Fiji’s Bainimarama still dogged by rights issues 10 years on from his coup

Updated 5 December 2016, 12:45 AEDT

Today marks 10 years since Fiji’s 2006 military coup, which saw then-Commodore Frank Bainimarama take control of the island nation in a controversial move that frayed its ties with Australia and the world.

Government and Politics:World Politics:ALLLaw, Crime and Justice:Rights:ALLGovernment and Politics:ALL:ALLFiji:ALL:ALLfiji, coup, 2006, politics, pacific, australia, relations, human rights, bainimaramaABCBy Bruce Hill, Richard Ewart, Bill Bainbridge and Kerri WorthingtonToday marks 10 years since Fiji’s 2006 military coup, which saw then-Commodore Frank Bainimarama take control of the island nation in a controversial move that frayed its ties with Australia and the world.While Mr Bainimarama is currently serving as Prime Minister after winning the election in 2014, concerns over political rights and abuses continue in Fiji.Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat program spoke to some of the key players in the events leading up to and following the coup, who said they were concerned about the state of Fiji’s democracy one decade on.

‘A traumatic day for the whole of Fiji’

The 2006 coup had a long lead-up: Commodore Bainimarama had been criticising the government led by Laisenia Qarase for some time, and it was widely expected that he would attempt to take power.

He had taken over control of the government once before in the aftermath of Fiji’s third coup six years earlier, when Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, and many other politicians were held hostage by an indigenous nationalist group, led by former businessman George Speight.

The siege at the country’s parliamentary complex lasted almost two months, and Commodore Bainimarama took over in the ensuing anarchy.

Mr Qarase was appointed prime minister of the interim government in July, and went on to win elections in 2001 and 2006.

However the Qarase government’s plan to offer pardons to some of those involved in staging the 2000 coup strained relations between the military and the government.

Efforts to avoid another armed takeover — including the attempted removal of Commodore Bainimarama as commander, talks between both parties in New Zealand, and concessions on some of the points raised in a military ultimatum — all failed.

“It was a traumatic day for the whole of Fiji,” Mr Qarase said of the events of of December 5, 2006.

“Once again, an elected government was removed from office by the force of arms and ammunition.”

While the coup itself was bloodless, with Mr Qarase going into hiding shortly before Mr Bainimarama took control of the country, the former leader was later jailed on corruption charges brought by the military regime.

“We have had 10 years of his rule, and I’m afraid that there is no democracy in Fiji at this point, even though we have a new constitution and we have had a general election,” Mr Qarase told Pacific Beat.

“We have a dictatorship, but a parliamentary dictatorship.”

‘It’s a military Government’

Mahendra Chaudhry, who was ousted as prime minister in the 2000 coup, found himself back in politics after the Bainimarama coup.

He served as the interim government’s finance minister from 2006 before resigning in 2008.

Despite the elections held in 2014, Mr Chaudhry is also doubtful about Fiji’s return to democracy 10 years down the track.

Timeline: Fiji after the coup

  • December 2006: Commodore Bainimarama takes control of Fiji, parliament is dissolved
  • January 2007: Mr Bainimarama becomes interim prime minister
  • April 2007: Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs is sacked after refusing to endorse the interim government
  • 2008: Elections previously promised for 2009 are postponed
  • 9 April 2009: Fiji’s Appeals Court rules the 2006 coup was illegal, and the military regime is invalid
  • 10 April 2009: Fiji’s constitution is repealed and all judges sacked
  • May 2009: Fiji is suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum
  • September 2009: Fiji is suspended from the Commonwealth
  • 2012: Preparations begin to draft a new constitution
  • August-September 2013: New constitution is signed into law, paving the way for elections in 2014
  • September 2014: Fiji holds its first elections since the coup, Mr Bainimarama is elected Prime Minister
  • October 2014: Australia and Fiji normalise relations

“It’s a military Government. No criticism of the Government is tolerated,” he said.

“It’s more or less like a one-party state … The opposition in parliament have been rendered ineffective, three of their members have been expelled for the rest of the term of parliament over flimsy issues.”

Fiji’s two opposition political parties have long complained that Mr Bainimarama’s Fiji First party is using its dominance to restrict their rights.

Three opposition MPs have so far been expelled for the remainder of the term of parliament, after they were accused of using unparliamentary language.

The Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union has criticised the expulsions, and expressed concern at what appeared to be a recent trend to impose long-term suspension on vocal opposition MPs in Fiji.

Earlier this year, several opposition politicians were detained after attending a forum where they were to discuss the country’s 2013 constitution.

Police said they were investigating whether the criticisms made at the forum were a danger to “safety and security”, but the politicians were released without charge.

“There is no democracy. Anyone who says that there is democracy in Fiji really doesn’t know what the situation here is,” Mr Chaudhry said.

“It’s like a police state. Every apparatus of the state is controlled by them, public service and other institutions of the Government have been either politicised or militarised.”

