It’s unclear now when that changeover will take place, but Radio Australia’s associate editor for Asia-Pacific, Graeme Dobell, says the postponement is an example of how domestic politics and the Fijian military have become inextricably linked during Commodore Bainimarama’s interim Prime Minstership.
And a sign perhaps that Fiji is heading down a similar road to that followed by Indonesia in the 1960s under President Suharto’s “New Order”.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Graeme Dobell, Radio Australia Associate Editor for Asia-Pacific
DOBELL: It does say something about the way that military perogatives have become central to the way that Fiji does its life, the way that what the military wants and the way the military thinks has been imposed upon Fiji and it is a little bit of an example of the way that the military under Frank Bainimarama has in a sense become the fourth confederatein Fiji’s history – the military as the central institution as Frank would see and the way that we see the Fiji military impose themselves on many of the other parts of the society, to impose themselves on the Great Council of Chiefs, impose themselves the churches, impose themselves on the legal system. So in a sense, it’s right to that Fiji should wait till the military gets it done in a way that the military wants it done, because that’s really what I call Frank Bainimarama’s new order process has been all about – the military doing what it wants in the time that it wants and the rest of Fiji having to cope.
EWART: You make the comparison between what has happened over the last 14 or so years in Fiji and particularly obviously during the last eight years since the Bainimarama coup. You make the comparison between the situation there and perhaps what happened in Indonesia, going back sometime under Suharto?
DOBELL: You wouldn’t want to push the comparison too far, but I think a couple of the points about the Suharto New Order and the Fiji New Order are useful. One is this idea that Suharto had that the military had a dual function – it had a military function and it had a political function and that’s certainly the way Frank Bainimarama has approached things.
I think you also have to see that the New Order under Suharto took a long time to evolve, and that’s also what we’ve seen under Bainimarama. I would argue that in fact Fiji has suffered two successful coups under Frank Bainimarama, that in 2000, there was an unsuccessful coup attempt by George Speight and some renegade troops, Special Forces Troops, but the successful coup in 2000 was by Frank Bainimarama.
Up until Frank Bainimarama stepped in, Fiji still had a working legal system, but it was Bainimarama ten days into the siege who went to the then governor-general Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and told Mara that he had to go, because the military was taking over and that the military was going to solve this crisis.
It was Bainimarama who overthrew the Governor-General, it was Bainimarama who said when the coup was over, the elected government Mahendra Chaudhry’s government was not going to go back into office. It was Bainimarama who in a sense made the coup effective by overthrowing the Mahendra Chaudhry government and it’s Bainimarama who then imposed Laisenia Qarase on Fiji and eventually in 2006, it was Bainimarama who, staging the second coup deposed the Qarase government. And so I think that’s why I think we’re seeing a new order regime that really has been evolving in Fiji now for 14 years.
EWART: Does that therefore build a sense of vulnerability into the system that Fiji is supposedly working towards. If as promised, they have free and fair elections later this year, and out of those elections we end up with Frank Bainimarama potentially as Prime Minister. Is he not laying himself open to be victim of the system that he set up, that the military will be there in the background and as we know, history tells us, if they don’t like what that see, they will act?
DOBELL: Yes, he’s created this precedent that the Fiji military has some sort of veto and that’s a weapon that ultimately could be used against him. But I think what we’ve seen over these 14 years is that Bainimarama has been very good to the Fiji military. We’ve seen something like 50 or 60 senior officers move out of the military ranks into every part of the public service and the Commission, a lot of a middle and upper level officers owe a lot to Bainimarama in the short term.
I think what we’re also seeing though is that luckily for Fiji, Bainimarama is not as harsh, nor perhaps as smart as Suharto was and that in creating this political system, he hasn’t actually managed to impose himself quite as forcefully as Suharto did. So that what we’re going to see is a political system that might not ensure that Bainimarama’s dominance is continued. He is going to announce his new political party shortly and that will again model itself partly on the Suharto idea of Golkar, which was the party that united all forces in Indonesia.
The problem for Bainimarama is that his version of Golkar under the electoral system that’s been created might not actually have the sorts of dominance that we saw in Indonesia, and being a civilian politician, might not work quite as well for Frank Bainimarama and his new order.
EWART: So would you consider it to be inevitable or not that Frank Bainimarama will be the next Prime Minister after a free and fair democratic election?
DOBELL: He certainly expects he will and I think many regional observers expect that he will and that Australia is certainly working on the assumption that he’s likely to get it. But the interesting thing about democracy, of course, is that the voters will have some say and it’s I think quite conceivable the voters of Fiji pass judgement on the last 14 years, which is not totally favourable to Frank Bainimarama, that he might not be looking at the sort of majority that he would see as right and proper and that he might even have to be looking at some sort of coalition formation, which would be quite a challenge for the man who has in many senses acted as a supremo, rather than as a political leader.
EWART: As far as Australia’s relationship with Fiji is concerned, do you believe perhaps they’ve acted precipitously to try and improve or warm relations between the two countries. Should they perhaps hung back a little longer and waited until those elections have taken place?
DOBELL: No, I think that after eight years of sanctions, Australia had to be seen to be responding to whatever shifts towards democracy that Fiji is getting and the fact that Fiji is going to get an election however free it might be has to be seen as a positive step and really from Australia’s point of view, something that, given all of the steps that we’ve taken and the rhetoric we’ve employed, we’ve had to embrace fully. And if as seems likeky, Frank Bainimarama does emerge as the elected Prime Minister, then Australia is setting the grounds for that sort of future.