Fiji Day 2013 Plus One (and More)
By Crosbie Walsh
Reflections on Fiji Day, post-Independence Fiji and today.
The parades, salutes, messages and speeches are over for another year and it is time to review these signals from Fiji's National day.
Congratulatory messages were received from a host of nations, including the USA, but the event seemed to have passed unnoticed in Australia and NZ. Not even ABC's Pacific Beat or RNZ International had a mention. But there was one exception:
NZ's online Scoop paper published an article by self-exiled Ratu Tevita Mara in which, among other things, he referred to a "murderous Bainimarama" (surely a libellous offence) and claimed his brother-in-law, the President, had not wished or been able to address the nation on this special day. In fact, summaries of the President's speech were published by most Fiji papers, it was broadcast live, and the full speech can be read on the Government website.
His further claim that Fiji's "media is totally controlled" sits strangely with the publication, by the supposedly pro-Bainimarama Fiji Sun, of highly critical comments of Government by Mahendra Chaudhry, of which more below, but I liked Ratu Tevita's apoclypsic references to an "evil dictatorship", "barrel of a gun" and a "reign of terror." They were so original.
Prior to the day
Prior to the day, longstanding Government critic Shamima Ali of the Women's Crisis Centre
"called on all the citizens of Fiji not to forget the true meaning of independence [and] the importance of accountable democratic governance." Fair enough, but her reminders to Government on health services, social welfare, education, the disadvantaged and women seemed a little hollow, given that this government has probably done more on these matters than any previous government.
There could also have been stings in the tail of the message from Methodist Church President, Rev. Dr. Tuikilakila Waqairatu. His call for "liberation from oppressive structures" and the need for "leaders who empower the people rather than ruling them" was ambiguous, to say the least. But is was good to see him calling for respect for different ethnicities and cultures, and a "just, compassionate and peaceful society." These are very different positions from those of previous church leaders.
On the day itself
On the day itself, the Fiji Times reported that "hundreds" had attended the Albert Park celebration while Fiji Broadcasting reported "thousands", and the Fiji Sun editorial called for the promotion of greater tolerance and social harmony.
President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau (Ratu Tevita's brother-in-law!) called on people to put aside their differences, which he considered more contrived and manipulated that innate, and rejected by the overwhelming majority of Fijians. He said Fiji's post-Independence history showed
the country can overcome challenges, and pointed to the 2013 Constitution as the way forward. For the first time, he said, we are all Fijians, we have guaranteed basic rights, and the two vernacular languages are being taught in schools.
FLP leader Mahendra Chaundhry told the Fiji Sun the nation had regressed and had "little to celebrate." At Independence in 1970, he said, "We had a parliamentary democracy with a constitution that guaranteed our people their basic human rights and freedoms and fully protected the interests of indigenous as well as other communities."Today is a "sorry picture of a nation in distress" with "little hope" of credible elections, or a "return to the liberties and freedoms we enjoyed at the time of Independence 43 years ago."
It is understandable, as people get older, that their views of the "good old days" get distorted. Mr Chaundry has clearly forgotten his many speeches on land, leases and racial inequalities adversely affecting the Indo-Fijian population, tens of thousands of whom have emigrated since Independence.
The United Front for a Democratic Fiji (SODELPA, FLP, NFP, - a revived UPP that Mike Beddoes had previously declared defunct - and the FTUC) were similarly unenthused, claiming that people's rights continued to be abused, and called on the public to "look behind the headlines of the regime's media support group, see what was really happening, and not be so gullible."
Interestingly, some have argued that the SDL before its reincarnation as the SODELPA relied heavily on voter gullibility to keep it in power.
My own take on Fiji's achievements since Independence is that the country has fared far better than most former colonies of comparable complexity. There have been no civilian deaths for political causes; the judiciary has remained independent, though both the Qarase and Bainimarama governments shortened some of its prison sentences. Arrests, imprisonment and torture have been limited, of short duration or minimal, other than Speight's kidnapping of parliamentarians, his alleged torture of Chaudhry and the abuse of NGO women in 2007, in which, please note, Ratu Tevita Mara was directly involved. And restrictions on some human and political rights have affected the urban vocal classes far more than ordinary people who are more concerned about basic livelihood than speaking rights.
The relative moderation, shown in all the coups, is a credit to the basic decency of all Fijians, and the element of "idealism" that was wrapped up with the less noble purposes that brought about each of the coups. Rabuka was not totally convinced about ethno-nationalism; Speight's hidden supporters had mixed feelings about his actions; and Bainimarama did not start a coup to prevent his arrest.
The 2006 Coup and today
The 2006 coup started as a rejection of proposed Qarase legislation on immunity for the 2000 coup plotters and the Qoliqoli Bill, and as a "clean up" campaign on corruption, then considered "rampant" according to The Fiji Times.
It progressed to wide community involvement during its People's Charter phase (opposed by most old politicians); took a step backwards (with help from its opponents) after the 2009 Court of Appeal decision and the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution; moved forward to the setting up of the Ghai Commission (despite the early opposition of the old politicians); and took another step backwards due to the unacceptable transitional clauses of Professor Ghai's draft constitution (applauded by the old politicians).
It is now poised to move forward again with a basically sound constitution and elections in 2014 (opposed by the same old politicians who could still derail the whole process). It seems the old politicians want nothing more than to return Fiji to how it was before the 2006 Coup.
If, as I think, most Fijians want to move forward, whatever the perceived imperfections of the 2013 Constitution, the old politicians are risking ongoing redundancy — which may not be a bad thing if they don't make themselves more useful and relevant to present realities. They could, for example, seek amendments to the constitutional clauses to which they most object instead of condemning the document out of hand. I think in particular of wider representation in the Constitutional Offices Commission prior to the elections, and more positive noises about election preparations.
They would also be well advised to reflect on Ratu Tevita's "reign of terror" and thank God the chief is delusional. Otherwise two former prime ministers and their supporters would not be walking the streets of Suva. They would be dead or imprisoned.
How fortunate they are to live in a Fiji that, despite setbacks over the past 43 years and ongoing shortcomings, is still afloat thanks to the wisdom of some of its leaders and the tolerance of most of its people.