March 22, 2013

Constitution bolsters Fiji military

Last updated 11:16 22/03/2013

Fiji's military leaders have re-asserted their power with a new constitution that gives the military "overall responsibility" at all times for security, defence and well-being.

But in releasing the constitution, military leader Voreqe Bainimarama announced he was backing out of an earlier undertaking to form a constituent assembly to debate the new constitution, which will be Fiji's fourth since independence in 1970.

In an address to the nation last night, Bainimarama said he had modified the process "because of the lack of commitment by the political parties to register under the requirements of the law".

He said the behaviour of political parties had not provided a climate conducive to holding the assembly.

People would instead have two weeks to provide comment by mail, email and text message.

In January Bainimarama scrapped a draft constitution drawn up by Kenyan academic Yash Ghai, after a year of consultation and with the help of $500,000 in New Zealand aid, saying it was an appeasement to racist divisions in the Pacific nation.

Ghai, who led the constitutional drafting team, tried to print extra copies of the document, but the regime sent police in to seize them and burn the printer's proofs.

The Ghai draft constitution would have limited the future role of the military in politics and allowed soldiers to disobey illegal orders.

Notes with the Ghai draft emphasised "that the military does not have any role as a guardian of the constitution or conscience of the nation", and made it clear that taking part in a coup would be an illegal order.

The latest version announced by Bainimarama last night returns to wording found in the second constitution drawn up after Fiji's first military coup, conducted by Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987.

Also in the new constitution Bainimarama has granted himself and his soldiers immunity for anything they did from the time they staged the latest coup in December 2006.

Not only is immunity to be entrenched, it cannot be reviewed by any court and no compensation is to be paid to persons who suffered damage, injury or loss as a result of the coup.

In his speech last night, Bainimarama said he would have elections "under a truly democratic system by no later than September 2014".

He said that in creating a new political system politicians had been involved in fraud and impersonation but the new process would not be delayed by it.

"This, for me, is very disappointing because it would appear some politicians are still beholden to the politics of old," he said.

"Racism and corruption cannot form the basis of a new beginning for our beloved country."

Bainimarama's constitution will give Fiji a single house of parliament, replacing the two-tier system he overthrew.

The parliament would have 45 members elected for four-year terms.

"The idea is to attract good quality and honest parliamentarians who will be paid accordingly and who won't be corrupt," Bainimarama said.

The constitution would create a secular state, rejecting indigenous Fijian calls for a Christian state.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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