|Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent|
Fiji – No Endgame in Sight
Dr Mark Hayes makes a welcome return to Webdiary with a meticulously researched, detailed, engrossing and disturbing backgrounder on the current state of play in Fiji. Many thanks for the contribution, and for permitting access to your archive. By way of (re)introduction:
Fiji – No Endgame in Sight
The recent interviews with Fiji's self-appointed 'prime minister', Commodore Vorque 'Frank' Bainimarama, graphically confirmed what almost all informed Fiji watchers have very reluctantly concluded: there is no sustainable end game or conclusion in sight to return Fiji to genuine democratic and constitutionally legitimated civilian governance.
"I keep harping about bringing the changes," Commodore Frank told the ABC's Foreign Correspondent, "and we can't bring about changes if there are people that are still talking about bringing instability. Because if we do that, I can tell you, Philippa, we open this to the public, we'll never have election in 2014. I tell you that. That I can guarantee you.
"What's going to happen? It sounds like you don't trust the people," asked reporter Phillippa McDonald.
"I don't. I don't trust the people," Commodore Frank replied.
Viewed and read together, and understood as being part of a regional 'charm offensive' engineered from within the Fiji regime in the lead-up to the Pacific Islands Forum heads of government meeting just concluded, these interviews give deep insights into the thinking and plans, or not, of the man who currently rules Fiji with a mostly benign but also a threatening hand.
The 'charm offensive' didn't work if its intention was to ensure the Pacific Islands Forum would be divided over what to do about Fiji. The country remains excluded from the Forum, though informal dialogue is expected to continue, including on regional trade issues.
While not being privy to any insider's knowledge of how The Australian and Sky TV's Graham Davis, and then the ABC's Phillippa McDonald, actually gained significant access to Commodore Frank, or how he was convinced, almost certainly by recently installed Australian-origin Ministry of Information 'permanent secretary', Sharon Smith-Johns, Fiji's chief censor, to be interviewed by these two experienced foreign, Australian-based, journalists, this significant access must be understood in the context of the regime's anxiety to shore up regional and international support. Or at least spread some doubt about regional unity, as well as show how strong he is by standing up to those Vulagi (outsider, foreigner, 'not one of us') bullies in Canberra and Wellington, which can play well domestically and in some regional circles.
Mr Davis is a long term 'Fiji hand', the son of an Australian Methodist minister with long associations with Fiji and the church, he's ki-Vulagi, a non-indigenous but accepted 'outsider', having been born there. Ms McDonald is a senior ABC News reporter with extensive experience overseas, including reporting on the 2006 coup. In an infamous Q & A with The World Today on December 1, 2006, she breathlessly told listeners she couldn't see any tanks on the streets of Suva. The Fiji military doesn't have any tanks. She's subsequently, and significantly, redeemed herself with more recent reporting from Fiji.
It's important to establish the wider credibility of journalists, and others, reporting and commenting about Fiji because, if the regime, and its supporters, don't like the material, they seek to discredit the sources by crying, "Oh, they don't understand us and what's happening here. How can they understand us? Look, they showed pictures of soldiers all over the streets of Suva. There aren't troops all over the streets of Suva. They weren't born here anyway. How can they understand us?"
Both recent interviews with Commodore Frank would have been very closely dissected and digested by Pacific specialists in both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Wellington and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra, the latter still no doubt annoyed at the expulsion of Australia's acting high commissioner in Suva, Ms Sarah Roberts, earlier in July.
Ms Roberts, and the Australian government, were blamed by Commodore Frank for the Vanuatu Prime Minister, Edward Natapei, cancelling a scheduled Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting in July, and for interfering with Fiji's efforts to secure significant overseas loans, including from the IMF.
So Commodore Frank convened his own 'Engaging Fiji' meeting near Nadi the week before the Vanuatu Forum meeting, and tried to spin its impact as a diplomatic win over Canberra and Wellington an interpretation, of course, highly disputed by both countries' foreign ministers.
