Focus On

Fiji, United Nations, Frank Bainimarama
Rick Rycroft/AP
A man talks with soldiers on patrol on a street in Fiji's capital, Suva.

Focus on Fiji

October 30, 2008
by Emily Coakley
The island nation of Fiji is known by some as a great place to vacation, but the country’s government is struggling to gain worldwide recognition. After its last coup, when the military overthrew the government in 2006 and instituted a new regime, Fiji’s neighbors responded with sanctions. There were hopes and promises of elections occurring in early 2009, but the country’s self-appointed prime minister recently told the United Nations General Assembly that voting would likely be delayed.

A Brief History

Fiji consists of a group of 332 islands located in the South Pacific, east of Australia and north of New Zealand. The country’s 900,000 residents inhabit about one-third of the islands. The total land mass is a little smaller than the state of New Jersey, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

For nearly a century, Fiji was a British colony. During the height of British sugar production there, native Fijians, by decree, were kept separate from British commercial activity and the Indian laborers who were brought in to work the plantations and mills, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

After achieving independence from the British in 1970, the country formed a democratic government. In 1987, it experienced two coups at the hands of Lieut. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka, who was dissatisfied by the Indian majority in the previous legislature. The second coup led to a new constitution in 1990 that was “designed to concentrate power in the hands of Fijians.” Rabuka became prime minister in 1992. After two years, he established the Constitutional Review Commission to recommend “changes to lessen the ethnic bias built into the constitution.” This shift was not welcomed by Fijian nationalists.

In 2000, nationalists attempted another coup, with the intention of deposing Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian descent. The military put down the coup and took over the country’s government, and then created an interim government.

Six years later, the military, led by Voreque (Frank) Bainimarama, took over the country on Dec. 5, 2006, after clashing with Fiji’s newly elected government. In early 2007, Bainimarama installed a new government without elections, naming himself prime minister.

According to “Fiji faces some tough political questions over the next few years—not the least of which will come from the many court cases challenging the legality of the takeover.”

Recent Developments

At the end of September 2008, Frank Bainimarama told the United Nations that the country may not be able to have elections in March 2009, as previously promised.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Bainimarama told the general assembly, “This is due to work still in progress toward agreeing on a democratic election system. We believe the general election should be held as soon as possible. This will be done only after we have achieved broad consensus in Fiji.”

ABC said Fiji’s lack of general elections have irked other regional governments: “South Pacific leaders warned Fiji’s government in August it could be suspended from a regional forum if it failed to hold elections in early 2009.”

Australia has also imposed sanctions and banned its citizens from traveling there.

New Zealand’s government has said that Fiji needs a legitimate government before the two countries can have a relationship, the Fiji Daily Post reported on Oct. 1.

“The return of a legitimate government committed to advancing a process of reform and national reconciliation would allow us to start down the road of normalization and reconciliation,” said New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark, the Daily Post reported.

Talks about the future of Fiji’s government resumed on Monday, Oct. 27. According to the AAP, former leader Laisenia Qarase said of the meeting that took place: “It was a good meeting. I think we made some progress, not very significant progress at this point, but it is a positive.”

Bainimarama said, “I am mindful that this journey that we are embarking on today will certainly not be a smooth one. We will certainly stumble and fall if we continue to just look back and remain mired in finger pointing and in the blame game.”

Perspectives on Fiji

A Sept. 30 editorial in the Fiji Daily Post says the government is having trouble convincing people at home and abroad that it’s legitimate:

“After overthrowing a democratically elected multiparty government, the regime and its backers have struggled both domestically and internationally to gain legitimacy and validate its pretext for the takeover of a democratically elected government ... It has also accumulated for itself evidence that would mostly likely be used against it in future litigation.”

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