- INTELLIGENT RESISTANCE -
Free. Fair. Fearless. Intelligentsiya is made up of Fiji Islanders who are libertarians in their own way and who cherish the free flow of news, ideas and information and will peacefully resist any attempts by the country's military rulers to stifle free speech. intelligentsiya will also bear witness, report and discuss human rights abuses by the authorities.
EMPLOYING sanctions to press tinpot military regimes into holding elections is a common enough tactic by bigger powers. Less obvious is when sanctions should ease off. So it has proved with Fiji, in the South Pacific. The island-state was thrown out of both the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum after its army-installed government breached a promise to hold elections in 2009. Now, largely following its own timetable, the government led by a military commander, Frank Bainimarama, has taken some faltering steps towards elections scheduled for September 2014.
A commission charged with drawing up a new constitution has begun public hearings, headed by a veteran Kenyan lawyer, Yash Ghai, and an electronic voter-registration campaign has also been launched. In response, Australia and New Zealand, the region’s big powers, have relaxed travel restrictions to Fiji. On July 30th they announced plans to appoint new high commissioners to replace those ejected in the years since the 2006 coup.
Some critics, including overseas Fiji pro-democracy campaigners, say the easing of sanctions is premature. Reciprocal concessions from Mr Bainimarama’s government would have strengthened confidence that the scheduled elections will be free from military interference, but they have not followed. Instead, on August 3rd, Fiji’s courts jailed Laisenia Qarase, the prime minister deposed in the 2006 coup. His alleged offence, failing to disclose an interest in transactions over two decades ago when he headed Fijian Holdings, a conglomerate founded by customary chiefs, brought him a year-long prison sentence. That is likely to be enough to bar him from contesting the 2014 polls. A similar fate, for alleged financial dealings without the central bank’s consent, may await Mahendra Chaudhry, one-time dominant leader of the minority Fiji Indians. These two politicians led parties—the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua and the Fiji Labour Party respectively—which together accounted for 84% of the national vote at the most recent elections.
In theory, the trials of Mr Qarase and Mr Chaudhry are free from government control. Yet a recent report from Britain’s Law Society Charity argues that Fiji’s courts are nowadays plagued by political interference, particularly at the behest of the attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum.
Such concerns do not emanate solely from outside Fiji. Mr Ghai’s commission says that press censorship, the excessive powers of the security services and a lack of avenues for citizens to seek redress through the courts are all impeding its work. The government wants the commission to present its report to a constituent assembly in January 2013. Yet Mr Ghai’s team argues that granting control over the size and composition of the constituent assembly to none other than the prime minister, Mr Bainimarama, violates “essential principles of democracy”. In response, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum (Mr Ghai’s former student, as it happens) criticises the commission for overstepping its brief.
For Australia and New Zealand, there is no obvious alternative to putting faith in the 2014 elections. A former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, says that the endless stand-off with Fiji is achieving nothing. Australian businessmen, too, are concerned that the diplomatic impasse in the midst of the Pacific Islands region is opening the door to Chinese investors, especially in the mining and construction industries.
Nor should the extent of the policy reversal by Australia and New Zealand be exaggerated. Their refusal to appoint new diplomats was motivated initially by concerns that their replacements might also be expelled. It was never intended as a punishment. Meanwhile, extensive travel bans might have made sense as a swift reaction to a military coup, but five-and-a-half years later such restrictions risk only reinforcing Fiji’s isolation. Getting in behind Mr Ghai’s constitutional review may, in the end, prove unsuccessful. But just now it is the only plausible route through which military rule in Fiji might end.