American postgraduate student Kelly Schumann spent six weeks in July-August in Fiji doing volunteer work and asking just about everybody she met what they thought of the political situation.
She lived much of her time with a family in Lautoka, had a week at Litivia village, rafted on the Upper Navua, mountain biked in the Nausori Highlands, and spent a short time in Suva where, quite by accident, she met Bainimarama. In all, she visited three islands, two rural villages, two cities and a number of small towns. Most of the people she spent time with were ethnic Fijians.
Her report "Fiji in the Summer of 2009: Impressions of Society and the Post-Coup Regime" is an honest, in parts insightful, and in some ways a curious document. It is curious because it comprises two accounts that do not quite match. The first account is based on what she actually experienced and heard in Fiji, most of it positive; the second is based on what she read and viewed after she left, all of it negative.
"I’ve been amazed at what a different experience I had and what a different impression I got," she writes. "Is it possible that all these reports and stories are wrong or exaggerated? Or could I really have missed all these terrible things going on around me?" Unable to reconcile the two, she concludes, not very convincingly, that she had not spent enough time in Suva where most of the negative happenings occurred. But Lautoka had its share.
What follows below are brief extracts of her Fiji experiences, intentionally tantalizing, that I hope will persuade you to read the full report.
Fiji is by no means a thriving democracy. Its leadership has been usurped, its constitution abrogated and elections pushed back another five years. But while international scholars the world over warn of a rapidly deteriorating, failed state, the view from inside Fiji as I observed it does little to substantiate their fears. Though the attitude of the interim prime minister, himself, does leave reason to worry, the state of the local economy, the tourism industry, the effects of military rule and the general public sentiment all point to a country surviving the dictatorship of an unelected government better than anyone could have expected. Such resilience and optimism are hard to believe, but this is what I found.
Public opinion is as varied as Fiji’s terrain and across generations and locations, people are altogether undecided about the current political situation. Some people are frustrated, some are sympathetic, some couldn’t be more supportive.While there were a few who voiced minor frustrations with the state of the government, there was no hostility, no anger, just confusion, maybe. Confusion as to why it would take so long, why his (Bainimarama's) explanations do little to answer their questions, why he appears to be working harder to maintain power than to improve living conditions or to restore the constitution.
The vast majority of people I met thought like Wais – they were ready to vote, ready to be a democracy but patiently waiting for the polls to open. They followed politics closely, they knew what was happening and they were waiting for Bainimarama to come through on his promises. Patience and understanding seem to abound in Fiji, so it’s really no surprise they manifest themselves here as well.
Inoke (aged 17) said “I think he just wants power. Five years to rewrite a constitution? It’s already been three. I think he just wants to be prime minister for a while.” But Wais, her father, said he was willing to give Frank the benefit of the doubt. But he still wasn’t a staunch supporter. He wasn’t exactly excited about waiting until 2014. “Frank wants to stop the race-based voting. And he’s right about that. We shouldn’t vote again until race is taken out of it, but it’s going to take a while."
Soldiers and Crime
Impressions of a “military dictatorship” might lead us to believe that soldiers roam the streets, inciting fear in every civilian. That was certainly what I thought initially, based on reports I had read about the regime. Soldiers do not roam the streets with AK-47s. And more importantly, neither soldiers nor anyone else are going around inciting fear in the public. When a number of different people in Lautoka recounted to me the reasons they had each moved up from Suva within the last few years, they told me it rained too much for their liking, the city was too big and unfriendly, it was no place to raise their children or they had moved to be with family. Not one person who had lived in Suva during the coup or in the three years after cited military behaviors as a reason for feeling uncomfortable in the city or for moving elsewhere.
Furthermore, while the Fiji police force has again taken charge of protecting the streets, there was a period of about three months after the coup when the military assumed their role. Even with all the anticipation and anxiety that immediately follows a coup-d’état like this one, all I heard about those few months was how much safer the streets were than they had been before or have been since.
