Don't leap to judge Fiji coup

The Rev Sethy Revgenvanu takes a different view on Fiji’s political situation.

Fiji was plunged into its fourth coup on 5 December 2006, when the elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was overthrown by the Fiji Military Forces. A month later, the Head of State, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo appointed an interim government with the Military Commander Frank Bainimarama as the interim Prime Minister.

For the people of Fiji and the countries who had been following closely the political situation here, the events of 5 December 2006 did not come as a surprise. For more than a year before the coup, the military had been openly accusing the Qarase government of protecting those implicated in the coup of 2000, by giving them high positions in government and introducing laws giving amnesty to the coup leaders. They also accused the government of harbouring corruption, and misusing and abusing the wealth of the nation to benefit the few in privileged positions at the expense of the resource owners and the majority of citizens, thereby contributing to worsening poverty in Fiji. They accused the government of promoting race-based policies favouring the indigenous Fijians against other races, and so threatening the unity and peace of the country. The worsening situation of the national economy, the loss of confidence and exodus overseas of the skilled and educated was blamed directly on the government’s bad policies.

Since the interim government took over, it has implemented a “Clean Up Campaign”. 

Many top civil servants have either lost their jobs, or been “sent on leave” while they are investigated. An anti-corruption unit has been set up to investigate complaints, and the size and cost of government has been drastically reduced. There are now 16 ministers compared with 32 in the Qarase government. The salary levels of chief executive officers (permanent secretaries) have been reduced by about 30 percent, and there has been a global cut of 5 percent to all salaries in the public service. This “Clean Up” campaign is supported by most of the ordinary people of Fiji. There are differing attitudes among the Churches of Fiji, but those Churches and religious organisations that seek social justice for all, like the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches, are in basic agreement with the aims of the coup.

However, the actions of the military and the appointment of the interim regime have attracted much criticism from overseas governments. There have been harsh travel bans and advisories, threats of trade sanctions, including withdrawal of aid, and e. orts to exclude Fiji from UN peace missions and the Commonwealth. For many in Fiji, these reactions seem hypocritical, especially as the US is widely believed to have been involved in the first coup in 1987 that removed a democratically elected government. Many wonder what has happened to Australia and New Zealand’s insistence on “good governance, transparency and accountability”.

There is no danger for visitors to Fiji. To date there has been no gun fire. The checkpoints and the general state of emergency imposed by the military have on the contrary helped to reduce the level of crime considerably and been welcomed by the town residents especially. It is true that a number of people have been taken to the military barracks for questioning and there has been some alleged abuse of human rights by individual soldiers. But generally life is normal for the majority of people in Fiji.
The interim government is trying to make the country ready for new elections, but it will take time to redraw the electoral boundaries, and to reorganize the electoral system, which is now based on race and only perpetuates the divisions and injustices that caused the coup. Fiji needs the support of other countries in the Pacific to accomplish this within the set timeframe of three years.

In conclusion, I would say that this coup has made many people think about what “democracy” really is. It is helping to break the “culture of silence” that still dominates this hierarchical society. While nobody condones the use of violence to achieve any aim, it is necessary for all of us, in Fiji and overseas, to look more deeply into the situation and not rush in to condemn without understanding properly the issues involved.

Sethy Revgenvanu is the minister of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Suva.

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