May 24, 2011

Opinion, The Australian: Uncertainty makes Fiji a hard policy front

Jon Fraenkel
From: The Australian
May 18, 2011 12:00AM

WHAT should Australia do about Fiji?

More than four years after military commander Frank Bainimarama seized power, he shows little sign of allowing a return to democracy. Fiji's coup leader now doubles as military supremo and Prime Minister, while senior officers are positioned across the top echelons of the civil service. Parliament, the Great Council of Chiefs and the elected municipal councils have all been dissolved.

The economy has been in the doldrums for nearly five years. The sugar industry - once Fiji's staple exporter - is close to collapse and relies on annual bailouts from an increasingly debt-saddled government.

Against that bleak backdrop, some of Australia's think tanks have called for a reappraisal of policy towards Fiji.

The Lowy Institute urges Canberra to soften its hardline stance on Fiji's regime, and embrace Bainimarama's timetable for elections in September 2014.

The proposal was greeted ecstatically by Graham Davis, an Australia-based supporter of Bainimarama's government, who applauds the fact a "once-unthinkable high-level public split has emerged between Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and the most prestigious Australian think tank on Melanesian affairs" ("Bainimarama exposes Rudd bankruptcy", 12/5).

The business-funded think tank warns of the threat posed by increasing Chinese investment in the Pacific, and urges Canberra to respond by focusing "more sharply on protecting Australia's long-term equities" in Fiji.

This call was immediately welcomed by the ANZ Bank - which has recently brokered a $F500 million ($262m) bond for the Fiji on the Asian money markets, and thus has a strong interest in the stability of the Bainimarama regime.

Unsurprisingly, the opponents of Bainimarama inside Fiji feel abandoned; the University of the South Pacific's Wadan Narsey accuses Australian think tanks of a sell-out.

The trouble with the think-tank policy pieces - including those of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute - is that none of them offer any analysis of what's going on in Fiji. Nor do they canvass possible future scenarios.

To calibrate policy towards Fiji surely it is necessary to establish where things are heading, or where they might possibly head.

Crucially, is Fiji veering towards a long-term authoritarian regime, as in Burma or under Suharto in Indonesia? If so, presumably the best policy would be to keep channels as open as possible and try to counter trends towards isolationism. Alternatively, is Fiji likely to re-democratise, or thirdly are we likely to see a cycle of coups and counter-coups?

Fiji had coups in 1987, 2000 and 2006, and Bainimarama's position within the military has at times looked shaky. Two of his most senior military commanders have recently been removed from their positions and hauled before the courts charged with planning a counter-coup. One of these, Uluilakeba Mara, escaped from Fiji aboard a Tongan naval vessel last week, and is now publicly calling for regime change.

All three scenarios for the future remain possible, and little is to be gained by accepting at face value the regime's assurances it will re-democratise in 2014. The think tanks depict Australian policy towards Fiji as rightfully omnipotent so that - where Canberra does not get its way - policy is deemed to have "failed", but this kind of grandstanding across the region has a poor record.

Lowy and ASPI both portray the stand-off between Australia and Bainimarama as somehow driving events in Fiji. Yet it is the clampdown on dissent within Fiji and the absence of meaningful domestic dialogue that prevents steps to break the deadlock.

The proposal to address that deadlock by embracing the September 2014 election date is depicted as an innovative foreign policy stance. In fact, it is merely a rehash of the failed approach - inspired by the Commonwealth's Millbrook Declaration - tried immediately after Fiji's 2006 coup. In early 2007, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and the Pacific Islands Forum urged Fiji to accept a two-year "road map" towards elections by early 2009.

That allowed the aid money to keep flowing, and a joint working group was established to focus on the technical electoral issues, ignoring the politics.

Bainimarama initially promised elections by May 2009, but then publicly repudiated that assurance in mid-2008, clearly aware his regime lacked popular support. He abrogated Fiji's constitution in April 2009, and soon afterwards said elections would not be held until 2014.

If that latest promise were genuine, it might make sense now to accept this as the best of a set of bad options, and get behind the Fijian government's preparations, including the proposed constitutional review scheduled for 2012.

The trouble is this is no more genuine than the last promise of elections. Bainimarama is on record stating he will not allow any of Fiji's major political parties to contest the elections. What is the point of accepting at face value the 2014 election commitment if Bainimarama says he will not allow any of the major parties to participate?

Many of those who sympathise with Bainimarama like to depict the policy debate as being about whether Canberra should engage with Bainimarama. Of course there needs to be dialogue, but negotiations need to encourage the removal of draconian public emergency regulations and intense media censorship, the normalisation of diplomatic relationships, getting the soldier-civil servants back to barracks and - above all - kick-starting talks involving Fiji's civilian political leaders.

Jon Fraenkel is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian National University

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