PACIFIC: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Power struggle behind alleged Fiji coup
, November 24, 2007
Fiji's military government has alleged that Australia and New Zealand were behind an assassination attempt on the life of Fiji's Prime Minister. Peter Westmore reports.Suggestions by Fiji's military government that Australia and New Zealand were involved in an alleged assassination attempt on the life of Fiji's Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, will seriously worsen ties between these Pacific neighbours, probably delay a return to democracy in Fiji, and may assist China's attempts to increase its influence there.
In early November, the international media reported that Fijian police had arrested 16 people in connection with an assassination plot, which reportedly was to involve the killing of both Commodore Bainimarama and his Attorney-General Aihaz Sayed-Khaiyum, and the seizure of the main military barracks.
Two of those arrested are New Zealand citizens, including a Fijian-born IT businessman, Ballu Khan, prompting the military government to allege the involvement of "neighbouring countries", which was understood to mean Australia and New Zealand.
Both governments immediately denied the claim, and criticised the lawlessness of the military government, which seized power in a coup in December 2006.
Among others arrested were the founder of the United Fiji Party, Ratu Inoke Takiveikata. This party won the largest number of votes in elections in May 2006 and formed the government which was deposed last December.Divided community
Within Fiji, there are now deep divisions between the Great Council of Chiefs, which speaks for the majority of indigenous Fijians who vote for the United Fiji Party, and the indigenous Fiji-dominated military, led by Commodore Bainimarama.
Most of the Indian population, descended from labourers brought to Fiji to work in the sugar-cane fields, support the largest opposition party, the Fiji Labour Party, which has been marginalised by events over the past 20 years.
In 1987, alarm by indigenous Fijians that the government would be taken over by ethnic Indians led to two military coups, and ultimately, the adoption of a constitution which cemented indigenous Fijians in power.
A later constitution, adopted in 1997 after much pressure from Commonwealth nations, led to free and fair elections; but when it seemed that Indo-Fijians might win government, a civilian-led coup overthrew the Government in 2000. The following year saw the United Fiji Party, led by the indigenous Fijian, Laesenia Qarase, win the largest number of seats.
Qarase was re-elected in May 2006, but toppled in a military coup in December last year. Commodore Bainimarama alleged that the Qarase Government was corrupt, a claim widely accepted as true. A commission of inquiry, headed by a New Zealand academic and released in September, identified deficiencies and anomalies throughout the election process.
It suggested a pattern of bias that disadvantaged Indo-Fijian voters and the Fiji Labour Party, while advantaging Qarase's party. The inquiry found there was evidence of "deliberate and explicit" vote-buying, tampering with ballot boxes, falsified ballot papers and unofficial people being left in charge of ballot boxes before counting.
The current trouble therefore reflects deep divisions within the indigenous Fijian community, between the military and the traditional leaders, the Great Council of Chiefs, who also appoint the President.
Commodore Bainimarama wants to cut the power of the traditional chiefs by re-writing the constitution to get rid of what are known as "communal seats". In Fiji's House of Representatives, 45 of the 71 seats are reserved for ethnic-group voting, and this provides the basis for the traditional chiefs' power.
In order to break their power, Commodore Bainimarama has overthrown the government, appointed his own Cabinet, appointed a military man as head of the Fijian police force, and threatened those who have spoken out against him.
While there have been calls from people in Australia and New Zealand for further sanctions against the Fijian Government, the commodore has threatened to build closer ties with China.
The military regime replaced the former police commissioner, who was an Australian citizen, with a military officer, and last June, expelled the New Zealand High Commissioner, prompting travel bans on high-ranking Fiji government officials.
The reality is that neither Australia nor New Zealand has any influence over the government in Suva, as was seen at the recent Pacific Islands Forum, where Commodore Bainimarama was accorded equal status to the leaders of Australia and New Zealand.
Attempts by Australia and New Zealand to take a strong line against the military government in Fiji were politely rebuffed. Both countries wanted to send a message to Commodore Bainimarama that he must adhere to a promise to hold democratic elections in Fiji by March 2009.
"The country has a coup culture, and we want to see that broken," said Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, when speaking at the forum.
But outgoing forum chairman Michael Somare, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, rejected this line. "We wouldn't be doing justice to our objectives if we sought sole punitive action for a member of our family," Mr Somare said.- Peter Westmore