Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Poisoned Cup: Racial and Neo-Colonial Politics in Fiji

Fiji, with its coup of December 4, is the latest South Pacific island struggling to balance populism, democracy, and authoritarianism in order to secure a place for itself in a globalized, polarizing environment increasingly contested by great and near-great powers from Beijing to Canberra to Washington.

You’ll probably be reading about how the guy who executed the coup, Commodore Vereqe Bainimarama, is a dangerous nut.

What you’ll probably be reading a lot less about is how Andy Hughes, the Australian who served as Fiji’s Police Commissioner, precipitated the coup by going after Bainimarama and his political base on a sedition charge.

Just before the coup, Hughes bugged out to Australia, where he pontificates long distance on what was either a colossal misjudgment or a piece of crude political hatchet work on behalf of Canberra’s man in Fiji, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

It’s difficult to tease out the truth about Fiji because Fiji is unwilling to come to terms with its own identity.

The best place to start is the
South Pacific Travel Blog. Also, Wikipedia has an astounding amount of information on Fiji, seemingly updated hourly.

The population is almost half indigenous Fijian and half Indo-Fijian. The descendants of Indian immigrants occupy a key role in the commercial sector and the sugar industry.

Significant elements of indigenous Fijian society have toyed with the idea of racialist policies meant to disenfranchise the Indo-Fijians and maintain native dominance of the government and economy. Fatally, they have received encouragement from certain Fijian political and tribal elites.

In 2000, an adventurer, George Speight, attempted a putsch against the government and held it captive for 55 days. In order to strengthen his political hand, he played the race card against the Indian community and portrayed himself as a champion of indigenous interests.

The putsch failed, largely through the efforts of army commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama who himself escaped a murder attempt by soldiers loyal to Speight.

The successor government, which Bainimarama installed, succumbed to the temptation to consolidate its power through racialist policies under Prime Minister Qarase, and placed partisans of Speight in the government and cabinet.

In an ominous development for Fijian society, Qarase’s government has apparently co-opted several of the Fijian chiefs, whose Great Council of Chiefs control the appointment of the Presidency, Vice Presidency, and 14 Senate (a.k.a. Fijian House of Lords—we’re not talking pure democracy here) seats, setting up the same potential elite vs. commoner split within indigenous Fijian society that has riven Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

Events reached a sorry climax with the Qarase government’s attempt to push through a so-called Reconciliation, Toleration, and Unity Bill, which opponents saw as nothing more than an effort to shield the backers and perpetrators of the 2000 coup from further public exposure and legal liability, and institutionalize their safe haven under the aegis of the Qarase government.

Baianimarama was profoundly suspicious of the Qarase government and not willing to see political control slide into the hands of the gang that orchestrated the 2000 coup and nearly killed him.

He confronted the Qarase government with a series of statements and ultimatums and, at last, deposed the government by a process he characterized as a constitutional exercise, but one which looks, walks, and quacks like a coup.

Fiji seems to be a place in which Australia, China, India, and Taiwan would like to drive events to serve their interests, but everyone has been stymied by the perilously dysfunctional character of Fijian society.

Fiji recognizes the People’s Republic of China. President Wen Jiabao paid a visit in April of this year.

However, China had its problems with the Qarase government, which afforded Taiwan’s Chen Shuibian the opportunity to pay an unofficial visit spring 2005 that included a friendly greeting at the airport, meetings with the Fijian Vice President and other bigwigs, and
apparently, an unannounced meeting with Qarase.

The motivation for this diplomatic maneuver is unclear, though it might have something to do with Fiji’s stated concern that China threatens Fiji’s textile exports to Australia.

Certainly some sort of economic chainyanking on a more or less exalted level vis a vis PRC & ROC was going on.

Fortunately for Beijing and Taipei, Fijian politics, unlike those of Tonga and the Solomon Islands, are thankfully devoid of the complicating factor of a significant ethnic Chinese minority or its politically convenient and attractive accessory: a Chinatown ripe for shaking or burning down.

Australia apparently had few principled objections to Qarase’s government, which played the race card more and more openly. Graham Davis’
op-ed in The Australian lays out the case against Qarase’s policies—and the moral and political pitfalls of Canberra’s support for him--quite persuasively.

Canberra also had the inside track influencing Fiji through the selection of an Australian national,
Andrew Hughes, as Fiji’s Police Commissioner. He was a popular and effective choice at first, but his prestige and reputation for impartiality fell victim to the political turmoil.

Hughes was proceeding with an investigation of Bainamarama for sedition for his bullyragging of the Qarase government.

On November 23, Hughes was
interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

JOHN STEWART: Three weeks ago Fiji appeared to be sliding towards a military coup. Commodore Frank Bainimarama called his army reservists to duty and told them to show courage in the days ahead. But today Fiji's police force got the upper hand. The Australian born Police Commissioner, Andrew Hughes, announced that Commodore Bainimarama and a group of senior military officers, civil servants and politicians will be charged with sedition.

ANDREW HUGHES: We believe that the commander here is a front-man for some shadowy figures operating in the background. We have a fair idea who they are now and we are going to drag them into the sunlight for the world to see. We've got Parliamentarians there, we’ve got former senior military officers, we’ve got senior civil servants involved.

