Bainimarama sends defiant message to NZ at banquet

By Claire Trevett in Suva

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, pictured in Auckland in 2014, thanked New Zealand for its response to Cyclone Winston. Photo / Michael Craig
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, pictured in Auckland in 2014, thanked New Zealand for its response to Cyclone Winston. Photo / Michael Craig

Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has sent a strong message to Prime Minister John Key that he had not forgotten New Zealand's response to his 2006 coup and the relationship between the two countries will never be the same as in the past.

Speaking at a banquet held in honour of Mr Key's first official visit to Fiji, Mr Bainimarama kicked off with warm words of welcome and a joke of sorts. "You are among friends. As long as you choose your words carefully when it comes to rugby."

Mr Key laughed, but it quickly became clear Mr Bainimarama meant he should choose his words carefully on other topics as well when the pair meet for formal talks on Friday morning.

He made it clear Key should not bother to lecture him about human rights or democracy in Fiji.

He rejected upfront one request Mr Key intended to make of him to reconsider the ban Fiji placed on some New Zealand and Australian journalists after that coup, including TVNZ's Barbara Dreaver.

He also indicated Mr Key's attempt to get Bainimarama back to the Pacific Islands Forum was doomed, saying New Zealand should show more understanding of Fiji's attempt to reform the regional architecture to give Pacific Islands a bigger voice. Mr Bainimarama wants New Zealand and Australia removed from the Forum.

In an often defiant speech, Mr Bainimarama took a swipe at those who questioned whether his own Government was legitimate, saying his Fiji First Party was supported by 60 per cent of Fijians in the 2014 election which international observers said was free and fair.

"It is on that basis I stand before you tonight. Not as a coup maker or dictator, as some in your country would still have it, but as a properly elected freely chosen leader of Fiji."

Mr Bainimarama has refused to be interviewed or even take questions from media during Mr Key's visit, and he criticised the "generally hostile" New Zealand media saying they appeared to question whether his government was legitimate.

Mr Bainimarama also made it clear he had not yet forgiven New Zealand for censuring Fiji over the coup.

It is on that basis I stand before you tonight. Not as a coup maker or dictator, as some in your country would still have it, but as a properly elected freely chosen leader of Fiji.
Frank Bainimarama

He said Fiji did want to rebuild its relationship with New Zealand, but Fiji was very different to the Fiji when the last New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark visited in 2006.

He defended his actions leading the coup in 2006 and subsequent to that, saying he had replaced a "sham democracy" by leading a "revolution" that ensured every citizen had a level playing field.

It was not all bad news for Mr Key. Mr Bainimarama thanked New Zealand fulsomely for its response to Cyclone Winston, something he said had forged stronger people-to-people ties between the two countries.

He said he was keen to meet with Mr Key "in the genuine spirit of engagement, and letting bygones be bygones". He welcomed Mr Key's sentiment that the past should be left behind. "Because Fiji and New Zealand have had far too long a friendship and we are far too close geographically to allow this opportunity to pass."

He wanted to forge a new relationship with New Zealand, but expected it to be "more equal" and "more rooted in individual respect".

"The strains and irritants that have marked our political relationship in recent years are a textbook example of how not to conduct friendly relations between neighbouring countries. They must be replaced by genuine cooperation and understanding."

In his response, Mr Key noted Mr Bainimarama's wish for a relationship more of equals.

"In coming to Fiji, I wanted to demonstrate exactly that."

He had noted Mr Bainimarama's remarks about the coup and did not wish to relitigate them. However, he said it was important to note New Zealand was one of the longest unbroken democracies in the world and held that dear.

- NZ Herald

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