Monday, November 27, 2006

Fiji on verge of another coup

It’s almost coup o’clock in Fiji. The leader of Fiji’s armed forces, Commodore Frank Bainimarama called up a thousand army reservists on the weekend. He also warned Australia against intervention and called for Australian Andrew Hughes to be sacked as Fiji's police commissioner. Bainimarama has form as the organiser of the counter-coup that ousted George Speight in 2000. Fiji has had three coups in the last two decades.

The Australian government will now host an emergency summit of Pacific Island foreign ministers on Friday 1 December to discuss the risk of another military coup in Fiji. The meeting was called under the forum's Biketawa Declaration under which member nations can request assistance to deal with threats to security. Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said he is very concerned that Bainimarama will undertake a coup when he returns from New Zealand, where he is attending a granddaughter's christening.

In May 2000 a gang led by George Speight stormed the parliamentary buildings and kidnapped then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and other senior members of the government. The aim was to depose the first ethnic Indian prime minister in favour of indigenous Fijians. Fiji's ethnic Indians make up around 40% of the 900,000 population. Speight anointed himself as Prime Minister but never succeeded in wresting control outside the building. Bainimarama led the army negotiators and hammered out an agreement to release Chaudhry. But as soon as he was released, Bainimarama repudiated the deal, stormed the building and arrested Speight and his co-conspirators.

Voreqe Bainimarama, more popularly known as Frank, moved to impose martial law after days of chaos in 2000 following the racially-motivated coup by businessman George Speight. Speight is now serving life for treason. A former naval commander, Bainimarama was appointed head of an interim military government for three months until a new president was appointed. He was also instrumental in bringing in current Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase - a move he says he has since come to regret.

Bainimarama has been the power behind the scenes ever since. He has repeatedly entered the political arena to criticise government policy especially its leniency towards those responsible for the coup. He was a strong critic of the Reconciliation and Unity Commission to depose the first ethnic Indian prime minister in favour of indigenous Fijians. Fiji's ethnic Indians make up around 40% of the 900,000 population but have been oppressed since the events of 2000. The Reconciliation and Unity Commission wasset up in 2004 and planned to compensate victims but also give amnesties to coup plotters.

The Commission is the brainchild of incumbent Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Like the coup plotters, Qarase strongly favours a pro-Indigenous Fijian policy. The proposal generated a storm of protests from opposition politicians, many of whom were victims of the coup. Bainimarama joined the Indian opposition in condemning the commission. He issued a statement in July 2005 warning the government was heading towards the same anarchy as 2000. He also said the military would act against “destabilisers” issuing a warning, “the military will dish out the same fate we dealt George Speight and his group to anyone whom we think deserves this treatment."

Australian Andrew Hughes was initially an ally of Bainimarama but has now fallen foul of him. Hughes was appointed police commissioner in the wake of the 2000 coup succeeding local-born Isikia Savua who was implicated in the coup. The Fijian constitution allows for a foreigner to lead the police force and Hughes was recruited from the Australian Federal Police as an impartial figure to lead the post-coup investigations. However Hughes’s vigorous pursuit of suspects saw him clash with government ministers especially Home Affairs minister Josefa Vosanibola over the coup amnesty plans. Vosanibola has also clashed with Bainimarama and declared him a threat to Fiji’s stability.

Hughes meanwhile has claimed Bainimarama was a front for a highly organised group trying to undermine the Government. He told the ABC on Friday “they operate in the shadows, under anonymity, manipulate and so on, and then they get off, scot-free”. Hughes’s term is due to expire in 2007 and he has the support of Qarase to continue. The prime minister said “looking at our recent past it may be best for Fiji to continue with an expatriate Police Commissioner." It remains to be seen whether Qarase will retain the power to make the decision.

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