Bainimarama: Fiji ready to go it alone

By Claire Travett

Fiji's interim Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, is refusing to back down to Pacific Islands Forum demands for him to re-commit Fiji to elections by March or risk suspension, warning Fijians "we may have to paddle our canoes on our own".

Commodore Bainimarama yesterday gave his first public response to an ultimatum from the forum leaders, and indicated he is prepared to have Fiji suspended from the forum or withdraw itself.

The Pacific Islands Forum in Niue issued a unanimous statement two days ago, saying it would consider suspending Fiji if it did not re-commit itself to elections by March next year, under the existing constitution and electoral laws.

In his first public response, Commodore Bainimarama said New Zealand and Australia "seem to have usurped the moral leadership of the region" and described the two countries as having an "emerging and threatening dominance of the forum".

"The Pacific Island countries will need to be vigilant to protect the forum organisation [from] becoming a foreign policy tool of these two countries. They now seem to have usurped the moral leadership of the region."

He continued to maintain that electoral reforms were required before an election could be held _ reforms the forum acknowledged were needed and offered support for, but said should only be done by a democratic government.

Prime Minister Helen Clark yesterday said through a spokesman that the forum's position was quite clear, it was unanimous, and "he might want to sleep on it".

"I think it's plain insulting to say that what happened yesterday is a manipulation by New Zealand and Australia. The truth is Fiji has run out of anyone prepared to hold the brief for it because of the contempt in which it had held the forum, particularly by not turning up this time."

She had also hoped the commodore would take "wise counsel" on the forum's statement and give a considered reaction, warning Fiji could lose billions in aid and development funding if it maintained its stance.

Yesterday, the European Union representative at forum talks said the EU backed the forum's stance and would continue to withhold its annual payments, worth billions of dollars, in sugar subsidies.

In his address, Commodore Bainimarama did not directly address the sugar subsidies or aid funding, but warned Fijians the economy was vulnerable to "volatile" external global influences and Fiji needed to become more self-reliant in food and energy.

"This year, and the years ahead, we must grow more vegetable and staple crops such as rice, cassava, dalo, bhindi, bhaji, and yams. The Government will also encourage the development of renewable energy sources such as biofuel, solar, and hydro-electric energy."

Commodore Bainimarama also defended his boycott of the forum, saying he was told by the Pacific Forum Secretariat and Acting New Zealand High Commissioner in Fiji that some bilateral dialogue meetings would take place in Auckland after the meeting, which the travel ban prevented Fiji attending.

Helen Clark said Commodore Bainimarama had given up the opportunity for other leaders to hold him to account at the forum because of some talks at a level that did not involve foreign ministers or country leaders, and leaders had felt let down at this.

- NZ Herald

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