March 12, 2012

Michael Field: Military report unveils a version of Speight's coup

A runaway army colonel has released a secret military report which, Michael Field reports, offers a chaotic view of what happened in Fiji’s 2000 coup.

When shaven headed bankrupted businessman George Speight seized Fiji’s Parliament in 2000 and held the government hostage for 56 days speculation began as to who really was behind the country’s third coup – and has remained unanswered since.

Now a secret report of a Republic of Fiji Military Force (RFMF) board of inquiry has emerged, thanks to runaway Colonel Tevita Mara, painting a terrifying picture of how close Fiji came to total anarchy.

Mara, who fled Fiji to Tonga last year after he was charged with plotting to overthrow military dictator Voreqe Bainimarama, also released gruesome pictures of soldiers tortured to death in late 2000.

Speight seized Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his government on May 19, 2000, backed by the RFMF’s special forces unit, 1st Meridian Squadron (1FMS), commanded by a 60-year-old, Ilisoni Ligairi, known as “the Director” and Na Qase (“the old man”).

After the hostage crisis ended, the RFMF convened the board into the role 1FMS had taken, interviewing 112 witnesses – including the leader of Fiji’s first two coups, Sitiveni Rabuka.

Bainimarama, who was and still is RFMF commander, refused to appear.

Its 800 page report has never been seen before and the RFMF had refused to release it to police at the time.

It says Speight and 1FMS Sergeant Vilimoni Tikotani had belonged to the same Seventh Day Adventist Church. Speight had “briefed him on the Fijian aspirations and the ‘Cause’” and asked Tikotani to get some weapons for a coup.

“There had been a lot of meetings in private or over lunches and dinners and gatherings of RFMF personnel with civilians where a possible cop or the overthrow of the government was the major topic of discussion,” the board found.

Plotters had originally planned to assassinate Chaudhry, who in 1999 had become Fiji’s first Indian premier.

The weapons were obtained by Tikotani and the plotters gathered at 8.45 am on May 19, ready to charge into Parliament.

Mysteriously Ligairi, who despite being past retirement age had been recalled to command 1FMS, showed up. He claimed not to have known about the coup but when he saw 1RMS men there, he joined.

The 1FMS or Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit had been set up by Rabuka to prevent coups.

“It was still very much existing like a private army, answerable only to whoever the commander RFMF was.”

When they seized Parliament it was ineptly done.

“Trooper (Emosi) Qicatabua trying to tie up the hostage while his pistol was tucked under his armpits.”

They did not have enough ties for hostages, they mistook a cleaner for a security guard while Chaudhry’s bodyguards got away and they had given no thought to food and water.

“They appeared nervous at times and confused. They appeared to be indecisive at times and hesitant… There appeared to be too much talking between the rebels.”

One of the witnesses was in military intelligence, Lieutenant Serupepeli Dakai said he had formally warned Bainimarama that a coup would take place in weeks.

“If only the RFMF acted in time to put preventive network, none of these things would have happened. We can still have a constitution; we can still have the Labour Government to solve the indigenous grievances.”

Dakai came across as a tragic figure. In 1996 he had been with the Fiji peacekeepers in Lebanon when Israeli artillery shelled their compound at Qana, killed 106 civilians, many of them children. Dakai had picked up bits of bodies and blamed his own officers for the disaster.

Former Colonel Viliame Volavola and then MP told the board that they had originally intended to seize President Kamisese Mara and hold Government House.

He lost his nerve when the rebels killed a policeman 10 days after seizing Parliament.

Then they planned to destroy Suva which had already been looted and burnt on the day of the coup.

“The plan was to destroy Suva, starting from the president’s home and to go under the mask of the mass to march through the city,” he said.

Women would lead into Suva singing hymns, hiding armed men who would destroy the rest of Suva. The same would happen in Nadi and Lautoka.

Volavola said God intervened and sent rain which prevented the march.

In the Parliamentary Complex thousands of Fijians had gathered to support the coup.

“Once I was confronted by two girls who were crying about what happened to them that night, they cannot identify people, but they were gang raped,” Volavola said.

He told them to go home, but later the girls returned all made up: “There was a kind of magnet in there.”
Bainimarama had been in Norway when the coup occurred.

Colonel Viliame Seruvakula, who headed the Suva based 3rd Fiji Infantry, said a week before the coup they told Bainimarama one was coming.

He insisted on going to Norway and said: "OK, set, you know what to do, I have to attend this meeting it is very important for the RFMF."

Seruvakula said as Bainimarama came back, 1FMS tried to “snatch” him at Nadi International Airport.

Colonel Meli Saubulinayau told the board that the army did not like Bainimarama as he was from the navy.

“The majority of the green uniform guys did not like him, even the soldiers did not like him because he was the guy from the navy and we did not like that.”

A parliamentary researcher, Inoke Sikivou, told the board he had warned police three months before of a coup.

Sikivou said once the coup was underway, and he was a hostage, it could see it was chaos, unlike Rabuka’s first 1987 coup which had been “well organised”.

Many of the soldiers who gave evidence spoke of being betrayed by the army.

“We are just loyal soldiers receiving orders from senior officers,” Warrant Officer Fesikatoa Ravai said, saying he was no traitor.

Rabuka appeared before the board and said he had suggested a protest march armed at Chaudhry, but not a coup.

“(As) far as illegally taking over the country, I could not support  it and as a matter of principle I could not even encourage it.”

Through the coup, the public face of the RFMF was a part Indian-Fiji highlander, Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini. At the time the then Labour Government of Helen Clark banned him from entering New Zealand, suggesting he was no innocent but a part of the coup.

Tarakinikini denied he had prior knowledge of the coup.

He made an unexplained early morning phone call to 1FMS Warrant Officer Epineri Bainimoli ahead of the coup.

Tarakinikini said he had no idea what was happening: “I even went to the extent of asking the people at Nadi Airport to see if where were going to be any overseas troops coming in. There were some rumours one night that there were either Americans or Australians and my concern again based on 1987 was the Kiwis ended up in Norfolk Island and it was aircraft failure that turned them around….”

He said they worked out a plan to seize the rebels and free the hostages, using mortars.

“This is how we were going to do it, take it in from Draiba Fijian School gate, bang the gate down and put in three assault teams and cut off where the hostages were held by fire from on top of the truck with machine guns and I believe if we had done that, we would have succeeded.”

Bainimoli said little before the board.

On November 2, 2000, the 1FMS staged a mutiny against Bainimarama. Bainimoli was among them and was wounded.

A pathologist found he had subsequently been tortured to death.

To Colonel Mara this is evidence that Bainimarama was guilty of murder and that he had only staged the later 2006 coup to avoid police arrest.

Mara says Bainimarama refused to give evidence to the board and was so angry with its report he had call copies destroyed.

“But, another copy has survived which tells the raw truth,” says Mara.

Bainimarama, who escaped death in his only combat action by running away, has defended the murders of the mutinous soldiers.

He said he saved the life of one rebel soldier but he was later killed.

“They were beaten to death,” he told Australia’s SkyTV.

“It was spur of the moment.  And I can understand the emotions that went through the troops on that day. In fact, I can say that they were very lucky that they all lived.”

The reality of the long secret report however is that the real players behind the 2000 coup still remain a mystery.

Rather more ominous is the fact that many of the players in that coup remain in positions of power, suggesting Fiji remains unstable.

Footnote: Speight remains in prison serving a life sentence for treason. Tarakinikini works for the United Nations in the Middle East, Bainimarama rules Fiji and Rabuka says he is a farmer in Savusavu.

12 March 2012

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