Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 17:41 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 17:41 | SYDNEY

The Fiji dilemma (part 3)


Graeme Dobell

10 June 2011 14:06

Australia's tough-love approach to Fiji's military regime may not have achieved much. But that is no excuse for adopting a free-love policy. Whatever Australia does to engage Fiji's military Supremo must be guided by the reality of the regime that Frank Bainimarama is running.

The true failure in Fiji policy has been the huge gap between the Supremo's words and actions. The military dictator proclaims his ultimate aim is to deliver Fiji to a true democracy. The method is to debauch politics and civil society while building up the military as the nation's central institution. The gap between means and ends is so wide as to be unbridgeable. 

The Supremo is creating a Suharto-style New Order, not a new democratic order. That is why this series of columns has talked of Bainimarama's regime as an attempt to create the military as a distinct and supreme Fijian Confederacy or as a military order on the Suharto model. 

The nature of the regime and the Supremo's actual record are the real obstacles when Australia contemplates what has gone wrong with its policy on Fiji. That is the dilemma Jenny Hayward-Jones confronts when saying that Australia's Fiji policy needs an overhaul, yet engagement must not be seen as appeasement.

Jenny's Lowy paper argues Australia's tough-love policy towards Fiji has failed to persuade the Supremo to restore democracy to Fiji and may even be helping to entrench his regime. Bainimarama needs little help from outside to entrench his Order. Yet outsiders have to readjust. The reason is because the facts have changed. The Supremo's New Order is still a strange work-in-progress as it enters its second decade. But it has certainly altered Fiji. The change is malign and the effects will be long felt.

In reconsidering tactics, outsiders must understand that any national elections delivered by Bainimarama will serve his New Order, not democracy. Jenny's paper puts it this way:

Bainimarama has promised elections in 2014. There is good reason to be sceptical about this commitment. Bainimarama has at various times said he did not trust the Fiji people, threatened to postpone the 2014 election timetable and warned the military would be 'guiding' an elected government after 2014.

Trust little that the Supremo says, but believe him when he proclaims that the military will be the guide for Fiji. The nature of the guide says much about why Fiji's future looks so troubled.

Australian policy needs to adjust because any election the Supremo delivers will be deeply compromised. Assuming the New Order model prevails, the winning party in the election will be created and run by the military and Bainimarama will stay on as leader — whether as prime minister or president. 

The end-point of Australian policy is not the mere holding of a Fiji election, if that vote is no more than a formal endorsement of the New Order. Australia and the international community must focus on freeing as much space as possible for Fiji's civil society; to get some power out of the ever-expanding grip of the regime.

Any policy offerings can be tied to actions by the Supremo. This is a game of linkages — action in response to action. And most of the important moves by the regime could be easily delivered well before that shimmering 2014 date with democracy. Key actions by the regime: 

  • Lift the state of emergency.
  • End military censorship.
  • Hold municipal elections.
  • Allow normal activity by political parties.

Such moves do not reach towards the even harder issues of a new constitution or political structure. The aim is to free Fijians to tell the Supremo what they think, without the danger of a trip up the hills to the Suva barracks to be yelled at, shoved around, detained, kicked and worse. The central point is to get the Supremo to let go of some power. Lifting the emergency and censorship and letting proper politics resume are obviously big items.
Even the innocuous sounding idea of multi-racial municipal elections is a challenge. Can the man who has laid his heavy hand on the Constitution, the Courts, the Chiefs and the Church actually stand back and see a popular vote for local Councils? 

If Fiji can vote locally, then it should be allowed to vote nationally. Any vote will be, in part, a referendum on Frank Bainimarama. And such a vote could set some limits on the way the Supremo can make rules for Fiji's future. Frank may have no ear for ignorant outsiders, but even he should pay some heed to his own people.

If the Supremo cannot let go to some extent, he will be refusing to listen to the rest of Fiji; even the fellow travelers and useful idiots will have pause to consider the true destination of the New Order. The champion of the People's Charter has yet to prove that he trusts the people.

The nature and the order of the potential carrots offered to the regime will depend on the Supremo's appetites — what looks juiciest to Suva? The next column will discuss the hard facts of living with a New Order regime and what carrots outsiders can use to help Fijians regain their voice.

Photo by Flickr user frankartculinary.