Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Religion and reality laid bare in Fiji

Flashback to when then Methodist Church president Laisiasa Ratabacaca, with glasses, led a delegation to offer moral support to deposed prime minister Laisenia Qarase. Photo: Fiji Times

By Dr Crosbie Walsh

THE DIFFICULTY for overseas readers in reading this story about the Fiji military clampdown is that they will equate the Methodist Church in Fiji with the Methodist Church (and other churches) in Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere. They do, of course, share similar spiritual roles and both are engaged in "politics".

But there the similarity ends.

"Politics" for overseas church leaders means working to promote social and moral issues for the perceived benefit of all the population. "Politics" for the Fiji Methodist leadership means advancing what they perceive to be the interests of indigenous Fijians (or, more precisely, perceived traditional relationships) with scant regard for other races, many of whom are neither Christian nor Methodist. Some 95 percent Fiji Methodists are ethnic Fijians. Some 43 percent of Fiji's population is not ethnic Fijian.

To better understand the situation one needs to trace its roots. The separation of spiritual and secular authority, and economic and political power, which emerged in the West as societies evolved from feudal to capitalist societies, was not evident in Fiji. And what was assumed to be traditional practice was left untouched by colonial authorities, who found it cheaper to administer ethnic Fijians indirectly, through their chiefs.

"Fijian 'collective consciousness' and 'identity' was — and is" — what a former, and more liberal, Church leader, the Rev. Ilaitia Tuwere, in 1997 called the "inseparable union of vanua (land), lotu (church) and matanitu (state). Their union is so complete that if one is affected, the whole is affected." [My emphasis.]

The Methodist Church assumed the mantle of lotu in this triumverate, and for this reason some of its leaders endorsed the 1997 Rabuka and 2000 Speight coups when ethnic Fijian hegemony — and control of the Fiji matanitu (state) — was seen to be threatened following elections which resulted in their "approved" political party losing power.

Church leaders promoted and took part in the Speight coup which overthrew the legally elected government led by Mahendra Chaudhry. And they supported Qarase's SDL-led party that was ousted by Bainimarama in 2006. This is why they oppose the Bainimarama government, the People's Charter and early attempts at dialogue, and why their leadership refuse to comply with government's insistence that "politics" be kept out of the annual conference meetings.

Overseas Methodists do not tell their members to support a particular political party. The Fiji Methodist Church endorses one or another ethnic Fijian political party. This is a very important difference. "Politics" has a different meaning.

In the current standoff, the Fiji Church had the right to decide who would chair its meetings, even if asked not to do so by government. It chose to ignore government requests because its leaders were upholding their lotu role, handed down from an idealised and largely fossilised tradition that is under threat from social change — no less than from the Bainimarama government. They are part of the ethnic Fijian "establishment" (a role they share with the Great Council of Chiefs, the Fijian Affairs Board, the Native Lands Trust Board or Fiji Holdings Ltd) that has perverted democracy in Fiji for many years.

If Fiji is to move towards a more genuine and inclusive democracy, its institutional structures need to be modernised: with the role of the Great Council of Chiefs limited to ethnic Fijian matters and the Methodist Church limited to spiritual, social and political affairs — without party political strings attached. Fiji now belongs to all its people, not just the iTaukei, and governments must ensure it remains so.

One wonders what the Rev. Tuwere would advise. Would he have urged the Church to take the political step of defying government, or would he have recommended the Church adopt a more conciliatory position, with the intention of allowing the conference to proceed? And what would he have advised the government, whose answers to too many issues seem to rely on force rather than persuasion, no matter how many times the persuasion has failed?

This is what he said two years ago as reported on ABC's Pacific Beat:
"A former president of the Fiji Methodist Church has called for the controversial church conference next month to be cancelled to save the country from further unrest. Several top church leaders are now facing charges over their decision to go ahead with the annual conference in open defiance of the interim government's decision to ban it.

"Reverend Ilaitia Tuwere says blame for the standoff should be equally shared between the church and the interim government. The former church president says that the Methodist leadership should have dropped all political issues from its conference agenda, but the has government overreacted with its series of arrests. "
Former University of the South Pacific professor Crosbie Walsh publishes a specialist blog on Fiji affairs.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Spirited ABC debate - Davis v Fraenkel on Fiji's future

Dr Jon Fraenkel (from left), Professor Brij Lal and Simione Kaitani at a Canberra meeting addressed by fugitive colonel Ratu Tevita Mara in Australia. Photo: Drum Pasifika

By Graham Davis

REGULAR readers of my Grubsheet blog will be aware of the occasional blows we trade with Jon Fraenkel – an academic who specialises in Melanesian affairs at the Australian National University. Well, here’s a chance to hear us go head-to-head on the ABC Radio National programme, National Interest. It’s a spirited debate on whether it’s in Australia’s national interest to maintain its policy of shunning the Bainimarama regime in Fiji to try to force it to hold an early election.

