Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Memo to Mara: Inspire Fiji's 'jasmine revolution' and then face a treason trial

Samoan meddling? Fiji military renegades Jone Baledrokadroka (left) and Ratu Tevita Mara (centre) - now travelling on a Tongan passport - have a tête-à-tête with Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele in Canberra.

PHILIP RAMA of the Auckland-based Coalition for Democracy in Fiji has penned his protest against allowing a coup leader tainted with alleged human rights abuses to come to New Zealand. In an open letter, he says:
I am dismayed that John Key’s government is allowing [ex] Lieutenant-Colonel Tevita Mara to visit New Zealand.

Mara was a very senior military officer who was involved in the planning and staging of the coup of 2006. He was a member of the Military Council of Fiji that imposed the oppressive decrees in Fiji.

He was the commander of the largest unit of the army and his soldiers enforced those decrees arresting people who did not comply with the decrees.

Even if he did not torture those arrested, he knew what would happen to them when his soldiers handed them to Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama’s torturers.

He is guilty of serious crimes against the people of Fiji.

But for his falling-out with Commodore Bainimarama, he would have continued enforcing the oppressive military decrees.

If Mara wants to end the military rule, as he is reported to said, he should go back to Lau and from there inspire the Fijian people to rise up against the military government in a Fijian-style “jasmine revolution”.

And when the revolution succeeds, Mara should be tried for treason along with Bainimarama and the others behind the 2006 coup. NZ should not allow Mara or any other person involved in the 2006 coup to come here.
In an earlier letter in the New Zealand Herald on 18 June 2011, he wrote:
John Key and Murray McCully mistakenly think allowing the likes of Mara to visit here will hasten the collapse of the military regime in Fiji.

If anything, it will strengthen the resolve of Commodore Frank Bainimarama and those around him to maintain their grip on power. That is the only way they can preserve themselves.

And when Mara tells us how bad the situation is in Fiji, what will NZ do that it has not already done.? Nothing will change in Fiji unless the indigenous people act.

They came out in support of the coups staged by Sitiveni Rabuka and George Speight. They stood silently during the ousting of a democratically elected Prime Minister and the removal of people and institutions that criticised Bainimarama.

This is where Mara needs to begin is he wants to overthrow the military government.

He will need to convince Fijians and those in the army that they must respect the values of democracy and democratic institutions, uphold the constitution and the rule of law.

And the army must be subservient to the democratically elected civilian government.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mara, Kaitani and the charade of Fiji democracy

ANOTHER "SMOKING GUN" picture? This time George Speight's former "Minister of Disinformation" Simione Kaitani is pictured with an armed Speight rebel and "well-wishers" on 25 May 2000 - just six days after Mahendra Chaudhry's elected government was taken captive at gunpoint in Parliament. The Fiji Times caption said at the time:
Lomaiviti parliamentarian Simione Kaitani with well-wishers and a rebel trooper (right), who stormed Parliament on Friday.
The picture comes from the archives of former Fiji Daily Post publisher and columnist Thakur Ranjit Singh who has other similar images in his collection. Not to mention the controversial Fiji Television Close-up programme featuring Kaitani and an alleged "incitement" incident. Kaitani later also had the Information portfolio in the Laisenia Qarase government for a period.

Kaitani was among the supporters for Fiji military renegade Ratu Tevita Mara at a public anti-regime meeting in Queanbeyan, near Canberra, last weekend. Mara is currently in Australia on a Tongan passport (he is a cousin of the king of Tonga as well as being youngest son of Fiji's founding prime minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara) drumming up support. He is expected to visit New Zealand on a restricted two-day visa next week.

According to Singh in the Fiji Sun yesterday:
Mere elections do not deliver democracy. One that does not grant freedom, equality and social justice to all its citizens is not worth defending.

A seminar was organised by the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji in late December 2006, in Auckland, just weeks after Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama ousted Laisenia Qarase’s supposedly democratic government. This author presented a paper and accused New Zealand and Australian governments of hypocrisy, double standards and being ungrateful and blinkered neighbours because of their lack of understanding and appreciation about Fiji’s fundamental ills.

NZ mainstream media, which lacks diversity in its newsrooms, was also not spared for its inability to analyse the real truth about Fiji, and appeared to be singing from the same hymn sheet of their government’s dogmatic foreign policy on Fiji’s faltering democracy and governance issues.

