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POLITICS-FIJI: Bainimarama a Hero but Coup a Mistake

Analysis by Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Dec 7 2006 (IPS) - Fiji’s military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s vision of a multi-racial country and his bold and frank criticism of the pro-indigenous Fiji government – that he finally ousted this week – as corrupt and inefficient, has received appreciation by many citizens.

But he is seen to have overstepped bounds in staging a coup, isolating himself and the military.

Vociferous critics of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s administration such as Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, himself a victim of two coups, opposition leader Mick Beddoes, and civil society groups such as the Citizens Constitutional Forum have all said that Tuesday’s coup was a mistake.

Fiji’s President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who was considered a silent sympathiser of Bainimarama’s, issued a statement saying he neither “condoned nor supported” the coup.

Having been down the same destructive path thrice in the last 20 years, and given a coup’s potential for violence and economic devastation, many were hoping that Bainimarama would not cross the line. But cross he did, and condemnation, both international and local, has been swift and punitive.

Bainimarama’s immediate problem is that apart from a retired medical practioner stepping forward to be sworn in as prime minister, no one else has put up his or her hands to serve in an interim civilian administration.

The obvious reason is the fear of being charged for treason and languishing in jail – just like those who illegally took the oath of office following the 2000 coup staged by self-proclaimed nationalist and failed businessman George Speight.

This leaves the army with the unenviable task of governing the country, something it is ill prepared or equipped for, even in the short term.

It was Bainimarama who gave Qarase the mantle of leadership of an interim government after the racially inspired May 2000 coup toppled Chaudhry, the first ethnic Indian prime minister of Fiji.

But the two parted ways after the 2001 elections won by Qarase’s Soqosoqo Duavata Lewenivanua Party. Bainimarama became a strident critic of the Qarase government’s nationalist policies, especially its patronage and protection of influential people involved in the Speight coup.

The government’s refusal to renew Fiji’s Australian director of public prosecution, Peter Ridgeway’s contract last year, after he scored some convictions against the 2000 coup perpetrators, was seen as an example of this. He was given 24 hours to leave the country.

Bainimarama was also infuriated by a plodding police force sitting on some of the files relating to Speight’s coup.

It was the Fiji Sun newspaper that shamed the police into action this year with a series of disclosures, including on the efforts by some in the force to suppress evidence/charges against coup perpetrators.

The Citizens Constitutional Forum spokesman, Jone Dakuvula, says that Bainimarama’s message of a multi-cultural, progressive Fiji resonated not just with Indians said to be supporting him, but also indigenous Fijians and others who make up Fiji’s population of 900,000.

Dakuvula points out the irony of the army, which carried out Fiji’s first coup in 1987, and is one of the main institutional bastions of Fijian nationalism, acting to curb an extreme national fringe under Bainimarama. But, he adds that Bainimarama may have overestimated indigenous support for his campaign.

“Many Fijians would have told him that we like what you are saying to get the government to change direction,” Dakuvula told IPS. “But they did not want a coup.”

In Dakuvula’s view, Qarase’s government is ‘’largely to blame for this tragic outcome”.

Dakuvula says Bainimarama’s hand was forced by a government that had become arrogant in its approach as an extreme nationalist government, often flaunting the rule of law it is now championing, and ignoring court judgements or interpreting them to suit its agenda.

It adopted Speight’s nationalistic agenda as its own in the mistaken belief that this was what the indigenous Fijian community wanted.

Dakuvula further adds that government tried many times to get rid of Bainimarama after it won the 2001 elections, first offering to post him to diplomatic missions of his choice, and then trying not to renew his contract.

The latest failed attempt by Qarase to remove Bainimarama was last month while the commander was in New Zealand visiting his family.

Dakuvula believes that what particularly angered Bainimarama was the government’s release of those convicted on coup-related offences.

Having barely escaped being assassinated by pro-indigenous rebel soldiers, Bainimarama found it galling that the Qarase not only gave them protection, but also appointed to his cabinet, coup participants who had served their prison terms extra-murally. All the while, ordinary Fijians, who were incited by Speight’s supporters bore the brunt of the penalties.

The Qarase government even went to the extent of introducing an inappropriately named “Promotion of Reconciliation Tolerance and Unity Bill” to facilitate the release of some key figures involved in the May 2000 coup.

Two other contentious bills – traditional Fisheries Rights Bill and a Land Claims Tribunal Bill – were seen as attempts to win over the nationalist fringe and boost its chance of staying in power at the expense of national development.

Bainimarama had demanded that government withdraw these bills.

Says Dakuvula: “Qarase in my view had made a fundamental mistake in believing that he had an obligation to implement Speight’s extremist agenda, which is supported only by a minority of Fijian nationalists that belong to small nationalist parties that occasionally won seats in Parliament in the last 35 years.

“He made the mistake of believing that his view represents the majority of indigenous Fijians who are largely moderate, law-abiding citizens who want to live peacefully with their neighbours or other ethnic groups and do not support extremism. Because of Qarase’s failure to recognise this, he had pushed the military to react in extremist, uncompromising ways.”

Chaudhry, while saying that he could not condone coups, has shown little sympathy for the Qarase-led government. He has accused it of corruption and of having links with “terrorist elements” that were behind the 2000 coup.

“The endemic corruption and scams in government, fuelled by a powerful alliance between corrupt politicians, civil servants and unscrupulous businesspersons further aggravated the already strained relations between the military and government,” he said.

The irony for Bainimarama is that the overthrow of the government has seen it gain more support and sympathy than it enjoyed while in power. And the fear is that Fiji may end up being the worse for it.

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