May 19th 2011 | CANBERRA | from the print edition
SEVERAL hundred years ago, the Pacific island state of Fiji was a place of refuge for exiled princes from neighbouring Tonga. Now it is Tonga that serves as a destination for Fiji’s blue-blooded asylum-seekers. Roko Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, the youngest son of the modern state’s founder, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, fled by sea, with the Tongan navy’s help. He is now under the protection of the homburg-wearing Tongan monarch, King George Tupou V, a distant relative of Mr Mara’s father.
The contrasting switches of fortune do not end there. Tonga, long an autocratic monarchy, took a giant stride towards democracy in November, when the country chose its first elected government. Meanwhile Fiji has lurched towards ever more authoritarian rule. Draconian public-emergency regulations have been in force, with few let-ups, since a military coup in December 2006.
Until he was suspended in October, Mr Mara was commander of Fiji’s biggest regiment. He had been a loyal ally of the coup leader and military chief, Frank Bainimarama. Now at liberty in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, Mr Mara denounces what he says is the baneful control over Commodore Bainimarama’s government exerted by the attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. He calls for regime change.
In a television address, Commodore Bainimarama, who doubles as prime minister, responded by condemning the Tongan navy’s role in extracting Mr Mara from Fiji’s territorial waters. Tonga’s prime minister, Lord Tu’ivakano, says the courts will impartially consider a request for extradition. Yet for all his protestations that King George’s hospitality does not imply a guarantee of immunity for Mr Mara, Tonga’s judiciary remains answerable first and foremost to the king, not the elected government. It also happens that Tonga’s chief justice, Michael Scott, a former Fiji high-court judge and himself a refugee from Fiji’s coup, is an arch-opponent of Fiji’s chief justice, Anthony Gates, controversially appointed in the wake of the Bainimarama takeover. A bitter feud between these two British-born judges was a lively subplot of events leading to the 2006 coup. Justice Scott will presumably take a dim view of the impartiality of Fiji’s courts.
The suspension of Mr Mara and the former land forces commander in October came because of allegations of a planned counter-coup. Both officers were brought before the courts earlier this month, and charged with incitement to mutiny.
Mr Mara’s flight from Fiji is a further sign of the growing breach between Commodore Bainimarama and the Mara dynasty. Ratu Mara died in 2004, but his family played a critical role in backing the 2006 coup. Mr Mara’s brother-in-law is the current president, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau. Another brother-in-law resigned as defence minister in November after a quarrel with Commodore Bainimarama over arbitrary taxes imposed on a bottler of mineral water. After Mr Mara’s flight, New Zealand’s foreign minister suggested that “there is a lot to play out yet.” Rumours in Suva, Fiji’s capital, are swirling. Though some claim that the president is plucking up courage to remove the prime minister, Commodore Bainimarama is more likely eventually to usurp the position of the president.