Dev Nadkarni: PNG lifeline for Bainimarama

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Fijian coup leader Frank Bainimarama's decision to stay out of the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Niue last month means that he has only himself to blame for Fiji's near-total isolation.

At last year's meeting in Tonga, the charge was led by New Zealand and the Howard-led Australian administration to get the Fijian leader to declare a time frame for early elections. Commodore Bainimarama assured the forum that elections would be held in March 2009.

Bainimarama later said that he felt pressured into making that assurance despite being unsure if it was practically possible to hold elections in that time frame.

The promise, however, may have been made with a view to reassuring the European Community since it had held in abeyance a large tranche of funds for Fiji's troubled sugar industry following the coup.

That assurance was instrumental in obtaining the funds soon after, helping to shore up the interim government's fast depleting finances.

If there was a semblance of empathy toward what was happening in Fiji in the Pacific leaders' camp at last year's meeting, the mood this year has been clearly different.

Leaders across the region have been openly critical of Commodore Bainimarama not only for having reneged on his promise of elections in March 2009 but also for his decision to stay out of Niue on what most believed were unconvincing grounds.

According to the military leader, Fiji decided to stay out because its leaders were given only transit visas in New Zealand en route to and from Niue, which would not have enabled them to participate in post-forum dialogues in New Zealand - a reason that was criticised by Prime Minister Helen Clark as an excuse to stay out of the forum.

Many leaders shared that view. Several leaders said that whatever his reasons for not holding the elections by March 2009, the forum was the best platform for the Fijian leader to have discussed it.

With Fiji's disengagement from the forum in Niue, the leaders have served up an ultimatum to the Fijian leadership and asked it to come up with a clear plan for the return of democracy with elections held according to the schedule promised last year, on the basis of which concessions have been made to Fiji by world organisations.

Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare has undertaken to host a meeting of forum leaders later this year or early next year to discuss the Fiji situation and how to deal with it.

It will be up to the Fijian leader to engage once again with the forum leaders. It may well be his last chance to do so.

If there is any leader who can engage meaningfully with Fiji, it is Sir Michael.

The region's most senior and among the most respected statesmen has had experience in dealing with several crisis situations - and of course is Melanesian.

The Fijian leadership would do well to recognise that.

The criticism of PNG's leadership by Fiji's High Commissioner to Australia last week was poorly informed in that he failed to see the subtly different approach that the PNG leader had to Fiji's absence from the forum than the rest of the Pacific leaders. Such criticism would only serve to alienate Fiji's only potential friend in its growing isolation.

The Fijian leadership is beginning to feel isolated within the country as well. Early news reports on public reactions to its People's Charter - a vision document drafted under the auspices of the interim administration that promises to transform Fiji - have been negative with the churches and Fijian chiefs taking a dim view of it.

Also last month, the Fiji Labour Party quit the Government, ostensibly to prepare for the elections. That may either be a red herring, or a face-saving measure for its leader Mahendra Chaudhry, or both.

If it fails to engage with the forum in the run-up to the PNG meeting, would pressure from the international community compel the expulsion of Fiji from the forum? Though interpretation of the clauses of the Biketawa Declaration (a document signed by Pacific Island nations to deal with constitutional emergencies among other eventualities in 2000) may indicate that as a possibility, it is easier said than done.

Fiji remains the most important logistic hub in the South Pacific and is the transportation, trade and commerce gateway to several smaller island nations.

It also houses the headquarters of a large number of Pacific Islands Forum organisations including the University of the South Pacific that has thousands of resident students from all over the region.

Every political crisis in Fiji has come at a great cost, not only to itself but to much of the region - especially the small island nations like Tuvalu - precisely because of this fact.

During previous coups, the small states spent millions of dollars on the evacuation of students alone, not to mention the inconvenience caused by sanctions on Fiji that affected inter-island transportation and trade.

The PNG meeting later this year is therefore pivotal.

Failure to bring Fiji to the table at that meeting will undoubtedly drive its leadership further into its shell - and further affect the region and its security and economy.

* Dev Nadkarni is a columnist and the editor of the news website islandsbusiness.com. He is based in Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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