For the fourth time in 19 years, the legal government of the South Pacific country of Fiji has been overthrown. The military is the culprit this time, with the head of the armed forces, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama deposing Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and his Cabinet. The coup has been roundly condemned and Fiji has been suspended from the Commonwealth. But the new government has been adamant that its predecessor was corrupt and would not be returned to power. Unfortunately, there are few options for concerned outsiders; punishment of the coup plotters is likely to hurt the Fijian people most and do little to restore a democratic government.
Fiji is a divided country. Its 905,000 citizens are 51 percent indigenous Fijians and 44 percent ethnic Indians. Tensions have been high as a result, with Fijians claiming that they have been disadvantaged relative to the Indian minority. Those tensions spilled over six years ago, when businessman George Speight overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, an Indian. Mr. Speight was demanding greater rights for the majority Fijians. Mr. Bainimarama put down the coup and installed Mr. Qarase as interim prime minister. Mr. Qarase won two subsequent elections, in 2001 and earlier this year, restoring a veneer of legitimacy to the government.
Relations between the two men have since deteriorated, however. The strains grew out of the decision by Mr. Qarase to invite some of the coup plotters into his government and the preparation of legislation that would grant them amnesty. In addition, the government presented legislative measures that would grant indigenous Fijians ownership of coastal waters, a move that Mr. Bainimarama said discriminated against the Indian population.
After warning that a coup was imminent and Mr. Qarase refused to change tack, Mr. Bainimarama took action. On Dec. 5 he seized executive authority and removed Mr. Qarase from office alleging that his government was corrupt and soft on the coup plotters. He announced that he was assuming emergency rule, suspending parts of the country’s bill of rights and firing some security officials. He threatened to use force to suppress any opposition and installed army doctor and Methodist lay preacher Mr. Jona Senilagakali as interim prime minister.
At his first press conference, the new prime minister conceded that his legal status was shaky, but defended the coup arguing that it was “an illegal takeover to clean up the mess of a much bigger illegal activity of the previous government.” He went on to say that “Democracy may be all right for certain places in the world but I don’t think the type of democracy (in) Fiji” is that practiced in the West. And while warning that his government might be in power for as long as two years, he bluntly told other countries to stay out of Fiji’s internal affairs. He added that Fiji would seek aid from countries like China and Indonesia, and even friends such as Taiwan, if sanctions were imposed.
International reaction has been swift. Australia and New Zealand, Fiji’s two biggest “neighbors” and two nations that have historically played a large role in Fijian security, condemned the coup and leveled sanctions. Australia has ruled out any intervention, however, while calling for passive resistance. The United States and Great Britain have also imposed sanctions and the European Union is reportedly reconsidering $422 million in aid for Fiji’s sugar industry, which generates about one-third of industrial activity. For its part, Japan, along with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, condemned the coup and called for the restoration of democracy.
Real resistance to the coup must come from the Fijian people. The Great Council of Chiefs, a 55-member constitutional body that elects the president and vice president, denounced Mr. Bainimarama for “illegal, unconstitutional” activities. With the army commander threatening the use of force against dissent, resistance must be passive and persistent. Bloodshed must be avoided.
Sustained international pressure, in the form of targeted sanctions against the military and its leaders, can support domestic opposition. The military is not united; in 2000, after Mr. Speight’s coup, Mr. Bainimarama was forced to flee a mutiny. These divisions can be exploited to weaken the government and force it to restore a legally elected government.
Unfortunately, that will take time and Fiji’s economy will be hurt in the interim. The coup will scare off tourists, which account for about 20 percent of the economy. Instability also deters investment, which has been falling for several decades. Fiji has been relying on foreign aid for development of its economy. As usual, ordinary citizens will suffer while elites play political games. Sadly, the people of Fiji must be growing accustomed to these hardships.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.