By David Robie
AUCKLAND — Four protesters penetrated a tight security screen around Fiji coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka during his controversial address in New Zealand last week while about 100 others burnt a copy of the republican constitution in front of police guarding the general.
Major-General Rabuka, on a flying one-day visit for his first speech outside Fiji since the 1987 coups, was invited by the Pacific Islands News Association — a conservative regional organisation of broadcasters, publishers and media bureaucrats — as keynote speaker on the theme of "Media freedom in the Pacific" at its annual convention.
Instead, he seized the opportunity to make a propaganda speech justifying the coups. The general also confirmed his desire to become prime minister of Fiji (he is currently co-deputy prime minister). Asked whether he planned another coup if next year's general election went against him, he replied with the single word no.
His visit was widely criticised by New Zealand newspapers, journalists and civil and human rights groups. The leading morning newspaper, The Dominion, described PINA's invitation as "abysmal judgement", and the 3000-member NZ Journalists and Graphic Process Union's national conference unanimously branded it "appallingly inappropriate".
Protest groups gave the general a hostile reception at Auckland Airport on October 6.
Slogans such as "Rabuka butchered Fijian democracy", "Rabuka army thug", "Get out of New Zealand fascist Rabuka", "Down with apartheid in Fiji", "Coup Klux Klan", "Indigenous miners have no rights" and "PINA ignores NZ journalists' wishes" were hoisted on placards outside the airport lobby as Rabuka was whisked out through a rear entrance. He was later taken to a Maori welcome on Orakei marae, where he was hosted by the ironically named ANZAC — Aotearoa-New Zealand Action Committee, a group seeking Maori sovereignty.
That night, as protesters gathered at the scheduled conference venue, Alexandra Park, about 120 delegates and journalists discovered this was a decoy — instead they were taken under tight security in buses to the Central Hotel in central Auckland, seven kilometres away, to hear the general speak.
However, barely had the general arrived when veteran anti-apartheid protesters Dick Cuthbert and John Minto dashed into the hotel with an anti-Rabuka banner and chanted: "Shame on you — never negotiate with a dictator".
Within minutes most of the other chanting protesters arrived too. NewLabour Party leader Jim Anderton was among them.
"The PINA dinner was a farce and a propaganda circus", said in Fiji chairperson Adi Asenaca Uluiviti. "General Rabuka hid behind the tight police security and only answered stage-managed questions from nine hand-picked reporters."
Four democracy supporters entered the dinner venue and sat at a table. They planned to pull on coup-style balaclavas while Rabuka spoke. However, security staff recognised Adi Asenaca — who was in disguise — and evicted her and her three companions.
They then joined democracy protesters outside the hotel, where a copy of the 1990 constitution was burnt.
"This burning demonstrates our rejection of this racist, feudalistic and oppressive document", said Adi Asenaca. "The constitution symbolises the Fiji regime.
"Last year when people in Fiji burnt the constitution, six people were arrested. Dr Anirudh Singh was later kidnapped and tortured — and journalists who reported the incident were also detained."
Among groups that condemned Rabuka's visit were the regional Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement and an outspoken Maori political leader.
The Reverend Nove Vailaau, chair of the NFIP steering committee, said the movement opposed the general's visit because of his role in abrogating human, religious and political rights in Fiji.
Matiu Rata, a former Maori affairs minister and now leader of Mana Motuhake party, said Rabuka should have been barred by the New Zealand government under a section of the Immigration Act which prohibits "undesirables".