Page last updated at 23:16 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 00:16 UK

Coup leader keeps iron grip on Fiji

By Zoe Murphy
BBC News

On the face of it, Fiji appears calm. The capital Suva is quiet as citizens go about their daily lives. There is no heavy military presence on the streets as in previous times of national crisis.

Frank Bainimarama is sworn in as interim prime minister at Government House in Suva on 11 April (Fiji Times handout/AFP)
Frank Bainimarama was removed and reinstalled as premier within 24 hours

But underlying the sense of normality is an atmosphere of fear, with people now expressing their concerns in closed circles.

There have been petrol bombings targeting the homes and offices of vocal trade unionists and other political players, says a local journalist speaking to the BBC News website on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals.

The attacks were meant to scare those who dared speak out against the military regime, the journalist says.

For a fleeting moment last month it seemed as though democracy may be returned to Fiji, when the leader of the 2006 coup, army chief Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, was removed from his post as prime minister.

But in an extraordinary 24 hours, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo scrapped the constitution, sacked the judiciary and reinstalled Mr Bainimarama and his cabinet for a minimum term of five years.

A state of emergency was declared, under which government censors were sent into the newsrooms of Fiji's newspapers and television and radio stations to prevent any "negative publicity".

While the censors have effectively lulled a once robust media sector, the emergency regulations are keeping a once vocal populace quiet
Fijian journalist

Foreign journalists were kicked out of the country, and Australian and New Zealand radio transmitters - Fiji's only link to foreign news outlets - were jammed, leaving an information vacuum.

Several local journalists and the president of the Law Society, who organised protests over the sacking of judges, have since been detained or placed under house arrest.

Constitutional office holders, including the governor of the central bank, have been forced from office and replaced by the regime's supporters.

"While the censors have effectively lulled a once robust media sector, the emergency regulations are keeping a once vocal populace quiet," says the journalist.

Censorship has pushed some dissenters underground onto blog websites, but with only about 10% of Fiji's population with internet access, fearful rumours are said to be rife.

'Continued calm'

These developments - which followed a court ruling that the military regime was illegal - have brought widespread condemnation from observers who believe Fiji has taken a decisive step towards being a dictatorship.

Several international reports published this year have raised concerns about human rights abuses and press freedoms.

President Josefa Iloilo (11 April)
The 88-year-old president is a staunch supporter of Bainimarama

Amnesty International's Pacific researcher Apolosi Bose, who recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Fiji, said that without an independent judiciary or human rights commission there was no accountability.

"It is now a military dictatorship - they have almost absolute power. All the limitations that used to be in place have gone now. This is a scary situation for ordinary folk," he said.

A local human rights worker told the BBC about targeted break-ins during which confidential data was stolen.

The changing political terrain is making it very difficult to operate day-to-day, and because of safety concerns, staff are avoiding working at weekends or into the evening, the worker says.

This is absolutely a dictatorship - but whether it is consolidated, no I don't think so
Regional analyst John Fraenkel

Emergency rule has been extended until at least 10 June - a move described by Mr Bainimarama as necessary to "ensure the continued calm".

The military command is being careful to avoid any potential flashpoints - making absolutely sure that people don't gather in public places.

The army chief maintains that in countries with fledgling democratic structures, keeping the peace comes before freedom of expression.

He says that before elections can be held, Fiji's voting system must be reformed in order to escape the race-based politics at the root of the "coup culture", which has seen elected governments overthrown in 1987, 2000 and 2006.

He wants to scrap the complex electoral rolls, under which the indigenous population (57%) votes separately from Fijian Indians (38%).

'The wrong path'

Up until now the military takeover has been strongly opposed by indigenous Fijians but largely backed by the Indians.

But as Mr Bainimarama tightens his stranglehold on Fiji, his allies seem to be falling away fast, says John Fraenkel, a regional expert and senior research fellow at the Australian National University.

Fiji's military commander Frank Bainimarama (December 2006)
Mr Bainimarama has been scrambling to shore up Fiji's ailing finances

The recent decision by the leader of Fiji's ethnic Indians, Mahendra Chaudhry, to denounce the regime is significant as it reflects a change of thinking in the Indian community, says Mr Fraenkel.

Mr Bainimarama has shown himself to be extremely poor at cultivating allies or handling opponents, and still worse at managing the economy, he says.

"Those that remain in his very slimmed down cabinet would not have chosen this path," he says.

Mr Bainimarama's resistance to international pressure to return Fiji to democracy has already resulted in the country's suspension from the regionally important Pacific Islands Forum.

His intransigence is leading to the country's further isolation. Fiji faces expulsion from the Commonwealth. Australia and New Zealand are considering sanctions, and the EU has warned that it may withdraw its sugar subsidies worth more than $50m (£33m).

Fiji's tourism and export-dependent economy is rapidly contracting and the infrastructure is reported to be falling apart - with the majority of the 840,000-strong population bearing the brunt.

Mr Bainimarama has been scrambling to shore up the ailing finances by devaluing the currency by 20% and limiting bank withdrawals. Government departments have been ordered to cut their operating budgets by 50%. Some 1,600 civil servants aged 55 and over were given two weeks' notice to retire.

Mr Bainimarama's rule by force is a sign of the regime's weakness, not its strength or popularity, says John Fraenkel.

"This is absolutely a dictatorship - but whether it is consolidated, no I don't think so," he says.

An absence of popular resistance in the face of the military is not new in Fiji - and of those who spoke to the BBC no-one wanted an armed uprising.

It seems it is fear of possible violence at the hands of the military that discourages citizens from taking to the streets - this affects indigenous Fijians as much as the Indian minority.

Analysts believe that ultimately Mr Bainimarama's coup will fail like those in 1987 and 2000 - neither of which succeeded in establishing an effective or resilient political order.

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