While the absorbing intricacies of the sometimes daily twists and turns of developments in Fiji, which I have chronicled closely since Easter, 2009, when any pretence to not being a fully-blown military dictatorship was removed, are fascinating, I want to here focus on how Fiji might, eventually, be returned to democratic governance.
The first important point to at least try to establish is exactly what Commodore Frank is seeking to achieve in Fiji. This is trickier than might be initially expected because of the sometimes daily shifts or twists in his expressed thinking or planning.
Clearly, as something of the 'saviour' of Fiji during the 2000 - 2001 crisis, and as the explicit target of the deadly November 2, 2000, attempted mutiny at the military headquarters in Suva, Commodore Frank profoundly understands the causes and effects of out of control radical ethno-nationalism which has plagued Fiji since independence, was key to the first military coups in 1987, and allegedly a driver for the 2000 Speight-fronted putsch as well.
In passing, it has been argued by some observers that another trigger for the 2006 coup was that then Australian senior AFP officer, Andrew Hughes, then Fiji Police Commissioner, and an elite unit of 'untouchables' investigating the November, 2000, mutiny were closing in on Commodore Frank for the murders of some mutineers after their capture. Fairfax New Zealand's Michael Field is one such observer, posting some graphic descriptions on his web site of what Commodore Frank allegedly did that terrible afternoon.
It is making too much of Fijian ethno-nationalism, expressed via a Fijian dog whistle, to assert it is decisive in Fiji's traumas, though, to almost all but the more informed and discerning observers, Indo-Fijians versus indigenous Fijians does appear to be, if not decisive, then of enormous significance. It decreasingly isn't, if only because of very important, and escalating, demographic shifts in Fiji, with parallel economic shifts, commencing in 1987, escalating after the 2000 - 2001 crisis, and continuing. These shifts point to an endgame, of sorts, about which more later.
As Commodore Frank would know far more than even all but the best informed observers, assuming his military intelligence units have done their jobs properly, more recent causes of Fiji's continuing traumas lie much more in deep-seated, long standing, almost inter-generational, fractures and strains within, particularly, indigenous Fijian elites, often personalised, and sometimes assisted by shifting alliances of convenience into some Indo-Fijian groupings as well.
It has never been proven, before any credible court of law, who was behind the Speight-fronted putsch, and especially who financed it, though several names have been mentioned since 2001 on Blogs of highly varying credibility.
Another of the triggers for Commodore Frank's removal of the Qarase Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) government was a purported amnesty for 2000 coup perpetrators. In March, 2010, the regime, by decree, granted itself absolute immunity from prosecution for the 2006 coup and subsequent decrees.
Thankfully, recent reportage from Fiji, witness Mr Davis' and Ms McDonald's work, has intelligently avoided reaching for the simplistic, and just plain wrong, 'race explanation' for Fiji's current situation.
As he repeatedly expressed, and as I, among many others including serious experts on Fiji analysed at the time, Commodore Frank grew steadily more frustrated and then infuriated with the alleged and demonstrated, though moderate if 'smelly' (Greg Sheridan's apt description) ethno-nationalism of the two SDL Qarase Governments. (See, for example, The Bainimarama Screw, and Tracking Fiji's Latest Coup, both from December, 2006).
He moved against the SDL Government though retained much of the legitimating scaffolding of Fiji's governance, turning on the 1997 Constitution, to set up an interim government. It was never entirely clear at the time just how 'interim' his government was intended to be, though he did appear to moving towards some sort of limitation on its duration.
Significantly, between December, 2006, and well into 2008, the interim government developed, sought consultation about, and proclaimed the People's Charter for Change, Peace and Progress which, somehow, was going to be added to the Constitution, kind-of like a human rights style amendment or annexure. With no Parliament sitting, and no referendum mechanism, legitimate constitutional change in Fiji would be impossible.
Nevertheless, on an informed reading, the People's Charter has much to commend it. The problem was, and remains, how to not only legitimately add it to the laws of Fiji, but, almost as if by some sort of genetic or mental surgery, implant it into the psyche of the Fijian people.
