Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fiji: Love thy neighbour as a last resort

The “chilling” of a free press in Fiji means local journos are often reluctant to come out with their frank views so they turn to blogs like this as an outlet. I get frequent dispatches from a variety of local journos, and here is one about the "Fiji Magna Carta" Café Pacific would like to share:

The Fiji military had only a few warm days of love from the public after they had executed the fourth coup in December 2006. Many Fijians and Indo-Fijians welcomed the army intervention into their lives as they watched Prime Minister Qarase and his government leave their official homes and hand over their government issued four-wheel drives.

The army quickly accused Qarase of corruption. Chief Justice Fatiaki was also accused of corruption and suspended on full pay, but 18 months on little has happened to prove either man guilty or innocent. The courts seem clogged up or fogged up in their decision-making. They have still even answered the basic question - was the Constitution abrogated when Bainimarama and his gun-toting soldiers took over the nation? The government was kicked out with guns pointing at them, the President dismissed and then reinstated. Yet we have had a key organisation like the Fiji Human Rights Commission saying the Constitution might still be in place and we should await a decision from the courts. Really!

Even a number of judges are convinced the Fiji Constitution has gone the way of all flesh, and they are not waiting for the High Court to tell them otherwise. Justice Gerard Winter said the “risk to the maintenance of the rule of law was too great a price to pay” and Justice French questioned the ethics of taking up a job in Fiji with the comment that “it comes at too high a price”.

The military has been active during its reign. CEOs have lost their jobs overnight. Others have been appointed, then dismissed without warning and replaced. This has been the modus operandi in Fiji for the last 18 months. Two expatriate publishers working for the two main newspapers have been deported on the first plane out of the country without their families. The full reasons for deportation have never been given.

An army officer soldier is now the police chief. TV has an army officer watching them on a daily basis. Journalists get regularly taken to the army camp to be intimidated with soldiers strutting around, enduring long interrogations and spending time in a cell. The most recent case was a newspaper journalist who was several months pregnant.

Files are seized without warning from offices during sudden raids. Few files are returned and few charges have been laid. The feeling among thinking citizens is that the army is gradually tainting its reputation by acting as if it always has had the moral high ground. The most recent example was when the army commander, who is also the interim Prime Minister, collected just under $200,000 for his untaken leave. In any other organisation he would have been forced to take the leave or he would have lost it.

The army decided to make its own summer. It established a 45 person committee to prepare a
People's Charter, a modern Fiji Magna Carta to help the poor and oppressed, make jobs and eliminate racism and corruption. The People’s Charter is to reform Fiji and lead it onward to a prosperous and harmonious future. That is the sales pitch. It proposes to help the poor and there are certainly enough of them. One third of the nation lives below the poverty line. Many of them struggle to make a livelihood in dirty inhumane conditions. Five years ago a survey identified 182 squatter settlements, today there are more than 200 with a population of around 100,000. According to Wadan Narsey, an economist and academic, the poor have been expanding at 1% a year since 1987. Mr Rabuka, are you listening?
When it was drafted it was to be presented to the people for their approval. Many good citizens agreed to help with its work – academics, lawyers, church officials, business people and some NGOs. The draft of the People's Charter devised by the National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF) is now out and about and being distributed around the country. There are 200,000 copies printed in three
languages.

The draft charter has numerous recommendations for improving health, education and helping the poor, but there are only a few recommendations in it requiring legislative changes. One key proposal is for the electoral voting system to be reformed to a proportional representation system with each person having only one vote for one candidate in any general election. Racial elements in the voting system are to be dismembered.

All citizens will be called Fijians and all government records reflecting racism will be erased. And at this moment a huge campaign has begun by the NCBBF to spread the word around the country about the content and principles in the draft charter. The public are invited to read the charter and attend a series of public meetings. At the end of these meetings the public will be offered a form to sign saying that they approve or disapprove of the charter. On the surface this seems a harmless action, but both the Secretariat boss of the NCBBF and an academic of the University of the South Pacific have publicly said that if more than half the population think the Charter is a good idea, and they say so by ticking the approval part of their forms, this action could be seen as taking part in an unofficial referendum. If over half the nation says they approve of the charter ideas the military will love them and so will the NCBBF.

While the NCBBF seems to be full of good men and women who are doing their best to lead Fiji forward by “change, peace and progress”, it is apparent that the hard work of consultation and listening to the views of the nation means damn all to the military, who have already made their minds up that the charter will become the blueprint for developing Fiji.

Now events have moved towards a bitter winter of discontent. The military want the charter to be accepted. Other groups want it to fail. Former Prime Minister Qarase has denounced the charter and he has a big following with his political party. The Methodist Church with its dubious record of supporting previous coups, but not the present one, has become moralistic and pure and talks about democracy. This is the most important church in the country as far as the indigenous Fijians are concerned. Recently, NCBBF took around copies of the charter to the Methodist church office only to have them refused and returned.

Ironically, this event was caught on cameras and made the 6 pm news.
The Methodist leaders rejected the Charter without even discussing it. Some traditional chiefs have also come out against the charter. Each day the newspapers have yet another article about the charter and numerous letters.

So where do we go from here? There are meetings planned by the NCBBF to take place in most of the towns and villages in Fiji. Here they will gather public opinion. Their hard work comes to a peak in October when the President will be presented with the draft of the People’s Charter and any amended recommendations. It will then be up to the ailing President and the army commander to say what the next moves will be. My guess is that the army will quickly want to get the electoral system changed to one with proportional representation. Only then can an election day can be scheduled and the military will be able to say with a straight face that they are planning to return the country to democratic rule. In the meantime they bluster, bully the media and blame Australia and New Zealand for not supporting a coup!

What will to be decided after October is crucial to Fiji’s future. Decisions made by the President, the army commander and his hidden supporters will clearly be undemocratic, but they should lead towards a sunny summer day of democracy in either 2009 or 2010.

Do the citizens of Fiji live in hope? All, I hope, live so.

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