Posted by Tom Bridge
Fiji is not a very stable country politically. The Pacific islands nation has endured no less than four coups over the past 20+. The ethnic divide in the country is stark with Fijian’s of Indian descent, Chinese descent and native-born Fijians living together in a nation in not so much harmony. But it is not just about the ethnic divide. Indeed the latest coup in particular, in 2006, when Commodore Frank Bainimarama wrested power stemmed out of a conflict festering between the then civilian government and the military which was not just about ethnicity.
This latest coup d’etat had its origins in the previous uprising, with Prime Minister at the time, Laisenia Qarase wishing to introduce legislation which would have pardoned the coup leaders involved. Frank Bainimarama was almost killed during that period of political instability.
Overnight Australia, New Zealand and Fiji agreed to somewhat of a restoration of ties between the three nations. The agreement will restore full diplomatic relations between the nations with the reciprocal reinstatement of each countries respective high-level diplomatic missions in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.
Travel restrictions for members of the Fijian Government will also be eased and restrictions were lifted to allow a representative of the Fijian administration to travel to the meeting at which the change in policy was agreed to.
In 2009 our High Commissioner in Fiji was expelled by the Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama in a move that was closely followed by the Australian Government expelling the top Fijian diplomat.
It is an interesting move given that the previous deadline for free and fair elections, in 2009, was not met. Indeed since then, a further crackdown on the press and other authoritarian moves have pointed to a far from certain transition to democracy, due to occur in 2014. Indeed, such a positive step at this point seems almost fanciful.
Speaking on ABC News 24, the director of the Australian National University’s Centre for the Contemporary Pacific, Brij Lal said that “It’s important to measure words against deeds.” And this is a correct reflection of how to judge the political situation in Fiji at present.
The words coming out of the mouth of the Fijian Prime Minister’s mouth speak for great hope of a return to democracy and less internal conflict in the trouble-prone Pacific nation.
But Bainimarama’s deeds tell a different story. Freedom and democracy have been going the other way in Fiji since the 2006 coup when the Commodore took power from the civilian government of Mr Qarase. His deeds tell a story of grand but broken promises as well as a crackdown on those opposed to him from within and outside of the country he rules over.
But is the reinstatement of diplomatic relations a case of jumping the gun too early? Is Australia at risk of finding it “very difficult for it (Australia) to disengage and take a more objective stance”? Would it have “been prudent on the part of Australia to see some of the fruits of those initiatives (toward elections and democracy) before going as far as it has done”?
The answer on all counts is likely no. No material progress has been made toward democracy since diplomatic relations broke down badly in 2009. Australia and New Zealand while disengaged from Fiji diplomatically have been unable to, with objectivity, influence the transition toward an at least somewhat stable and democratic government. And if the two nations had waited before entering into political relations with Fiji again until they had seen some of the benefits of promises made by the Fijian Government, well, they would likely have been waiting a mighty long time. Chances are they still might, but frank yet friendly engagement is much better.
Helping the Fijian Government restore their economy which is heavily dependent on tourism and exporting sugar will be an important diplomatic step which could result in the knock-on effect of being able to persuade Fiji to return to some form of democracy.
While the economy is stalled it is the Fijian people, already under authoritarian rule that begin to suffer further from the political isolation of the Fijian regime. Combine that with the recent devastating floods and the level of hurt because of a weak economy is high.
Australia and New Zealand, in restarting diplomatic relations could place incentives for economic development assistance based on real outcomes in the transition toward democracy with more assistance provided as progress is made to free and fair elections and more democratic government.
It’s certainly not to early to again engage with Fiji and the re-engagement with the island nation may well help rather than hinder some form of transition toward democracy. But only if the relationship is managed with Australia and New Zealand offering help for change. The restarting of diplomatic relations does not automatically equate to too much too soon
Tags: Australia, Australian Government, Australian politics, authoritarianism, coup, coup d'etat, democracy, dictator, diplomacy, diplomatic relations, exports, Fijian Government, Fijian politics, Frank Bainimarama, High Commission, New Zealand, Pacific island, regional politics, sugar, tourism, trade