It appears nothing much has changed in those last four and a half years. Australia granted a visa to the renegade military man Ratu Tevita Mara, aka Roko Ului, to address the so-called democracy movement in exile near Canberra during the weekend.

It is interesting to see the makeup of this dubious forum: SDL, Vanua, Church, the nationalists, unions and the flotsam and jetsam of Qarase’s SDL stalwarts who were off-loaded from the racist gravy train. Among other things, they wish to bring back the hegemony of the unelected and unrepresentative Great Council of Chiefs, which has been an obstacle to real Westminster type of democracy in Fiji.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Diplomatic double-speak over Fiji fugitive colonel

HYPOCRISY has become something of a cliché when referring to the political line taken by the Australian and New Zealand governments and their grab-bag of fellow traveller academics and gullible journalists. The latest circus over alleged human rights violations culprit and coup colonel Ratu Tevita Mara is yet another example. Both the Australian and NZ governments have thrown any semblance of credibility to the wind by breaching their own policies and granting Mara temporary visa rights to make propaganda visits to both countries. It is refreshing to have a handful of independent journalists to strip away the camouflage and remind us of the realities about Pacific politics.

Fiji under Laisenia Qarase, the leader deposed by the military coup in 2006, was no genuine “democracy” - it was an ethno-nationalist regime riding on the coat tails of the 2000 attempted coup. Perpetrator George Speight may be languishing in prison for treason, but his warped “vision” of indigenous supremacy for Fiji, instead of a multiethnic state, was echoed by the policies of the Qarase government.

Graham Davis has produced what he claims to be a “smoking gun” picture (above, Drum Pasifika) of Australian National University opponents of the Bainimarama military regime – Dr Jon Fraenkel and Professor Brij Lal – alongside one of Speight’s onetime supporters, Simione Kaitani. As well as being widely known to have been a backer of Speight (right below, Network 9) – although he was acquitted on a charge of treason due to lack of evidence that he had actually sworn an oath of allegiance to the Speight rebel "regime" - Kaitani was also a key man for Qarase (right bottom, TNN) and reportedly had a hand in promoting a bill aimed at releasing the coup leaders early, a move that eventually led to the 2006 coup.

Davis asks Fraenkel and Lal to explain this picture in his blog in a piece titled "Unholy alliance on Fiji":

Grubsheet has been at the receiving end of a stream of invective from Jon Fraenkel about our attempts to encourage Australia to engage with the Bainimarama regime and help it keep its pledge to hold one-man, one vote elections for the first time in Fiji in 2014. He’s castigated us as “coup supporters” – which we deny – yet is prepared to be photographed with a proven coup-maker in Simione Kaitani. So, Jon, let’s hear your explanation. You tout a blueprint for a return to democracy with someone like this by your side?

Meanwhile, Sanjay Ramesh offers this overview for Café Pacific on the Fiji quagmire:

The defection of Ratu Mara exposes lack of political direction on Fiji

By Dr Sanjay Ramesh

In February 2011, a new commanding officer of the Fiji Third Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Jone Kalouniwai, was appointed by the military. The appointment came following speculation that the former commanding officer, Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara was under investigation together with another senior military officer, Land Forces Commander Brigadier-General Pita Driti, for plotting the removal of Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama in 2010 (Fiji Village News, 4 February, 2011).

The news that senior members of the Fiji military who had earlier supported the coup had had a fall out with Bainimarama brought back memories of the mutiny in November 2000. In 2000, the rebel soldiers, with the support of the Naitasiri high chief Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, wanted to replace Bainimarama. Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini or Rusiate Koroivusere were the two names put forward by Captain Shane Stevens to replace Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama if they successfully took over Queen Elizabeth Barracks in 2000. During the trial of Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, state witness Maciu Turagacati said: “At Ratu Inoke Takiveikata's office at the Naitasiri Provincial Council, Captain Stevens, the rebel leader, informed the meeting that they would take over the military camp but needed some assistance like arms and handcuffs to be provided by the Qaranivalu and his group” (Fiji Village News, 18 February 2011).

Unlike the events of November 2000, this time members of the Fiji Military Forces notified Commander Voreqe Bainimarama that senior members of the military were conspiring to oust him from power and as a result both officers were sent on an indefinite leave. Following an investigation, on 4 May 2011, Pita Driti was charged with two counts of uttering seditious comments and one count of inciting mutiny, and Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara faced one count of uttering seditious comments under Section 67 of the Fiji Crimes Decree. Both former senior military officers were released on $F2000 bail. Ratu Tevita was ordered to surrender his passport to the police on May 5 and report on his whereabouts by 15 May 2011 and attend the court hearing on 30 May and 1 June 2011.

