By Graham Davis
|Ratu Tevita aka RokoUlui|
Mara had been removed as commander of Fiji’s biggest military regiment and charged with sedition after he allegedly made critical comments about Bainimarama during a trip to South Korea. He’s also been linked to the alleged disappearance of F$ 3-million from the coffers of the state-owned timber company, Fiji Pine. Mara protested his innocence during his court appearance, obtained bail and was forced to surrender his passport. But having reported to police as part of his bail conditions, he suddenly vanished, eventually turning up on a Youtube posting in which he eviscerated Bainimarama as morally and intellectually bankrupt.
How did he get away?
As the Fijian authorities try to piece together what happened —taking in Mara’s wife, relatives and close associates for questioning— some intriguing details are emerging. Mara travelled from Suva to the southern tip of Fiji’s southernmost island, Kadavu, and spent the night in a bure in the Nagigia Island surfing resort. A local boatman says he saw him in the company of a European man and they were joined by another European man with an indigenous Fijian wife.
In a sensational revelation if confirmed, the feverish coconut radio in Suva has it that this man is surfing instructor Tim McBride, who is married to Mara’s niece, Koila Ganilau. Koila is the daughter of Adi Ateca Mara, Tevita Mara’s elder sister, and Bainimarama’s predecessor as military chief, Brigadier Epeli Ganilau. Epeli Ganilau was defence minister in Bainimarama’s government but resigned in a dispute last year, apparently over the regime’s desire to impose higher taxes on one of Fiji’s main exports, Fiji Water.
|Nagigia Island Resort Kadavu|
According to the local boatman at Nagigia, he took some of Mara’s party to a larger vessel that then headed for open seas. Precisely where this vessel then made contact with the Tongan naval patrol boat is now at the centre of a diplomatic storm, with Fiji accusing Tonga of violating its sovereignty by secretly entering its waters. Tonga’s chief secretary, the unlikely-named Busby Kautoke, maintains that Mara’s status was “a man rescued at sea”. But while Mara himself said he’d been picked up after issuing a distress signal, the relevant authorities in Fiji and New Zealand say no distress signal was ever detected.
So it appears that the Tongan King sent one his ships into Fiji to enact a political rescue, plucking his relative from the clutches of Fijian law and providing a base for Mara to wage war on Bainimarama. Needless to say, Frank is less than pleased and the traditionally close relationship between Fiji and Tonga has entered its own perilous waters. A plausible explanation from the Tongan authorities is still awaited, not least as to how someone without a passport was able to enter the country so freely.
King George has been travelling in Europe after being famously mistaken for Mohammed Al- Fayed at the recent wedding of Wills and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. His prime minister, Lord Tu’ivakano, says its up to the Fijian authorities to pursue an extradition request through the normal legal channels. That has now been lodged but is given little chance of success, partly because Tonga’s chief justice, Michael Scott, is something of a refugee from Fiji himself. Justice Scott was once on the bench in Suva but fell out with Fiji’s chief justice, Anthony Gates, over what he perceived to be Gates’s support for the Bainimarama regime.
|Happier times? Bainimarama (l) Ratu Tevita|
Tea, bro? Former allies Bainimarama (2nd from left) and Mara (far right)
Hatred for Khaiyum
Since he arrived at Consular House, Mara has been granting audiences to the regional and global media, portraying Bainimarama as a tyrant in the thrall of his Indo-Fijian attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Mara’s hatred for Khaiyum is visceral and expressed in crudely racial terms. In both English and Fijian language postings on Youtube, Mara casts him as an overly ambitious Muslim seeking to exercise control over the country through his puppet, Bainimarama. It’s a none-too-subtle play on indigenous fears of Indian domination in a racially divided Fiji and has raised fears that part of Mara’s agenda is to derail Bainimarama’s push for a level playing field for all citizens. Certainly, his language suggests that he may not share his father, Kamisese Mara’s, commitment to multiracialism.
Boost to regime's opponents: Coup-Four-Point-Five hysterical, bordering certificable
Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, Mara’s defection is the biggest boost for the regime’s opponents in a long time. Their recent setbacks include a change of heart on Fiji by Australia’s most prestigious Melanesian think tank, the Lowy Institute, which is now arguing for re-engagement and acceptance of Bainimarama’s election timetable of 2014. This unleashed a storm of abuse on anti-government websites that immediately turned to glee at the prospect of Tevita Mara leading a movement in exile against the hated dictator.
