Fiji's Conundrum

by Gerard A. Finin

(Note: This commentary originally appeared in the May 2009 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review.)

HONOLULU (May 7) - In recent weeks Fiji's political turmoil has taken an ominous turn, with a harsh crackdown on all forms of political dissent. What began on Dec. 5, 2006 as a preannounced and generally peaceful military takeover led by Commodore "Frank" Bainimarama is fast becoming a more complex conundrum for Fiji's military, citizens and the international community. More than ever it appears that the regime, in the face of resistance and setbacks, is responding by becoming increasingly oppressive.

Political repression and reports of human-rights abuses come in the wake of a court of appeals decision on April 9 stating that President Josefa Iloilo's actions in establishing the interim government and making promulgations after the coup were unconstitutional. As the fa├žade of legality of Fiji's military junta was cast off, the constitution was officially abrogated. Shortly thereafter, key individuals who had been holding leadership positions in the so-called interim government were given the same portfolios in the new "caretaker cabinet." Dialogue between political parties and Mr. Bainimarama that only a few months ago appeared promising have broken down, the often repeated promises to conduct national elections (now promised by 2014) are increasingly vacuous, and there is little prospect for a quick resolution.

It is not so much that Fiji is falling apart, but rather that it has never fully come together. In the past it was common for all Fiji's political troubles to be simplistically attributed to ethnic tensions between indigenous Fijians and Fijians of Indian ancestry who came in the 1800s as indentured plantation workers and presently constitute approximately 40% of the population. More important today is the fragility of the indigenous "nation," still divided along the lines of traditional confederacies as well as multiple fissures based on class distinctions. The regime's suspension of the time-honored Great Council of Chiefs has further destabilized the situation.

Pressures to alter traditional land-tenure arrangements also underlie the instability that led to the current coup government. More than 80 percent of all land in Fiji continues to be managed under traditional tenure arrangements by indigenous Fijians. In addition to providing daily subsistence for the vast majority of rural Fijians, land continues to evoke deep cultural and spiritual value. Global pressures by development institutions have tended to accentuate tensions within Fiji by stressing economic growth and the free rein of market forces over social equity. Hastily reduced barriers to trade have severely undermined sugar and garment exports, exacerbating unemployment.

While Fiji has endured three previous coups since independence from the United Kingdom in 1970, it still managed to exude a generally positive image with impressive gains in tourism. This image has been significantly reinforced over the past decade by the globally marketed, upscale bottled water named in honor of the nation, making Fiji a more widely recognized destination. Building on its prominence in the South Pacific during the colonial era, democratic Fiji has steadily grown to become an important regional center for trade, diplomacy, and a host of international agencies, as well as the impressive University of the South Pacific (owned collectively by 12 island governments). Fiji is a keystone to regional stability. Now, for the first time, serious questions are being raised about whether it will be possible for the island nation to retain its special position.

Certain features distinguish Fiji's current political situation from previous bouts of instability. In the past, Australia was perceived to have pushed harder than other metropolitan powers for sanctions, and frequently served as the "big brother" lecturing Fiji at international fora. Over the past two years, however, New Zealand has been cast by Mr. Bainimarama in the role of chief villain, based in part on its public pronouncements and lengthy list of Fiji citizens who are banned from entering the country. This has been particularly apparent at international sporting events, such as hugely popular rugby tournaments, hosted by New Zealand. Fiji's declaration of New Zealand's Suva-based High Commissioner as persona non grata has not helped relations with Wellington.

Moreover, for the first time in memory, the junta has lashed out at other Pacific island leaders, including Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, violating a long-honored custom that Pacific island leaders do not criticize each other publicly. On May 1, Oceania's premier regional organization, the Pacific Islands Forum, for the first time suspended one of its own members, in spite of the fact that its headquarters is located in Fiji's capital. Ironically, it is the regime's current military leader, Mr. Bainimarama, who following Fiji's third coup in 2000, bravely orchestrated the installation of an independent civilian government that was subsequently democratically elected. At that time Mr. Bainimarama was widely hailed for his adherence to the rule of law and was named "Man of the Year" by Fiji's Sunday Post.

Fiji Islanders understand the daunting challenges their leaders have faced over the past 39 years of nationhood. This, along with the experience of previous coups that were followed by returns to democratic governance, resulted in a measure of forbearance when Mr. Bainimarama and his officers visited elected government officials in 2006 to demand that they cease reporting to their offices. A number of predictable "smart" sanctions were subsequently imposed by the international community with the intention of pressuring the junta to hold free and fair elections. Over the past two years, these have been met with defiance and seemingly did little to influence the domestic political terrain.

By most measures, there is scant evidence to indicate that Fiji's military has been better than civilian rulers in successfully addressing important quality of life issues in the islands. Tangible results from widely touted anticorruption efforts are very difficult to discern, and, with the economy continuing to weaken, on April 15 the Reserve Bank devalued the Fiji dollar by 20%.

The regime's suggestion that China and India will provide major political and economic support is considered highly unlikely by most analysts. While China may see Western sanctions as an opportunity to bolster its influence, there are clear limits on the extent to which it will jeopardize relations with other members of the international community. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key's mid-April meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing was said to include a request to avoid undermining the sanctions.

Even more worrying over the long-term is the lack of any institutional system of checks and balances within government. One cannot help but recall how in the Philippines the Marcos regime used "emergency powers" for enormous personal gain. Fiji's prominence in Oceania is in a number of respects similar to the Philippines' post-independence position as one of Southeast Asia's brightest prospects. But during more than 15 years of dictatorial rule during the 1970s and 1980s, Filipinos became poorer as government officials and well-connected business interests plundered public institutions.

Finding ways to convince the regime to help make Fiji an enduring democracy is about much more than holding a single election. As United States Congressman Eni Faleomavaega recently conveyed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after meeting with Mr. Bainimarama, "The situation is more complex than it appears." Among the complex challenges for Fiji Islanders is forging a long-term plan for democratic processes. As part of this endeavor, changes to the electoral system are needed, as the present system is poorly understood and favors ethnic based constituencies. Equally important, and perhaps most challenging, is the question of what role the army should play.

The recent hardening of the Bainimarama regime's dictatorial approach has prompted a reassessment of policy options by the international community. While there is little evidence that additional sanctions will bring positive change, and might even inflict hardships on those in Fiji who oppose the current leadership, inaction in the face of a deteriorating situation may be equally unhelpful. The prospect of Fiji's military losing its lucrative contracts with the United Nations for the deployment of international peacekeeping forces could prove disruptive to the military's cohesiveness. At the same time, finding a way by which Mr. Bainimarama and his core comrades can see a pathway free from future legal prosecution might facilitate further steps forward.

Finally, support for a much needed new generation of leadership that is at once grounded in tradition but committed to democratic values is critical for ensuring an economically prosperous, socially just and equitable Fiji.

Gerard A. Finin is deputy director of the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. He can be reached at


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