June 09, 2011

SMH: Fiji fugitive to campaign in Australia

Tamara McLean, AAP South Pacific Correspondent
June 9, 2011 - 9:49AM

A former senior Fiji military commander is poised to arrive in Australia and launch a campaign to bring down his nation's "illegal and oppressive" government.

Lieutenant Colonel Ratu Tevita Mara, an ally-turned-foe of Fiji's controversial regime, fled to Tonga last month after being charged with plotting to overthrow the government, in power since a 2006 coup.

Once the right-hand man of the country's self-appointed prime minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama, Mara has spent recent weeks holed up in the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa issuing stinging accusations of greed and corruption at his former bosses.

Among the claims in videos posted to YouTube, Mara alleged the regime used violence against dissenters and had no plans to keep its promise to Canberra to hold democratic elections in 2014.

He revealed on Thursday that he would launch his regional campaign to end Fiji's military rule with a pro-democracy forum in Queanbeyan on Saturday.

Sanctions prevent Fijians connected to the regime from entering Australia, but Mara told AAP: "I expect to get in".

"I've put my application in and anticipate things will go smoothly," he said from Tonga.

"I'm there with a strong pro-democracy message so that should work in my favour."

He said he expected to spend two weeks in Australia "talking to government and working with pro-democracy groups to enact a plan to return freedom to my people."

"Hopefully I can get a consolidated front together to campaign for a quick return to democratic governance in Fiji."

His tour would take in many Pacific nations, New Zealand, and a trip to New York to lobby the United Nations.

"The message will have to go far and wide if we are going to stop these guys."

The forum was organised by the Fiji Democracy Freedom Movement, headed by Fiji's former Land Forces commander Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka, who defected to Australia after being dismissed by Bainimarama.

Baledrokadroka said the latest senior-ranking defection is another sign that the military regime is losing its grip on power.

He said initial regime promises to free the country of corruption, reform the problematic race-based electoral system and promote good governance had "come to nothing".

"Evidence mounts that Bainimarama and his cronies have used their time in office to enrich themselves," he said.

Instead of good governance, Bainimarama had presided over a period of economic stagnation, an antagonistic foreign diplomacy and heavy media censorship aimed at stifling domestic voices of dissent and sending qualified professionals overseas, Baledrokadroka said.

"Enough is enough. It is time for Fiji's military commander to hand over the reins of power."

The Fijian government declined to comment to international media on all matters related to Mara's escape.

However speaking to local websites, Bainimarama has dismissed the fugitive's claims of violence and corruption as the words of a "little kid who doesn't know what's happening".

He defended the four and a half years he has spent unelected in office, saying the process of reforming the electoral system, to allow for fairer elections, was "necessarily slow".

"I said elections will be held in 2014 so it's going to happen," he told FijiLive.

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