Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 02:33 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 02:33 | SYDNEY

Strange days in Suva


Graeme Dobell

26 May 2008 10:53

Consider what is becoming credible under Fiji's increasingly incredible military regime. Australia's Foreign Minister says two death threats directed against Australia's top diplomat and his staff in Fiji are 'serious and credible'. And Stephen Smith was not prepared to deny speculation that the threats actually come from Fiji's military. This does not quite meet the I.F.Stone law that you believe nothing until it has been formally denied, but it is getting close.

Cut to the real issue here: Australia is preparing to evacuate diplomatic families from Suva and is going public about credible threats because it is worried about the stability and judgement of the military regime. To be blunt, Canberra and the rest of the South Pacific are concerned about one man — the commander of the Fiji military, Frank Bainimarama.

In journalese, Bainimarama is a 'military strongman'. Psychologists, perhaps, might use more nuanced language. Bainimarama has been under a lot of pressure — and has been making some strange calls — for a long time. In 2000, the military chief overthrew Fiji's President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and imposed martial law. Thus, the successful coup in 2000 was not the one attempted by George Speight and the gang that seized Parliament House and held hostage the Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. The actual change of government in 2000 was effected first by Ratu Mara, who ruled that Chaudhry could no longer form government because he was held captive. Bainimarama decided quickly that the President had not gone far enough. He banished Ratu Mara to his home island and imposed a military government.

So Bainimarama has staged not one, but two coups. His action to overthrow the Qarase Government in December, 2006, was a slow-motion coup that came after months of threats from the barracks. Bainimarama acted despite pleas from across the South Pacific, including public and personal warnings from the Australian Government and the chief of the Australian Defence Force.

Suva is a small capital that lives on gossip. And one issue that gets plenty of attention is how Bainimarama's personality has changed. Much of the speculation is about the impact on the military chief of the attempted counter-coup by some of his own soldiers at the end of 2000, which amounted to an attempt to murder Bainimarama. The instances of regime paranoia are starting to stack up, with heavy-handed threats to internal traitors and the public rage against external threats.

Twice the regime has staged night raids on Australian targets — the publisher of The Fiji Times and the publisher of The Sun. Each Australian was grabbed from his home, driven across the main island from Suva to Nadi, and expelled by being shoved on board an international flight. It is not hard to imagine Bainimarama or his henchmen having a similar 'vexatious priest' moment about Australia's High Commissioner, James Batley.

Batley has had an unusual posting path, different from the peripatetic course navigated by most of our diplomats. He has spent his senior career serving in the Melanesian arc from East Timor into the South Pacific. He ranks as the most experienced Pacific hand of his generation. James Batley does not merely sit in the middle of the Australian diplomatic compound on a hill overlooking Suva (although the ambassadorial residence is one of the finest Australia has anywhere in the world — a former planter's mansion with louvres on all sides to catch the breeze). Batley does what any good diplomat does in the South Pacific. He goes out and talks to everyone. And in Suva's small society that makes Australia's representative a constant reminder of the threats the military regime sees looming — real or imaginary.

The regime cannot as easily snatch James Batley in a raid and throw him aboard a plane. Perhaps threats will confine Australia's man to his compound.