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Bainimarama's high-stakes game

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In Brief

Fiji’s prime minister and military commander Frank Bainimarama has given his first extended interview to the Australian media since his dramatic seizure of complete power a few weeks ago.

On April 10, following a court ruling that his 2006 military coup was illegal, he abrogated the constitution, dismissed Fiji’s entire judiciary, declared a state of emergency, ordered soldiers into Fiji’s media newsrooms as censors, and said there would be no elections until September 2014.

Pictured in The Australian newspaper with a bowl of the traditional Fijian drink kava, and surrounded by his grandchildren, Bainimarama is engaged in a public relations exercise. He has called for an immediate face-to-face meeting with the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand, Kevin Rudd and John Key, who, he says, do not understand what he is doing for his country. They are highly unlikely to accept his invitation.


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Beneath the geniality, and the offer to put relations right with Australia and New Zealand, Bainimarama is threatening them with a loss of influence as he turns to alternative aid donors, China and India.

China in particular, represented in Fiji by Ambassador Han Zhiqiang, has increased its development assistance to Fiji considerably in recent years, and a Chinese company Sino Hydro Corporation is building a major hydro-electricity project at Nadarivatu. Bainimarama is making no concessions about his program to transform Fiji, insisting again that elections will be deferred for five years. Even five years, he says, is a short time, suggesting he may believe a longer period of military rule is needed before the return of democracy.

Bainimarama is under more pressure at home and abroad than at any time since he took control of Fiji in December 2006.

At home he has been deserted by Mahendra Chaudhry, a former Labour prime minister who welcomed his coup and served until August 2008 as his Finance Minister. Chaudhry, who has a strong following among Fiji Indians, has denounced him as autocratic and called for early elections. Support for Bainimarama among the majority population of indigenous Fijians, weak in the first place, is now weaker than ever as prices rise in the wake of the recent devaluation of the Fiji dollar, the economy slumps and jobs are lost.

Abroad he has lost UN support for the participation of Fijians in new UN peacekeeping missions. Those missions were responsible for expanding the troop strength of the Fiji Military Forces in the first place, and offered the overseas experience that makes it such a formidable holder of political power in Fiji today. Above all, UN peacekeeping has given Fiji’s soldiers good money in a country where it is hard to find.

Now Fiji has become the first Pacific country to be expelled from the Pacific Islands Forum. The Forum, which Fiji helped to found in 1971, brings together the 16 independent and self-governing states of the Pacific Islands and is the leading regional organization. Forum leaders threatened Fiji with expulsion if Bainimarama did not set a date for elections by May 1, 2009, and hold them by the end of the year. Earlier coup regimes in Fiji have easily survived expulsions from organisations such as the Commonwealth, but this action is an unprecedented regional rebuff, which, added to Fiji’s other troubles, is likely to further undermine domestic support for the country’s self-appointed prime minister.

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