On 9 May, Ratu Tevita was “extracted” by the Tongan Royal Navy patrol boat Savea from within Fiji's territorial waters after he was reportedly taken to the extraction point by Risto Harmat, an Estonian national who was charged and later bailed over his alleged part in assisting Ratu Tevita. On 23 May, the New Zealand Herald reported that two New Zealand nationals and Ratu Tevita’s friends, Anthony Fullman and Tim McBride, were questioned by Fiji police and a TV New Zealand crew was also questioned after attempting to interview Ratu Tevita’s wife in Suva (New Zealand Herald, 23 May 2011).

The regional leaders remained tight-lipped but were privately supporting what had transpired in Fiji. The Australian Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles opined that tensions between Fiji and Tonga was a “bilateral issue” and the New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully advised the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that the “situation in Fiji was becoming more challenging for the Fiji’s military leader” (Radio NZ, 18 May 2011).

In Tonga, the Forum Trade Ministers had gathered for a meeting on Forum trade but high on the agenda for discussion was not trade but how Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga could leverage Ratu Tevita’s defection. Tonga’s Chief Secretary, Busby Kautoke, told Pacnews that Ratu Tevita was a “man rescued at sea”. However, under the Tongan Extradition Act 1988, Fiji is one of the designated countries where an individual can be extradited back but Tonga had no such intention and instead issued a Tongan passport to Ratu Tevita as both Australia and New Zealand debated relaxing their travel ban on Ratu Tevita.

A Kiwi letter writer summed up his frustration with his government’s approach:
How cynical is our government?

While [the NZ] government has expelled law-abiding Martin Payne who brought his life savings here from Britain and set up a successful family business in Northland, Prime Minister Key is now offering or considering offering political asylum to a Fijian bail absconder.

The Fijian, Ratu Tevita Mara, has connections to the Tongan royal family, and is under the protection of the king of Tonga. He does not need asylum, he has it already.

The Key government is heartless towards a law-abiding person, but bending over backwards for a bail jumper because Mara can help "rub Fiji's nose in it''. How cynical is that? (The Press, 2 June 2011)
On 10 June 2011, Ratu Tevita was successful in securing a visa to Australia despite being on a travel blacklist by Canberra and much to the surprise of many indigenous Fijians who were refused political asylum, despite a sanctions regime in place on Fiji since December 2006.

Are Australia or New Zealand serious about democracy in Fiji? Tonga can be excused because it is hardly a model for democratic change in the region and Samoa has been engaged in hurling abuse at Commodore Voreqe Baininarama since the December 2006 coup.

Is the strategy for democratic change in Fiji focused too much on one person (Bainimarama) rather than working collaboratively towards a constitutional, institutional and an electoral system that will enable greater cross cultural discourse and political inclusion in Fiji.

Ratu Tevita has claimed on YouTube and on Television New Zealand that Bainimarama is a “puppet” of the Attorney-General Saiyed Khaiyum. Wasn’t a similar call was made by the Taukei Movement in April 1987, which accused late Dr Timoci Bavadra, the indigenous Fijian prime minister, of being a puppet of Jai Ram Reddy?

Commodore Bainimarama and Professor Crosbie Walsh have highlighted that the comments of Ratu Tevita against Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum were racist and possibly aimed at consolidating the support of the indigenous nationalists overseas.

The defection of Ratu Tevita has highlighted the lack of direction in the region in dealing with Fiji. Exceptions are made to policy positions based on political expediency rather than a determination to improve the social and the economic conditions of the people of Fiji.

Dr Sanjay Ramesh is an associate fellow in the Centre for Peace and Conflict at the University of Sydney.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Behind the Ratu Mara media feeding frenzy

A COUPLE of blog postings ago, Café Pacific observed about the ongoing Ratu Tevita Mara media circus: "This entire saga has all the hallmarks of a carefully orchestrated virtual internet coup. At least, of the propaganda kind. One virtual coupmaster getting one-upmanship over the grand coup master."

And a case of one of dictator Voreqe Bainimarama's key military henchmen trying belatedly to save his skin.

But the YouTube led publicity campaign from the safety of Tonga poses a series of questions that mainstream media don't appear to be asking. Who are the media minders behind Mara massaging his military message and what is their agenda? Why are things being taken at face value? Where is the evidence backing up Ratu Tevita's sweeping allegations?