Essentially, this is what Commodore Frank is finally seeking to achieve - re-make the psyche of Fiji to eradicate ethno-nationalism, and everything which actually, as well as allegedly, can be sourced to that. (This last Link, to a chapter in a valuable 2007 collection of papers from ANU, is by one-time Fiji military Colonel Jone R. Baledrokadroka, once very close to Commodore Frank, now a post-graduate student at ANU and extremely nervous about possibly returning to Fiji.)
Meanwhile, Qarase and the ousted SDL went to the courts to have their dismissal ruled invalid and eventually, on Easter Thursday, 2009, Fiji's highest court, the Appeals Court, held that the 2006 coup was illegal.
Close observers, especially those, like me, who actually watched an earlier, similar, case being argued in March, 2001, read the court's judgment looking for any instructions about what should then follow their Ruling on the illegality of the 2006 coup. The 2001 Ruling ordered the installation of an interim government charged with taking Fiji to elections as soon as practicable, which occurred in August, 2001, returning the first elected SDL Qarase Government.
The fatal mistake the 2006 Appeal Court made was not to specify what should occur as a result of its finding against the 2006 coup. The timing, over the Easter long weekend, even further compounded the situation, playing straight into Commodore Frank's hands.
(The classic book, Coup d’état A Practical Handbook, by Edward Luttwak recommends coup plotters move over Easter or during the Christmas holidays, when many who might oppose the coup are not at work or on duty and the target government or country tends to be in a more relaxed frame of mind and activity.)
Commodore Frank moved decisively over Easter, 2009, to fill the yawning power vacuum the court ruling left. The ailing President, Ratu Josefa Ililo, was prevailed upon to abrogate the 1997 Constitution, re-install the interim government as now the government, and the first of many decrees which now constitute the 'rule of law' in Fiji, the Public Emergency Regulations (PER), was promulgated. Section 16 of the PER imposed, and still imposes, rigorous media censorship. The PER were promised to be lifted once the Media Decree, now in place, was imposed, but late in July, the regime renewed the PER for yet another month.
Much has occurred since Easter, 2009, and many developments really amount to the consolidation of the control the regime now exercises. The once influential Bose Levu Vakaturaga has been dissolved, the equally influential Methodist Church has been cowed into silence with some of its elders charged with breaches of the PER, the Law Society has been muzzled with lawyers required to register with a new legal practice authority, serious questions must be asked about the independence of the magistracy and judiciary - whose remit omits legal challenges to regime decrees - and the once lively Fiji media rigorously censored and now controlled through a decree imposed Media Industry Development Authority operating by reference to a Media Decree imposed in July, 2010. The public service and the police have been extensively militarised, with serving officers seconded to and scattered widely throughout their offices, including into the Information Ministry where even corporals have been planted to act as active, if arbitrary, censors in all Fiji's newsrooms. (My Fiji UpDates extensively cover many of these developments, particularly with reference to the media.)
Significantly, a sequence in Ms McDonalds August 3, 2010, Foreign Correspondent story contained the only known, and brief, vision of a military-installed censor at work, and a poorly disguised interview with him, in the newsroom of the Fiji Sun newspaper.
Given that the Sun is by far the regime's strongest media supporter, including printing the regime's information insert, New Dawn, given the rigorous control the regime has imposed on Fiji's media, and how sensitive and alert they are to any potential criticism or dissent, there is no way such access would have occurred without approval from the chief censor, Ms Smith-Johns, or even higher, and sought by the Fiji Sun's CEO and Publisher, Peter Lomas, a former manager with the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), which is itself deeply compromised over the media situation in Fiji. (My Fiji Updates also closely track the PINA controversy.)
In contrast to what occurred during the monk's uprising in Burma in 2007, as graphically reported in the Academy-award nominated documentary, Burma VJ, and elsewhere, where clandestine video and stills, often shot on mobile phones, have documented assaults on human rights, often at acute risk to the sources, I am aware of no such clandestine material emerging from Fiji since 2006, and certainly not since Easter, 2009.
