Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 07:24 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 07:24 | SYDNEY

Pacific agony over Fiji folly


Graeme Dobell

4 February 2009 09:10

Fiji’s military regime is a slow-motion folly that seems to roll inexorably towards further disaster. And the disaster dynamic is now confronting the Pacific Islands Forum. The Forum is edging towards the expulsion of Fiji, knowing that this would deeply damage the Forum itself.

A sense of sad inevitability now dogs the Forum. Bainimarama claims to be helping Fiji but, in truth, inflicts ever greater damage. The Forum inches along the path to an expulsion that would rend its own fabric. Expulsion would cut across the original conceptions of the ‘Pacific Way’. It would set back newer ideas about the Forum taking a great role in running and coordinating Pacific governance.

By giving itself the power to expel, the Forum could damage broader hopes to centralise and utilise power for the region. The conundrum centres on both the nature and personality of Frank Bainimarama and evolving ideas of Pacific regionalism. Ignore Bainimarama’s protestations of good intentions and commitment to democracy. Look, instead, at his actions in imbedding the coup culture deeper than ever in Fiji.

Fiji has had four successful coups, and Bainimarama staged two of them. Rabuka ran the same coup twice in 1987 — the first to seize power and the second coup to ensure the shape of the emerging power arrangement. In 2000, George Speight and some renegade troops staged what was, ultimately, an unsuccessful coup  — at least for George and his cohorts. The lawful government was ejected from power, but this was achieved by the President and Fiji’s military, not by the Speight gang.

Speight seized control of the parliamentary compound and kidnapped the Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry and his cabinet. This was a major criminal act. But the real overthrow of the legal government was carried out by Bainimarama, not by Speight. The initial response to the Speight siege in Parliament was that the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, relieved Chaudhry and his ministers from office. Mara argued that the cabinet was being held captive and could not carry out its lawful functions. So far, probably so legal.

The successful coup took place nearly a fortnight after the start of the Speight siege. Bainimarama, as chief of the Fiji military, went to Mara and told him the military was taking power. The President was dispatched to his home island on a patrol boat. As Mara departed, so went the legal basis for the regime response to the kidnapping siege.

Bainimarama deposed Mara, Fiji’s founding leader, to unite the military. Dangerous splits were opening in the ranks. Too many of Bainimarama’s officers had direct links to the renegades inside the parliament. The first Bainimarama coup in 2000 had more to do with uniting Fiji’s military than it did with protecting democracy. The military commander eventually negotiated a peaceful end to the siege. But when Fiji’s elected Prime Minister emerged from captivity he was sidelined. Instead, Bainimarama maintained the regime he had installed and put in place Laisenia Qarase as Prime Minister.

The irony is that Qarase went on to win an election. So when Bainimarama staged his second coup in 2006, he wasn’t merely casting aside the man he’d put in power. The military chief was again discarding an elected leader.

All this history weighs on the Forum. The reason the Forum may finally act against Fiji has much to do with the South Pacific’s experience of Bainimarama’s personality and style. The old Pacific Way was built on ideas of mutual respect, dialogue and slow persuasion. The formula isn’t working this time. The Forum no longer believes what it is told by Bainimarama. And privately, many in the region worry about the character and stability of Fiji’s military supremo.

The argument for the Forum to expel Fiji is strong. Expect Papua New Guinea, though, to strain to create some wriggle room. If Bainimarama were smart enough to lift his eyes from the Suva melee for a moment, he still has some cards. Getting into the game would involve more regional sensitivity and less Fiji chauvinism. A quick check of the old Ratu Mara playbook would help.

The debate about expulsion leads to a separate but equally important question — the future of the Forum and Pacific regionalism.

Imagine the ructions in Southeast Asia if ASEAN decided it had to expel Thailand because of its military-political shenanigans. This is a fanciful notion. ASEAN can’t even bring itself to throw out Burma. The strengthening of ASEAN’s institutional order gave the grouping a stronger voice but no real teeth (the Singapore formulation).

Ejecting Fiji from the Forum would be like expelling Thailand from ASEAN. Or make the formulation even weightier. Imagine ASEAN without Indonesia at its centre. Impossible. This, though, is the bureaucratic significance of Fiji. The ASEAN secretariat is in Jakarta. The Forum secretariat is in Fiji.

A Pacific Islands Forum without Fiji is a significantly weakened regional grouping. The ambitions of the Pacific Plan for the Forum would be indefinitely suspended. If Fiji were thrown out of the Forum would it also be ejected from the Melanesian Spearhead Group? Probably not. It is going to be hard enough for PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands to agree to action by the Forum.

As patrons and players of the Forum, Australia and New Zealand are pushing for action against Fiji. Distaste for Bainimarama might help Canberra and Wellington to achieve something unprecedented in the four decades of the Forum — the expulsion of a member.

As patron of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, China wants a strong and united MSG, with Fiji on the inside. And one of the unintended consequences of expelling Fiji might be to lift the standing of the MSG and weaken the Forum. Fiji’s folly would truly turn into a regional tragedy.