August 27, 2011
The military is unsparing in its use of violence and intimidation - but there are signs of dissenting voices, writes Philip Dorling.
Some quiet acts of defiance against Fiji's military regime occurred this week. A large number of spray-painted anti-government slogans appeared overnight on walls around the capital, Suva.
The outbreak of political graffiti, sufficiently unusual to be reported in the international media, followed the decision of the interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama's military government to ban the annual conference of the influential Methodist Church.
The church had refused to accept an ultimatum that pro-democracy church leaders step down from their positions and not attend the gathering.
Senior members of the church were summoned by the military to Suva's Queen Victoria Barracks to hear the order banning the conference. Soldiers attempted to force the 80-year-old former head of the church, Reverend Josateki Koroi, to attend, but he refused.
It isn't the first time that the military has sought to intimidate Fiji's largest church. The Methodist annual conference has now been banned three years in a row after senior figures began to criticise Bainimarama, who took power in a coup in December 2006, ousting the democratically elected prime minister, Laisenia Qarase.
Under Bainimarama the constitution has been suspended, opponents arrested and beaten, and media freedom restricted. Elections, promised by Bainimarama within two years of the coup, are now nominally scheduled for September 2014.
Secret US embassy cables leaked to WikiLeaks and provided exclusively to the Herald confirm that violence and intimidation have been at the heart of Bainimarama's military rule. Beatings and intimidation of the regime's suspected opponents are reported to have taken place with the knowledge of military commanders and included the direct participation of Bainimarama himself.
One US embassy report records witness testimony that Bainimarama joined in an assault on a senior public servant detained at the military's headquarters immediately after the coup. According to the embassy cables, he ''kicked [the man's] legs out from under him and beat him around the head, telling him: 'Don't f--- with the military.'''
Bainimarama publicly deplored violence by soldiers following his coup and said he would ensure that any excesses ceased. In March 2007, he announced that the military would be responsive to public views on abuse of human rights and the army would ''do its utmost to ensure people can live normal lives''.
He declared Fiji's military does not ''condone violence or the use of force'' and that henceforth would only engage in ''manning checkpoints, community work and public relations''.
However, at the same time the US embassy reported to Washington that Bainimarama privately told European Union diplomats that if anyone insulted the army ''of course we must have them taken to the barracks and have them beaten up''.
The picture that emerges of Bainimarama from the US diplomatic reports is that of an erratic, sometimes violent leader, thin-skinned, often defensive and insecure, and prone to be ''wildly excessive'' in his reactions to criticism.
In one cable sent to Washington shortly before the coup, the US ambassador Larry Dinger observed that ''a psychiatrist would have a field day with Bainimarama''.
He was described as being ''surrounded by a compliant officer corps that is feeding the commander's sense of righteous grievance against the Qarase government … he does not care about international reaction, including the possible loss of aid money from Australia, the United States and New Zealand.''
In other US diplomatic reports Bainimarama's propensity for ''sabre-rattling'' and threats of violence, including against diplomats, caused the US embassy in Suva to ''wonder more than ever about the rationality of [the commodore's] judgment''.
The leaked cables contain numerous reports of human rights abuses following the military takeover, including the arbitrary detention of human rights activists, senior police and civil servants, trade unionists, lawyers, and journalists.
While some cases of detention and intimidation are well known, including the repeated detention of the editor of the Fiji Post, the US cables report many previously unreported cases of violence by the military, including beatings, torture and death threats ''with a pistol to the head''.
A prominent trade union official was ''abused and threatened with death'' while one senior police officer detained by the military at Queen Victoria Barracks described how he saw ''several ambulances depart the camp transporting people beaten by military interrogators''.
Other cases reported by the US embassy included deaths in military custody with one victim's body - ''marked by visible bruises'' - dumped by soldiers at a police station. In another case a police investigation into the death of a young man who had died of a brain haemorrhage following a beating was stymied when army officers denied access to five implicated soldiers.
In other reported cases a group of villagers, including a senior police officer, were ''subjected … to beatings over a three-hour period''; Hindu taxi drivers were assaulted and suffered humiliation directed at their religious beliefs; and Muslim youths were compelled by soldiers to wallow in a pigsty next to a military barracks.
The US embassy reports also document cases of rape and sexual assault by military personnel, including at least one instance of a group of detainees forced to engage in group sexual acts. In another case a prominent human rights activist was ''felt up'' by a senior military officer and was ''warned she would receive worse treatment unless she stopped her activities''.
Telephoned threats of rape have been regularly used by the military to intimidate political activists.
In discussing the interim Prime Minister's motivations, US diplomats highlighted underlying insecurity in Bainimarama's personality. The embassy reports quote a former senior Fijian military officer and close colleague of Bainimarama together with the then chief of the Fiji police, former Australian Federal Police officer Andrew Hughes, who was removed from office as part of the coup, as suggesting Bainimarama suffers from post-traumatic stress arising from the army mutiny of November 2000, when he was shot at and nearly killed by his own soldiers.
''Bainimarama had never been in a combat situation,'' the senior military source told US diplomats. ''Unlike senior army officers who had seen action in Lebanon and other hot spots, Bainimarama's only [peacekeeping] experience was with [the Multinational Force and Observers in the] Sinai during a peaceful period.
''Thus, when he was fired at in 2000, the experience had a significant psychological effect that Bainimarama still carries.''
However, the US embassy cables also document Bainimarama's considerable political abilities, especially his ability to exploit the weakness of Fiji's democratic institutions.
Although Fiji's elderly and ailing president Josefa Iloilo initially rejected Bainimarama's coup and called for respect for the rule of law, later he swore in Bainimarama as interim Prime Minister, thereby giving the regime what the US embassy described as a ''a patina of legality''.
However, the US embassy subsequently reported to Washington: ''We spoke with President Iloilo's personal physician … [who] said Iloilo is at this point so 'senile' that he will read out whatever is put in front of him … now Iloilo hears advice only from Bainimarama.''
Iloilo remained in office while his health and mental faculties continued to deteriorate until his resignation in July 2009. He died in February this year, aged 90.
Although the US embassy in Suva has reported that Bainimarama has been ''feeling the strain of governing a country that doesn't salute like an army'', the leaked cables leave little doubt about the military's determination to only relinquish power on their terms and to never allow their democratic opponents to regain power.
Bainimarama is reported as describing himself as ''the Ataturk of Fiji, the military man who has the vision to right the nation's wrongs and build a bright future''.
According to him Fiji's ''coup culture'' is ''far from over'' and ''hurried elections'' will not solve Fiji's unique political problems.
''The international community has been rather naive in pressurising Fiji to return to parliamentary democracy … without allowing the people of Fiji to comprehensively address the root causes of conflict and dissension,'' the US embassy quotes him as saying.
However, despite all of the military's efforts, there are still strong voices of dissent.
This week Reverend Koroi successfully stared down the soldiers sent to escort him to the Queen Victoria Barracks.
''I told them, the only way to take me to camp now is bundle up my legs, tied up, and my hands, I will not go with you,'' he told Radio New Zealand.
''That is the only way, you carry me to the camp or you bring your gun and shoot me and you carry my dead body to the camp to show to the commander.''
Clearly some people are not easily intimidated.