This is in part testament to the effectiveness of the 'coconut firewall' operated by the regime, quite probably with Chinese assistance, which monitors and data mines all communications within and out of Fiji through the FinTel gateways, and local outlets, including Telecom Fiji, Digicel, and Vodaphone. The main ISP, Connect.com.fj, has been compromised since late 2006, though then CEO, now chief censor, Ms Smith-Jones, disputed this in her interview with Graham Davis. Soldiers in civilian clothes haunt Internet Cafes, which must close by 6.00pm or earlier, and anti-regime Blogs are black listed on the country's main Internet routers.
Another recent regime decree, the Compulsory Registration of Customers for Telephone Services Decree 2010, requires all telephone users in Fiji to register with their service provider, and requires all new SIM card purchaser's details to also be recorded.
Fiji now is essentially ruled by a military council, which consults with a 'cabinet' having a standard array of administrative portfolios, with decrees periodically issued and signed off upon by the 'president', Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, ironically once the military commander when Sitiveni Rabuka initiated Fiji's coup cycle in 1987. By virtue of birth, and marriage, Ratu Epeli, along with his brother in law, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, himself a 'minister for defence, national security, and immigration' in the regime, ranks at the top of the indigenous Fijian elite, with strong links to the Mara family and the Bauan confederacy.
In terms of apparent influence, the 'attorney general', Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, has the highest profile of the array of 'cabinet ministers', regularly being reported in the censored Fiji media.
As military dictatorships go, the Fijian version is quite benign, though, as Amnesty International and the US State Department have reported, there are several worrying signs, as well as gravely concerning abuses of human rights dating back to the 2006 coup.
The most recent media detention, though, indicates how sensitive, even paranoid, the regime is to any sign of dissent. On Thursday, July 29, the very popular Fijilive.com web site, published a story querying the whereabouts of the military installed 'police commissioner', Commodore Esala Teleni. The regime reacted by detaining Fijilive's editor, Richard Naidu, the next day. Knowing Richard Naidu (who's the other one, and not the prominent Suva lawyer and one-time journalist of the same name), there's no way he'd have run such a story without his sources being solid. He was released the next day.
This coincided with the regime's announcement of media outlets which had registered with its Media Industry Development Authority, significantly omitting Fijilive.com, which was Off Line for most of the weekend of July 31 - August 1, prompting speculation the regime had shut the site down. It was all a misunderstanding, chief censor, Sharon Smith-Johns, told Radio New Zealand International. It also sends a very loud signal to everybody that the regime remains vigilant and will swoop.
There have been no reports that Mr Naidu was ill-treated while in detention, unlike respected Pacific historian, Brij Lal, who was all but kidnapped, detained, assaulted, and deported last November. Professor Lal was one of the architects of the now abrogated 1997 constitution.
My sources, such as they are, and I contact them very carefully as we all know their phones and Internet access are probably tapped, suggest that Suva at least is normal, but with a current of fear detectable as one can never be sure who might be a regime stooge or spy overhearing a conversation somewhere, and dobbing somebody into the police, or worse, the military.
As with any military dictatorship, however, the situation could turn potentially ugly, especially if any dissention or rumbling within the military, periodically mentioned or even incited on some of the anti-regime Blogs, which range from fairly credible to severely vituperative, coalesces into action. Commodore Frank is closely guarded by an elite group of armed body guards, travels in an armoured vehicle convoy, and, for quite understandable reasons given his near terminal experience on November 2, 2000, deals firmly with any dissent in the ranks.
A couple of my very reliable sources, some who know, or knew, Commodore Frank very well, have suggested he may be suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, perhaps brought on by his very narrow escape on November 2, 2000. They have also told me he self-medicates his PTSD with periodic alcoholic benders, though only his doctor would be able to shed authoritative insight into this initially plausible suggestion. It may, however, help explain Commodore Frank's somewhat erratic shifts in thinking, or contradictory statements, which make pinning down exactly what he eventually wants for Fiji extremely difficult.
One of the most important continuing developments to watch, though, which could turn out to be a trigger for some sort of endgame in Fiji, is the condition and activities of the national superannuation fund, the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF), the largest single pot of money in Fiji.
