Editorial: Fiji's armed forces must bow to democracy

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Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Photo / Greg Bowker
Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Photo / Greg Bowker

Four times in the past quarter-century, the people of Fiji have had to endure military coups. The upshot for them has been sharply curtailed rights and freedoms, the bite of international sanctions, and inept management of the economy.

Only if the armed forces are kept in their barracks will the country break out of this self-destructive cycle. Unfortunately, that realisation has yet to dawn on the leaders of the military, who cling to the idea that they must forever be the saviours of the nation.

As much has been underlined by the Republic of Fiji Military Forces' submission to the commission charged with producing a draft constitution. The military exists "to deal with both the internal security situation and external threats", it reads. "The forces cannot and will not be complacent in dealing with situations that undermine national interest."

In effect, the military is serving notice to the government that takes power after elections scheduled for next year.

It will closely monitor that administration and will not allow it to undermine any of the work put in place by the regime headed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama since it seized power in 2006. That regime overthrew a democratically elected Government and tossed out the previous constitution. To replace that document, a five-strong Constitutional Commission, headed by a Kenyan academic, Professor Yash Ghai, has just finalised a draft constitution that enshrines principles such as one-person, one-vote, an independent judiciary and transparent governance.

Those principles, and the ambition to foster a secular, corruption-free state, are commendable. But they amount to nothing if the will of Parliament can be subordinated at any time to the firepower of the armed forces. Professor Ghai has emphasised the untenable nature of this, and said the military must be responsible to the government and to Parliament, and has to act within the confines of the constitution. "We think the professional military, their conscience should be to defend Fiji against external aggression and we would rather the police handle internal disorder issues," he says.

Like many before him, Professor Ghai is discovering that one step forward by the Bainimarama regime is usually succeeded by at least one step back. The military's attitude must also be particularly disappointing for the Governments of New Zealand and Australia. Last year, they restored high-level diplomatic representation in Suva and eased travel bans on members of the regime. They clearly believed that Commodore Bainimarama was sincere about a return to democracy next year, and that the outlook for Fiji had brightened considerably. The regime's sincerity has now, however, morphed into a determination to continue to have its way whatever the will of the Fijian people.

The new constitution is due to be formally adopted by the end of March. Before then, it will be the subject of public debate. This represents a chance for the people of Fiji to impress on the military that further intervention in the politics of the country is utterly unacceptable. By and large, they have viewed successive regimes with a fatalistic air, and demonstrated little outward antagonism towards military rule. This has served only to encourage the leaders of the armed forces.

The attitude of the military, as revealed by its submission on the draft constitution, reveals Fijians will be in for further periods of draconian rule, with the loss of most of their rights and freedoms, unless they assert their will. The time to abandon their passivity has arrived. The military must be accountable to Fiji's elected representatives, not the other way around.

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- NZ Herald

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