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Deep divisions in post-coup Fiji

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

File image of Fiji's coup leader, Frank Bainimarama
Cmdr Bainimarama says Fiji needs ethnic unity and good leadership

On 5 December 2006 Fiji's military leader, Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, seized power from Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in a coup.

Mr Qarase was, he said, both corrupt and heavily biased towards the ethnic Fijian community.

The take-over was not permanent, he promised; elections would take place when the country was stable.

Two years on, elections have still not happened. Cmdr Bainimarama is now prime minister. Polls set for March 2009 to placate the international community have been pushed back indefinitely.

Instead Cmdr Bainimarama wants Fiji to adopt a "People's Charter" aimed at reforming the electoral system, building unity between the ethnic and Indo-Fijian communities, and ending Fiji's "coup culture".

"Our island nation must be rebuilt on the solid, rock-like foundations of equal rights, social justice, democracy and good governance," he told the UN General Assembly in September.

Only after the charter was passed, he said, could elections take place. The creation of a stable and unified Fiji was, he implied, surely worth the wait.

Ethnic divisions

Certainly Fiji has seen its share of political turmoil, with four coups in the past 21 years.

Deep divisions between ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians, descendants of labourers brought over by British colonists, have been at the heart of these problems.

Ethnic Fijians make up 57% of the population, Indo-Fijians 38% - but the latter control important segments of the economy.

File image of ousted Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase
Former PM Laisenia Qarase is fighting Cmdr Bainimarama in the courts

Coups in May and September 1987 were aimed at making ethnic Fijians politically dominant, as was the George Speight-led coup in May 2000.

It was Cmdr Bainimarama - an ethnic Fijian - who ended that coup by declaring martial law. He handed power to an interim administration headed by Laisenia Qarase, who then won two elections.

But then the two men fell out. The final straw, Cmdr Bainimarama said, was when Mr Qarase backed legislation that pardoned the 2000 coup plotters and handed lucrative coastal land rights to ethnic Fijians.

Dr Stewart Firth, visiting fellow at the Australian National University, says it was partly an "endless rivalry" with Mr Qarase - whose political clout expanded far further than Cmdr Bainimarama had envisaged - that drove him to seize power.

But, he adds, the coup was also came from Cmdr Bainimarama's desire to create a multi-racial, well-governed Fiji.

"Bainimarama is a genuine modernist who thinks the obsession with ethnicity is what's wrecked Fiji," he said.

His motives were applauded by Indo-Fijians and by civic groups, Dr Firth said, "even though his methods have been unfortunate and will probably prove to be counter-productive".

Charter fears

Cmdr Bainimarama's government is now working to build support for the "People's Charter", which calls for the creation of social unity through the development of a common national identity.

It changes the communal voting system - under which 46 out of 71 seats in parliament are allocated along ethnic lines, the balance tipped firmly in favour of ethnic Fijians - to proportional representation.

Elections would not solve Fiji's problems - it is internal factors that will decide this
Dr Stewart Firth

It also calls for greater government accountability, a leadership code of conduct and the use of the word "Fijian" to refer to all citizens of the nation.

But several groups have raised concerns.

The role of the military should be redefined, the draft says, "to bring it closer to the people". It is not clear what this would entail, but critics point to the growing entrenchment of the military in public life since the coup.

The charter also calls for a "tribunal" tasked with improving media accountability, worrying those who have highlighted the erosion of media freedom in post-coup Fiji.

And proportional representation, although intended as a fairer system, could actually leave Indo-Fijians with less representation, critics say, because they remain - as a result of an exodus since the 1987 coups - in the minority.

Some segments of society are backing the charter. But the Methodist Church, to which the majority of ethnic Fijians belong, is actively campaigning against it.

'Solve from within'

The international community, too, is far from happy. Regional leaders are irate at Cmdr Bainimarama's pull-back from the promised March polls.

"Whatever he holds up as his excuse or his reason, it's a breach of faith and it's a lack of honour," Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in October.

"We continue to be of the view that the only thing that is stopping an election in Fiji is political will."

Dr Firth, however, does not think that more international pressure is the answer.

"Elections would not solve Fiji's problems - it is internal factors that will decide this. Any resolution has to come from within Fiji," he said.

There are no signs of that happening yet.

Mr Qarase is fighting the "People's Charter" in court, arguing that Cmdr Bainimarama's administration has no legal authority to pass it.

The government, meanwhile, has still not set out if, how or when Fijians would have an opportunity to vote on the charter - or when polls could be held.

Experts are warning that the worsening economic climate could deepen ethnic divisions.

Dr Firth is not particularly optimistic about Fiji's immediate political future. He fears it could be entering a cycle of coups and instability.

The coup was more Cmdr Bainimarama's than it was the military's, he says, and if he were out of the picture something different could perhaps emerge. But the military will remain in the forefront.

"Politically there can be no way of imagining a future for Fiji that does not involve the military in a big way," he said.



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