Some of the content on sites like Coup Four-point-Five is frequently hysterical and occasionally borders on the certifiable. A group calling itself “Strategic HQ desk” has called for a peoples’ revolt in Fiji in the coming week, including a general strike. Part of its advice to civil servants is to put sedatives in their minister’s tea “ to make him senile” and “mix his water with a sweet ingredient that will put him to sleep”.
Coup Four- Point-Five has become the media outlet of choice for Tevita Mara and is also the source of some journalistic howlers that have made their way into the mainstream media in New Zealand and Australia. The website breathlessly reported that Bainimarama was planning to remove Fiji’s president, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, whose wife, Adi Koila, is one of Tevita Mara’s elder sisters.
The story was picked up by Fairfax New Zealand’s Pacific correspondent, Michael Field, who Bainimarama expelled from Fiji and has a history of slanted reporting on the country, including two adverse findings by the New Zealand Press Council. Field’s story was picked up by TVNZ and he subsequently told it in person in an interview on Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat, one of the region’s prime sources of news. It was wrong – as Bainimarama wearily explained to the censored local media – admonishing its international colleagues for being “naughty”.
But it wasn’t as wrong as Coup Four-Point-Five’s story that the President was holed up at Government House working on a counter strategy to dismiss Bainimarama and then seek refuge in the US embassy. The President was nowhere near Government House and still on an official visit to distant Rotuma. But such is the static generated on the coconut radio by Mara’s sensational defection.
New dissident leader in exile?
What now? Assuming Fiji’s fails in its extradition request, Mara faces a lengthy exile. Will he be content to languish in the royal residences of Nuku’alofa playing war games with King George’s famous lead toy soldiers? Or will he head for New Zealand or Australia and head the loose anti-regime movement that has been so singularly unsuccessful in dislodging Bainimarama. The dictator himself has suggested the latter, telling the Fiji media that he doesn’t care if Mara goes to Australia and joins another disgruntled former fellow officer in exile, Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka. Baledrokadroka – who has close links to a high chief jailed over the 2000 Speight coup – was charged with insubordination for opposing Bainimarama before his own coup in 2006. He soon left for Australia and was granted a fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra, from where he conducts a steady campaign against the regime, including some colourful invective on Coup Four-Point-Five.
The ANU happens to be a hot-bed of anti-regime activity. On its staff is the Indo-Fijian historian, Brij Lal, whose criticism of Bainimarama saw him barred from Fiji, and Dr Jon Fraenkel, a former lecturer at the University of the South Pacific in Suva who is married to a indigenous Fijian. Both men wage war on the regime in the Australian media, Brij Lal as commentator of choice on Radio Australia and Jon Fraenkel in several pieces in The Australian, including one this week in which he argued that Australia continue its hardline approach to Fiji. Will Tevita Mara be joining them? His time at the Malaysian Armed Forces Staff College may or may not hold him in good academic stead.
But while Mara may be a regarded as a fugitive from justice in Fiji, there’s a certain historical symmetry in him seeking refuge with the Tongan king. In the 1840s, a Tongan prince called Ene’ele Ma’afu sought refuge on Mara’s home island of Lakeba in Fiji when he was seen as a rival for the Tongan throne. He aligned himself with Mara’s direct ancestor, the Tui Nayau, and eventually went to war on his behalf, conquering a string of islands in eastern and northern Fiji. Ma’afu, the Tongan, eventually entered history as one of Fiji’s most powerful and celebrated chiefs and played a large part in ceding the islands to Britain in 1874.
As he becomes a diplomatic thorn in the relationship between Fiji and Tonga, Tevita Mara’s own horizons probably lie much further afield in New Zealand or Australia. But he and the resolutely single King George are certain to have plenty to talk about when their war games are over and they while away the lonely hours of a balmy Pacific night.
Grubsheet, Graham Davis’s blog. http://www.grubsheet.com.au/?p=309
Welcome to a corner of cyberspace that challenges conventional assumptions and proffers the kind of opinions that infuriate the chattering classes. The difference between us and them is that our tongues are planted firmly in our cheeks. And unlike them, we thrive on our views being challenged so long as originality and wit triumph over mindless abuse. Please don't label your return volley "anonymous". Give yourself a name or pseudonym so readers can track your progress in the intellectual melee. Graham Davis and Peter Hiscock
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