During 2009, the regime decreed that all public servants - and the Fiji public service is large, and covers teachers, health workers, police, as well as bureaucrats of all kinds - over the age of 55 had to retire, but then limited the access they were allowed to their FNPF deposits to prevent a serious run on the fund. This followed a 20% devaluation of the Fiji dollar. Subsequently, some public servants have been recalled.
University of the South Pacific, and Fiji's leading, economist, Professor Waden Narsey, has been warning about the economic impacts of the 2006 coup, and subsequent developments, and following what appear to be stealthy raids on the FNPF (in July, 2009, and more broadly in March, 2010.)
Professor Biman Prasad, also from USP, has also analysed the economic impacts of Fiji's coups, and finds little reason for optimism about the current economic outlook for Fiji either.
Informed observers of Fiji, myself included, are following the stealthy raids on the FNPF and comparing these with the plundering and then failure of the National Bank of Fiji during the latter 1990s, itself one of the major precursor triggers of the 2000-2001 crisis if only because nobody was prosecuted, loan defaulters or from management, for the collapse, and because of the enormous hit on the Fiji economy that bank collapse caused.
Tourism, as Ms McDonald reported on Foreign Correspondent, might be travelling quite well, though cheap deals and the dollar devaluation make Fiji an attractive destination.
The once dominant sugar industry is dying, in part due to inefficient and failing infrastructure, and in part due to the suspension of preferential EU market access.
Overall, then, while the stated aims of the 2006 coup, and now of the military installed and backed regime may appear, as set out in the People's Charter, eventually for the good of Fiji and Fijians, Commodore Frank has terminally demolished any legitimacy for his stated aims or goals, as veteran Tongan publisher and close Fiji watcher, Kalafi Moala, observed last September.
Before Easter, 2009, while the People's Charter was being promoted throughout Fiji, and more people had faith that the interim government would be genuinely transitional, former USP academic and media worker, Pat Craddock, joined the task force to assist in promoting the Charter. He broke with the regime and returned to his native New Zealand, expressing his profound disillusionment with the regime and its plans on AUT Associate Professor David Robie's Cafe Pacific Blog in early November, 2009.
Commodore Frank has stressed that, following the introduction of a new constitution (setting to one side how such a document might be accorded any kind of legitimacy), to be announced in 2013, and necessary electoral procedures reforms, Fiji will have elections around September, 2014. He calls this his Roadmap.
Leading up to that new constitution, he's said there will be a national political dialogue though established political parties or groupings will not be allowed to participate unless they endorse his regime's agendas and acknowledge its legitimacy.
The leading Fiji NGO, the Citizen's Constitutional Forum (CCF), whose CEO, Rev Akuila Yabaki, appeared on ABC TV's Foreign Correspondent, has recently called on the regime to re-instigate inclusive political dialogue.
Bua Commodore Frank has also opined that if he doesn't like a government elected in 2014, then he'll remove it too.
Given that Fiji's governments have been removed by military coup or putsch four times (depending on how one defines a coup, there have been a couple of other coup-like moves as well) since 1987, that's hardly any incentive for Fiji's best and brightest to consider a political career come 2014, assuming Commodore Frank really keeps his promises.
So, groping towards discerning some sort of end game...
No doubt, in the darker recesses of their respective Defence Departments, Australian and New Zealand war gamers and strategists would have been developing scenarios to do with a RAMSI-style armed intervention into Fiji should the situation grievously deteriorate. Nothing especially sinister or dire about this kind of activity; that's what defence planners do.
Indeed, in the lead up to the December, 2006, coup, then Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, dispatched three Australian warships to hold station off Fiji in case the situation collapsed and foreign nationals needed armed rescue. Operation Quickstep, as it was called, ended disastrously.
In April, 2008, the then Fiji Human Rights Commission, then led by Dr Shaista Shameem, released a purported 'report' investigating how Australia was plotting to subvert the 2006 coup and even invade Fiji, as demonstrated by Mr Nelson sending the warships close to Fiji and allegedly secreting an SAS unit in to the Australian High Commission.
