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Fiji's uncertain future

Sydney Morning Herald - January 14, 2012

Dylan Welch In the offices of Fiji's public servants, photographs of the Queen and the nation's leaders are increasingly replaced by large pictures of the coup leader and Prime Minister, Josaia Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama.

The photos of Commodore Bainimarama in naval uniform or business suit are a clear indication that the former military leader is supremely at ease in his civilian role.

What remains unclear, however despite six years of military rule and Fiji's continued pariah status among the international community is whether the coup leader is a genuine reformer or, as with those before him, only interested in entrenching his rule.

Certainly events this month the lifting of emergency regulations, only to reinstate the same laws in a 40-year-old old public order act have done nothing to encourage the belief that he wants free and fair elections in 2014.

The failure to back away from what looks increasingly like a security state modelled on Middle Eastern strongman regimes is also leading to the view that Bainimarama's government is primarily concerned with threats to its control.

"We've aware that [the people are] being ruled by fear, a fear of a return to the 2000 coup, the uprisings in the streets," says the Reverend Akuila Yabaki, the head of the Citizens Constitutional Forum and one of Fiji's most respected democratic advocates. "And some of the people who took front row in the marches of 2000 are people who are still around."

Yabaki says while he is still hopeful of free and fair elections in 2014 as promised by the government, he is becoming increasingly aware that Bainimarama is obsessed with the potential for elements of previous coups to overthrow him.

It is that paradigm the violent history of four coups in three decades and the ethnically riven politics that precipitated them that guides all political consideration in Fiji.

And while Bainimarama maintains that all he wants is a return to democracy once the country is ready, many indicators point to a man acclimatising himself to a long time in power.

Bainimarama's picture hangs in a position of prominence in public offices. The Fijian Government's official Twitter page last March made a reference to "the Leader Commodore".

The language of the government may also be slowly, but subtly, changing. When the Herald referred to the regime as the "interim government" the preferred style of the Suva diplomatic corp during an interview with the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, he was quick to correct. "Don't say that in front of the Prime Minister he doesn't like it. We are simply the government.'

Sayed-Khaiyum is also not afraid to hint that his PM may run in the 2014 elections: "I think he should... he is good for Fiji."

One of the government's most trenchant critics, the Fiji Trade Union Congress secretary, Felix Anthony, believes that Bainimarama is shaping more and more like a man looking to be elected.

"He appears to want to form a political party, he's behaving like a politician... he should declare his interest and step aside if that's what he's intending to do," Anthony says.

The government also recently recruited Qorvis Communications, a Washington-based lobby firm with a particularly nasty reputation for representing dictators and repressive regimes around the world. The spin doctors were hired by the Bahraini government last year after its people began rioting and worked tirelessly to provide "balance" to the accusations of violence and murder levelled at the government by activists and international NGOs.

While the government has undoubtedly made great strides for some of the poorest and most disenfranchised in Fijian society and helped to end more than 20 years of divisive ethnic politics, there are increasingly clear parallels with other undemocratic and repressive governments.

Bainimarama has neutered the press. The introduction of his draconian Public Emergency Regulations in 2009, the deportation of journalists and publishers and stacking the industry with cronies and mates has stymied free speech and a plurality of voices.

He cracked down on opposition groups such as the Methodist Church and the trade union movement with, rumour has it, a campaign of extrajudicial detention and violence.

There are rumours, too, of extrajudicial killings. No hard evidence exists and the government dismisses the allegations.

One such case relates to a Fijian police officer, Opetaia Ratuvono, who was found dead last month in a pool at Fiji's military headquarters in Suva, the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.

The officer's death was not publicly revealed until a local blog, Torture Watch, aired allegations he had been murdered after falling foul of a senior officer. The regime then claimed the death had been investigated and Ratuvono had drowned after taking an unspecified "substance"."

Police have refused to release the autopsy results, but issued a statement to local media saying foul play had been ruled out.

A US diplomatic cable sent to Washington from the Fiji embassy in March 2009 described a rising trend of "low-level and so far non-fatal acts of vandalism targeting [government] opponents", including the stoning and fire-bombing of homes and cars owned by local newspaper publishers and editors, a lawyer for the former prime minister Laisenia Qarase, and vocal trade unionists.

Another issue that leaves the international community concerned is the Fijian economy.

