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Guarded optimism as Fiji edges towards democracy

Agence France Presse - May 6, 2012

Joshua Kuku After years of diplomatic isolation, Fiji's military regime is experiencing a thaw in relations with regional powers Australia and New Zealand amid signs it is serious about holding elections.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and New Zealand counterpart Murray McCully visited the coup-plagued South Pacific nation in the past week and said they were encouraged at preparations for a long-awaited return to democracy in 2014.

"There is progress being made towards elections," McCully said. "I think the question now is would they be free and fair?"

Canberra and Wellington, which jointly led the push for Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, remain cautious after the regime reneged on a previous promise to stage elections in 2009.

Carr, in the first visit by an Australian foreign minister since 2008, said Canberra would "need to see a robust democracy functioning in Fiji" before it would consider lifting sanctions on the regime.

Military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup, saying he planned to root out corruption and introduce a one-person, one-vote system intended to end entrenched racial inequalities in the nation of 840,000.

Fiji's so-called "coup culture" it has had four since 1987 has been blamed on tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians descended from sugar plantation labourers brought in by the British during the colonial era.

Bainimarama said in 2009 that the racial divisions meant Fiji was not ready for elections but now insists the vote scheduled for September 2014 will proceed.

He outlined plans last month to create a new constitution by February next year and in January repealed emergency laws which muzzled the media and banned public meetings.

At the same time, however, he strengthened public order decrees so the police and military retained sweeping powers, in a move that Australia-based think-tank The Lowy Institute described as "one step forward, two steps back".

The head of Fiji's Citizen's Constitutional Forum, Reverend Akuila Yabaki, said there had been some improvements since the emergency laws were repealed, making it easier for activist groups to obtain permits for meetings.

Yabaki believes Bainimarama was genuine about holding elections, saying he faced pressure from elements within the military to relinquish power and return the country to civilian rule.

"I have a feeling that Bainimarama feels insecure, he probably wakes up at night and wonders what's going to happen tomorrow," he said.

But Suva-based UN Human Rights Commission representative Matilda Bogner said years of tight control had created a "chilling effect" on Fiji's media, with journalists prone to self-censorship to avoid offending the authorities.

"This is particularly concerning as Fiji is entering a constitution-making process... if these processes are to be legitimate, opposition and critical voices need to be heard," she said.

Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, a former prime minister who was deposed in a 2000 coup, said the regime's assurances should be treated with scepticism. "Both the military and the police are known to harass, interrogate and intimidate political party supporters and activists," he said.

Chaudhry said the proposed constitutional reforms did not spell out the military's role after the elections, raising the prospect that it could again overthrow any government it found unacceptable.

"The army has been responsible for trashing our constitution twice," he said. "Fiji has to ensure this does not happen again, otherwise the nation could be treading the same path again and again in the future."

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