Dev Nadkarni: Fiji strongman losing Pacific goodwill

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Fiji's interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama has once again squandered prominent Pacific Island leaders' considerable goodwill by deciding not to attend the 16-nation Pacific Forum meeting for the second time in the past 12 months.

The leaders have been meeting in Papua New Guinea's capital Port Moresby at the invitation of Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, who took the initiative after Bainimarama failed to attend the annual forum leaders' summit in Niue last August.

Sir Michael saw this meeting as an opportunity for the military leader to meet face-to-face with New Zealand, Australian and Pacific leaders to explain his interim administration's plans to hold elections and bring back an elected government in the troubled island nation.

His reason for pulling out of the Niue meet was the alleged insult heaped on him by New Zealand's Labour Government, which he said denied visas to him and his entourage for post-forum dialogues that were held in the country (because of the lack of facilities on the tiny island of Niue).

This time around, he has cited the supervision of relief operations following the severe floods caused by the tropical cyclone two weeks ago as the reason for not being able to attend the Port Moresby meet. He has instead chosen to depute Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the interim Attorney-General, as his envoy.

He had earlier requested a postponement of the meeting and made statements in the media that Australia and New Zealand were callous in their insistence on his attendance when the country struggled to recover from the floods.

In the months following the December 2006 coup, under intense pressure from the international community, Bainimarama had assured the 2007 forum meet in Tonga that his administration would make arrangements to hold elections by March this year.

That assurance led the European Union to release a large tranche of funds for Fiji's troubled sugar industry that it had held in abeyance following the coup - something that greatly helped shore up the administration's depleting coffers.

But shortly before the Niue meet last year, he announced that it would not be possible to hold elections pending the reform of the race-based electoral system. Forum leaders - particularly those of Pacific nations - had hoped to hear of these plans from Bainimarama himself - but his non-attendance made that impossible.

Expressing their disappointment at his absence, several Pacific leaders said 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. Some Pacific leaders - particularly the Prime Ministers of Tuvalu, Apisai Ielemia and Derek Sikua of the Solomon Islands - openly expressed their disappointment with the Fiji leader in the media.

Following Fiji's disengagement from the forum in Niue, the leaders 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 promised schedule - or face suspension from the Pacific Forum.

Both Bainimarama and Khaiyum have been reported in the media as saying that the elections cannot be held this year for pretty much the same reasons as were cited last year - the delay in the groundwork required for changing the existing race-based electoral system.

The question of suspension has been discussed at the special forum meeting in Port Moresby.

On Tuesday, in a unanimous decision, Fiji was given a deadline of May 1 to come up with an election date this year, with a detailed timetable for doing so. Failure to do so would result in suspension from the forum.

But in the weeks before Tuesday's meeting, despite their disappointment at Bainimarama's absence in Niue, the Pacific leaders rallied around Fiji to say that suspension was simply not an option.

Leaders from Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea stated that dialogue was still possible and that there was no question of suspension. The Secretary General of the Pacific Forum, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, however refused to be drawn into any speculation before the meeting.

Bainimarama's last-moment decision not to attend despite repeated urgings from Pacific leaders including Sir Michael 's personal message has once again left the leaders disappointed.

"Bainimarama's refusal to attend the meeting is a slap in the face of our Prime Minister who had gone out of his way to keep Fiji in the forum," a senior PNG diplomat told the National newspaper. "With Bainimarama refusing to attend, Sir Michael may be forced to make some hard decisions."

This may well signal that the Pacific leaders' patience is running thin and their goodwill that Bainimarama has so far enjoyed might not last long. But the coup leader seemed unconcerned last week. He said it was up to forum members to decide if Fiji would be expelled from the grouping. "That's for them to decide, not me. It's their call," he told the Fijian media.

As well as the Pacific leaders, he appears to be losing whatever goodwill that he might have had in Fiji - particularly among those who supported his initial drive against the country's widespread corruption and the race-based electoral system.

In the past few months, he has appointed himself the "acting" finance minister, presiding over a situation that has seen his military spend some 39 per cent more than the national budget allocated it - F$23 million ($23.8 million) of extra funds have been spent on the armed forces' salaries.

He also recently claimed for himself F$200,000 of taxpayer funds as "back pay" for his 30-year military service and had Commander Francis Kean reinstated as the Navy chief after serving a sentence on charges of manslaughter after a man died outside a club following an altercation a couple of years ago.

Kean is a brother-in-law of Bainimarama.

There is little doubt that New Zealand and Australia missed a clear window of opportunity to deal with Fiji proactively in the months immediately following the coup by sticking far too long to an isolationist tack.

Quite clearly, Bainimarama and his military council have now got used to the trappings of power.

His administration's increasing belligerence with the international community, including the Pacific Island leadership that has thus far stood by him, only shows that any solution for the Fiji tangle will be long in coming.

Dev Nadkarni is an Auckland journalist.
dev.nadkarni@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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