Dr Fraenkel is among the chief advocates of Australia and New Zealand continuing to refuse to engage with Bainimarama until he buckles. Grubsheet – on the other hand – argues that re-engagement is essential to try to influence events in Fiji and help Bainimarama keep his promise to hold elections in 2014. In this, Grubsheet has common cause with the likes of the Lowy Institute, which fears the strategic consequences of allowing Fiji to move ever closer to China, which has dramatically increased its presence in the Pacific.

Jon Fraenkel is part of a strong anti-regime cabal at the ANU, which includes the Indo-Fijian historian, Professor Brij Lal, and Frank Bainimarama’s former land forces commander, Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka. All three are active political players, despite – in the case of Fraenkel and Lal – allowing themselves to be portrayed as independent commentators in the regional media.

Dr Fraenkel is still to come up with any explanation of the circumstances of the photograph that Grubsheet published several weeks ago, showing him and Brij Lal at a Canberra gathering with Simione Kaitani, one of the principal figures of the 2000 George Speight coup. As listeners to the ABC program will hear, Fraenkel has no compunction in trying to smear Grubsheet as a “Bainimarama supporter” or a “supporter of the 2006 coup” when we’ve made it clear all along that our support is not for the dictator himself but his programme for a multiracial Fiji as opposed to the racism of the government he removed.

Yet here is Fraenkel in the company of a man – in Kaitani – who was a senior minister in that government, was at George Speight’s side throughout the events of 2000, has admitted publicly to committing sedition and insists that Fiji must always be led by indigenous Fijians.

We’ll leave listeners to make up their own minds as to who has the stronger argument.

Grubsheet: Heat and light on Fiji

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Global battle for images and ideas - challenging the West's 'news duopoly'

Professor Daya Thussu speaking at AMIC 2011. Middle: PNG's Joys Eggins. Bottom: PMC's Dr David Robie. Top two photos: David Robie; bottom image: Manawwar Naqvi

ONE of the highlights of last month’s AMIC conference in Hyderabad, India, was a presentation about the US/UK news “duopoly” and the distortions and “injustices of information flows”. Presented by professor Daya Thussu of Westminster University, a former editor of Gemini News Service - one of the post-war pioneers of “independent news” - it was a compelling session. Thussu regards the rise of Al Jazeera English as a critical factor in creating a “news contra flow” to challenge the Western prism. “It was important to have the independent perspective on the Libyan civil war provided by Al Jazeera,” he said. “There is a global battle for images and ideas and Al Jazeera is an important counter to the BBC/CNN global news duopoly."

Undoubtedly, foreign policy has been enormously affected by WikiLeaks – “the greatest leaks in history”, he argues. And the information guerrillas are playing an important role too, in spite of the celebrated “Gay girl in Damascus” blog being exposed as a hoax, and blogger Amina Arraf being unmasked as a man - 40-year-old American student activist Tom MacMaster.

The four-day 20th Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) conference, with more than 400 participants and presenters, was a stimulating event, even if understandably very heavily focused on the host nation India. The “Pacific” contingent may have been tiny (just four from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea), but the team profiled well.

Associate professor Martin Hadlow of the University of Queensland and the Pacific’s representative at the UNESCO World Freedom Day event in New York in May, following his valiant efforts at getting last year’s UNESCO event staged in Brisbane last year, provided a global overview of development communication with a focus on the Pacific. He described how the Pacific, while being relatively underdeveloped in ICTs, had actually stolen a march over many developing countries with an innovative and rapid take up of mobile phones. He also talked about the region’s “heritage media” and radio was “still very much king” in the Pacific. He outlined the success of some new players like New Dawn FM in Bougainville, last year’s winners of a global communication and social change award sponsored by UOQ.

Papua New Guinea’s Joys Eggins, daughter of leading former EM TV journalist John Eggins and now doing her master’s degree at the University of Goroka, spoke about the Komunity Tok Piksa community video project in the Highlands. She outlined its success in producing visual messages on HIV/AIDS with local communities – “the dilemmas of collaboration, consent and ownership”.

Associate professor David Robie, director of the Pacific Media Centre, outlined contrasting media campus-based media models with case studies of both Wansolwara at the University of the South Pacific that now publishes this newspaper in partnership with the Fiji Sun, and Pacific Scoop, a partnership between AUT University and New Zealand’s largest independent digital news media group Scoop Media Ltd. The paper assessed their “publishing profiles and contrasts their independent brands focused on education, environmental issues – particularly climate change and deforestation – human rights, resource development, social justice, culture and language with mainstream media”.

Unitec’s Munawwar Naqvi’s paper presented a critical perspective on communication with communities within development efforts at the grassroots level in central India. Two models, selective interaction and new involvement, were developed from the data collected from semi-structured interviews of different types of non-governmental development organisations.

Next year’s AMIC conference will be in Malaysia and organisers already have the Malaysian Tourism Board lined up as one of the key sponsors. Café Pacific hopes to be represented.

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