Fiji: 'The military is intent on retaining power'


Professor Brij Lal is a Fijian historian and is part of the Division of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National University. He was recently expelled from Fiji by the military government for speaking out against the regime's expulsion of Australian diplomats on November 3.

He spoke to Green Left Weekly's Aaron Roden about the character and contradictions of Fiji's military dictatorship, led by coup leader Frank Bainimarama.

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You've said the essence of Bainimarama's 2006 coup is no different to the previous coups in Fiji's history, even though past coups were largely based on establishing power for the Fijian ethnic majority. What do you mean by this?

Bainimarama justified his 2006 coup as a "clean-up campaign", not a military coup. Well, it was a military coup that deposed a democratically elected government. And no one has been prosecuted for corruption in the last two years.

I don't think anyone now seriously believes in this narrative anymore. As time has gone on, it has become increasingly clear that this is a military coup and that the military is intent on retaining its power.

I doubt very much if the military will voluntarily relinquish power to a civilian authority. More likely, we are likely to see a militarised democracy in Fiji where the military will have a visible presence in the governance of the country.

In April, the regime annulled the constitution. Can you comment on the motivations behind this?

The abrogation of the constitution was not surprising. It was observed more in the breach from the day the coup was [carried out] in December 2006. What it has done is to enable the military to do things unfettered by legal niceties, without having to justify its actions and policies in a court of law.

The country is ruled by decree and the most important of the decrees cannot be challenged in a court of law. It gives the interim administration a free hand to do the things it wants.

And there is a public emergency regulation in place that curtails the freedom of the media and the freedom of speech. Dissent is suppressed through censorship and self-censorship.

Is a new constitution likely?

Three years have gone by, but the military has not shown its hand about what kind of a constitution it wants for the country.

A week ago, the interim administration said they would convene a dialogue forum about the future. But political parties and political leaders who do not subscribe to the military's rendition of events will be excluded, [unlike] selected non-government organisations and community leaders.

Such a restrictive approach is counterproductive and will not fool anyone. It goes to the heart of the legitimacy of the project.

I think it is important for the military to declare its hand and engage in good-faith negotiation with the principal stakeholders about the future. Going it alone unilaterally will not address the fundamental problems of Fiji.

Australian diplomats, as well as yourself, were kicked out of the country recently for "interfering". Why did the regime do this?

I think most people in Fiji, including in the department of foreign affairs in Fiji, were surprised by the expulsion of the diplomats. Just a week before, Fiji's diplomatic status in Australia was formalised, so expelling the [Australian] High Commissioner [to Fiji] did not make sense.

I think most people in Fiji know that a few [high-placed] individuals in the interim administration have a vendetta against Australia because of the travel bans that have been imposed upon them, and they are motivated by a sense of revenge and retribution.

I don't think this situation will last long and that diplomatic relations will be restored. Fiji cannot simply ignore the realities of geography and history.

Is Bainimarama dangerously isolating Fiji?

I think there is a willingness in the international community to engage with Fiji, but there has to be some willingness on the part of the authorities in Fiji to engage in a genuine dialogue.

It is not only Australia and New Zealand that have expressed reservations about what is happening in Fiji. The Pacific Islands Forum, the Commonwealth and the European Union all have done the same.

Blaming the international community will not resolve Fiji's difficulties. Sadly, the deepening isolation of Fiji is self-inflicted.

Is the dictatorship guilty of human rights abuses

No one in Fiji would deny that breaches of human rights occur regularly, such as the harassment of sugar cane growers by the military. But there is complete media censorship in Fiji, and the public emergency regulations curtail the freedom of speech and movement.

There is a yawning gap between the regime's [democratic] rhetoric and the reality on the ground. People must be given an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the major issues facing Fiji and the way these can be resolved.

The regime's proposed "People's Charter" appears to be a progressive initiative, with some noble principles that try to address racial discrimination, such as "one person, one vote". However, despite its democratic aspirations, it has no democratic mandate. Does it stand a chance, and is Fiji ready for such progress?

The so-called People's Charter is essentially a plan drawn up by a few hand-picked people, many of whom have no mandate from the groups they purport to represent.

It contains some good things, but you did not have to have a coup to embrace its principles. There is nothing in the charter that is not in the constitution.

The 1997 constitution enshrined the principle of power-sharing among the principal ethnic groups in Fiji. It acknowledged the realities on the ground and the burden of Fiji's racially divided history.

It was moving in the right direction. You can change the electoral system to anything you like, but the fundamental problem will still have to be addressed, which is respect for the rule of law. Unless you have that, there will be no stability in Fiji whatever electoral system you have.