And why is the anonymous, unreliable and unethical website Coup4.5 suddenly being taken as a credible news source by some mainstream media?

One prominent Fiji journalist sums up the views of several by telling Café Pacific: "Definitely a very suave team is guiding [Mara], directing what he says and his answers to questions. They are also directing his statements and allegations so that it comes in intervals every 2-3 days to sustain and feed the media frenzy."

One of the rare pieces through the smear and counter smear fog to make some sense, is this blog posting by Croz Walsh, a retired professor from the University of the South Pacific. He asks the very questions that journalists should be asking:
Come clean, Ratu Tevita: Who really assaulted the women?
The headlined accusation "Bainimarama beats women" is the latest statement by Ratu Tevita that has been reported - on trust - by the international media.

He promised us that all would be revealed over time but for the moment he is releasing one small story after another that keep the media in titivation mode.

First came the release in which he said he was rescued on a fishing trip that went wrong and he'd fled because he wouldn't receive a fair trial. This was followed by the statement that Banimarama laughed at the idea of elections, and that no elections would be held in 2014. We then heard that Bainimarama was taking his orders from Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, a view earlier reported by the blog Coup4.5.

He then accused Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum of corruption and said Bainimarama's salary, paid by Khaiyum's aunt’s accountancy firm, was $700,000 a year. Much of this story was also earlier reported by the blog.

This was followed by general accusations of torture that he said he witnessed, and for which he now apologised, but in which he played no part. He said a small "hit squad" carried out the torture, presumably on Bainimarama's orders. But he was the commanding officer.

And now he claims Bainimarama hit three "pro-democracy" women — Visili Buadromo, Jackie Koroi and Laisa Digitaki — at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks just before Christmas in 2006. He says that Bainimarama's son was the other officer who hit the women, and made the point that Bainimarama only hit women; he never saw him hit men.

Coup 4.5, Michael Field and others have now taken up the "Bainimarama hits women" story. I have little doubt that the general outline of the story is correct. The coup had only just taken place. The situation was unstable, and there was active opposition from a small group of "pro-democracy" activists, including the three women, that was enthusiastically reported by the local and international media. The military was unsure of its position and sought to silence opposition by intimidation. Not nice, but over-reaction is not unknown even in democracies, when the established order is unsure of itself.

But here the details become hazy. Ratu Tevita says people had always thought it was Pita Driti (charged earlier this month for sedition - together with Ratu Tevita - and attempted mutiny) who beat the women. But he was there and saw what happened. It was not Driti, he said, but Bainimarama, dressed in brown overalls with no military insignia, who started the attack, joined by his son.

He said it was dark and all that could be seen were silhouettes.

But afterwards, not one of the women mentioned Bainimarama or his son. They maintained it was two other officers, Pita Driti and Ratu Tevita.

Laisa Digitaki said she recognised Driti's voice, and both she and Visilia Buadromo told Human Rights Watch, probably the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, that they were assaulted by Driti—and Ratu Tevita Mara.

This leaves one wondering.

Why, only now 4½ years after the incident, do we hear Bainimarama's name mentioned for the first time? Apart from the obvious purpose of smearing Bainimarama, is it possible that Ratu Tevita is also trying to cover up his part and Driti's part in the assault? These are the sorts of questions the media should be asking him before they take his word on trust.

They should be asking how he has so much knowledge on so wide a range of topics. I doubt he can have witnessed all, and his statements can be no more reliable than his sources, which —other than Coup 4.5— he has not revealed. The media should ask him about his sources.

They should also ask what's happened to the documents he said he brought with him on the boat to Tonga that he said would prove what he said. Did he show them to Barbara Dreaver when she interviewed him soon after his arrival in the old British Residence’s house in Nuku'alofa? Did she ask to see them? Has anyone seen them? Has anyone thought of asking to see them?

He now says he's thinking of making a statement to the UN about human rights abuses in Fiji. For this he will have to rely on more than the prompting of Coup 4.5. He will need the documents.

Otherwise, on this issue at least, it will be his word against those of the women who said he assaulted them— and not Bainimarama.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Freedom of the press on Fiji? You’re joking!

Breathless NZ media coverage on Fiji ...

