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SYDNEY — An Australian newspaper has fired an editorial salvo at the military government of the Republic of the Fiji Islands while reminding the world of what happens when a country tramples on media freedom.

Such anger goes well beyond the diplomatic niceties in the latest review of the Fiji problem by the Pacific Islands Forum of Oceania countries meeting last week in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. The forum did manage to break loose from the usual bland communique to warn its nonattending member, self-appointed Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, that Fiji will lose financial and technical aid unless he allows a free election by December. The army commodore remains unfazed, having already ignored similar warnings from the United States, the European Union, New Zealand and Australia.

“If it takes us five years or 10 years to hold elections, so be it,” he told loyal troops in the capital city Suva. Having ousted an elected government, he figures it will take time to fix an electoral system based on Fiji’s peculiar system of ethnic majority.

These scattered islands east of northern Australia split politically along ethnic lines after they were given independence from Britain in 1970. Since 1987, 800,000 people have put up with four governments ruled by the military, either directly or indirectly. Fiji sits in the middle of many small, independent and big power- dependent island states that could be influenced by Suva’s destabilization.

Rumors of Chinese-influenced aid have circulated in the region for years. The forum itself has consistently kept a close eye on that danger. Its latest meeting saw efforts to calm the tropical cyclone, but it is is hamstrung by its nonintervention policy.

Bainimarama was represented by an observer, Fijian Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who responded to the forum’s disquiet by saying that elections will come when all of Fiji’s political players agree on electoral reform. But with past deadlines having come and gone, local observers harbor doubts about the latest proposal for a fair election.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he remains “deeply skeptical” of Suva’s reliability: “The interim government has shown complete contempt for its previous commitments. Failing to hold elections will result in automatic suspension from the forum.”

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key went further: “We can’t have a position where there is no road map . . . no timetable for democracy, and no intent on Bainimarama’s part to show leadership to get the country back on the rails.”

Reform is stymied by Fiji’s historic and ethnic antagonisms. Native Melanesians account for at least half the population. Most are Christian. Meanwhile, the proportion of those who count themselves as descendants of the Indians brought in by the British to work sugar cane farms in the 19th century has decreased in recent decades to around 38 percent of the population, affecting the economy. Many Indo-Fijians retain Indian religious and cultural ties.

Under the current voting system, the indigenous Fijian majority votes for candidates in Fijian seats; ethnic Indians vote in their separate seats; and other races vote in a third group. The divide has led to discontent resulting in four recent violent changes.

Bainimarama cited government corruption when he dislodged elected Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in late 2006. The London-based Commonwealth of Nations then suspended Fiji’s membership. Delays in restoring open elections, however, may serve the ruling military elite for ends other than ensuring ethnic Fijian rule.

As Paul Toohey of Sydney observed: “Even if a credible electoral system were introduced, the demographic balance has now swung so far in favor of indigenous Fijians that they would retain a comfortable majority anyway. If Bainimarama went to the polls tomorrow in a fair election, the government he ousted would probably be returned in a flash. He is stalling for time. He is trying to work himself out of a corner, and quite possibly a long prison sentence.”

Diplomatic moves by neighbors, notably Australia and New Zealand, have failed to change the mood in Suva. The all-important tourism industry from these countries is hardly hurt, though. Amid Fiji’s economic woes, Australia gives $27 million a year for health and education.

Law and order breakdowns are highlighted by four death threats against Australian High Commissioner James Batley and the expulsion of New Zealand’s commissioner Michael Green. An anti-corruption commission has not offered hope of improvement, although neighboring countries have held back from imposing trade sanctions.

Just as the forum was meeting amid some hope, news from Suva turned sour again: Rex Gardner, publisher of Fiji’s oldest newspaper, was declared guilty of publishing a letter critical of the interim government and sent back to Sydney.

Two years earlier his predecessor, Evan Hannah, got the same marching orders; the paper’s editor in chief, Netani Rika, was sentenced to three months imprisonment, suspended for two years; and the News Ltd. paper was fined $100,000. Earlier, Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter was deported.

“Sad” is how the Fiji Law Society described these doings. “In Fiji,” said the society’s president, Dorsami Naidu, “it is sad that people are given notice overnight and taken into custody like criminals.” Back in Sydney, Gardner freely spoke out. Newspapers challenge authority, he declared: “A military regime is up for challenge. They went there at the barrel of a gun not at the ballot box.”

Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian was livid: “Fiji’s military-installed government is taking the country down the Zimbabwe road,” it editorialized. “Bainimarama has take on the mantle of the (Robert) Mugabe of the Pacific, running a regime where the state pursues people who stand up to it. The news is bad from Fiji, but who will dare report it?”

Few people in Fiji will likely read such comments. In fact, some folks are trying to make the best of a poor situation by trying to talk up the economy. That’s always safer than political criticism.

Suva economist Sukhdev Shah rejects comparisons of the economy with Zimbabwe and Somalia. “A zero or negative one percent growth from the negative four percent can be expected,” Shah said. “And if the military government continues to stabilize the deficit, we can get back to 5 percent of sustainable growth.” Don’t bet on locals who view the Suva scene differently to write opinion letters to the editor.

Alan Goodall is former Tokyo bureau chief for The Australian.

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