March 16, 2012

Ararat Advertiser: Bainimarama's grip tightens as he disbands 'divisive' council of chiefs

15 Mar, 2012 03:00 AM

IN A move which bodes ill for his promise of restored constitutional rule in Fiji, Commodore Frank Bainimarama yesterday disbanded the Great Council of Chiefs.

The council had existed in name only from April 2007 when he suspended its operations. The council's 55 chiefs refused to endorse Commodore Bainimarama's rule, which he established in 2006 when he removed the elected government of Laisenia Qarase from power. The trigger for suspending it was its refusal to accept his choice for vice-president of Fiji.

Fijian lawyer Richard Naidu said last night: ''Fiji is a society in transition and the Great Council of Chiefs was seen by many as a feudal institution or even a colonial institution because it was a creation of the colonial system.

''But it served a transition purpose and scrapping it is certainly not the right thing to do. Bainimarama has certainly not got any mandate to do it.''

The council was created by the British colonial masters in 1876, two years after Fiji was ceded to Britain, as an advisory body to the governor.

Representing the principal chiefs of the Fijian vanua - the tribal system - it was the scene of frantic discussions during the coups of 1987 and 2000.

After his 2006 coup, Commodore Bainimarama cracked down on all meetings in Fiji where radical ideas were likely to be discussed.

His abolishing the Great Council of Chiefs gives rise to speculation that he wants to prevent the council being written into the new constitution he has promised Fiji next year in time for elections in 2014.

In a statement, Commodore Bainimarama said the chiefs had an undisputed heritage in the nation of 890,000, but had also perpetuated elitism and helped feed a climate of political divisiveness. "The Great Council of Chiefs is a product of our colonial past and Fiji must now focus on a future in which all Fijians are represented on the same basis," he said.

Commodore Bainimarama wields great control over Fiji, and the chiefs appeared to have little recourse. "This is a sad day … for Fiji as a whole," said one of the chiefs, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu.

Jenny Hayward-Jones, a Pacific expert with the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, said some Fijians believe the chiefs take too much from the community and give back too little.

But she added Commodore Bainimarama's decision to disband the council raises questions about his vow last week to rewrite the constitution.

with Associated Press

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