Independent Fiji blogger
Crosbie Walsh pens an "editorial" on a New Zealand Herald editorial and also takes a swipe at the Sydney Morning Herald over misleading coverage about the Ratu Mara saga:

I RECEIVED an email from Claire Trevett, deputy political editor of New Zealand's largest circulation newspaper, last Monday. “I read your very good analysis on the Ratu Tevita situation and I was hoping to speak to you at some point today to get some comments on the developing situation,” she wrote. We spoke for a while that afternoon and last Wednesday the New Zealand Herald published her story NZ may yet admit Fijian fugitive.

It reported two comments contrary to those typically published by the NZ media recently. Fiji Solicitor-General, Chistopher Pryde was cited as rejecting claims that LtCol Mara would not get a fair trial in Fiji, saying there was no interference by the government in the courts' decisions. And I was cited as saying the situation was embarrassing for the commodore but I believed Ratu Tevita's actions were “ personal and the issue would subside quickly. We all know Fiji is divided,” I said, “but I don't really think Ratu Tevita can split the military from Bainimarama."

At long last, I thought, a factual article with opinions from people of differing views, leaving readers to form their own conclusions. My faith in the NZ media went up a notch, but it was not to last.

On Saturday, the NZ Herald editorial announced "Dictatorship's hold on Fiji is crumbling". I have no idea who actually wrote the editorial. The Herald does not use bylines and has several editors. The most surprising thing about the editorial is not that it swallowed and echoes Ratu Tevita's story but that it provided not one shred of evidence to support the claim in its heading.

We learn that “sooner or later Fijians will wake up"; that "dictatorships fall when basic human resentment … can no longer be repressed (and) Fijians have much to resent.”

We are told that Ratu Tevita's flight “shows that resentments now boil within the regime,'” and, to take the words from the horse's mouth, that Fiji is a "hateful dictatorship;" the PM is “ill, morally and intellectually bankrupt", and acting as a "hand puppet" of Fiji's civilian Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, and that Ratu Tevita's YouTube video “also targeted those still serving in the armed forces".

We are told Ratu Tevita was "arrested" before fleeing, and the arrests were “not reported in the censored Fijian media.” In fact, the State Prosecutor asked for his arrest after he appeared in court on May 4 on a charge of sedition because he thought he (and the other accused Brigadier-General Pita Driti) were flight risks. But the judge (who, we have been told, is not independent of government influence) disregarded the prosecutor's request and granted them both bail.

We are told that Bainimarama thought himself betrayed because Ratu Tevita and Pita Driti “had given advice to their commander on how to soften the regime's approach to public dissent.” This is Ratu Tevita's uncorroborated story, and the sedition charge was quite unrelated to this “advice,” if indeed it ever took place.

We are told “the advice he gave Commodore Bainimarama ... led to his being charged and now his public stand from Nuku'alofa exhibit great courage deserving of national and international support.”

We are told that “Fiji has predictably dragged out allegations that the formerly trusted colonel is being investigated over missing funds from Fiji Pine.” When, in fact, the allegations were around well before he fled. They had even been mentioned on the anti-government blogs.

And, finally, we are told “a leading Fijian Establishment military man is calling things as they are” which leaves me wondering if the NZ Herald invited Ratu Tevita to ghost write the editorial. As for the heading, the “Dictatorship's hold on Fiji is crumbling,” even one small shred of evidence would have given the story some credibility.

This is the is the state of my country’s reporting on Fiji.

Footnote: In a Sydney Morning Herald article, "Fiji tight-lipped over torture claims", by Tamara McLean, AAP South Pacific Correspondent, wrote this:

I quote: “Fiji's military government is tight-lipped on accusations of torture in its barracks and claims it has no plans to hold democratic elections as promised.”

I quote: “He (Ratu Tevita) said democratic elections in 2014, which both Australia and New Zealand have been pushing for, were "very unlikely" to happen and even if they do only a select few political parties will be allowed to stand.”

Who said elections would not be held? The Fiji government, as in the first quote, that has “no plans” to hold elections? Or Ratu Tevita, who thinks they are “unlikely”, as in the second?
Readers could well think it was the government, which it was not. And since when have “Australia and New Zealand been “pushing for elections …in 2014”? They have always called for elections before 2014.

I’d like to think Tamara was in a hurry and did not check her story, but there have been so many similar inaccurate and misleading reports on Fiji lately that I have to wonder.

Retired New Zealand academic Professor Crosbie Walsh was founding director of development studies at the University of the South Pacific and lived in Fiji for more than eight years. He publishes a specialist blog on Fiji affairs.

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