An International Monetary Fund team visited late last year and after an 11-day trip, it issued a statement which commended the country for its projected 2011 economic growth of about 2 per cent after two years of contraction, but expressed pessimism about the future.

"Medium-term growth prospects, however, appear to be relatively weak, unless structural reforms are accelerated, and the business climate and political situation improved," the statement read.

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum sits behind his large, wooden desk overlooking the green, brackish waters of Suva Bay as he describes the "paradigm shift" Fiji has gone through under the Bainimarama government.

"Here you have a government that's moving towards having a systemic approach to a democracy and parliamentary representation, but no one [in Australia or New Zealand] is focusing on it," he tells the Herald.

Sayed-Khaiyum, who is described by some in Fiji as "Bainimarama's brain", says the international view of the Bainimarama government as repressive and dictatorial is fostered by local opponents who see political mileage in spreading such false rumours to the Australian and New Zealand high commissions in Suva.

"You have to be mindful, there are certain people now who get invited up to cocktails at the Australian and New Zealand high commissions who never were before," he says.

But he is less convincing when questioned about the amended Public Order Act.

The legislation was enacted the day before the emergency regulations which placed government censors in media offices, prevented public meetings, and provided police with warrantless powers of arrest and detention were lifted on January 7.

It enshrines in law the powers of warrantless arrest and detention, as well as the ability to prevent groups from holding meetings not approved by the government, that the regulations were based upon.

"The simple spirit of the amendment is to provide the right environment to allow people to truly discuss things freely, to be able to truly think outside the box, to provide a new paradigm,"' Sayed-Khaiyum says.

"The spirit [of the new laws] is to provide an environment for all Fijians to be able to go about their lives, having a peaceful existence, not being threatened by thugs or other people who want to spread discord and violence, as we've seen in our history, essentially for their own political gain."

It was a mantra repeated by Bainimarama in announcing the amended Public Order Act on January 6 the day before the emergency regulations were lifted.

He urged Fijians "not to be influenced by those self-interested individuals, politicians, religious organisations and others who may seek to disrupt the stability we have enjoyed in the past three years. There is nothing more I want than a Fiji with a truly democratic government, one representative of all Fijians. For the first time in our history, we are on the path to making this a reality. We must get there."

Sayed-Khaiyum is on firmer ground highlighting reforms undertaken since 2006 that have undoubtedly improved the quality of life for some of Fiji's poorest, and are, at least superficially, not indicative of a government interested in entrenching itself in power.

Under Bainimarama, the voting age has been lowered from 21 to 18, many school textbooks are now free, bus fares for schoolchildren are subsidised and there is a food voucher program. There are plans to create a freedom-of-information regime and a pecuniary interest register updated every six months.

The Fijian Independent Commission Against Corruption began in 2007. The government also ratified the UN Convention on Corruption and invited the global organisation to review Fiji's new accountability systems. The regime also changed the rules governing who shared the profits from land ownership. The Qarase government's iTaukei lands regulations saw property leased out on 30- or 99-year leases and the profits flow directly to local chiefs, who then allowed the money to trickle down to their villagers. Under recent reforms, the rent paid on traditional lands often occupied by Indian Fijian sugar cane farmers is now distributed more equally to the villagers themselves.

Such reforms mean nothing to Felix Anthony. Like the Methodist Church, he is a trenchant opponent of the Bainimarama government and the union movement remains one of the most irritating thorns in the side of the regime.

Anthony maintains he has been victimised by the regime. There have been arrests and beatings. In one case last year, Anthony says, he was called by the Prime Minister's office and was asked to meet Bainimarama at a sugar mill in the north-west of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu.

When he arrived, Bainimarama was accompanied by six soldiers and a military attache "He was yelling at me that I talk too much and blaming the unions for the problems within the [sugar] industry," he says.

When Bainimarama left, Anthony says, he was bashed by the six soldiers. He says he still has a problem with his right ear drum as a result of the attack.

Anthony, who refuses to be cowed despite accepting that he may one day suffer more than just a bashing, says the international community has heard very little of the true intensity of the state-sponsored campaign of violence in Fiji at the moment, which he says includes extrajudicial killings such as the alleged murder of the police officer Ratuvono.

"There are many people who have been tortured, and there have been no official investigations into that. No explanation given... I think [the] government thinks that all of this will simply be forgotten over time. "But it won't be forgotten," he says, softly banging the arm of his chair with a clenched fist.

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