than I can remember from my previous visit. Petrol was cheaper than it is in New Zealand. I had read in the anti-government blogs of the increase of beggars but I only saw two, and two obviously mentally impaired people walking the streets. 

The new MH shopping complex was full and people seemed to be spending freely, perhaps more than usual in anticipation of the Diwali celebrations. I have little doubt the poor are as numerous as ever and that the always wide gap between rich and poor has increased. This in part is probably due to the neo-liberal economic policies being pursued by government (and all previous governments), but it is also a consequence of the global economic recession and the sanctions and other policies imposed by foreign governments.

I was told that business confidence is recovering; that foreign investment is increasing, and the economy has started to turn itself around. I had no way of checking these claims, though I'll report on an American-Fiji Business survey in a later posting, and the new buildings in Suva and the cranes on the GPH lend them some credence. (See also Dr Jayaraman's article in this Weekend Readings.)

There are stories, that I'll explore later, of endemic corruption within the police and the likelihood of connections to organized crime, but the people I spoke to in Suva said there was less crime on the streets and I certainly felt relaxed walking back to my hotel after nightfall.

My overall impression was that Suva had changed little and the changes I witnessed were for the better.

Two old, important bridges, one near the market and the other on Fletcher Road, were declared dangerous and closed down during my visit. Their iron structures were found to be heavily corroded. Apparently only their handrails had been inspected on an annual basis. No one had inspected their structures. Similar negligence is responsible for the continuing breakdown of the city's water supply.

None of these long-standing problems will be fixed over night but it is hard to deny government credit for its efforts to change the "mindsets" that leads to neglect, to reduce corruption (there are "Stop Corruption" signs everywhere), to  improve public sector delivery, and generally to improve people's living environments. It is sad that it has taken a military government to seriously tackle these issues.


Watch for my next report early next week, and check out the Weekend Reading to be posted tomorrow.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Has the sugar industry been fixed ? This was a promise given by the PM and it was going to have been completed by 2009 ?
Stop Corruption said…
Agree with you croz. Can we stop corruption which appears to have grown alarmingly since Dec 2006? Did you find out how much bainimarama and khaiyum pay themselves through khaiyum's aunt? If this is not corruption (and treason) I don't know what is?
Anonymous said…
Dr Walsh, you must have not read the paper properly. The Fiji Sun had two reports on the PM at Raiwaqa in the paper next day, one on their news pages and one on their sports pages in more detail. You should check with your friend Lomas.
Anonymous said…
Croz, Thank you for giving us the true picture in Fiji. As we can see by the comments above some people just dont want to accept that things have changed FOR THE BETTER. I am sure you will receive a dump of anti government comments on your Fiji postings, we know how clouded they are when it comes to the positives that have happened since 2006. They harp on about the same old issues, completely ignoring the good that government has done. I look forward to your future postings.
Sort of said…
The question we need to ask is the good this government has done significantly better than previous governments. Does it warrant the massive economic decline we had post coup and are yet to recover from ? Also given the unprecedented power this government has enjoyed (little oppositiona nd the power the write any law any day it wants) should it have acheived a lot more ? It certainly promised a whole lot more. For example it promised the suagr industry would be fixed by 2009 - clearly it is still in a state of decline.
Why ? .......................................................... said…
Why are people not protesting ?

Is it because they are all elated with the military government or is it because they are totally scared of the military government ?

I would suggest neither.

More likely there is nothing horribly offensive about this government to the everyday Fijian that would warrant the possibility of facing some reprecussions from being seen to be anti-government.
Anonymous said…
Mahen answers that question in a NFU press release yesterday. He however neatly forgets that 1) he was part of the this Government ! 2) he needs the industry to be in decline to attck government 3) he himself has done nothing to arrest the decline in the last 10 years.

Frank on the other hand was a fool to make his original promises. Or back then he believed them - I'm not sure which. Obviously as time has passed he has found it hard so why not just ignore them. And he is PM with massive power so why just restrict himeself to a Army salary. Why not help himslef to a big new package and lots of benefits. After all he is worth it and he has given lot back to his military supporters as well.
Action is what we need - spread the word said…
The miliary should round all negative bloggers and beat the shit out of them or at least make them run around the barracks with riffles buts up their....

