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.

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