December 29, 2011

Radio Australia: Pacific Beat's Bruce Hill looks at 2011 in Fiji.

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Updated December 29, 2011 17:48:28

This year marks the five year anniversary of the military coup in Fiji.

Commodore Frank Banimarama overthrew the democratically elected governnment of Laisenia Qarase on the 5th of December 2006.

Most Australians probably know Fiji as a pleasant place for a holiday.

But increasingly Australians have been affected by what's happening in the South Pacific nation.

Radio Australia's Bruce Hill reports.
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Song - "Fiji Coup", performed by the Rodgrigo Brothers. 

They are indeed having a coup in Fiji, but as for there being nothing we can do, lets not be so sure.

Certainly the people protesting outside Fiji's diplomatic missions in Sydney and Canberra earlier this year felt this was an issue Australia should take a stand on.

Paddy Crumlin, President of the International Transport Workers Federation, addressed a rally outside the Fiji Consulate in Sydney, and he was passionate in his denunciation of what he saw as the coup installed military government's crackdown on union rights.


So why would people in this country get so worked up about events in Fiji?

Australia may be a middle ranked power by world standards, but in the Pacific it's a giant.

Especially when the region's other developed country, New Zealand, is included, which in the Pacific it almost always is.

After the coup, Canberra and Wellington imposed what they call "smart sanctions" targeted at members of the regime and their families, preventing them from travelling through either country.

With air links in the Pacific set up the way they are, that's a major inconvenience.

Trade and aid has not been interfered with.

Still, the travel bans clearly irritate the authorities in Suva, with interim Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khayum saysing the country is ready to work with Australia and New Zealand... once they treat Fiji as their equal.

He says he's frustrated with Australia and New Zealand... and will only work with them if their attitudes towards Fiji change.


The Australian government has stuck firmly to its guins over Fiji for the past five years, but as time has gone on there's been more and more activity aimed at Fiji by non government groups, unions, churches and the legal profession.

That's actually the real story about the impact the Fiji cioup has had ion Australia and New Zealand - it's provoked much more engagement and activity from civil society and individuals than from governments.

Several groups of Fiji emigres living here and in New Zealand have been formed to agitate for a swift return to democracy.

They have not be very effective, partially because they can't agree among themselves what they want to achieve.

At one stage it was grandly announced that a coalition of pro-democracy griups had been formed, but that collapsed when one of the groups named, the Fiji Freedom and Democracy Movement based in Australia, insisted they had nothing to do with it..

Its' president, Suliasi Daunitutu, says there was a meeting of several organisations in Auckland during the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting, and there were arguments about the idea of forming a government in exile.


Along with emigre pro-democracy groups squabbling among themselves, Australia has also seen attempts by individual Fiji citizens living in Austraoia trying to stay, on the grounds that they would face persecution if they returned home.

One of them, Inoke Qarau, reportedly went on hunger strike while in Sydney's Villawood detention center, insisting that he'd face problems if he were deported to Fiji because he talked to the Australian media about treatment he says he and others received at the hands of the authorities after the 2006 coup.

A Fijian pastor assisting him, Livai Leone, described Mr Qarau's reaction to the deportation order.


That caused some political fallout, with a Green Party Senator sayng she wants to make sure Fijians applying for asylum in Australia are being treated properly.

Sarah Hanson-Young says Mr Qarau's case concerns her, and she wants to know if authorities have up to day information about Fiji to help them decide whether or not to let people stay in Australia. 


A particular bone of contention between the Fiji interim government and the Australian and New Zealand governments has been a crackdown on Fiji's trade union movement.

Fiji introduced an Essential Industries Decree this year, which severely curtails workers rights and makes it almost impossible for trade unions to operate effectively in many industries declared economically vital.

Fiji's unions responded by working closely with their international counterparts to get a campaign against the regulations going, including organising Australian and New Zealand Unions to put pressure on the tourist industry by asking people in those countries not to travel to Fiji for holidays.

The authorities in Suva subsequently arrested senior union leaders, including Fiji Trades Union Congress President Daniel Urai and Secretary Felix Anthony.

That triggered a strong response from the internatiional trade union movement, with the Australian Council of Trade Unions leading the change by urging Australians to boycott Fiji's tourist industry

ACTU President Ged Kearney says unionists in this country are particularly concerned about what's happening in Fiji. 


The Australia government added its condemnation of Fiji interim Government and maintained its targetted sanctions this year. The Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, speaking at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting Perth, defended fiji's ongoing suspension of Fiji from the Commonwealth.


Again, it wasn't just governments that responded to the issue.

People attending the Rugy World Cup clash between Fiji and South Africa in New Zealand were urged to show solidarity with trade unions in Fiji by wearing white armbands.The call from from human rights organisation Amnesty International, whose New Zealand CEO Patrick Holmes said sometimes sport and politics do mix.


But the Fiji government insists that Fiji Trades Union secretary Felix Anthony has been simply misrepresenting the situation in the country to overseas unions.Fiji attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khayum accuses Mr Anthony of disloyalty to the country, and potentially endangering Fiji's economy and threatening jobs.


As well as trade unions, the Fiji interim government this hear also came down hard on the influential Methodist Church, which a majority of the country's indigenous Fijian population belong to. It cancelled their annual conference, and forbade it from holding any sort of meeting other than normal Sunday worship services.That sparked a backlash here, with Reverend Dr Kerry Enright, National Director of Uniting World, the Uniting Church in Australia's international section, condemning the move, but admitting the power of international churches to influence Fiji is limited.


But not all groups in Australia and New Zealand have taken an antagonistic stand
Business leaders have come out in opposition the the trade union movement's campaign to persuade Australians not to travel to Fiji or buy garments made there.

Frank Yourn, executive director of the Australia-Fiji Business Council, says such a boycott would only end up hurting the very Fiji workers the unions say it wants to help.


But there are other views within the business community about what's best for Fiji.

The International Labour Organisation has condemned the actions of the interm government and wants to send a delegation there.

This was backed by the Australia delegation at the ILO's regional meeting in Japan, which included Peter Anderson from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who says this is not simply a trade uion issues.


This year saw the coup installed military government of Fiji crack down on almost all elements of civil society.

Unions, the Church, academics, the media and the legal profession were all affected.

Their counterparts in Australia and New Zealand reacted by stepping up their campaigns against what's happening.

But as the British writer George Orwell once observed, such governments can withstand moral pressure until the cows come home - what they really fear is physical force.

And no one in Australia and New Zealand is advocating that.

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