September 05, 2012

Editorial: Fiji not the problem, Bainimarama is

Posted date:  September 3, 2012

The general empathy in Rarotonga during this Forum – and has been since its suspension in 2009 - is with the people of Fiji.

That they are unrepresented not only at the Forum leaders table but the all-important Pacific ACP group meeting held on the sidelines of this August gathering.

Though there have been  – or what appears to be – moves to bring that country back on the democratic path, it is much too early to invite unelected coup-installed military leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama back among the Forum leaders’ fold.

To do so, though his opponents in the Forum will not openly say so, will seriously diminish the Forum’s integrity, credibility.

There are principled men there who do not want to share a table with an unelected military dictator. 
Who are very conscious of the Forum makeup and how it appears to its international partners. The Forum, of course, is a crucial source of millions in development grants and assistance that is integral to national interests.

Realistically, despite the visionary rhetoric from Bainimarama, nothing much has changed in Fiji since he forcibly took over in 2006. That country is still being ruled by military decree, there is no representative parliament, no transparent and accountable governance, no legitimate rule of law, no creditable judiciary, the top echelons of the public service is still loaded with unqualified military brass, journalists continue to be suppressed by heavy handed media dictate and people still cannot freely assemble nor, least, openly criticize the regime.

There is also the continued suppression of political opposition best, well worst, illustrated by the recent witch hunt that subsequently jailed deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase for a questionable corporate offense, allegedly, committed over 20 years ago, long before he went into politics.

But there are a few Forum island leaders who are willing to overlook all that.

Some wined and dined and convinced by Bainimarama last week at Denarau, Nadi of what he says is his intentions, have been making noises on offering political representation to the regime at some Forum-PACP level.

A couple of small island states are economically reliant on Fiji and have no choice but to support the administration-of-the-day in Suva.

At the end of the day, governments and leaders are judged not by what they promise but what they are and what they do. So any offerings that could bring any legitimacy to the Suva regime at the Forum level this week in Rarotonga, was quickly shot down.

Tuilaepa made sure of that.

You cannot defend nor promote a person like Bainimarama at that level with any measure of conviction while holding a straight face, his sympathizers probably now realize. 

This column also doubts that holding elections will immediately result in the automatic lifting Fiji’s suspension at the Forum. Leaders will be keen to see what sort of government will transpire, well manifest, from the promised elections of 2014, especially with talks of Bainimarama now working on setting up a political party. The last thing we want is a Mugabe or an Idi Amin-type absolute regime in our midst.

In the run-up to this Forum, there was a lot of talk that the Americans – conscious of growing Chinese involvement in the region – would exert pressure on New Zealand and Australia and Pacific Islands leaders to invite Fiji back into the Forum.

The truth is, though Key and Gillard wont say it, it is extremely doubtful Canberra and Wellington really give two hoots what the Americans think – or are said in the media to think – about Fiji. The U.S is not a Forum member and was only represented – no less than Secretary of State Ms Hilary Clinton – at the post-Forum partnership dialogue alongside other non-Forum members India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and others.

There were thirteen of them this year and, sadly, there wasn’t enough time and space for European countries like Russia, Luxembourg and the Ukraine who are also courting the region and made formal requests to be represented in Raro.

Ms Clinton did not mention Fiji in her 20-minute partnership address. Unsurprising, as obviously the issue of Fiji does not register in US, New Zealand and Australia’s national interests, which is the bottom line of all this diplomatic talk.

The Americans are relearning the region fast and are shifting diplomatic gears. Unlike the Middle East, this is a peaceful region where you are only as good as what you offer and the friends you make. There is very little avenue, or return, in trying to play-off countries and leaders.

Fiji’s relevance therefore in the region belies solely with Fijians. Bainimarama, as everybody can clearly see, is an international pariah and no amount of engaging-with-the-region meetings he hosts is going to change that. There are no diplomatic solutions to its problems.

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