Published: July 2, 2012
SUVA, FIJI — Fiji’s military ruler sat behind an imposing wooden desk, deep in thought. This was the most attention he had given to any of the questions posed to him in the interview thus far, and he seemed to be struggling to find an answer. Finally, after a lengthy pause, he said that he could think of only one mistake regarding his seizure of power more than six years ago.
“I wish I had done this in 2001,” he said.
Fiji, a former British colony made up of about 330 islands in the central Pacific Ocean, has been without an elected government since Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, also known as Frank Bainimarama, took power in a 2006 coup. It was the country’s fourth putsch since independence in 1970, and he insisted that military rule was the only way to ensure an end to the spasms of political and ethnic violence that have so often destabilized the country. Mr. Bainimarama, who now eschews uniforms for civilian dress, carries the title prime minister and describes his tenure as a cooling-off period before an eventual return to democracy.
Mr. Bainimarama seemed to be keeping his word when, in January, he lifted the state of emergency that had been in place since he abrogated the Constitution in 2009. He then went further in March by announcing public consultations on the drafting of a new Constitution and a return to free elections by 2014, moves that were praised by Australia, the United States and other countries.
But before the ink was dry on the order lifting emergency rule, Mr. Bainimarama had issued sweeping new public order regulations, which many say contain provisions harsher than the laws they replaced. Censors may no longer stalk newsrooms to vet stories before they are published, but editors still risk heavy fines and prison terms if what they publish is deemed objectionable. Political parties and labor unions can hold meetings, but they must first secure permission from the police.
The effect has been chilling, as the cautious optimism surrounding the lifting of emergency law seems to have given way to plain old caution.
Newspapers must print the names of their writers and photographers to reveal who is responsible for an article. “If you miss a byline or a photo caption you can face a $100,000 fine” — the equivalent of $55,000 — “or two years in jail. That should tell you all you need to know,” said a local journalist, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution against his news organization.
“I think we’re in for a tough ride,” he said.
A tough ride is a good description of recent Fijian history. In 2000, during the country’s third coup, ethnic Fijian nationalists held the country’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister hostage in Parliament for 56 days. Mr. Bainimarama narrowly escaped an assassination attempt during that episode, which saw the eruption of ethnic riots in the heart of the capital, Suva.
It was in an attempt to quell that unrest, in 2006, that the military stepped in and removed the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Mr. Bainimarama accused him of corruption and inflaming the racial tensions between native Fijians and the descendents of Indians brought in by the British to serve as cheap labor in the sugarcane fields.
Members of the current government, and in particular its powerful attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, seethe over what they consider a lack of international appreciation for their accomplishments, which they say include one of the longest periods of relative economic and political stability in the country’s post independence history. Instead, the British-led Commonwealth of Nations suspended Fiji’s membership in 2009, while New Zealand and Australia have each imposed travel, financial and other sanctions against those involved in the 2006 coup.
Sitting in his spacious office in central Suva as the setting sun turned the bay outside his window from gold to deep red, Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum, who is Indo-Fijian, insisted that any criticism of the new regulations that took effect earlier this year is based on either a misunderstanding or the entrenched biases of neocolonialists.
Eventually, he said, people will see that while the new regulations contain strong law and order provisions, the government has no intention of using them unless absolutely necessary.
“The proof is in the eating of the pudding,” he said.
Such reassurances, however, are cold comfort for critics of the government and those who claim to have suffered abuse at its hands. International rights monitors like Amnesty International have blasted Fiji for its human rights record, which allegedly includes the torture of prisoners and the arbitrary detention of activists and government opponents.
Nowhere is the sense of fear this has engendered more evident than in the behavior of Fiji’s journalists. Not one would consent to be interviewed on the record, even though more than six months had passed since Fiji reinstated a free press. The only reporter who had agreed to speak for attribution sent an e-mail just days later asking that his name not be used out of fear of retribution.
Although several Western diplomats said they were encouraged by the government’s promises to hold elections and write a new Constitution, they nonetheless expressed serious concerns that the credibility of its pledges to return to democracy was being undermined by the public order regulations.
“Most of us don’t like the POAD” — the Public Order (Amendment) Decree, said a Western diplomat based in Suva, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with diplomatic protocol. “It is certainly a vehicle they could use to silence dissent.”
Netani Rika is not used to keeping silent. He is the former editor in chief of The Fiji Times, the country’s oldest newspaper, which was owned by Rupert Murdoch’s company, News Corp., until it was forced by the Fijian government to sell to a local owner in 2009. Mr. Rika, who in the early days of martial law defied the censors by leaving whole columns of his newspaper blank instead of running censored copy, left the job in 2010 after soldiers threw gasoline bombs at his home. No one has been charged over the incident, which he said had followed a telephone call from Mr. Bainimarama asking him to back off his criticisms of the government.
“I’m not optimistic,” Mr. Rika said, sitting at the bar in the Defense Club, a colonial-era institution in Suva that serves as a gathering point for the capital’s elite. “A lot of what they’ve done and will do leading up to the 2014 elections is going to be superficial.
“Unless some good people stand up, we’ll be left with those army guys who will morph into politicians,” he said. “And then they’ll be in power for 10 more years.”
The question of who will run in the elections is a critical one. Mr. Qarase, who was ousted as prime minister in 2006, faces charges of corruption and abuse of office that many say are politically motivated. Mahendra Chaudhry, the prime minister held hostage in 2000, also faces corruption charges stemming from his time in office. Both may be disqualified from running for office if convicted, which would eliminate the two most popular alternatives to Mr. Bainimarama, who in the interview on May 29 would neither rule out nor commit himself to a run for office.
Even if the elections proceed smoothly, Mr. Chaudhry said in an interview in his hilltop offices overlooking Suva, there is no guarantee they will result in the end of Fiji’s so-called “coup culture.” There are always scores that need to be settled.
“Maybe this time what we need to take a look at,” he said, “is the role of the military.”