Thursday, November 09, 2006

Fiji Politics -October 2006 Crisis Background

Background on the stand-off between Fiji Military Forces and the Government of Fiji
By Sanjay Ramesh

A political scientist based in Sydney and writes for the World Press, Pacific Island Report, and Sydney Fiji Times.

The stand off between the Government of Fiji and the Fiji Military Forces has been going on since the Interim Government was formed in Fiji, following the coup attempt by the George Speight Group (GSG) in May 2000. In November 2000, members of the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRWU) regrouped and attacked the Fiji Military Forces base at Nabua with an intent to assassinate the Commander of the FMF, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. After killing seven soldiers, the CRWU, under the command of Captain Shane Stevens, was subdued by the Third Fiji Infantry Regiment (3FIR) led by Colonel Seruvakula, who is currently a colonel in the Royal New Zealand Armed Forces.

In 2001, the High Court of Fiji declared that the Constitution of Fiji was still valid. Following this decision, the Interim Government disbanded and launched a political party: Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Leweni Vanua (SDL). In August 2000, Fiji went to the polls among allegations from the embittered Fiji Labour Party (FLP) that the election was a “fraud.” Before the election, members of the Interim Government gave $30 million dollars of farm equipments to areas, where support for the Speight coup was the greatest.

In 2003, the situation between the government of Fiji and Commander started to seriously deteriorate after rumors that a foreign national was ear marked to take over as the chief of the Fiji Military Forces. Hardliners and supporters of the Speight coup in the SDL Government started courting senior army officers to rebel against the Commander. In one such incident in December 2003, some senior officers of the army accused Bainimarama of plotting to overthrow the government. Bainimarama and his loyal officers responded that the allegations of a coup were an attempt by the SDL to replace Bainimarama.

After a brief public altercation between the army and the government, the Ministry of Home Affairs renewed Bainimarama’s appointment, but shortly after, the army and the government clashed again as one of the major supporter of the SDL was convicted of inciting mutiny in the Fiji army and imprisoned. During the trial of high profile Naitasiri chief, Ratu Inoke Takeiveikata, names of a number of instigators in government were revealed.

Next on the list was the Bauan chief and Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli. He was convicted of providing support to the Speight government that was sworn in at the height of the crisis in 2000. The Government of Fiji intervened following the conviction and had Seniloli released on Compulsory Supervision Order (CSO). The military went ballistic over his release and accused the government of undermining the judiciary and the rule of law. The Attorney General of Fiji, Qoriniasi Bale, justified the release on medical grounds.

Two other high chiefs were convicted in 2005. Among them were the Minister in the Fiji Government, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, and Government appointed Senator, Ratu Josefa Dimuri. The Prime Minister of Fiji, Laisania Qarase, visited Ratu Naiqama in the prison shortly after his conviction, justifying his visit to the media as fulfilling his “traditional” obligation as Ratu Naiqama was his chief. Not soon after the PM’s visit, both convicts were released on CSO. Non Government Organisations (NGOs) questioned why the same provision of CSO was not extended to other indigenous Fijians in prison for petty offences.

The army accused the Fiji Government of supporting coup conspirators and warned that it was closely watching political interventions in support of coup convicts. In June 2005, the Government made public the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill (RTU), which among other things provided immunity to the perpetrators of the May 2000 coup. The military criticized the government for legalizing the release of the coup ringleaders. Not only the army but NGOs, Indo-Fijian organizations and segments of the indigenous Fijian community criticized the RTU Bill.

Those opposed to the bill argued that the bill had no provision for “truth telling”, an essential component in starting the healing process. The Fiji Law Society condemned the bill outright suggesting that the legislation would “legalise” a coup culture. The army in its submission to the Committee on the RTU Bill argued that coup leaders released on amnesty could re-group and stage even a more spectacular coup. The Government, meanwhile, strenuously defended the bill emphasising that the bill was based on the traditional Fijian concept of forgiveness called “matanigasau”.

Due to both domestic and international outcry, the government set aside the bill. Meanwhile, another government Senator was charged and convicted on coup related offences. Apisai Tora, the nationalist politician, involved in both 1987 and 200 coups, was convicted by the Lautoka High Court for setting up a road block in Sabeto Nadi, after the Speight takeover.

By the end of 2005, the government decided that it would not renew the contract of star coup prosecutor, Peter Ridgeway. This was seen by the army as an attempt by the government to scuttle coup prosecutions. Soon after Ridgeway’s non renewal of his contract, another Government MP, convicted of coup related charges, Simione Kaitani, was discharged by the courts.

In January 2006, lieutenant colonel Baledrokadroka requested that Bainimarama stand down due to his continued public attack against the government. Baledrokadroka was subsequently detained and evicted from the armed forces. Court martial for insubordination against Baledrokadroka is still pending.

The other issue that came head on in January was the refusal by the Home Ministry to appoint Fiji Law Society Chairman Graham Leung as the Judge Advocate for the court martial of CRWU officers, involved in the 2000 mutiny. Bainimarama lashed out at the Ministry for deliberately delaying the appointment to ferment division within the army.

