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Pacific Islands Society

PO Box 632 | Ebensburg, PA 15931 | USA


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Domestic Non-Profit Organization
Fijis Competing Narratives and
Uncertain Future
By Mr. Michael Edward Walsh & Mr. Fergus Hanson
Published: February 3, 2012

In a recent conversation with Ambassador
Winston Thompson of the Republic of Fiji, the
ambassador was asked how he addresses
skeptics who believe that Commodore Frank
Bainimarama's lifting of martial law was
disingenuous. His opening remark, "We can
only wait and see." While out of context, this
response quite rightly captures the larger state
of affairs in Fiji. Led by a military leader who
views himself as a savior but who is
condemned by Australia as a despot, Fiji
remains a country with an uncertain future. The
only thing that appears clear is that the path Fiji
chooses resides in Bainimarama's hands not
Julia Gillard's. Barring some major policy shift
by other regional powers, democracy will not
return to Fiji without his acquiescence.

In the Doghouse

In December 2006, Suva further entrenched its
reputation as the coup capital of the South
Pacific when Bainimarama removed Prime
Minister Laisenia Qarase's duly elected but
troubled democratic government. This marked
the fourth coup since Fiji's independence from
Britain in 1970.

Since the coup, Bainimarama - acting as self-
appointed Prime Minister - has talked the talk of
a progressive savior. He has announced grand
plans to rid Fiji of its deeply entrenched racial
divisions between ethnic Fijians and Indo
Fijians. He also has promised better and fairer
education and economic opportunities that
supposedly only a strongman can deliver.

Such policies prey on the very real insecurities
of a country that has witnessed the destabilizing
effects of race-based politics for a significant
part of its post-colonial history. Coupled with
Bainimarama's tight grip on the military and
media, the coup therefore has been met with a
relatively muted response within Fiji.

Western countries and the Fiji diaspora, on the
other hand, have been more forceful in their
opposition. Australia and New Zealand in
particular have leveraged their bilateral and
regional influence to try and coerce
Bainimarama's interim government to hold free
and fair elections. Their position: Commodore
Bainimarama is a dictator whose ambitions are
antithetical to democracy.

The question then is whose coup narrative is
right. Do the Commodore's tactics provide the
stability required to implement corrective
policies and finally unite a deeply cleaved
society? Or, is Bainimarama no different than
other post-colonial despots who have risen to
power on baseless promises only to deliver
pain and suffering to their countrymen and
women?

Competi ng Narrati ves

Since overthrowing Qarase, the Commodore
has remained consistent in his position that Fiji
lacks the conditions necessary for democracy
to function. His supporters also argue - that the
regime has kept to the high-level milestones for
reinstating democracy originally outlined in his
2009 strategic framework. They even claim that
the regime has already instituted policies aimed
at redressing the racial divide through
economic and social development and lifting
the draconian Public Emergency Regulations
that oppressed free society in the aftermath of
the coup.


Commentary
Pacific Islands Society | Commentary | February 3, 2012
Pacific Islands Society
PO Box 632 | Ebensburg, PA 15931 | USA
843.271.6891 ph pacificislandssociety.org web
Domestic Non-Profit Organization

However, in the eyes of the West,
Bainimarama's claim that he is taking concrete
action to restore democracy is viewed as
baseless. They point to the fact the regime has
instituted harsh censorship laws, sacked the
judiciary, and cracked down on unions, media,
church leaders and civic activists. It has failed
to be transparent and provide economic and
social data that would support its argument that
domestic policies are bridging the racial divide.
Furthermore, it has severely undermined the
positive response generated from the lifting of
the PERs by implementing a new Public Order
Act, which quickly resurrected most of the
concerns that the lifting of the PER sought to
redress.

Uncertai n Outl ook

So, how will history remember Bainimarama?
Much depends upon whether the Commodore
is sincere in his commitment to drafting the new
constitution by the end of the year and holding
elections by September 2014. If Bainimarama
dramatically picks up his game and delivers on
the commitments outlined in the strategic
framework, he might yet salvage his reputation
and restore democracy. However, if he deviates
from his self-prescribed milestones and the
2014 elections prove to be "a pipe dream," then
Australia and New Zealand will find their
position validated. Dictators do not have a great
track record in following up on their
commitments. It is now all up to Bainimarama
and the people of Fiji to decide how history
remembers the regime.



Michael Edward Walsh is the President of the
Pacific Islands Society

Fergus Hanson is the Director of Polling and
Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute in
Australia.

The views expressed are those of the authors.