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Silence after abrogation of Fiji's 1997 Constitution

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In Brief

Last week, there was international outrage at the decision by Fiji’s military-backed government to abrogate the constitution, sack the judiciary and suspend elections until 2014.

Yet the reaction within the country has been much more muted. Whereas in Thailand and Madagascar, protestors have rallied to the defence of governments ousted by coups, in Fiji there has been a sullen – if begrudging – acceptance of the 27-month old military regime, despite its preparedness to now tear up the country’s fundamental laws. A few courageous barristers turned up to protest outside courts in Suva and Lautoka when they re-opened after the Easter break, but this was nothing like the reaction in Pakistan, when furious lawyers took to the streets in their black gowns to demand the reinstatement of their Chief Justice.


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In contrast, Fiji’s Chief Justice, Daniel Fatiaki, who was ousted shortly after the December 2006 coup and accused of corruption, reached a F$275,000 out of court settlement with the interim government in December 2008, which allowed him to settle quietly into retirement with full pension and other benefits. That arrangement not only indicated limited resistance at the top levels of the Fiji judiciary, but also the willingness of the Bainimarama government to sacrifice its anti-corruption objectives in order to consolidate political power.

That an uprising, or an army mutiny, was possible in the wake of last week’s crisis is suggested by the reaction of interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who had himself reappointed as a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister last Saturday. In press conferences, Bainimarama chose to be flanked by his fellow white-uniformed naval officers Viliame Naupoto and Esala Teleni, notably not the top-ranking army officers, who are known to be harbour grievances at being passed over for promotions or lucrative civil service appointments. That was an indication of which loyalties can be most counted upon at a time of crisis.

To present an image of normalcy and continuity, ministers were all sworn into their same portfolios in the wake of the abrogation of the constitution. Military minders were sent into the newsrooms of the local media organisations, foreign journalists were expelled and the signals from Radio Australia were jammed in an effort to avoid ‘negative publicity’. That need to control the news was a sign of the regime’s weakness, not its strength or popularity.

The military command has been careful to avoid any potential flashpoints. When deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase departed for his home island of Mavana straight after the December 2006 takeover, it came as some relief to the military authorities. For months, the local airlines and shipping companies were forbidden from carrying him back to the capital, for fear that his return might serve as the focal point for popular mobilisation.

When the courts intervened and allowed Qarase to return in September 2007, the political temperature suddenly rose and Bainimarama responded by re-introducing emergency regulations. But nothing happened. Ethnic Fijians sit around the yaqona bowls and curse the military commander, wishing upon him a grisly end. They talk of his heart condition, and the demons that allegedly haunt him at night. But they do not act. Indigenous Fijians have a tradition of subservience in the face of violent and oppressive overlords. Chiefs who rule badly are rarely dislodged. Instead, rivals wait patiently for such leaders to die, and then conspire to ensure their sons do not inherit their titles.

Lack of popular resistance in the face of coups is not new in Fiji. In previous coups in 1987 and 2000, the victims were predominantly politicians representing the country’s Fiji Indian population. An indigenous Fijian, Dr Timoci Bavadra led the shortlived 1987 coalition government, but its voter-base was mainly amongst the Indians. Mahendra Chaudhry’s 1999-2000 government had some Fijian allies, but most had drifted away by the time of the coup on 19 May 2000. Few ethnic Fijians mourned the ousting of either government. Lack of open defiance to those coups by Fiji Indians was frequently – if rather feebly – explained by small physical stature, as compared to the burly rugby-playing indigenous Fijians. More sensibly, outward migration seemed to provide a safety-valve for aggrieved Fiji Indians, more than a hundred thousand of whom departed the country between the 1987 and 2006 coups.

What is now obvious is that ethnic temperament had little to do with quiescence in the face of coups. It has been the military’s monopoly on armed force that discourages the country’s citizens from taking to the streets, and fear of this afflicts the indigenous Fijians as much as it does the Fiji Indian minority. In all three of Fiji’s coups, it has been the stance of the military that has been decisive – which is why Sitiveni Rabuka’s coup in 1987 succeeded, why George Speight’s coup in 2000 failed and why Frank Bainimarama is now able to contemptuously toss aside Fiji’s constitution.

What distinguishes the 2006 coup, however, is its lack of a firm social base outside the military, which gives the political situation a brittle and, indeed, dangerous character. When the military seized power in 1987, many ethnic Fijians rejoiced. The former Prime Minister, Ratu Mara, was soon back and, under a new Constitution, coup leader Rabuka was able to get himself elected in 1992 and again in 1994. The 2000 coup was also popular amongst indigenous Fijians, even if there was some disdain amongst the mainstream for George Speight and his lunatic fringe.

Most, like Bainimarama and the military initially, accepted former banker Laisenia Qarase as the moderate alternative to Speight. As a result, Mr. Qarase’s Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party was able to grow his support from 50 per cent amongst indigenous Fijians at the 2001 polls to over 80 per cent at the May 2006 polls.

By contrast, when Frank Bainimarama seized control in 2006, those who rallied behind him were mainly from the country’s Fiji Indian population. Mahendra Chaudhry, whose Fiji Labour Party obtained over 80 per cent of the Indian vote at the elections of May 2006, joined the cabinet as Finance Minister as well as assuming the national planning, public enterprise, and sugar portfolios. But Mr Chaudhry was pushed out of the cabinet in August last year, and Fiji Indian reaction to the coup has become more ambivalent.

Fiji Indians, who for the most part lack the safety net of owning land in rural villages, have been hit hard by last year’s fuel and food price rises. This year, they face the triple whammy of long term decline in the sugar industry due to the ending of European Union price subsidies, Bainimarama’s coup-generated domestic decline, and the impending arrival of an overseas-originated slump in tourist arrivals, remittances and commodity prices. On Wednesday, the Fiji dollar had to be devalued by 20 per cent.

In the President’s abrogation speech last weekend, it was claimed that 64 per cent of the population support Bainimarama’s People’s Charter, which contains proposals for radical electoral reform. In fact, that figure is wildly over-inflated, and the consultation exercises that generated it were deeply flawed.

The decision to put off elections until 2014 is a better indication of the regime’s own perception of its likely electoral fortunes. Is it possible that military control, and popular passivity, might endure for years, giving Bainimarama time to discredit his adversaries, train up his supporters and so reshape the political scene? That is unlikely because – like many other soldiers entering politics – Mr Bainimarama has shown himself to be poor at cultivating allies or handling opponents, and still worse at managing the economy.

More likely, the 2006 coup will eventually go the way of its predecessors in 1987 and 2000, none of which have succeeded in establishing a durable and resilient political order based around popular consensus.

One response to “Silence after abrogation of Fiji’s 1997 Constitution”

  1. Dr. Fraenkel said: “What distinguishes the 2006 coup, however, is its lack of a firm social base outside the military, which gives the political situation a brittle and, indeed, dangerous character.”

    If the Fiji military had limited grassroots support as Dr. Fraenkel has stated, then why isn’t there protests and civil disobedience like in Thailand. It appears there were more protests regarding Fiji’s loss in the recent Rugby Sevens World Cup in Dubai.

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