After a number of threats by Bainimarama, the SDL requested the acting Vice President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi to mediate. Following a short meeting, it was agreed that the army would not publicly criticize the government.

Before the May 2006 elections, the SDL absorbed its coalition partner Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (CAMV). The CAMV was a party that lobbied hard for the release of the coup convict, George Speight. The military saw the merger as evidence of the SDL’s association with the coup plotters.

Just before the election, FMF Commander Bainimarama ordered the army chaplain to conduct a “truth” campaign in the villager. The objective of the campaign was to inform the indigenous Fijians that they had been misled by the SDL party on important national issues. The military argued that the release of the draft Qoliqoli bill by the SDL to return indigenous foreshore resources to its rightful owners was a smokescreen to mystify gullible Fijians. Furthermore, the army argued that the bill would fuel a culture of lawlessness among foreshore owners as they assert their rights without due consideration for the rule law. This according to the army would have grave consequences for foreign investment, particularly in the hotel industry in Fiji.

The SDL Government protested to the army against its “truth” campaign as a breach of an earlier understanding and further requested that the Fiji army stay out of Fiji politics.

In the May 2006 elections, the SDL won some 85 per cent of indigenous Fijian votes to form a government with the help of two independent candidates. The Fiji Labour Party members were invited to join a multiparty cabinet. These developments were largely welcomed by the army but soon after this cordial relationship turned sour.

The Government brought back the Qoliqoli bill and argued that it had the revised RTU Bill as well after taking into consideration a number of submissions from the civil society and the army. Bainimarama was not convinced and when the Qoliqoli bill in its final form became public, Bainimarama was disappointed and angry.

In October 2006, the frustrations of the Commander exploded as he gave the SDL three weeks to shelf the Qoliqoli and the revised RTU bills. Furthermore, Bainimarama requested that coup sympathizers within the government be sacked forth with. After making these statements, the Commander went to Sinai and Iraq to visit Fiji troops. Public relations at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks at Nabua was left to military spokesperson, Captain Leumeni.

Some months back, the Fiji military had ordered seven tonnes of bullets for its machine guns. In the middle of the row with the government, the bullets arrived at Suva wharf. Andrew Hughes, Fiji’s Police Commissioner since 2003, refused to authorize its release, arguing that the bullets may be used to depose the government. The army, however, went ahead and took custody of the ammunitions.

Before the 2006 elections, the army had accused the police of acting as an agent for the government when police acquired automatic weapons for its Police Tactical Unit (PTU).

Even when Bainimarama was overseas, he continued attacking the government. On Tuesday 31 October, Prime Minister went to see President Ratu Iloilo and requested that he sack Bainimarama. The President acquiesced but Bainimarama’s replacement refused to accept the offer.

The government of Fiji was getting nowhere. On Wednesday 1 October, Qarase went on Fiji Television at 7 pm and advised the nation that he will not resign and would start a dialogue with the army. Furthermore, Qarase requested Fiji’s hereditary chiefs, the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) to act as mediators in the stand off between the government and the army.

The situation in Fiji is described as a “Mexican stand off”. Meanwhile the army accepted the offer from Qarase to open dialogue on contentious issues. In addition the army wants police to investigate the role of Australian con man Peter Foster in rigging the 2006 elections by printing extra ballots. The army also wants Fiji’s Ambassador designate to the United Nations, Tupeni Baba, be investigated for his association with Peter Foster since 2001 general elections along with former SDL party secretary, Jale Baba.

From the Middle East, Bainimarama continued to verbally attack the government and has stated that the move to bring in the GCC as mediators will cause further instability. Bainimarama is on record for saying that the GCC has been compromised because it has members who are sympathetic to the George Speight coup.

Foreign governments including Australia, United States and New Zealand have criticized Bainimarama. The European Union and the Commonwealth have reiterated that military intervention in a democracy is clearly unacceptable. Fiji’s leader of opposition, Mick Beddoes, has lashed out at the army for creating fear and instability.

On 4 November, Fiji’s Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase revealed that the amnesty provision in the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill was entirely removed and that the future of the Qoliqoli and the Land Claims Tribunal Bills remained uncertain.

The military received the announcement on the RTU Bill with cautious optimism and was further buoyed by the additional $10 million, announced by the Minister of Finance in the 3 November 2006 Fiji Budget.

As the dust settles slightly on the latest tussle, both the army and the government are claiming victory, and with the return to Fiji of Commander Bainimarama on 4 November, there will undoubtedly be further discussions and negotiations. Meanwhile, the threat of an imminent coup in Fiji seems all but over.


Cal said...

as the son of the former police commissioner of fiji during this tempestuous time, this author has captured a majority of the fact accurately. a good piece.
Callum Hughes

Sai Lealea said...

Callum; I had the good fortune to have met your father in NZ once and thought he was doing a great job for Fiji. Just what Fiji needs right one am sad to note.