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FIJI: ‘Returning’ Military Leader Gags Media

Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Apr 14 2009 (IPS) - Fiji is maintaining an uneasy calm days after its president abrogated the constitution, promulgated emergency regulations, and reinstated the 2006 coup leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, as interim prime minister.

Bainimarama’s administration immediately began rule by decree that included a crackdown on the media.

The extraordinary developments followed the appeal court ruling Thursday last week that the appointment of Bainimarama and his interim government by President Ratu Josefa Iloilo after his 2000 coup was unlawful.

The challenge was filed by ousted prime minister Laisenia Qarase against an earlier high court ruling that had upheld the appointment of the interim government led by Bainimarama.

Hours after the ruling Thursday, Bainimarama said in a national address that he was returning to barracks to comply with the judgment and to await the president’s next move. The following day, the president abrogated the constitution, promulgated emergency regulations, dismissed the judiciary and appointed himself head of state under a new “legal order”.

On Saturday, predictably, he reappointed Bainimarama as interim prime minister, drawing widespread international condemnation.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully described the move as a serious backward step that would “merely compound the problems faced by ordinary Fijians.”

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Bainimarama’s actions had virtually turned Fiji into a military dictatorship, with the suspension of press freedoms and other actions that would undermine prosperity for the people of Fiji.

Bainimarama, characteristically, thumbed his nose at the international reaction. In a national address Saturday he made it clear that elections would only be held in 2014.

Touted as a Pacific paradise, Fiji has suffered four coups in the past 20 years arising from political tension between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indo- Fijians.

Indigenous Fijians make up 56.8 percent of the 837,000 population, while Indo-Fijians, descendents of cane farm labourers brought to Fiji from India under British colonial rule, make up 37.5 percent.

In 1987, army colonel Sitiveni Rabuka staged two military coups to prevent what he claimed was an Indian-dominated government from consolidating power. The third coup in 2000 was staged by failed businessman George Speight, also in the name of indigenous rights.

In 1986, Indo-Fijians made up 51 percent of Fiji’s population, but heavy migration since the coups and lower birth rates since the 1960s have seen their numbers steadily decline.

Bainimarama described the latest coup as a “clean-up campaign” against what he said was a racist and corrupt government under Qarase. The international community, led by Australia and New Zealand, rejected this. With the allegations of corruption against Qarase unproven, they upped the pressure on the military strongman after he backed down on a pledge to hold elections in March this year.

Last week’s developments surprised the two regional powers. Australia and New Zealand had hoped that threats of exclusion from the Commonwealth, a group of nations that were formerly British colonies, and from the regional political and economic grouping, the Pacific Islands Forum, would eventually lead Bainimarama to capitulate. The strategy seems to have backfired, and Bainimarama has now not only consolidated his hold on power, but also placed further restrictions on freedoms under emergency laws.

All the mainstream media newsrooms have had plainclothes policemen and information officials vetting the news since Saturday to stop publication of any material that is “inciteful”.

On Sunday, leading daily The Fiji Times left blank spaces to mark sections where reports would have been placed. Fiji Television did not run its normal 6pm news bulletin due to the restrictions.

In the face of all this, Bainimarama said he would make “a plea” for cooperation from other nations, but while stating unequivocally that his government would stay in power until 2014.

Some leaders have described Australia and New Zealand’s stance on Fiji as unhelpful. Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare said at the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in January this year that he was against moves by Australia to push for Fiji’s suspension from the group as punishment for Bainimarama backing down on a pledge to hold elections.

“I am of the strong view that adopting an isolationist approach would not be helpful,” Somare said in a written speech circulated to the 15 ministers while the meeting was in progress.

New Zealand has said it will not consider trade sanctions, but Australia has refused to rule out punitive measures.

Fiji’s economic situation is dire. The Reserve Bank has said that the projected 2.4 percent growth for 2009 would not be achieved. The economy has been hit by the massive floods in January and by anticipation of lower tourism due to the global recession. The sugar industry, once the mainstay of the Fiji economy, is also in deep trouble.

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