(This 'report', together with several others Dr Shameem issued during 2008, make for fascinating reading, if only for insights into how she was seeking to ingratiate herself, ultimately unsuccessfully as it turned out, with the then military-backed interim government, and how genuinely paranoid supporters of the 2006 coup were, and indeed remain. Her 'reports' on the all but kidnapping and then deportation of then Fiji Sun publisher, Russell Hunter, and later, Fiji Times managing editor, Evan Hannah, contain very significant nuggets of information Fiji jigsaw puzzle players and kava bowl peerers ought to closely consider, given Sharon Smith-Johns' former role as CEO of Fiji's ISP, Connect.com.fj, from whence came a slew of 'subversive' e-mails, and the continuing allegations against former Prime Minister and Fiji Labour Party leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, for money laundering and tax evasion, which he vigorously denies. Dr Shameem's commissioned 'report' on the Fiji media, prepared by obscure Fiji-born academic, Dr James Anthony, significantly informs the new Fiji media regulatory system imposed by decree earlier in July.)
Then Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, was slightly more realistic, advocating a campaign of civil disobedience against the interim government though, as an experienced user and scholar of nonviolence, I know more than most how both stupid and naive, Mr Downer was being, and how dangerous against a determined military pulling a coup nonviolent direct action can be without very thorough preparations and rehearsals.
I drew on some of Dr Shameem's 'reports' for a paper I presented to the 2009 Pacific Islands Political Studies Association (PIPSA) conference in Auckland, and that paper is available in PDF format.
During the 2006 coup, though, I was one of the people sending copies of the Albert Einstein Institution's Anti-Coup guide to as many of my contacts as I could find in Fiji, hoping it might do some good.
A more recent idea to circumvent the rigorous media censorship in Fiji, coming from the Sydney-based president of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement, has been to set up a ship-based pirate radio station to broadcast uncensored news and opinion back into the country. Listeners to, and readers of the transcript of, Radio Australia's Pacific Beat's Bruce Hill's interview with this group's president, will detect Mr Hill's incredulity at this well meant, but logistically ludicrous, idea.
Over Easter, 2009, the regime shut down the FM transmitters in Nadi and Suva which locally re-broadcast Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand International. Both broadcasters have continued to beam shortwave into the Pacific, including Fiji, though I don't know anybody in Fiji who owns or uses a shortwave radio these days, and it would be risky to do so lest regime spies or stooges overhear the crackling signals. The ABC's Australia Network Television is always available, free, via satellite if one has the right reception equipment, and is broadcast locally on Fiji TV and regionally via its pay TV Sky Pacific service.
A RAMSI-style intervention into a Fiji disintegrating into chaos several magnitudes worse than accompanied the Speight-fronted putsch in May, 2000, would have to contend with the region's largest, best equipped, and most experienced military, thanks to long-term UN peacekeeping duties and even longer-term association with the British military, responding to even tactical 'seize and hold' raids and incursions on their own turf. Securing and holding strategic assets, such as Nadi and Suva Airports, Suva Harbour and wharfs, the Monasavu hydroelectricity facility, and the road corridors linking them to Nadi and Suva towns, and then key infrastructure within major population centres, would all involve two of the nastiest forms of warfare there are - urban and rural guerrilla warfare.
Certainly, the Biketawa Declaration, re-affirmed at this year's Pacific Islands Forum meeting, gives regional legitimation to direct intervention into regional conflicts, witness RAMSI or regional policing intervention following the Tongan riots in 2006.
But the likelihood of Fiji needing anything like a RAMSI style intervention seems exceptionally remote and is best left to the scenario plotters and war gamers in the Defence Department basements.
What nobody seems to have noticed are possible implications of the ousted Deputy-President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, certainly the one Fijian high chief and former senior jurist, uncompromised by any engagement with the interim government or the post-Easter regime, serving on the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Launched by South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the end of April, 2009, this Commission has held sometimes dramatic and harrowing public hearings in Honiara and elsewhere in the Solomons, such as Gizo in mid-July, 2010, but hasn't received the coverage it deserves outside of the Solomons (which held elections at the beginning of August, 2010). The Commission also seems to be financially under-resourced.
