U.S. Ambassador: Elections, Fair Constitution Key to Restoring Fiji's Democracy

HONOLULU (June 11) -- Instability in Fiji following the 2006 military overthrow of the government should be resolved through democratic elections and the adoption of a constitution granting equal rights to the country's two largest ethnic groups, according to a U.S. diplomat in the region.

Speaking at the East-West Center, Steven McGann, the U.S. ambassador to Fiji, said that one factor in the government takeover was longstanding tensions between ethnic and Indo-Fijians that also helped fuel three previous coups since 1987.

In December 2006, Commodore Frank Bainimarama ousted the ethnic-Fijian government and vowed to scrap the country's constitution, arguing it discriminates against the Indo-Fijian minority. In April, Fiji's Court of Appeals ruled the coup was illegal and instructed President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to prepare for democratic elections, according to media reports.

In response, Iloilo, a close ally of Bainimarama, declared the country's constitution invalid and appointed an "interim" government with Bainimarama continuing on as prime minister. In the wake of that action, Bainimarama has ordered restrictions on journalists and destruction of court documents — actions that have been condemned by the UN Security Council.

The United States, meanwhile, has imposed sanctions on Fiji and called for democracy to be restored, said McGann. Sanctions range from a halt to military assistance to a freeze on peacekeeping missions and tighter visa restrictions against coup leaders and senior Fijian officials, he said, but the U.S. has avoided imposing broader economic sanctions that could hamper growth and thus harm ordinary Fijians.

"We see our major role as to engage Fiji's government to … move it toward a sustainable, duly-elected civilian government, based on a workable constitution," McGann explained. "That takes a lot of prodding and nudging, and it is particularly difficult in a situation in which … to be quite honest, there is no democratic tradition in Fiji."

"I do think the political situation in Fiji has dragged on unnecessarily long," he added.

McGann's talk came shortly before Fiji was suspended from the 16-nation Pacific Island Forum in early May for its refusal to set a date for elections this year. The forum has criticized Fiji for what it calls a disregard for democracy, human rights and freedom.

Bainimarama has countered by saying elections must be postponed until 2014 because the country's constitution needs to be rewritten.

McGann said Fiji's suspension from the Pacific Island Forum was expected because leaders from the regional group had signed a resolution as early as February to remove Fiji if it failed to show progress toward holding elections.

"At that time, everyone knew there would be no elections in 2009. So that resolution … had an automatic trigger," he said.

It's unclear what will be the implications of Fiji's suspension from the forum, according to McGann, who also serves as the U.S. ambassador to Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Kingdom of Tonga. But he stressed the United States supports the forum's push for Fiji to present a roadmap for elections.

"We believe that once there is a credible process, one that is agreed upon by all Fijians, that addresses the core issues, then the forum will act accordingly," he said.

Despite the deep-rooted tensions underlying the island nation's political turmoil, McGann said, he remains hopeful that the different sides can address their differences peacefully.

"I think they can resolve it. They have to create the appropriate political climate. It has to start with the government," he said. "All the parties have to be willing to come to the table and openly discuss differences and have a commitment to a resolution."

In other developments, McGann noted that the United States would increase its footprint in the Pacific through the relocation of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014. He said that the entire region should reap economic benefits from the military buildup.

Additional U.S. initiatives in the Pacific include partnerships to combat climate change, sea-level rise and illegal fishing in the region, as well as promoting democratic reform in Tonga, McGann said.

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