So there you have it.

While the investigation of the coup that already happened in 2000 putters along, with the prospect of pardon for the plotters (and Qarase’s allies) in the offing, Hughes accelerates plans not only to arrest Baimarama but also to gut his faction on a sedition charge.

It’s interesting that the fact that an Australian policeman was attempting to topple Fiji’s top military man, who regards himself as the protector of his nation’s multi-racial society, has not been discussed very much as what it must have been: a key precipitating factor in the coup.

Hughes has made a fetish of proclaiming his impartiality.

There's not enough evidence to impugn Hughes' honesty when he declares he was not intentionally advancing Qarase's sectarian interests or Australia's regional agenda.

But one can certainly question his judgment as a foreign national exacerbating a constitutional crisis and provoking a coup in a dangerously divided and distrustful nation smack in the middle of Australia's neo-colonial "patch".

On November 25, Bainamarama demanded Hughes’ removal for searching the President’s office while trying to make the case against him:

[Baimimarama] says that Police did not respect the President.

"(Prime Minister Laisenia) Qarase is selling us out very quickly especially to Australia - allowing an Australian to search our President's Office.

"It is carried out by an Australian. He is selling our sovereignty. I am condemning everyone involved in that action, including the Fijian police officers.

"I don't have time for the Police Commissioner especially after what transpired yesterday. I demand that they remove this guy.

"If government is not going to do it, the military is going to do it.

"One day I had a friendly discussion with Hughes. I told him that someday things are going to explode. I warned him that if that happens I will warn him to leave. I am warning him now."

Hughes fled Fiji and got his two cents’ in after the coup::

Fiji police commander Andrew Hughes predicted the fourth coup in 20 years would fail because Bainimarama lacked popular support.

"He doesn't have the support of the government, of the president, of the police, of the churches, of the chiefs, of the people of Fiji, and I can foresee a popular uprising," Hughes told Australia's ABC Radio. "I think people are waking up that this guy is not mentally sound, that his strategy is flawed," he added.

We’ll see whether Bainimarama has over-reached in an attempt to break Fiji’s political and social impasse.

According to Pacific Islands watcher David Stanley, “support for the Bainimarama and Qarase camps is about evenly split within Fiji”.

Bainamarama made a point of leaving the Fiji for a trip to New Zealand last week in advance of the coup to demonstrate that he was confident of rock-solid support from the army.

However, the President of Fiji has issued a
statement that he neither supports nor condones the coup.

Hughes’ right-hand man in the Fiji police and acting Commissioner, Moses Driver, is passively resisting the coup and has denounced an order undercutting police autonomy by requiring joint military police operations.

The Fiji Council of Churches is apparently openly backing Qarase.

Australia and its allies are busy painting Bainimarama as a coup-happy rogue officer instead of a patriot attempting to preserve the unity of his nation and society,
according to the New Zealand media:

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters has labelled Bainimarama a dictator, while Prime Minister Helen Clark says he's deluded.

The website Just Pacific has posted an indignant riposte to the Australian/New Zealand position.

Military intervention by Canberra to place Fiji firmly within the sphere of Australian influence has been bruited, but Australia would have to think twice before trying to insert a force firmly opposed by the Fijian military.

For the time being, cooler heads have

Both Clark and Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Tuesday turned down Qarase's last-minute appeal for military intervention, saying sending troops would make matters worse.

Today, with Bainimarama calling the shots, Australian influence must be close to its nadir.

Conceivably, China could become embroiled in the crisis as Bainamarama casts about for international support.

David Stanley comments:

Australia and New Zealand have announced sanctions against Fiji and it’s quite likely that Fiji will be suspended from the Commonwealth later this week. It’s also probable that Bainamarama will try to turn to the People’s Republic of China as an alternative. Yet in light of the anti-Chinese rioting in the Solomon Islands and Tonga recently, China may be wary of aligning itself with an illegal regime.

Although Bainimarama visited China at the PLA’s invitation, and there is no love lost between Beijing and Qarase after the Chen Shui-bian stunt, it is difficult to see China, which has zero internal political, military, or diplomatic leverage in Fiji, openly supporting Bainimarama.

The one thing that would certainly provoke Australia to a military response to the Fiji crisis would be the opportunity to catch Beijing with its geopolitical reach exceeding its grasp and give a perceived Chinese proxy a black eye in the South Pacific.

Although Bainimarama champions the rights of the Indo-Fijians to equal treatment and protection under the law, India can’t do anything more than keep its head down and hope the Bainimarama vs. Qarase conflict doesn’t escalate into something bigger, nastier, and featuring anti-Indian violence.

So it will be pretty much up to Bainimarama to make his coup work with what he’s got going for him inside Fiji.

Hopefully, Fiji’s society has not drunk too deeply of the poisoned cup of racialist politics.

However, with Qarase calling for “people power” to reverse the coup, opinion within Fijian society split, and Australia and New Zealand, the main regional powers, eager to expel Bainimarama, it is likely that the turmoil in Fiji has not reached its conclusion.


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