I haven't spoken with Ratu Joni since late January, 2009, when, during a long and wide ranging off the record conversation, I canvassed the notion that, in dynamics only, Fiji resembled Queensland under Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and thence needed a Fitzgerald Inquiry style and standard 'clean out', rather than another military coup. He didn't disagree with me, except when I opined that he was the only Fijian able and qualified to head such an Inquiry. His modesty led him to that demurrer. (My PIPSA paper canvasses this chilling, at least to me, parallel in broad dynamics only, between Joh's Queensland and contemporary Fiji.)
When I saw that Ratu Joni was serving on the Solomon Islands T & R Commission, I thought, 'Ah ha! He's learning the details of how these things are run in case Fiji post-military dictatorship needs a similar exercise'. After the initial pleasantries, the first question I'll ask Ratu Joni when next we meet would be precisely along those lines.
Ratu Joni's views of the current Fiji situation as at June, 2007, can be read as part of a valuable ANU collection of papers. I don't doubt he would hold even more firmly to those views now.
Certainly, while the military regime in Fiji keeps a tight lid on the country, many and assorted grievances, resentments, and potentially precursor proto-putsch formations, are simmering and are going to need some sort of outlet when democratic governance returns to an internationally and domestically acceptable form. Some sort of credible and thorough-going Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of the best ways to achieve this, and Ratu Joni is the only credible, all but universally respected, Fijian to head it.
So, ruling out military intervention unless Fiji utterly and completely falls apart, perhaps following some sort of rogue military uprising, which seems almost impossible, and assuming Commodore Frank's plans eventually lead to elections in later 2014, what then?
A consistently contrary view to what follows, aside from the regime and the censored Fijian media, comes from USP Emeritus Professor Crosbie Walsh, now based in New Zealand, a very experienced regional and Fiji population geographer. Croz Walsh's Blog, Fiji: The Way It Was, Is, and Can Be, is essential reading, though I don't share his optimism about Fiji's end game. I'll point Croz to this Backgrounder and encourage him to comment on Webdiary.
Irrespective of who holds power in Canberra and Wellington, and New Zealand will host the 2011 Pacific Islands Forum meeting, the array of smart sanctions in the form of travel and transit bans in place against regime identities, their families, and members of the Fiji military and police, will remain and continue to irritate the regime. This explains why they often travel via places like Seoul using Air Korea. The travel bans might be periodically relaxed for specific discussions or acute humanitarian reasons.
What the regime certainly fears is for Australia, New Zealand, perhaps the EU and the Commonwealth as well, convincing the UN to restrict or even cease hiring Fijian soldiers for UN peacekeeping duties. Fiji has a long and proud record in this regard, but its UN work has contributed to its military being far larger than national defence would suggest is necessary. UN duties and contracts bring in a significant amount of foreign exchange for the regime (and formerly the government) as well as very welcome remittances to soldier's extended families. Tonga may be an alternative source of Pacific soldiers, starting with a small deployment in Afghanistan.
One way the regime has been consolidating its support has been to make sure the military rank and file are well supported as poverty has grown in the country to, depending on how poverty is calculated on Fiji's terms, at least well over 50% and possibly higher.
Chinese aid and assistance to Fiji, never provided without a significant benefit to the Motherland, is very significant and growing as China seeks to extend its influence into the South West Pacific.
Australian and New Zealand tourism will steadily grow, as will tourism from Asia, because, finally, in the globalised world economy, Fiji isn't supposed to grow and expert sugar, or assemble garments. It's supposed to be a cheap, quaint, and safe tourism destination. But it won't take much to deter tourists, even if they are largely corralled in the tourism belt from the north western off-shore islands around to the Coral Coast of Viti Levu. Investors are already rather leery about Fiji, nervous about possible future rule changes following the severe, apparently terminal, pressure placed on News Corporation's Fiji Times.
One major 'export' from Fiji the region can certainly do without are the severe restrictions imposed on its once lively media. Periodic media freedom fights are nothing new in the Pacific, with another one looming in Tonga. Some other Pacific Islands governments might envy what Commodore Frank's apparently successfully done to Fiji's media.
