Friday, May 22, 2009

A case for change, peace and progress in Fiji

This despatch has been filed by a regular contributor to Café Pacific who was at Thursday’s meeting at the Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University, and supports being a “Friend of Fiji”. As certain journalists and news sources have provided misrepresentations of this meeting and of John Samy’s report, a link below provides the full 75-page document in the interests of fairness and balance:

Commodore, will you dance with me?
THERE was no protest at all when two people who had worked closely with Fiji coup leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama began talking at an informal meeting held on the University of Wellington campus on May 21. Their purpose. How do we improve the New Zealand relationship with Fiji?

The meeting of nearly 40 people was conducted under Chatham House rules. In short, that means people attending the meeting agree keep their mouths shut about who said what and about what was said. So I have to be careful how I explain what happened.

Holding the interest of the audience were Jone Dakuvula and John Samy. Jone Dakuvula is an indigenous Fijian with long links to New Zealand. He has family here and his working life includes holding government posts and non-government posts in Fiji, and he has at times been a human rights advocate and a media commentator.

During the early days of the George Speight ethno-nationalist coup in 2000, Jone was working for the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum in Suva. Jone opposed the coup. One evening he went on Fiji Television to express his disapproval about what had happened. He left the building immediately after this TV broadcast and just missed the chanting crowd of Speight supporters who were incensed at what he said. They had gathered at Parliament, then began walking down the road chanting and firing guns. At the TV building they marched in, smashed the TV studio and looked for Jone.

After the 2006 coup, Jone joined the Secretariat for the National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF). This was established through Commodore Bainimarama, the army chief. He said the work of the NCBBF in creating a People’s Charter would be one of the key steps towards making Fiji a better country for all.

Who was the other speaker? John Samy. He was born in Fiji and was working for the Fijian government in 1987 when a young army officer called Sitiveni Rabuka seized the country with the first army coup. John was unpopular with Rabuka and soon lost his job. As a highly talented development economist, he went on to join the Asian Development Bank, eventually becoming deputy director-general. Later, he settled in New Zealand, but his links with his home country remained strong.

Key figure
Commodore Bainimarama then took his turn to have a military coup in December 2006. It was not long before John Samy was back in Suva. After talking with the commodore, he became the key figure in the Secretariat for the NCBBF. He worked with Jone Dakuvula and many others to put together a draft of the People’s Charter, a proposed blueprint for the future of Fiji.

People around the country talked about the “pillars” in the proposed charter. Some opponents kicked it all over the media. The NCBBF listened. Two hundred thousand copies of the draft of the People’s Charter were printed in the three different languages, English, Fijian and Hindi, and sent it far and wide all over the country. People were invited to sign a paper saying if they agreed with the draft, disliked it or wanted to change this and that part of it.

Six out of every 10 adults in Fiji approved the ideas in the proposed People’s Charter, and said so, by signing a response form. This was good news for both John and Jone. The army liked the draft charter too and so did the NCBBF members. After a final meeting the NCBBF closed up shop, its work done. Fiji now seemed to be ready to move forward towards restoring democracy

Alas, the country has been adding to its woes since the draft charter was approved. Fiji is now under martial law. There is to be no general election until 2014. People who disagree with the army are either beaten up, threatened or they shut up to save their own skins. Diplomats have been kicked out of the country – New Zealand has been kicked twice with the diplomatic boot.

New Zealand and Australia have been curt, saying they expect Commodore Bainimarama to have a quick general election and then go back to his barracks along with his troops. He thumbed his nose at Australia and NZ – and although we are not shooting at each other, but … if words were bullets…well!

So, as you can see, there was a good reason for these two caring men to meet on that cold Wellington morning and ask, how can we get out of this deepening quagmire?

Creating momentum
I can’t tell you who said what at the meeting – Chatham House rules and secrecy prevail – but the solution seems to start with getting a small group of people in New Zealand and the Pacific region together to begin working behind closed doors to build bridges between Fiji and New Zealand. As one person put it, we need to create a “Friends of Fiji” group.

One speaker commented that the public service of Fiji is weak and has been getting weaker ever since 1987. It needs strengthening and support, otherwise how can any future stability be created and become lasting?

The economy is sinking, said another. Just recently the currency was devalued by a fifth. That decision doesn’t help the four of 10 people in Fiji who live on and near the poverty line. It may cost them up to 20 percent more when they buy essential food items such as tea, coffee, rice and bread.

Another speaker felt the Fiji economy would collapse further and further. He went on to say it wouldn’t do NZ any good either, to see Fiji drop down into a dark hole.

Oh, said another person, China is not only there in the wings, it is already helping Fiji and Commodore Bainimarama. So we may have another factor to cope with as this powerful world player wets their toes on the beaches and political sands of Fiji.

The 1997 Constitution of was abrogated by the President. Judges have been dismissed. After the meeting ended, one academic was heard to say quietly that a “Friends of Fiji” group would need a constitutional lawyer in their small secret team.

Bainimarama is determined to change the electoral voting system in Fiji to make it fairer. So some help is going to be required with the drafting of the new electoral Act. The same person said – we will have to see how much of the abrogated Constitution can be saved or salvaged.

Setting guidelines
A key point of discussion revolved around the President’s dialogue forum, a gathering of all political parties which met to set and accept some guidelines for starting a process back to democracy. There have been at least two meetings, but there are problems. Laisenia Qarase, the former Prime Minister and the leader of the biggest indigenous political party in Fiji, is fighting for his future political life with the army commander. Qarase says he is the rightful elected leader. He won a court appeal, supporting his position.

With the Constitution abrogated it looks like a fight to the finish. Commodore Bainimarama keeps saying Qarase is politically finished. So will these two powerful men talk to each other, and will either listen? That question was certainly in the minds of some of the speakers at the meeting.

So how do we start to go forward and get Fiji and New Zealand talking again…with respect! Someone – a friend – a good friend will probably have to persuade John Key and his Foreign Minister to keep their mouths shut for a while. Someone will have to get the army commander to do likewise. Then the serious talking can begin. Dialogue needs contact between people. The bosses in Fiji will at some time have to come face to face with the bosses in Wellington.

But…but… said someone… there is a travel ban on the Fiji coup leaders and their relatives. Somehow, that restriction needs to be lifted, or become “inoperative” or twisted into “diplomatic jargon” to allow the leaders in Fiji to talk with the new leaders in Wellington.

No one must lose face. That is a Pacific requirement. And if you and I do care about Fiji and its future relationship with NZ – we may have to shut up too when we find out that this dialogue is underway.

Pictured: Top: John Samy (Radio Fiji); Jone Dakuvula (Café Pacific).

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