Lets get everyone behind a campaign to dob in anyone that is anti-governemnt. The RFMF guys can pay them personal visits again and move Fiji forward once and for all.

Croz and fellow Bloggers join me getting this going. Publish, shame, beat the negativity out of everyone.
%$#@! said…
1. there was no public demonstrations or unrest prior to the coup either.
2. what were the hard questions you asked bainimarama - such as about accountability in relation his 'backpay' and actual pays and payment to ministers that need to be paid through a relative of the AG? Where is the auditor-generals reports on the regime finances?
3. any representations of 'fijians' in marketing fiji and the racial makeup of staff in immigration has been and is the respobislity of the current regime.They have had six years.
4. There are sign saying 'Stop Corruption'??!! presumably if there were signs saying 'Stop Coups' we wouldn't have had four.
clean up said…
Croz, I note fowl language and calls for violence creeping into you blog over the last few weeks. I do remember you attacking Coup4.5 over this type of stuff. Trust you will clean this up quickly and not allow just becuase it is pro-coup stuff.
Crosbie Walsh said…
@ Clean up. I presume you're referring to the comment by "Action is what is needed..." I read this as heavy satire: an anti-government reader pretending to be pro-government. I could be wrong but others write in this way.
Gutter Press said…
Crosbie, it’s ironic that despite the regime’s best effort to ethnically homogenize the word Fijian, you start your critique by dividing our citizens into i'Taukei and ‘Indian’ – not even Indo Fijian. It goes some way to show how fraught this politically correct exercise has been, and probably will continue to be, until it’s finally dismissed as a brave but misguided attempt to make all citizens feel as one.

A few years ago, as a prelude to the name change, Sayed Khaiyum mentioned that institutions in Australia were ‘Australian’, whereas institutions in Fiji were the ‘Fiji’ this and that rather than 'Fijian' - for example the Fiji Law Society. He gave this as one of the reasons that there was a need for perceptions to change.

How ironic then that he too, who had a part to play in renaming Air Pacific, approved the name ‘Fiji’ Airways, instead of ‘Fijian’ Airways.

Lest someone point out that it’s just a resumption of the historic name, ask why it was named ‘Fiji’ Airways in the first place.

Some things are too deeply ingrained in the social consciousness to be removed and the majority perception that Fijian signifies a race apart seems to have been unintentionally underlined by your opening paragraph and the new name of our airline.
Cin Cin said…
@Croz

You write - ......'but it is hard to deny government credit for its efforts to change the "mindsets" that leads to neglect, to reduce corruption (there are "Stop Corruption" signs everywhere)...'

Seriously? I would have thought that one of the singular achievements of this regime has been to instill in the minds of the public that corruption, official or otherwise, is perfectly acceptable - the issue of backpay and the curious lack of audited govt. accounts merely reinforce this.
Lesley said…
Fiji Airways is much easier to say than Fijian Airways. Air New Zealand is not called Air New Zealander.
Blatant theft said…
Croz
The junta actually paid the trip to fiji for you and your misguided missus for you to write this drivel? Pay the money back - this is total garbage.
Anonymous said…
*Sigh* No, Lesley you're right. And Air France isn't called Air French either. But you miss the point.
Crosbie Walsh said…
Blatant theft ... If you mean you do not agree with me, just say so but get your facts right on who paid for what. All that would take is for you to actually read the article you judged garbage. I suspect that whatever I say will make no difference to your opinion so why bother to read and comment on this blog. You are wasting your time, and mine.
Anonymous said…
Dear Professor Walsh,

I have been living and working here since 1991. What you have published in your first piece of reporting from your recent trip is a very fair and accurate description of my own impressions. I liked the fact that someone calls the economic policies what they are (neoliberal)and still wonder why this has not changed. Anyhow, I am looking forward to read more.
Anonymous said…
Croz - like many regular followers I read your blog regularly and rarely post. Great to get an independent view on how things are on the ground in Fiji.

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