But the Pacific Islands News Association has, in my, and other highly informed observer's, view completely lost the plot on media freedom in Fiji, rather approving its Suva-secretariat boss, Matai Akauola, to serve on the regime's Media Authority. The regional news service, PacNews, operated by PINA from its Suva office, is also subjected to rigorous censorship by the regime. In early July, 2010, the Fiji Times joined a growing number of Pacific media organisations from Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, and even Hawai'i in resigning from PINA over its very accommodating position on media freedom in Fiji.
Despite periodic calls from, particularly, Samoa's Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, to re-locate the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat out of Suva, preferably to Apia, which are at least partly interpreted as self-serving opportunism but also have significant credibility, this almost certainly won't happen simply because of Suva's position as the major transport and regional hub in the South West Pacific, and Samoa's location just into yesterday's side of the International Dateline.
Periodic, quiet diplomacy, perhaps initiated by New Zealand, will continue, but it has failed in the past, and it remains extremely difficult to dialogue, let alone negotiate, with a military backed regime which has long since forgotten 'the law of holes' (when you're in one, stop digging), and exhibits many of the very worrying characteristics of severe political Group Think.
Setting to one side precisely how a new constitution might garner the needed legitimacy, and then how the needed electoral procedures reforms - census, analysis, boundary redrawings along one roll, one vote, one value lines - might be credibly progressed, and the foregoing stages are, in and of themselves, a huge ask....
Then setting to one side how a credible, free, and fair election campaign, to tolerable international, or even regional, standards, might be run, including a lively and informed political and civil society 'conversation' including through a lively and free media, and then the election itself, what then?
Clues can be discerned from analyses of the voting behaviour exhibited in the 2006 Fiji elections, as discussed on the surprisingly good Wikipedia entries, and an earlier book from ANU, From Election to Coup in Fiji which should also be read in conjunction with The 2006 Military Takeover in Fiji: A Coup to End all Coups?. (ANU has very generously made these available as free PDFs and the latter also is in mobile phone readable format. Vinaka!)
Factor into the mix what USP's Professor Wadan Narsey describes:
"Fiji is going through an amazing population transformation, one might even call it a population revolution, confirmed by the 2007 Census results and resulting population projections.
"In the space of a hundred years, an immigrant community of Indian origin, has gone from being a minority (40% in 1921), to just over 50% in the 1970s, and thereafter sharply declining to a current 36%, and probably 26% by 2027. Indigenous Fijians will then be around 70 percent.," he wrote in a controversial analysis released earlier in 2010, and suppressed by the censors in Fiji.
Assuming that Commodore Frank's attempt to re-wire the psyche of Fiji to eradicate corrosive ethno-nationalism, and its many and complex effects and impacts, succeeds (which it won't, in my, and many other, far better informed observer's, very considered views, and we profoundly wish, hope, and even pray we're wrong) what then?
In general, indigenous Fijians tend to vote for indigenous Fijian candidates and parties, some of whom vigorously eschew and even abhor ethno-nationalism, but others of whom very well understand and deploy that peculiar discordant but very effective Fijian dog whistle.
In asking this question of several Fijian friends when last in Suva, and on meeting them occasionally in Australia or the region outside of Fiji, and discussing the forgoing, sometimes at great and intricate length with several serious experts on Fiji and regional politics over the last eighteen months, the answer is unequivocal, given the decisive demographic shifts which have already occurred in Fiji, and will escalate.
"In any future Fiji election, who'd win?"
"SDL (Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua), or somebody very like them," has been the all but universal reply.
"What then?" has been my next question.
"You go figure," has been the all but universal reply, with, when answered in Suva, another stiff pull on their Fiji Bitter, or a deep draught of calming Fijian yagona, and eyes turned nervously towards the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in the northern Suva suburb of Nabua.
Commodore Frank has effectively done nothing to assuage fears of this dire probable end game for Fiji because re-wiring the psyche of a Vanua steeped place like Fiji is impossible.