Mark, a Swiss national who's been in Fiji for seven years:“There was just so much crime. So much stealing, violence. But after the coup, no more. There was no more rape, no more theft, no more violence. The soldiers did a better job with the streets than the police do now.” “So you felt safer when the military was in the streets?” I ask for clarification. “Ah, yes. It is much better for us to have soldiers in the streets, as you say, than the police. When the military had to go back to their camp, things got much worse.”
It’s my last Friday in Fiji and my host family invites my friends and me to a party at their club. It’s a big shindig – the food and drinks are on the house and there are probably more than 150 people mingling around. Partway through the night, Sereana, my host mom, who knows how interested I am in Fijian politics, walks my way to tell me that the PM has just arrived at the party. I jump out of my seat and start looking around. I’ve seen a number of pictures of Frank and watched him give a speech, so I feel like I should be able to recognize him, even at a party this big, but I can’t even find a single guy in a military uniform. I remember that he was wearing a sulu the day of the speech so I scan the crowd again, but still nothing. Finally, I ask Sereana and once she stops laughing at me, she tells me he’s not wearing either. She points to a man in a Bula shirt and khaki pants drinking a Fiji Bitter beer.
His company looks just as casual as he does, save for one young man who’s wearing a sulu and happens to be the largest Fijian I’ve ever seen. Apparently he’s Frank’s bodyguard, but his main job seems to be refilling Frank’s beer.
I’m introduced to Mr. Bainimarama and he’s kind enough to pose for a picture. I tell him I’m from the U.S., that I’m volunteering here for six weeks and that I have absolutely loved Fiji so far. Obviously, I would have really liked to ask him questions about the government and his plans for restoring democracy, but he has a pretty long way to go in his tray of Fiji Bitters and I don’t want to kill his buzz. I also don’t want to be deported, so I step aside and let my British friends say hello as well.
Meeting Frank was surprisingly surreal. It wasn’t scary. It didn’t feel oppressive. He was just a guy at a party with his friends (and his servant bodyguard). There may be another side to Frank that I missed that night, the one I had expected to see – the side of him that stormed into the government buildings and commandeered the reigns of the national government, that has arrested and intimidated political opponents and has threatened to shut down dissenting media entities. But what I saw was not what I had expected at all.
Looking back now, Frank may have been just another guy at a party, but he’s still a military dictator and one aspect of his military government that particularly worries Fiji Islanders and the international community alike is the extent to which Bainimarama will use military force to maintain his position.
Propaganda and Censorship
Because propaganda and censorship can be subtly deceiving, it is difficult to discern whether one has become a victim of either. So to say I felt like I wasn’t being fed propaganda or shown only censored reports may in fact be to say that Bainimarama’s government has censored the media quite effectively indeed. Nonetheless, I don’t feel like I was being fed propaganda or shown only censored media. On a local Fijian computer in my local Fijian home, the only thing I wasn’t able to access were music videos on YouTube, which due to copyright laws, people in Great Britain can’t even watch. I did, however, read articles from Sydney and Auckland and blogs from within Fiji, all of which heavily criticized the government.
Bainimarama and the Future
After living in Fiji for six weeks, I’m optimistic about the future, as are most of the Fijians I met there. What worries me the most, however, is Frank’s general attitude and demeanor. There were only a handful of times while I was in Fiji that I was deeply concerned for the state of the government and every time it was because I had read or heard a comment from Commander Bainimarama. I have never heard a government leader respond so rashly to questions or appear so delusional in the face of his opposition. He refuses to understand why he has political opponents in the first place. He is stubborn and child-like in almost every conversation I’ve seen, and he doesn’t appear to have even considered holding elections sooner than 2014.
[Note:I find Kelly's final assessment of Bainimarama puzzling, given her earlier comments, and wonder how much is based on her Fiji experience and how much on her post-Fiji reconstruction. Fijians are not Americans, and they sometimes respond differently to any number of situations.]