Rod Ewins

6 November 2006

The problem with the reporting of this matter in virtually all of the media I have seen or heard from Australia, NZ, US etc., is that the predictable "Tut, tut! Law and order!" comments make no attempt to determine, on the basis of their record and an analysis of the moral issues in the current contretemps, which side has the better record for respecting the law, or what price a country must pay for order. Every reference to the FMF or Bainimarama seems to be of "brazen behaviour", "crisis", "maverick officer" and so on. Support for the stability of the status quo seems to be the only value put forward. Utter the magic word "coup" in the Fiji context and watch the sharp intake of breath all round, Is this becoming a habit in this once-model post-colonial nation? The answer is clearly yes, following Rabuka's uncontested and unpunished escapade in 1987, it will always be on the cards for anyone with an issue who can get a bit of muscle behind them. And with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a coup is a coup is a coup. But is it always?

In fact, the present threat of force on the part of the military is demonstrably prompted by quite different motives than were the previous outings. The first one (or two, if you call a reinforcing action a second coup) in 1987 was actually a reaction to the ballot-box overthrow of the privileged traditional elite, though of course it masqueraded as the preservation of indigenous hegemony. The 2000 Coup was similarly aimed at preserving the privilege and very questionable actions of a privileged group, though this time the"elite" was a motley collection of businessmen, failed or wannabe politicians, and disaffected individuals from the military. The Birnam woods in which these players hid to assault Dunsinane were the same — they had worked before, why not again? The protection of indigenous hegemony against an upstart immigrant population was still good for a run — and quite a run it indeed enjoyed. 

But the present situation has turned all that on its head. It is not attempting to reinstate or protect traditional or nouveau-riche privilege, quite the reverse. It is attempting to protect the Constitution and the basic tenets of the legal system from distortion by highly-questionable legislation. Indeed, it might be argued with some force that Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama's is almost the only voice of conscience being loudly heard in Fiji today. If wider ethical issues are what we are looking at, certainly he has no trouble commanding the high moral ground, as that has for so long been, in Fiji, almost completely uncontested territory. The proposed legislation is perhaps the most cynical and unprincipled to come before Fiji's parliament since Rabuka's revocation of the constitution in 1987. That being the case, the basis of criticism of his actions is never the ethics of his case, but rather the propriety of a military leader using the threat of force to influence political process. Actually, it is abundantly clear that had he really been intent on staging a coup, Bainimarama has had all the muscle to do it, months and months ago when he first contested this legislation. Instead, he has used the threat to force the government to pause, to reconsider, and finally to back away from what is some very bad legislation indeed. Is this really, then, a case of a would-be coup-instigator, or rather one of a principled person moving outside a system that has consistently failed to deliver responsible leadership, and using the resources fate has put in his hand to force on the government a more moral position?

Australia's Foreign Minister Downer has been delivering the usual rhetoric about how dreadful it is that the "legitimately elected government of Fiji" (and their PM) are being threatened by this dangerous army rebel. Send warships in "to evacuate Australian citizens" — would not a non-military vessel or two send a preferable message to Fiji and the other Pacific nations so attentively watching this latest piece of Australian big-brotherism? It is interesting to reflect on how quiet Howard, Downer and others were when the Qarase government was installed in Fiji, following the forced removal at gunpoint of the legitimately elected government of Mahendra Chaudhry. If Australia was intent on adhering to the letter of the law, the members of the legal government were all still alive and well, and should from any strictly legal standpoint (pragmatism aside) have been reinstated immediately the threat from Speight and his group was removed. But at that time Australia merely breathed a collective sigh of relief: now we could get back to making a dollar. Now, the military's stance is shaking up this government that was built on such shaky ground, and puts not only Fiji's putative stability but our interests at risk again, hence it is reprehensible. The hypocrisy of all that seems pretty clear, but we have become so used to that on the part of our politicians, we hardly even register it any more. Now how dangerous is that?

Those considering this issue should think back over the events of May 2000 and since. The Qarase government, appointed in the wake of the 2000 Coup (courtesy, it might be suggested, of Commodore Bainimarama who was primarily responsible for the downfall of the coup), has numbered in its ranks (even among its cabinet members) several of the instigators of that Coup. The Qarase government has defied court directions and ignored the provisions of the Constitution to cling to power. It is perhaps unsurprising that it dreamed up the proposed legislation that would, among other things, pardon the criminals concerned. If passed, George Speight would be freed, despite having been convicted of treason and sentenced to death, with that sentence commuted to an extended stay on Suva's longtime favourite recreational islet. Similarly his cronies would either evade prosecution altogether or walk free. If memory is not too short, it will be remembered that the Qarase government actually got rid of the prosecutor preparing cases against government ministers who had been complicit in the Coup.

So Australia's and NZ's support of this "legitimate" government, and condemnation of Commodore Bainmarama and the FMF as dangerous elements, does not ring quite true. The system in Fiji has shown itself incapable of reining in this government, despite a widespread perception and media reportage of excesses and cronyism. Does that mean that the Police Force and Military should loyally follow along? The police have made it clear that they intend to do just that, and there can be no suggestion that they are doing anything other than follow standard operating procedure. But when the government itself, and its intended actions, may be ethically questionable, police forces always face difficult conflicts of duty. Opposition in Parliament has been ineffective, and the lone voice of dissent heard loudly and consistently through recent months been that of the FMF, through Bainimarama. It is morally wrong, he has said, and I will not allow it. Wow! What a maverick indeed!

The latest news out of Fiji is that Bainimarama's return to Fiji following a tour of FMF troops overseas has prompted Qarase to back away from the "pardon" provisions of his proposed legislation. Bravo!  Would he have acted this way without being stood over with menaces?  Hardly likely. There remain in the legislation a number of other elements that will further erode such civil rights as non-indigenous Fijians still possess. These have been pretty well debated elsewhere. It will be interesting to see whether Bainimarama will be bought off by winning one major skirmish, or whether he will press home his advantage and insist on the legislation being dropped altogether. Much still hangs upon his decisions — it may determine whether the government returns confidently to business as usual or perceives that a less partisan and more considered approach is wiser and more sustainable.

Rod Ewins © August 2006. This essay is copyright. Apart from those uses permitted under theCopyright Act 1968 (as amended), no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author.