In the aftermath of the 2006 coup, heavy censorship of the media came into effect — military censors were placed inside newsrooms to oversee reporting.

“It got to the extent that one of the newspapers started running blank pages, because stories had been censored or had been removed completely,” said veteran Fiji journalist Dennis Rounds, who was working for the Australian High Commission at the time.

While censors have left Fiji’s newsrooms, media organisations are still prohibited from publishing content that goes “against the public interest or order”, under the Media Decree of 2010.

Organisations found guilty can be fined heavily, while editors and publishers can face jail terms.

“I think the trauma that they went through from the time of the coup until now is still there … You still have a media that’s trying to tread as carefully as possible,” Rounds said.

Coup critic ‘living in exile in Australia’

Fijians opposed to the military Government said they were intimidated, beaten, and in the case of one couple, exiled.

Professor Brij Lal, a Fijian-born historian and Australian National University academic, is currently banned from entering his country of birth.

“I began to talk about the need to respect the rule of law, to value and cherish the principles and spirit of democracy — and I think this is what really angered the military,” he said

In November 2009, shortly after doing a phone interview with Radio Australia, Professor Lal was picked up by the military.

“The soldiers came in two twin cabs and took me to the barracks, interrogated me, abused me, and then told me to leave the country within 24 hours,” Professor Lal said.

“Otherwise my family would have to fetch my body from a morgue.”

Professor Lal, who had Australian citizenship at the time, was expelled from Fiji. His wife Padma was also expelled a month later.

“She is the most apolitical person in the world, she has never spoken out in public against anybody or any political issue, and they expelled her as well,” he said.

In 2015, Fiji’s Minister for Immigration said the Lal family were a threat to national security, and would be banned from entering Fiji for life.

“Both of us are, I suppose in a way, living in exile in Australia,” Professor Lal said.

“I understand that the attorney-general, [Aiyaz] Sayed-Khaiyum, has been saying to people who have talked to him about me that I am anti-Fiji, and that as far as he is concerned, we will never be allowed to return.

“I suppose the saddest part of all of this is not being able to say the final farewell to people.”

Fiji’s security forces ‘get away with torture’: Amnesty International

Human rights organisation Amnesty International said while abuses spiked in the immediate aftermath of the takeover, they were continuing to occur, and military involvement in policing was part of the problem.

The organisation’s new report “Beating Justice: How Fiji’s Security Forces Get Away with Torture”, launched in Fiji’s capital Suva today, called on the Government to keep the military and police forces separate.

10 yrs since since the coup in Fiji, yet a culture of impunity remains where security forces get away with torture » 

“When they are as part of this joint taskforce with police, this is when we’re seeing escaped prisoners and suspected criminals being severely beaten, in some cases they’ve been raped,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific researcher.

“We’re seeing quite horrific beatings arise when the military is working with the police, and that just needs to stop.”

It is uncertain how the police force will react to the report: Fiji’s current police commissioner, Brigadier General Sitiveni Qiliho, is a former land forces commander in the military.

He took up the post following the resignation of former police commissioner Ben Groenewald in November last year, amid claims of military interference in policing.

Mr Groenewald told Pacific Beat at the time that his resignation was “indirectly” related to a case of alleged police brutality.

A video of the incident showed Fijian officials beating several prison escapees with wooden and metal poles.

The military subsequently recruited three police officers charged over the attack, and local reports said the military sheltered a soldier who was also charged and prevented him from being arrested.

Fiji welcomed back into the international fold

While the Bainimarama-led regime faced heavy international criticism immediately after the coup, Fiji’s foreign relations have well and truly bounced back since.

Australia lifted its last remaining sanctions on Fiji in 2014, and earlier this year John Key became the first New Zealand Prime Minister to visit Fiji since the coup.

After the 2014 elections, Fiji was also readmitted to the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum.

But it is Fiji’s gains on the global stage that have proved most impressive, with the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, Peter Thomson, earlier this year elected as President of the General Assembly.

Mr Thomson’s election was seen as a victory for the Pacific and global climate change advocacy.

Fiji will also co-chair next year’s COP23 climate change conference, which is to be held in the German city of Bonn.

In the words of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, you could be forgiven for thinking the coup was “ancient history” — but Mr Chaudhry is concerned about Fiji being welcomed back into the international fold.

“Mr Key doesn’t live here. It’s very easy for people who don’t live in Fiji, who don’t go through what the people here have to suffer, to make these kinds of biased pronouncements,” he said.

“Australia also I think needs to re-examine its position vis-a-vis Fiji in terms of its criticism of the state of [the] Government here.

“I don’t think it’s right for [Foreign Minister] Julie Bishop to be painting a picture that everything is normal in Fiji, in terms of democracy.”

internationalpacificCoup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama is now the elected leader of Fiji.


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